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Southeastern Conference: locked in and loaded

Rhyne Howard may be the best player in the SEC this season. Hannah Phillips/UK Athletics.

The SEC has always been one of, if not the toughest conference in the nation in which to play, and this year will be no exception. From top to bottom, it will be a dogfight to the finish. There won’t be any easy games.

In order of predicted finish, here is a look at each team, after many offseason roster changes throughout the league:

Chennedy Carter has been a scoring machine since she arrived at Texas A&M. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.
Chennedy Carter has been a scoring machine since she arrived at Texas A&M. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.

Texas A&M

Coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, the Aggies enter the year with high expectations. The AP ranked them No. 6, and Chennedy Carter was tabbed SEC Player of the Year, while teammates Ciera Johnson and Kayla Wells earned preseason all-SEC nods. Last season Carter led the conference in scoring with 23.3 points per game. She was later named first-team all-SEC and AP All-American for the second year in a row.

Impressive, right? The problem that I have with Carter is her defense. She can be lazy and one-dimensional on that side of the ball. But if she improves that aspect of her game, Texas A&M will be cutting down the nets at the conference tournament.

Wells is the glue to this team. She was the most improved scorer last season in the SEC, averaging 15.1 points per game on 48 percent shooting. If she disappears into Carter’s shadows, the chances of the Aggies winning the conference will be lost. They have all their soldiers back, and they have the best chances of taking the league title.

Senior Tyasha Harris is ready to lead a young Gamecock team this season. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

South Carolina

Questions coming into the year: 1. Can Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan (preseason all-SEC) keep her emotions in check and be the consistent scorer that coach Dawn Staley has been searching for? 2. Can the No. 1 recruiting class – Zia Cooke, Aaliyah Boston, Leticia Amihere, Brea Beal, and Olivia Thompson – live up to the hype? 3. Staley returns six letterwinners, including all-SEC and honorable mention All-American Tyasha Harris. I really would like to see Harris be a little more selfish on the offensive end this year. Also returning will be Destinee Henderson and Lele Grisett.

The Gamecocks start the season in the top 10 ranked in every poll, and their expectations are high. Staley had said earlier this season that this team has 10 potential starters. I predict them to finish second in the conference, but they could ride that baby out if Herbert-Harrigan decides that she wants to be an All-American.

Rhyne Howard may be the best player in the SEC this season. Hannah Phillips/UK Athletics.

Kentucky

Coach Matthew Mitchell thinks that this team could have a special season, and I agree. They have all the key components to compete for a league title: versatility, depth, team chemistry, and my pick for SEC Player of the Year, Rhyne Howard. Voted by the media and coaches, Howard has been tabbed preseason all-SEC First Team as a sophomore. She is coming off a season where she was named National Freshman of the Year by ESPN, USBWA, and WBCA. She is big, long, and can shoot the three with ease. She finished last season as Kentucky’s leading scorer with 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. She was the only freshman in the country last season to finish with 500+ points, 70+ three’s, 75+ assists, and 65+ steals. Yes, they lost all-everything Maci Morris and speedy guard Taylor Murray to graduation. But this season, the Wildcats will gain Chasity Patterson, Texas Longhorn transfer Keke McKinney, and Nae Nae Cole as experienced players. Returning is Blair Green, Jaida Roper, and Arizona State transfer Sabrina Haines, who sat out last year with Patterson. I predict that this team will finish third and that Howard will win SEC Player of the Year.

Chelsea Dungee averaged 20.5 points per game last season for the Razorbacks. Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics.

Arkansas

Not too long ago, the Razorbacks had property at the bottom of the SEC, so their rise to the top 25 of the AP’s preseason poll, and my fourth pick here, might be jarring. But this team is exciting, fearless, and chock full of talent. They are coming off a 22-win season – the most wins ever for this program. Coach Mike Neighbors returns four out of his five starters from last year’s team, including top scorer Chelsea Dungee. She was named to the all-SEC Preseason First Team, and is a match up nightmare. If a smaller guard is put on her, she will post up. If a post player is sent to guard her, she will use her speed to get by them.

Also back is TCU transfer Amber Ramirez, and with the other returnees, the Razorbackjs could end up at the end of the season competing for an SEC title. Last year, they beat South Carolina in the second round of the tournament en route to the championship game, where they ran out of gas against Mississippi State. All I know this season is that this team will not be playing on the opening day of the conference tournament with lower-finishing teams.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs are coming off a 2018-2019 campaign that saw them earn their second conference title in program history on a 15-1 record. They also won their first-ever SEC Tournament title while earning a third straight Elite Eight appearance.

The Basketball Gods are on Mississippi State’s side. The NCAA granted a waiver that allowed Jordan Danberry, third in scoring (13.1 ppg), to come back as a graduate student. With her on the court, the Bulldogs are an immediate threat to contend for the SEC title. Danberry will be joined by juniors Chloe Bibby and Andra Espinoza-Hunter. Promise Taylor, who made all-SEC Freshman Team in 2018, will be eligible after transferring from Ole Miss. Coach Vic Schaefer and his staff signed the highest-ranked class in program history with four Top 100 players: Rickea Jackson, JaMya Mingo-Young, Aliyah Matharu, and Jayla Hemingway. Add 6-6 Yemiyah Morris from Cochis Community College, and this team will be big and exciting. Sidney Cooks will have to sit out this year after transferring from Michigan State.

LSU

The Tigers return four starters and nine letterwinners, led by all-SEC First Team Ayana Mitchell, who averaged 13.5 points per game and 10.5 rebounds last year. Junior Khalya Pointer was the only other player to start every game of the 2019 season, and she lead the team with 131 assists while averaging 12.5 points per game. In the post, redshirt junior Fasstine Aifuwa returns as the second-most consistent scorer at 46.9 percent from the field. LSU brings in the No. 20 recruiting class, led by Tiara Young, the Louisiana Player of the Year, and Dominique Davis, who made All-Louisiana’s First Team. Jalayshia Thomas will also be eligible this season.

On Nov. 9, the Tigers will host Florida State in an early-season battle. With the 2020 Final Four set in nearby New Orleans, LSU has made it clear that they do not want to be spectators, but how far they do go depends on Mitchell. She is an offensive nightmare who can jump out of any gym. I predict the Tigers to finish sixth in the conference, with the possibility that they could slide up to the fifth slot.

Tennessee

First-year head coach and former Lady Vol great Kellie Harper is working with a group of players who are excited and ready to begin what they’ve spent all summer working toward. It is a squad with a solid mix of high-profile newcomers, such as No. 2 recruit Jordan Horston, and a group of experienced players, which includes the talented Rennia Davis. They are hungry to return Tennessee to prominence.

Davis, named to the preseason all-SEC team last week, led the Lady Vols in scoring last year and ranked first in the conference in free throw shooting. Also returning is sophomore guard/forward Rae Burrell, and guard Zaay Green. Graduate Lou Brown, who transferred from Washington State last year but tore her ACL in preseason, has been granted another year of eligibility and will anchor the post. Redshirt junior Jaiden McCoy,from Florida State Community College, will be someone to keep an eye on. Freshmen Tamari Key and Emily Saunders will help Brown in the post.

Georgia

The Lady Bulldogs return six of their top eight scorers from last year’s team, led by junior guard Gabby Connally. She has started 30 straight games for the team and has played in all 63 matches over the last two years. Also returning is junior guard Maya Caldwell, Que Morrison, and 6-4 redshirt junior Jenna Staiti. Two-sport starter Chloe Chapman (basketball and soccer), should make an immediate impact once soccer season is over. Georgia will also have the services of redshirt junior, Mikayla Coombs, who transferred from UConn last year. Maybe a year with coach Joni Taylor will give Coombs the confidence she lacked with the Huskies.

Taylor has stated that she wants her program to be elite, and she fully expects everyone to realize their potential and handle expectations gracefully. After Staiti, Georgia does not have another player on the roster that stands taller than 6-2, which will emphasize the role of guards.

Auburn

Auburn returns three starters and eight letter winners from a year in which they finished 22-10 overall and 9-7 in conference. They also made it to the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons.

Preseason second team all-SEC junior forward Unique Thompson returns as the second-leading scorer. A total of seven newcomers are on the Tigers’ roster, with five freshmen who are eligible to play this season. Honesty Gray-Lawson, who was dismissed from Baylor, will have to sit out this season according to NCAA transfer rules. Auburn does bring in the 71st Prospect in the ESPN top 100 in Lauren Hansen, from Long Island, New York. I expect her to contribute immediately. Senior guard Daisa Alexander was also selected to the preseason all-SEC team, and returns as the team’s leading scorer, at 12.6 points per game.

The Tigers are known for their full-court press, which can be very disruptive to opponents. On the other side of the ball, however, can they find enough offense to get them to the top of the league?

Missouri

The Tigers lost a lot of big-scoring personnel in Sophie Cunningham, Lauren Aldridge and Cierra Porter. But coach Robin Pingeton said her team has embraced a new era, understand who they are now and will continue to grow.

New Missouri will rely heavily on its four seniors: Hannah Schuchts, Jordan Roundtree, Jordan Chavis, and Amber Smith. They also have a trio of freshmen that Pingeton is high on – most notably, Aijha Blackwell. She is a top ten recruit with USA National Team experience who averaged 24.2 points per game in high school. Pingeton said Blackwell is the most explosive athlete she ever coached.

Hayley Frank will also get playing time. Coming out of high school, she was known for being a scorer who is very physical, with a high basketball IQ. The Tigers also welcome three transfers (seniors Shug Dickson and Shannon Dufficy, and junior Ladazhia Williams). They will have to sit out this year according to NCAA transfer rules. This team should finish tenth this season.

Alabama

Last year the Crimson Tide was the 11th-youngest team in the country and this season they return 11 players from that roster. That includes four starters and 84.4 percent of their shooting. Three players redshirted last season: Jordan Lewis (injury), Amber Richardson (sat out), and Shelby Gibson (transfer rules). Lewis averaged 13.5 points per game before she suffered a wrist injury last December. Cierra Johnson returns for her senior season after scoring 457 points in her first year with the program. She led the team in scoring with 14.7 points per game after transferring from Shelton State Community College. Junior Jasmine Walker returns after averaging 12.4 points a game and a team-high 7.5 rebounds. That is impressive, but they should finish no higher than 11th in the conference.

Vanderbilt

Fourth-year coach Stephanie White is one that I am rooting for. I think she has finally put together a team that fits her identity. There is cautious optimism for White’s program, despite a 7-23 season a year ago and just two wins against SEC competition. Vanderbilt has five active upperclassmen back on the roster and an influx of highly-touted freshmen expected to raise the level of play.

Redshirt-senior Mariella Fasoula is back after pacing the Commodores with 15.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season. The 6-5 forward is second-team all-SEC Preseason selection. Junior guard Chelsie Hall (9.8 points per game), junior forward Autumn Newby (6.7 rebounds per game), and two exciting freshmen Demi Washington and Koi Love, and there is a squad. White said this is the most competitive group she’s had at Vanderbilt, as they are more athletic and more versatile. But even so, I predict them to finish 12th in the SEC.

Ole Miss

I love me some coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin. Her energy is so contagious. I do expect her to compete for an SEC title sometime in the near future, but it won’t be this season for the second-year coach, who is still in rebuilding mode.

Her thoughts on having a team with several newcomers:

“It’s exciting! I think every year you have a new team no matter what, even if you have experienced players because roles change, expectations change. With this group, it is fun. I can tell you that I am having a lot of fun. Last year I did not realize I was stressed. I guess because I was kind of new in the fire, but now I see how much fun I am having. It is definitely a difference.”

On replacing scoring:

“I think we will have a few surprises. Deja Cage is looking really well. Val Nesbitt is pretty electric at the Point Guard Position. Sarah is another promising freshmen. Rest assured, what is going to make us better is the fact that my staff and I, we’ve had the experience playing in the SEC for a year now.”

The Rebels should finish 13th this season.

Florida Gators

For the first time since taking over for predecessor Amanda Butler in 2017, the Florida Gators’ roster is made up of coach Cam Newbauer’s players, which means that they embody his culture. , in turn, this is Newbauer’s culture. Two seasons under Newbauer has netted just 19 victories versus 42 losses, including a 6-26 mark in the Southeastern Conference. Last year, after going 11-19 in his first season, the Gators rolled nine new players into the program and went 8-23.

Florida is still in makeover mode, with four new promising freshmen in Brylee Bartram, Faith Dut, Lavender Briggs, and Nina Richards. Center Emer Nichols, who sat out last season, is back, as is fourth-year guard Kiki Smith and redshirt junior guard Danielle Rainey. The team is still young, but I look for them to be competitive. However, I predict they will finish last in the league.

SEC Preseason first Team

Chennedy Carter, Texas A&M
Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Chelsea Dungee, Arkansas
Tyasha Harris, South Carolina
Rennia Davis, Tennessee
Ayanna Mitchell, LSU
Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan, South Carolina
Jordan Danberry, Mississippi St.

Second Team

Unique Thompson, Auburn
Amber Smith, Missouri
Ciera Johnson, Texas A&M
Kayla Wells, Texas A&M
Mariella Fasoula, Vanderbilt
Gabby Connally, Georgia
Jordan Lewis, Alabama
Amber Ramirez, Arkansas

Preseason Player of the Year: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Freshman of the Year: Aaliyah Boston, South Carolina

Defensive Player of the Year: Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan, South Carolina

Coach of the Year: Mike Neighbors, Arkansas

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