Last season saw two powerhouse programs, Mississippi State and South Carolina, play for the right to become the first NCAA Women’s Basketball champion in five years not named UConn.
South Carolina won that hard-fought battle, and claimed its first-ever championship. With center A’ja Wilson coming back, it’s hard to argue that South Carolina won’t return to defend their title again.
Except....the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is LOADED. With five teams in the AP Top 25 (one of two conferences with that many), the SEC could see two teams in the national championship game again.
Let’s begin with the defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks. The preseason coaches’ poll have the Gamecocks winning the SEC championship again, no surprise considering they have won the last four regular season championships.
Head coach Dawn Staley has positioned this year’s squad to be a national favorite again and show the AP why they were wrong to pick UConn as the top squad (South Carolina was tabbed fourth).
SEC Preseason Player of the Year A’ja Wilson (17.9 ppg, leading scorer) returns to anchor the team, along with fellow starter Tyasha Harris and senior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore. Add transfers Alexis Jennings (Kentucky) and Lindsey Spann (Penn State) along with the six letterwinners the team returns, and you can see why coaches tabbed South Carolina as the top team.
Three spots behind South Carolina are the national runner-ups, the seventh-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Bulldogs, who snapped UConn’s 111-game winning streak, are not just ta passing fancy-type of team.
They return leading scorer and SEC Preseason All-First Team guard Victoria Vivians (16.2 ppg) and guard Morgan William, who made the shot that sent Mississippi State to the championship game. With a guard-heavy roster (nine of their 13 players are guards, expect that passing and pickpocket defense will be their signature as they look to make another deep run in the tournament.
Sliding back a few spots, the 14th-ranked Tennessee Lady Vols are another team that can shake some brackets come March. Despite the drama-filled exit of leading scorer Diamond DeShields, Tennessee still has some formidable firepower.
Senior center Mercedes Russell (16.1 ppg, led team in field goal percentage and rebounds) is among six returning players from last year’s team that got to the second round of the NCAA’s. With four freshman, the depth may be a little soft on this team, but don’t expect head coach Holly Warwick, a disciple of the late Pat Summitt, to take it easy or make excuses.
Rounding out the remaining two teams are Missouri and Texas A&M. Number 16 Missouri brings back their leading scorer and distributor (Sophie Cunningham - 17.5 ppg, 3.4 apg) and rebounder (Cierra Porter - 8.1 rpg), to go along with eight other returning players from last season.
Number 20 Texas A&M returns three starters (Preseason All-SEC selections Anriel Howard, Danni Williams and Khaalia Hillsman), along with 75 percent of their scoring from a team that made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on the heels of a 21-point comeback against Penn in the opening round.
The SEC is going to be fun to watch this season, and if they play to the potential of last season, don’t be surprised to see two of these teams in the Final Four again.