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In the contest for the SEC title, it’s all about the ‘Big Six’

Based on early season action, neither preseason favorites Texas A&M and South Carolina nor defending champion Mississippi State will run away with the SEC. Instead, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee appear ready to challenge for the conference crown, giving the SEC a “Big Six” of conference contenders. 

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 10 SEC Conference Women’s Tournament - Arkansas vs Mississippi State
Will Chelsea Dungee and the Arkansas Razorbacks prove they belong at the top of the SEC?
Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When evaluating the contest for the SEC regular-season championship, it comes down to the “Big Six.”

Entering the 2019-20 women’s college basketball season, most prognosticators presumed that three teams — the Texas A&M Aggies (ranked sixth in the preseason), the South Carolina Gamecocks (ranked eighth in the preseason) and the Mississippi Bulldogs (ranked 10th in the preseason ) — would vie for the conference title. With Texas A&M led by the electric, Iverson-esque Chennedy Carter, South Carolina bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class and Mississippi State standing as the defending regular-season and tournament champions, all three deserved these high expectations.

The trio has mostly proved their conference-contender worth in early-season non-conference action. While the currently No. 11 Aggies (11-1) and No. 15 Bulldogs (11-2) have experienced some unevenness, the young Gamecocks (12-1) have impressed, vaulting to No. 4 in the latest AP Poll behind the dynamic, defensive duo of senior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and freshman Aliyah Boston.

Yet, three other SEC teams — the Kentucky Wildcats, Arkansas Razorbacks and Tennessee Lady Volunteers — have shown themselves to be equal, if not better, contenders for the SEC crown.

The Wildcats (11-1) currently sit at the 13th spot in the standings, exactly where they began the season. Led by a spectacular sophomore scoring machine in Rhyne Howard, Kentucky has fallen only to rival Louisville, with the Cardinals escaping with just a one-point home win. However, the Wildcats have faced a rather underwhelming slate of opponents. Outside of their intrastate tilt, their only quality challenge was a pre-Christmas game at Cal, which the Wildcats won by two points.

When SEC play begins, the Wildcats very quickly will have their conference-contender bona fides tested. After opening at South Carolina on Thursday (Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. ET, SEC Network), they host Tennessee on Saturday (Jan. 5 at 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Depending on the outcomes of these contests, the Wildcats’ status as a member of the “Big Six” could be confirmed or questioned by the end of the first weekend of SEC action.

The Razorbacks also must prove they belong in the “Big Six.” Based on their overall point differential, Arkansas (12-1) sits at the top of the SEC standings as conference play gets underway. Yet, poll voters have yet to fully endorse the Razorbacks. After entering the preseason ranked 22nd, Arkansas has been granted only a two-spot boost — they currently sit at No. 20.

The numbers suggest the Razorbacks (or at least the Razorbacks’ offense) deserve more respect. Arkansas is fourth in the nation in points per game (86.9) and fifth in the nation in scoring margin (29.2). They also lead the SEC in 3-point percentage (37.3 percent). Yet, a quick glance at their schedule explains the skepticism that still surrounds them. The Razorbacks have yet to face a ranked opponent. On Thursday night (Jan. 2, 9 p.m. ET, SEC Network+), things will change when Chennedy Carter and the Aggies arrive in Fayetteville. If the increasingly-confident Chelsea Dungee and the Razorbacks can put up the points and claim the victory, they should find themselves inside the top-20, having shown they are a serious member of the “Big Six” of conference challengers.

The Lady Vols round out the “Big Six.” Thus far, Kellie Harper has proven to be the perfect hire, reviving Rocky Top with a long, athletic team. While unranked to start the season, the Lady Vols (10-2) now are No. 22. The combination of offensive dynamism and defensive effort have spurred Tennessee through the early-season slate, which includes a dominating win over Notre Dame. Tennessee leads all SEC teams with 17.7 assists per game and 47.8 rebounds per game (14.9 ORB, 32.9 DRB). Junior Rennia Davis and freshman Jordan Horston have the talent to take the Lady Vols to victory against any team, making it not totally unsurprising if the SEC hardware again returns to Rocky Top.

In addition to the above-mentioned opening weekend games, here are five big matchups that will go a long way toward determining which SEC team is the best of the “Big Six.” Find the full SEC schedule here.

Game information

South Carolina vs. Arkansas

When: Thursday, Jan. 9, at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, SC

How to watch: SEC Network+

Key to the matchup: Will the stout South Carolina defense stifle the high-scoring Arkansas offense?

Kentucky vs. Texas A&M

When: Thursday, Jan. 16, at 6:30 p.m. ET

Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY

How to watch: SEC Network

Key to the matchup: Who will win the bucket-getting battle between Rhyne Howard and Chennedy Carter?

South Carolina vs. Tennessee

When: Sunday, Feb, 2, at 1:00 p.m. ET

Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, SC

How to watch: ESPN2

Key to the matchup: Might we see a fun, furious face-off between freshman stars Zia Cooke and Jordan Horston?

Mississippi State vs. Texas A&M

When: Sunday, Feb. 9, at 1:00 p.m. ET

Where: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, MS

How to watch: ESPN

Key to the matchup: Will the balanced offensive attack of Mississippi State prevail over the singular offensive excellence of Chennedy Carter in this SEC showdown?

Kentucky vs. South Carolina

When: Sunday, Feb. 23, at 2:00 p.m. ET

Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY

How to watch: SEC Network+

Key to the matchup: Will Rhyne Howard be able to access her offensive versatility against a South Carolina defense anchored by the Harrigan-Boston shot-blocking pair?