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SEC Preview: Will the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks cruise through?

Because they are talented and motivated, it would not be surprising if the South Carolina Gamecocks ran the table in the SEC, capturing the regular-season and tournament titles in a manner requisite of the nation’s No. 1 ranked team. However, it also would not be shocking if, despite the Gamecocks’ greatness, a number of squads made their mark in the competitive conference.

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Texas v South Carolina
Can Destanni Henderson (left), Aliyah Boston (center), Brea Beal (right) and the South Carolina Gamecocks charge through the SEC?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The SEC is defined by dominance and competitiveness.

On the surface, the juxtaposition of dominance and competitiveness seems contradictory. Yet, it aptly captures the state of the SEC entering the 2021-22 season.

The South Carolina Gamecocks — the No. 1 team in the nation — again are favored to win the conference. Over the past eight seasons, the Gamecocks have been rather dominant, winning a total of 11 SEC regular-season and tournament titles.

However, for as talented as South Carolina is, it would not be shocking if they failed to win either of the conference trophies. Case in point, the Texas A&M Aggies won the 2021 SEC regular-season title before South Carolina took the tournament title.

This season, the Aggies, Tennessee Lady Volunteers and Georgia Lady Bulldogs all are capable of winning the SEC. Led by Preseason Player of the Year Rhyne Howard, the Kentucky Wildcats cannot be counted out. The upstart Ole Miss Rebels likewise could cause some trouble. And then, there’s the LSU Lady Tigers, now led by Kim Mulkey.

So while South Carolina may well grab another SEC championship, it likely will not be an easy path to the top for Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks.

Rewind: A look at where the SEC left off

As mentioned above, Texas A&M captured last season’s SEC regular-season title while South Carolina won the SEC Tournament.

The Gamecocks were a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Four Four where they suffered a one-point, last-second loss to the eventual national champions, the Stanford Cardinal. The Aggies earned a 2-seed, surviving a pair of close contests before bowing out at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen.

Five other SEC teams went dancing: Georgia (3-seed), Tennessee (4-seed), Kentucky (4-seed), the Arkansas Razorbacks (4-seed) and the Alabama Crimson Tide (7-seed). The Lady Dawgs, Lady Vols, Wildcats and Crimson Tide all managed a first-round victory before losing in the second round. The Razorbacks were upset in the first round.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2021-22 season, in order of the preseason standings predicted by the SEC’s head coaches:

1) No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks

While a number of teams could challenge the Gamecocks, South Carolina could simply tear through the conference in an undoubtedly dominant fashion.

First, South Carolina is supremely talented. In addition to returning all five starters — Aliyah Boston, Victaria Saxton, Destanni Henderson, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal — from last season’s Final Four team, the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class has arrived in Columbia, headlined by Raven Johnson. That Kamilla Cardoso (Syracuse), arguably the best player to transfer teams since last season, will be wearing garnet and black makes the Gamecocks even more fearsome.

Second, it is safe to assume that, after their anguishing last-second loss to Stanford in the Final Four, South Carolina will be highly motivated. Dawn Staley, one of the best, and deservedly best paid, coaches in the nation, should have her squad ready to prove that they are more than worthy of the No. 1 national ranking.

As such, other SEC teams could be mere victims in the Gamecocks’ charge toward a national championship.

2) No. 23 Texas A&M Aggies

With a 36-year head coaching career, including 19 seasons in College Station, this will be Gary Blair’s final season on the sideline.

A&M, of course, hopes to send Blair out on top. The often-overlooked Aggies certainly are capable of stealing another SEC title or two from the favored Gamecocks before engineering an extended NCAA Tournament run. In addition to Blair’s steady leadership, and lucky coins, that the Aggies can call on the super-clutch Jordan Nixon should give them confidence in their ability to reach such lofty aspirations.

In her first season with A&M, the now-junior guard showed off an infectiously stubborn spirit as she sunk a number of clutch baskets, including in the NCAA Tournament. The return of Kayla Wells, a fifth-year graduate guard, gives the Aggies another reliable bucket-getter. Both players were Preseason Second Team All-SEC nominees.

3) No. 15 Tennessee Lady Volunteers

The Lady Vols are not quite BACK.

However, entering her third season at the helm in Knoxville, Kellie Harper again has Tennessee approaching the lofty levels established by the legendary Pat Summitt.

A true star turn from Jordan Horston, the junior guard who was the No. 2 recruit in 2019, would help the Lady Vols resemble the teams of lore. After starting 22 games and scoring 10.1 points per game as a freshman, Horston saw her role reduced last season, as she started 13 games and averaged 8.6 points per game.

Growth from Horston, combined with consistent production from senior wing Rae Burrell and junior center Tamari Key, both of whom were Preseason All-SEC selections, would put the Lady Vols in contention for an SEC championship.

Harper also welcomes transfer Alexus Dye (Troy) to Rocky Top. The graduate forward, who was the 2021 Sun Belt Player of the Year, earned the admiration of observers when she showed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, nearly leading Troy to an upset over Texas A&M.

4) Georgia Lady Bulldogs

Last season, Joni Taylor and her Lady Dawgs proved the importance of patience.

During her first five seasons since taking over from longtime head man Andy Landers, Taylor led Georgia to only two NCAA Tournaments, frequently finishing in the middle of the pack in the SEC standings. It would not have been surprising if the decision makers in Athens moved on from Taylor.

But their patience paid off. Captained by an experienced senior core that believed in their head coach, the Lady Dawgs were a legitimate threat in the SEC as they finished the season fourth in the conference standings.

Two of those seniors, center Jenna Staiti and guard Que Morrison — both Preseason Second Team All-SEC nominees — have returned for a fifth and final year. To improve upon last season’s performance, Taylor will need another player or two to step up. Luckily, there are a number of options, including athletic redshirt senior Mikayla Coombs, sharpshooting sophomore Sarah Ashlee Barker and promising junior center Maori Davenport.

5) No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats

On top of the COVID-induced challenges that surrounded last season, Kentucky was dealt an additional obstacle. Former head coach Matthew Mitchell retired on the precipice of the 2020-21 season, leading Kyra Elzy, an assistant at Kentucky since 2016, to take control of the program.

The uncertain start seemed to lead to an up-and-down season. With presumably steadier waters in Lexington entering this season, the Wildcats could flourish.

That senior superstar Rhyne Howard, the Preseason SEC Player of the Year and reigning back-to-back SEC Player of the Year, is still repping the Big Blue means the ‘Cats are capable of winning any contest. Howard will be supported by an experienced cast with senior guards Robyn Benton, Blair Green and Jazmine Massengill and redshirt junior forward Dre’Una Edwards.

6) Ole Miss Rebels

Don’t sleep on the Rebels!

Despite a 4-10 conference record last season, Ole Miss proved an increasingly pesky opponent. After just missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth, they showed out in the WNIT, advancing all the way to the championship game before falling to the Rice Owls.

Entering her fourth season in Oxford, Coach Yo (Yolett McPhee-McCuin) has turned Ole Miss into an exciting outfit with a high-octane offense and high ambitions.

Double-double machine Shakira Austin, a Preseason First Team All-SEC honoree, will again be the fulcrum for the Rebels. A trio of guard transfers in Lashonda Monk, the back-to-back AAC Defensive Player of the Year at East Carolina, senior Angel Baker, a two-time member of the All-Horizon League First Team at Wright State, and sophomore Destiny Salary, a former four-star prospect who spent her freshman season at Tennessee, bring depth and pop to the backcourt.

7) Arkansas Razorbacks

How will Arkansas replace the electric Chelsea Dungee? And what about Destiny Slocum? The Hogs lost the services of the school’s all-time leading scorer and her fellow sharpshooter to the WNBA.

However, Amber Ramirez opted to stay in Fayetteville, suiting up for the Razorbacks for a third and final season. The Preseason Second Team All-SEC selection shot 43.5 percent from 3-point range last season as she averaged 13.5 points per game.

Head coach Mike Neighbors also has imported the next generation of Arkansas greats. In addition to bringing in sophomore Sasha Goforth, who is transferring home to Arkansas after turning in an impressive freshman season at Oregon State, the Hogs will welcome two more talented locals gals in freshman wing Jersey Wolfenbarger and freshman forward Maryam Dauda.

8) LSU Lady Tigers

Kim Mulkey returns to her home state of Louisiana with a mission — to return LSU basketball back to the top of the women’s college hoops world.

Since the ace recruiter has not had a full opportunity to lure a slew of talented players to Baton Rouge, her first season is not expected to result in immediate success. However, the Lady Tigers are not bereft of high-level talent, suggesting Mulkey and company could finish the season much higher than eighth in the standings.

Graduate point guard Khayla Pointer not only was a Preseason First Team All-SEC selection but also is one of the best at her position in the nation. Sophomore center Hannah Gusters followed Mulkey from Baylor to LSU. Stuck behind NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo during her freshman season with the Lady Bears, Gusters could flash the talent that made her the No. 2 ranked center in the class of 2020 when given more opportunity with the Lady Tigers.

9) Mississippi State Bulldogs

Last season, due to the combination of a new head coach in Nikki McCray-Penson and all the COVID-19 concerns, Mississippi State struggled to approach the level of success that had become the established norm under Vic Schaefer. This season, it seemed likely that the Bulldogs would begin their march back into SEC contention.

The unexpected, health-related resignation of McCray throws a bit of a wrench into things.

Nevertheless, interim head coach Doug Novak inherits a still-promising squad. Starksville stalwarts in junior forward Rickea Jackson, a Preseason First Team All-SEC honoree, and senior big Jessika Carter will be joined by the Hayes sisters, with Anastasia, the 2021 C-USA Player of the Year, and Aislynn arriving from Middle Tennessee and Alasia coming from Notre Dame. However, Alasia will miss the beginning of the season with a lower leg injury.

10) Missouri Tigers

To survive in the SEC, the Tigers will need to channel the irritating (in a good way) energy of their most notable alum — Sophie Cunningham.

Last season, six of Missouri’s nine SEC’s losses came by six points or less. Finding that extra oomph and edge could help the Tigers approach .500 in conference play, as well as score an upset win or two.

Head coach Robin Pingeton will be calling to a core of experienced leaders to steer her squad to a more successful season. Junior guard Aijha Blackwell, a Preseason Second Team All-SEC selection, was an automatic double-double last season, averaging 14.1 points and 10.6 boards per game. She’ll be supported by junior forward Haley Frank, who is nearly a 41 percent 3-point shooter for her career, and redshirt senior forward Ladazhia Williams.

11) Florida Gators

In July, former head coach Cam Newbauer resigned. Months later, it was revealed that multiple players had accused him of abuse, including the use of racist language.

The story, compared to other too-numerous incidences across sports, as well as larger society, did not receive the attention that it should have.

This season, the number one goal for the program should be that all members of the Gators feel safe and supported under the leadership of interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley, who had served as an assistant under Newbauer since 2017. Wins and losses should be secondary.

However, if the Gators are to snag a surprising win or two, expect it to be due to the dynamic guard duo of junior Lavender Briggs, a Preseason First Team All-SEC selection, and graduate Kiara Smith, Preseason Second Team All-SEC selection. Smith led her squad in total points, rebounds, assists and steals last season, while Briggs was averaging a team-high 19.4 points per game before an injury cut short her sophomore campaign.

12) Alabama Crimson Tide

After going to the Big Dance for the first time since 1999 last season, the Crimson Tide will be re-consolidating in 2021-22.

The Tide lost their All-SEC honorees in Jasmine Walker, who was the seventh pick in the WNBA draft, and Jordan Lewis, a Bama grad who transferred to Baylor for a final graduate season.

However, head coach Kristy Curry has confidence in a her squad’s depth, led by senior guards Megan Abrams, Hannah Barber and Brittany Davis. Jamya Mingo-Young, a transfer from Mississippi State, gives the backcourt a further boost. To attempt to replace the post production of Walker, Bama will need one of their bigs, such as 6-foot-4 NC State transfer Jada Rice or 6-foot-5 Ruth Koang, to step up.

13) Auburn Tigers

Johnnie Harris arrives at Auburn with the mission of turning around a Tigers program that has stumbled in recent seasons. Last season, the Tigers appeared to hit rock bottom, going winless in the SEC.

Steady progress toward competitiveness should be the goal for Harris and company.

Things got off to an encouraging start in Auburn’s exhibition contest against Miles College. The Tigers dominated, as they should have. However, that the team scored more than 100 points in Auburn Arena for the first time since 2008 suggests that the Tigers played with the kind of relentlessness that they need to survive a tough SEC slate.

It also was a promising return to the court for redshirt senior forward Kiyaé White, who tallied a double-double after missing almost the entire 2020-21 season due to injury.

14) Vanderbilt Commodores

It will be a bit odd to see Shea Ralph somewhere besides Storrs.

Yet, the UConn legend has taken the steely stare that she honed alongside Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey back down South, taking over for a rebuilding Vanderbilt program.

After experiencing perennial success in the 1990s and 2000s, the Commodores have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2014. Last season, a combination of COVID-19 and injuries resulted in Vanderbilt canceling the season three games into the SEC schedule.

In short, Ralph has a lot of work to do. The seals of approval from a number of Husky legends should help Ralph receive the buy in and belief she will need to re-instill a winning Commodore culture.

Preseason nods

As voted on by the SEC’s head coaches:

Player of the Year: Rhyne Howard (Kentucky)

All-SEC First Team: Lavender Briggs (Florida), Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Khayla Pointer (LSU), Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Rickea Jackson (Mississippi State), Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Zia Cooke (South Carolina), Rae Burrell (Tennessee)

All-SEC Second Team: Amber Ramirez (Arkansas), Kiara Smith (Florida), Que Morrison (Georgia), Jenna Stati (Georgia), Aijha Blackwell (Missouri), Destanni Henderson (South Carolina), Tamari Key (Tennessee), Jordan Nixon (Texas A&M), Kayla Wells (Texas A&M)

As voted on the media:

Player of the Year: Rhyne Howard (Kentucky)

All-SEC Team: Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Khayla Pointer (LSU), Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Zia Cooke (South Carolina)

Key conference dates

December 30: SEC season start (Alabama vs. Tennessee)

Must-see SEC matchups

January 6: South Carolina vs. LSU. Dawn Staley vs. Kim Mulkey. Could this become the next great conference rivalry? In the second weekend of SEC action, Mulkey and the Lady Tigers will have the opportunity to make a major statement when Staley and the Gamecocks visit Baton Rouge.

January 23: Tennessee vs. Georgia. If the Lady Vols or Lady Dawgs intend to contend for the conference championship, they will need win this game. Last season, Joni Taylor led Georgia to their first win on Rocky Top since 1996. Kellie Harper and Tennessee will be looking for revenge in Athens.

February 24: South Carolina vs. Texas A&M. The Aggies will host the Gamecocks during the final weekend of conference play. Will the conference regular-season title again be on the line? Could the Aggies pull off another upset to claim the SEC crown for a second-straight season?