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SEC update: Checking in on South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU

Let’s take a look at how the conference’s top three teams have fared so far this season. Are there cracks in South Carolina’s armor despite its dominance? Can Tennessee clean things up? Will LSU continue to cross the century mark?

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South Carolina v Maryland
Zia Cooke (left), Aliyah Boston (center) and Bree Hall attentively watch the on-court action as the No. 1 Gamecocks defeat the No. 17 Maryland Terrapins.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

For our inaugural SEC update of the 2022-23 season, let’s check in on the conference’s consensus top three, and only nationally-ranked, teams: the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (3-0), No. 11 Tennessee Lady Vols (1-2) and No. 15 LSU Lady Tigers (4-0).

Despite Gamecocks’ depth and dominance, weaknesses worth watching emerge

Yes, we must start with the slam!

Freshman Ashlyn Watkins capped off South Carolina’s 85-31 evisceration of in-state rival Clemson with the first dunk in program history. The winner of the 2022 McDonald’s All-American dunk contest turned a Tiger turnover into an authoritative one-handed flush.

Watkins did more than dunk, scoring 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench while also notching five boards, three steals, a pair of blocks and an assist. The talent that oozes out of the Columbia native epitomizes why Dawn Staley suggested, “I think this team could be better than last year’s team.”

Although possessing a more impressive accumulation of talent, it is worth asking if South Carolina is, in fact, a better, optimally-balanced team. Yes, after their dominating start to the season, it seems odd to ask this question.

However, the performances still exposed some potential points of concern. Namely, South Carolina seems to miss the dynamism of Destanni Henderson. A blur with the ball in her hands, the former point guard was a one-woman fast break, able to generate easy, momentum-swinging buckets in transition. Critically, she also was the squad’s best 3-point shooter.

Staley has expressed confidence in her point guard pairing of redshirt freshman Raven Johnson and graduate student transfer Kierra Fletcher, both of whom are returning from injuries and thus have been limited in the early going. Although lacking Henderson’s speed, both possess good size that should allow them to see the court better and, most importantly, get the ball to Aliyah Boston on the block. However, neither is a particularly threatening 3-point shooter.

While South Carolina drained their first five 3-pointers against Clemson before finishing 7-of-12 from deep, Maryland packed the paint against South Carolina, prioritizing preventing the Gamecocks from getting the ball to Boston and instead allowing often-reluctant perimeter players to take open threes. The Gamecocks made only eight of their 28 attempts from deep against the Terrapins.

Of course, as they showed after a late-third quarter scuffle, South Carolina’s top gear can render any half-court stagnation irrelevant, as the Gamecocks ultimately would cruise to the 81-56 win.

Sunday’s showdown against the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal will offer an intriguing test case. Will a Stanford team that possesses much more size than Maryland adopt a similar strategy, walling off the interior and daring South Carolina to rely on their shaky perimeter shotmaking in the half court? And if so, do the Gamecocks still have enough defensive oomph and overall talent to overcome?

Tough schedule and turnovers bedevil Tennessee

When matched up against teams from the Big Ten, Tennessee has not looked like big, bad Tennessee. Instead, the squad projected as the SEC’s second-best team too-often has appeared out of sorts. Against the now-No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes, the Lady Vols surrendered an astronomical 29 turnovers as they proved unable to navigate full-court pressure. Senior Jordan Horston, who is not a traditional primary ball-handler, was a frequent culprit, coughing up the ball seven times in the 87-75 defeat.

Tennessee somewhat increased its ball security in its 79-67 loss to the No. 12 Indiana Hoosiers with only 15 giveaways. However, with Horston out of the lineup due to a lower leg injury, senior Rickea Jackson was overburdened with extra ball-handling duties, resulting in six turnovers.

Compounding the Vols’ struggles in the loss to the Buckeyes was foul trouble for senior center Tamari Key, limiting her to 13 minutes of action. Even when on the court, she did not have her expected impact. Against both Ohio State and Indiana, the program’s all-time leader in blocked shots did not manage a single swat. The 6-foot-6 Key also grabbed only six rebounds across the two games.

In short, the Lady Vols’ senior stars need to step up. Otherwise, the team may find itself again falling to a Big Ten team when it meets the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday morning in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Reese and Lady Tigers rolling, albeit against a soft schedule

In contrast to Tennessee’s tough slate of opponents, LSU’s early-season schedule has been cake. And the Lady Tigers have been eating, scoring more than 100 points in all four contests. Sophomore forward Angel Reese immediately introduced her superstar upside to folks in Baton Rouge, dropping 31 points in 23 minutes in LSU’s season-opening 125-50 obliteration of Bellarmine and 29 points in the Lady Tigers’ most recent 101-47 destruction of Houston Christian. She’s also tallied a total of 59 boards, 10 dimes, 10 steals and eight blocks for the season.

Because of a breezy non-conference schedule, Reese and LSU will not face a true test until their SEC slate begins. Until then, expect her and her squad to continue to compile some eye-popping numbers.