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SEC preview: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina aim to cement championship DNA

Can any team take down the South Carolina Gamecocks? While fellow coaches expect the No. 1-ranked defending national champions to capture the conference’s most prestigious honors, that doesn’t mean they intend to make it easy on Dawn Staley’s squad. The SEC is, yet again, a conference full of talented, intriguing teams.

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NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - South Carolina
In the SEC, it’s all about the South Carolina Gamecocks and Aliyah Boston.
Photo by Gerry Melendez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

We continue our conference preview series with the SEC. Here is a look at each team in order of predicted finish according to the preseason coaches poll.

1) No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks

2021-22 record: 35-2 (overall), 15-1 (conference)

Players to watch (preseason All-SEC list): Aliyah Boston (First Team and preseason Player of the Year), Zia Cooke (First), Victaria Saxton (Second)

Can South Carolina become the first repeat champion in women’s college basketball since 2016, when UConn capped off the Breanna Stewart era with a fourth-straight title? That’s the big goal for the Gamecocks. Not to say that Dawn Staley and company will overlook their conference challengers. Last season was not blemish free for the Gamecocks, who, in particular, likely aim to reclaim the SEC tournament title. But, it would be misguided to ignore that the Gamecocks have their eyes on the biggest prize.

However, a full slate against a number of pesky conference opponents intent on upsetting the favored Gamecocks will test a squad that will need to establish a new equilibrium, especially on the offensive end with the departure of point guard Destanni Henderson to the WNBA. Staley has indicated a willingness to experiment by employing jumbo lineups that will allow her to maximize the court time for her most talented players. Considering offense could emerge as a weakness last season, even with Henderson, there could be some uneven moments for the Gamecocks. Yet, with the combination of a lockdown defense, the all-around brilliance of senior big Aliyah Boston and the program’s self-proclaimed championship DNA, South Carolina is well suited to survive any struggles, and again flourish as the conference’s, and sport’s, most fearsome team.

2) No. 5 Tennessee Lady Vols

2021-22 record: 25-9, 11-5

Players to watch: Jordan Horston (First), Tamari Key (First), Rickea Jackson (First)

What seemed to be coalescing into a special season in Knoxville — arguably the first since Pat Summitt stepped down from Rocky Top — quickly evaporated due to injury in early 2022. However, the healthy version of last season’s Vols resembled the teams of Tennessee lore. With returning stars in senior big Tamari Key, the anchor of the defense, and senior guard Jordan Horston, who filled the box score by leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals last season, boosted by the arrival of senior forward Rickea Jackson (Mississippi State) and graduate big Jasmine Franklin (Missouri State), a return to the top of the SEC, and top of the sport, is in the sights of head coach Kellie Harper and the Lady Vols. According to Key, her squad enters the season with “a sense of unfinished business.”

3) No. 16 LSU Lady Tigers

2021-22 record: 26-6, 13-2

Players to watch: Alexis Morris (First), Angel Reese (First)

It was a mostly charmed first season in Baton Rouge for the Tiger Queen. After jumping from Baylor to LSU, head coach Kim Mulkey almost immediately established her squad as a threat at the conference and national levels. This season, however, comes with high expectations due to the combination of talented returnees, a starry freshman class and the prize of the transfer portal. The latter — junior big Angel Reese — deserves the most attention. Upon leaving Maryland after two successful seasons, where she averaged 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds last season, Reese decided to entrust her talent to Mulkey, expressing her belief that her new head coach will unlock untapped aspects of her game. It will be interesting to see if Reese’s estimation is proven correct and Mulkey, more known for a commitment to traditional bigs, optimizes the multi-dimensional Reese. If that’s the case and we see a better-than-ever Reese, look for LSU to, again, exceed expectations.

4) Alabama Crimson Tide

2021-22 record: 20-14, 6-10

Player to watch: Brittany Davis (First)

Over the past few seasons, the second tier of SEC teams has been populated by the likes of Kentucky, Texas A&M and Georgia. With those programs undergoing instability, Alabama, with a degree of continuity that is becoming increasingly rare, is positioned to take advantage and rise up the conference ranks. Head coach Kristi Curry will supplement her five returning starters with a number of transfers with high-level Division I experience. Bama has the potential to be the SEC’s most potent 3-point shooting team. Last season, Brittany Davis, the Tide’s leading scoring at 17.7 points per game, led the conference in total threes attempted (264) and made (94), while fellow returning graduate guard Hannah Barber also was in the top five in both categories. Graduate guard Megan Abrams and transfer junior guard Sarah Ashlee Barker (Georgia) also can fire it away from deep, giving Alabama a corps of shooters that could provide the spacing needed for the Tide to have one of the conference’s better offensive attacks.

5) Arkansas Razorbacks

2021-22 record: 18-14, 7-9

Player to watch: Makayla Daniels (Second)

Scan the social media feeds of the Arkansas women’s hoops team and you’re likely to see a number of photos of players draped in a chain made of carabiners. Coined the “Locked In Chain,” it is awarded at the end of each practice, with the previous winner selecting the next winner. In addition to cultivating team camaraderie, the chain is a manifestation of the mindset that the Razorbacks intend to take into the 2022-23 season. They’re locked in, intent upon approaching the upper-echelon of SEC teams. In recent years, the Hogs’ high-octane offense has allowed them to inject fear into superior opponents. But truly emerging as a threat to the conference’s top contenders requires an improved, connected defense. Considering the roster is populated with a slew of tall and long perimeter players, head coach Mike Neighbors has the personnel needed to translate the team’s ambition into reality.

6) Mississippi State Bulldogs

2021-22 record: 15-14, 6-10

Player to watch: Jessika Carter (Second)

First-year head coach Sam Purcell has exuded energy and excitement, while not eschewing expectations, as he takes over in Starkville. During an interview at SEC media day, he suggested:

It used to be that you’ve got to build it over four years. Now with the portal and people coming and going, there’s no timetable. We can win this year and we’ll worry about next year then. We have the means in place. Mississippi State had the glory years of playing for the national championship. That’s the expectation and it’s up to me to get it there.

Despite State’s 11th place finish in last season’s conference standings, Purcell has reason to be optimistic. Not only will redshirt senior big Jessika Carter suit up for a final season in maroon and white, but he also will have the services of the three Hayes sisters—graduate guard Anastasia, senior guard Aislynn and redshirt sophomore Alasia. There’s also graduate guard Ahlana Smith, who, after playing four seasons at Louisville (where Purcell previously served as head recruiter for Jeff Walz), has taken advantage of her fifth year and taken her talents to Mississippi State.

7) Florida Gators

2021-22 record: 21-11, 10-6

Are fellow SEC coaches underrating the Gators? Last season, as interim head coach, Kelly Rae Finley and Florida took down five ranked conference opponents, showing that the program was not simply surviving the turmoil caused by the departure of former head coach Cameron Newbauer (who resigned under the cloud of abuse allegations) but thriving. Recalling last season, Finley shared at SEC media day, “My focus was on creating a great experience, loving and embracing each other, lifting each other up.” While Finley and Florida will be without last season’s leading scorer Kiara Smith, who graduated into the professional ranks, three senior guard transfers in KK Deans (West Virginia), Leilani Correa (St. John’s) and Aliyah Matharu (Texas) will provide perimeter point production, as all three were the leading scorers for their former teams.

8) Ole Miss Rebels

2021-22 record: 23-9, 10-6

Player to watch: Madison Scott (Second)

“Whenever, Wherever” will Ole Miss find another player like Shakira Austin? The projections of other SEC coaches suggest there are questions about what the Rebels can achieve without the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year runner-up. But head coach Yolette McPhee-McCuin is not worried, instead believing that the program she has built in Oxford is more sustainable than any singular star. Coach Yo has recruited six new transfers, who should combine with last season’s successful transfers in senior guard Angel Baker and junior guard Destiny Salary to form a deep squad. Leading this group will be junior forward Madison Scott, the candidate most likely to fill the scoring, rebounding and overall activity void left by Austin.

9) Georgia Lady Bulldogs

2021-22 record: 21-10, 9-7

Player to watch: Diamond Battles (Second)

Diamond Battles might be the best player you don’t know about. With UConn returning to the Big East, few eyes remained on the AAC last season. But for those watching AAC action, UCF’s Battles was the star of the show, earning Conference Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player of the AAC tournament honors. Battles, however, did let UConn know who she was, as she and the Golden Knights gave the Huskies a scare in the second-round of the NCAA tournament, falling by only five points. Battles, a fifth-year senior guard, has followed former UCF head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson up to Georgia. As Battles’ trust in Coach Abe indicates, the Dawgs’ new head coach possesses the presence needed to develop a squad of holdovers and newcomers into a cohesive conference contender.

10) Kentucky Wildcats

2021-22 record: 19-12, 8-8

Entering her third season as head coach, Kyra Elzy must put her signature stamp on the Kentucky program. Most of the players from her first two teams, including last season’s SEC Tournament champions, have departed, headlined by Rhyne Howard ascending from Lexington to WNBA stardom. Elzy thus has adopted a new mantra — “Built Different” — for the new kind of star-less, hard-working team she will be coaching. However, if a player is to emerge as a star, sophomore point guard Jada Walker stands as the most-likely candidate. The 2022 All-SEC Freshman Team member showed she could get it done on both ends of the floor, tossing dimes on offense and snagging steals on defense. She also flashed burgeoning proficiency as a 3-point shooter, shooting better than 35 percent from deep on almost 100 total attempts.

11) Texas A&M Aggies

2021-22 record: 14-15, 4-12

While head coach Gary Blair led Texas A&M to great heights during his 20 years in College Station, it might have been past time for a refresh. After capturing the 2021 regular-season conference championship in 2021, the Aggies faltered in Blair’s final season. Following a steadily more successful tenure succeeding Andy Landers at Georgia, Joni Taylor appears to be the ideal candidate to revitalize A&M, all while abiding by the program’s legacy and traditions. Taylor, who cultivated a strong rapport with her charges in Athens, intends to implement more lively, aggressive systems on both ends of the floor, aiming for a faster-paced offense and intensified man-to-man defense. Expected freshman phenom Janiah Barker, who trailed Taylor to A&M, possesses the tantalizing traits to realize her head coach’s visions.

12) Missouri Tigers

2021-22 record: 18-13, 7-9

While it is not “tournament or bust” for the Tigers this season, head coach Robin Pingeton and returning players want their shot in the Big Dance. Last season, they certainly proved their Cinderella credentials, stunning South Carolina by handing it its only loss in a regular-season conference contest. As the SEC’s best 3-point shooting team last season at 38.5 percent, the Tigers have the potential to shoot their way into additional upsets this coming season. Yet, the ability of Missouri to take full advantage of the powerful variance of the 3-pointer could be undermined by an absence of defensive playmaking, as the Tigers finished last in the conference in blocks and steals.

13) Auburn Tigers

2021-22 record: 10-18, 2-14

Player to watch: Aicha Coulibaly (Second)

Auburn’s 2021-22 record obscures more than it reveals about head coach Johnnie Harris’ first season on the Plains. The Tigers suffered a number of close losses, refusing to be an easy out for superior opponents. They also managed to score one big upset, taking down then-No. 4 Tennessee in late January. This season, expect all conference foes to be ready for the self-identified “underdog” Tigers. However, Harris and her team still believe they have the ingredients needed to surprise opponents and exceed preseason expectations, with Harris noting that her squad is “bigger, faster and stronger” than last season. Junior guard Aicha Coulibaly will lead the way with box-stuffing star power, having averaged 17.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 2.2 steals as a sophomore.

14) Vanderbilt Commodores

2021-22 record: 16-19, 4-12

In head coach Shea Ralph’s first season at the helm in Nashville, her Commodores, arguably, exceeded, albeit very low, expectations, winning four regular-season conference games, capturing an SEC tournament victory and a notching pair of wins in the WNIT. Of course, Ralph, with her UConn pedigree, is unsatisfied, and only further committed to her mission of restoring the “tradition of excellence” of Vandy women’s basketball. At SEC media day, Ralph indicated she envisions building on last season’s progress, saying, “Last year showed what we’re capable of. We have laid that foundation of trust and belief.” Look for Ralph to rely on sophomore forward Sacha Washington, both for her play, as she was named to the 2021-22 All-Freshman SEC Team, and her spirit, to help take the Commodores to the next level.