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SEC update: Still undefeated in South Carolina and new identities in Arkansas, Georgia

Are South Carolina’s deficits a problem? Can Arkansas actually challenge the SEC’s elite? What about Georgia? Let’s analyze the recent results of the Gamecocks, Razorbacks and Bulldogs.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Carolina at Stanford
Kamilla Cardoso (jersey #10) was crucial as No. 1 South Carolina powered back and past No. 15 UCLA.
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been two weeks since we checked in with the SEC. Let’s take a look at two teams that are cultivating new identities: the Arkansas Razorbacks (9-0) and Georgia Lady Bulldogs (8-1). But first, it’s worth considering what we’ve learned about the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (7-0) since our last update.

Is South Carolina vulnerable or inevitable?

On Tuesday night, the Gamecocks earned their 17th-straight win over a ranked opponent, defeating the No. 15 UCLA Bruins 73-64.

However, en route to an eventual nine-point victory, South Carolina fell into a double-digit deficit of 10 points. Similarly, South Carolina trailed No. 2 Stanford by 12 points before a 76-71 overtime win in Palo Alto.

Is this tendency a cause for concern, waiting to burn the Gamecocks sooner than later? Or, should it, in fact, inspire further confidence?

On the sidelines, head coach Dawn Staley frequently has expressed her distress at her team’s performance.

But South Carolina’s uneven play through the first three(ish) quarters in contests against high-caliber opponents can be explained by Staley’s expanded rotations. In the first halves against Stanford and UCLA, Staley found a few minutes for her rawer youngsters, giving court time to sophomore Sania Feagin, redshirt freshman Raven Johnson and freshman Ashlyn Watkins, even if they might not be ready for such competition. Yet, it’s likely more valuable for Watkins, for example, to get three minutes in the intense environment of Maples Pavillon than it is for her to play 22 minutes in the comfier confines of Colonial Life Arena against an overmatched team like Hampton. If an injury scare or untimely foul trouble strikes in March, South Carolina’s youthful charges should be more ready to rise to the moment in the bright lights of the postseason.

Down the stretch against Stanford and UCLA, Staley rode her trustworthy senior core, deploying some combination of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Victaria Saxton and Laeticia Amihere. From there, Staley has pushed the right buttons, relying on an energy boost from Bree Hall against Stanford. Against UCLA, it was some zone-busting pull-up shooting from Kierra Fletcher and the paint presence of Kamilla Cardoso.

Then, right on cue, the defense dialed up while the ball found Boston on offense, allowing the Gamecocks to twice erase not-insignificant deficits and remain undefeated. In the end, Staley’s rotational strategy not only makes sense but also might make a second-straight title for South Carolina inevitable.

Outside of a Dec. 15 contest against South Dakota State, South Carolina shouldn’t face any serious challenges until the conference slate begins at the end of December.

The undefeated Hogs have flashed some defensive chops

Entering the 2022-23 season, Arkansas was open about establishing a stronger defensive culture, a mindset materialized by the “Locked In Chain” awarded after preseason practices.

A 9-0 record, highlighted by a victory over No. 25 Kansas State at the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam Reef Tournament, indicates Arkansas’ success so far. The win was achieved in a way atypical for Arkansas teams of recent vintage. Whereas the Hogs have been a high-scoring squad that has won with offense, they held the Wildcats to 53 points, allowing for a win despite a 26.7 percent performance from three.

For the season, Arkansas still lags in defensive playmaking stats. However, the Hogs have succeeded in ending possessions, totaling 32.9 defensive boards per game.

Of course, head coach Mike Neighbors also has multiple players who can put the ball in the basket. Senior guard Makayla Daniels was named MVP of the Paradise Jam Reef Tournament, averaging 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a pair of steals over the three contests.

Redshirt senior forward Erynn Barnum leads the SEC in field goal percentage, shooting a searing 70.9 percent as she has scored 16.9 points per game so far this season. Redshirt freshman guard Saylor Poffenbarger also has popped in the early going, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors for her performance in the three games in the Virgin Islands, where she posted an average of 12.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, three assists and a steal.

If Arkansas maintains an improved defensive effort to go with an efficient offense, the Hogs can achieve their ambition of challenging the conference’s expected upper crust.

After dispatching Troy 87-70 on Thursday night, Arkansas should not be tested again until a Dec. 17 matchup at No. 13 Creighton. Then, the Hogs head to California, where they’ll open the San Diego Invitational against No. 19 Oregon.

Aggression is defining the start of the Coach Abe era in Athens

UGA began the Paradise Jam Island Tournament with two wacky wins, using a 26-0 run to overcome a 20-point deficit and get the 68-60 win over Wisconsin in its first game before surviving five ejections to defeat VCU 68-54. The Dawgs dropped their final game to a hot-shooting Seton Hall team, yet fifth-year guard Diamond Battles was named MVP while fifth-year forward Brittney Smith earned All-Tournament honors.

In addition to Battles and Smith, senior guard Alisha Lewis was a bright spot in the Virgin Islands, serving as a steady connector and providing plus 3-point shooting. All three players came to UGA from UCF, just like new head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson.

In addition to having experience under Coach Abe, the trio has brought new, needed dynamics to Dawgs, particularly Battles. The leading scorer at 15 points per game possesses the ability to create her own offense off the bounce in ways that players who have worn the red and black in recent years could not.

Coach Abe also has introduced a new defensive approach, utilizing her players’ athleticism and encouraging their aggression when deploying full-court presses and zone defenses.

Projected to finish ninth in the conference, Georgia has so far shown a quality of play that suggests it can significantly exceed those expectations. After enjoying a breezy 78-58 victory over Furman on the Thursday evening, a huge non-conference challenge arrives on Monday when No. 12 NC State comes to Athens.