Last season, the South Carolina Gamecocks captured the SEC regular season and tournament championships. Yet, it was the LSU Lady Tigers who took the ultimate crown, winning the program’s first national championship.
With the triumph, LSU deservedly enters the season at the top, both of the SEC standings and national rankings. The Gamecocks and Tennessee Lady Vols, however, promise to present a challenge to the Lady Tigers. A number of teams below the top three, such as the Ole Miss Rebels or Texas A&M Aggies, could surge above expectations and enter the conference contender conversation.
Here’s how SEC coaches expect the conference to shake out in 2023-24:
- South Carolina
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi State
- Texas A&M
And here are our thoughts on the class of the conference—LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee—and the other tiers of SEC teams:
If the superteam trend has filtered down from the WNBA to the NCAA, it’s epicenter is Baton Rouge.
The defending national champs brought the top-ranked recruiting and transfer classes to the Bayou, giving the Lady Tigers an absolutely stacked roster. Arriving via Louisville, grad student Hailey Van Lith, a Preseason All-SEC First-Team nominee, fills LSU’s point guard vacancy and, as our Josh Felton analyzed, will have the opportunity to showcase her underrated playmaking skills by setting up scores for the likes of Aneesah Morrow, the junior wing who transferred to LSU from DePaul. Depended on to get lots of tough buckets for the Blue Demons, Morrow, voted to the Preseason All-SEC Second-Team, should thrive as an efficient, tertiary option for the Lady Tigers, while also fortifying LSU’s domination of the boards. The same should be true for freshman guard Mikaylah Williams, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2023. Although she possess the ability to carry a heavy creation burden, she instead should find herself in advantageous offensive positions.
In large part, that’s because of Preseason SEC Player of the Year Angel Reese. While she has emerged as an off-court phenomenon since cutting down the national championship nets last spring, it shouldn’t be lost that the 6-foot-3 junior also is an on-court phenom. Willing to bang in the paint and battle for boards, she also can unleash her guard-like skills, especially as a grab-and-go threat. Like Reese, returning sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson brings the pizzaz, both off and on the court. As emphasized by our Eric Nemchock, Johnson is an elite athlete, which she put to use on both ends of the floor last season. She’s expected to do the same this season, as she is the third Lady Tiger to earn a spot on the Preseason All-SEC First-Team.
Yet, LSU sits atop of the SEC—and the nation—not just because they are a team of stars and future stars. Two contributors to the national title—junior guard Kateri Poole and sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith—give the Lady Tigers depth. Poole is the team’s best 3-point shooter who drained several big buckets from behind the arc during the NCAA Tournament, while Smith plays with the kind of athletic juice that can spark her team and swing a game’s momentum.
And with head coach Kim Mulkey in charge, don’t expect the stacked Lady Tigers to slack off. While not renowned for sophisticated strategies, Mulkey is a master motivator who pushes her team to play with an extra oomph. At SEC Tipoff ‘24, she offered insight into her team’s mindset, sharing, “Our practices are extremely, extremely intense and competitive, as you can imagine. In fact, we don’t scrimmage against each other much because it can really, really get intense, which is good. You don’t need to do that every day.” When everything is clicking, LSU likely will look unbeatable—and they just might be.
It seems South Carolina is being overlooked. For the other teams in the SEC, and across the nation, that’s a risky proposition. A doubted team coached by Dawn Staley? Don’t be surprised when a still-talented South Carolina exceeds preseason expectations, despite the loss of Aliyah Boston and the other Freshies. When asked about the Gamecocks’ No. 6 preseason ranking at SEC Tipoff ‘24, Staley replied:
I approach it the same way whether we’re 1, 10, 12, not ranked. It’s just a prediction. It really is a prediction by people who, I hope, they study the game. I mean, it’s not a rebuild. It’s not a rebuild for us because we’re very talented. Like, we got talent on our team. We just lack a little bit of game-day experience.
It is anticipated that Kamilla Cardoso, a Preseason All-SEC First-Team member, will be the Gamecocks’ featured player. As last season progressed, the 6-foot-7 senior center began to play with more confidence and aggression, fully taking advantage her combination of size and skill to be a threatening presence in the paint. A number of other Gamecocks could emerge as her co-star, beginning with Te-Hina Paopao, who comes to Columbia from Oregon. Last season, South Carolina’s point guard play was inconsistent; Paopao, a two-time All-Pac-12 First Team honoree who was named to the Preseason All-SEC Second-Team, addresses that weak point. The senior also brings needed 3-point shooting to the South Carolina roster.
That said, it’d be quite fun if freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley can push Paopao for minutes and find herself running the show. The 5-foot-6 Fulwiley plays with sizzle and spice, unafraid to unleash eye-popping plays or attempt game-swinging shots. She likely will require year of seasoning under Staley’s stern tutelage before she earns consistent opportunities. A player who has endured a year of lessons and should be ready for more run is Ashlyn Watkins. The 6-foot-3 sophomore forward has astounding athleticism that, while allowing her to throw down a couple of dunks, should result in her causing trouble for opponents on both ends of the floor.
Other players likely to contribute to South Carolina wins over the course of the season include sophomore guard Raven Johnson, junior guard Bree Hall and junior forward Sania Feagin, all of whom had their moments last season. Hall, in particular, is emerging as a team leader, both vocally and by example, according to Staley, who shared:
Whether she’s a leader or not, I want her to be able to be on every day in practice. If trying to be a leader takes away from that, then I just want her to be on, to handle the heavy load of going like every rep instead of every third rep and being good at that and being consistent at playing both sides of the basketball.
Although South Carolina might not be able (at least yet) to match the high-profile names suiting up for LSU, the Gamecocks have the talent needed to test, and possibly take down, the Lady Tigers. As Staley put it, “I’m excited for this team. We’re in a position where we’re not the hunted, we’re hunting. That’s not a bad place to be.”
While it is not surprising that Angel Reese was named Preseason SEC Player of the Year, it also will not be surprising if Rickea Jackson, a Preseason All-SEC First-Team selection, bests Reese for the end-of-season award. In her first season with the Lady Vols, Jackson, who established herself as a supreme bucket getter during her three seasons at Mississippi State, turned in the most efficient scoring season of her collegiate career, despite a subpar performance from behind the arc.
This season, on a well-balanced Tennessee team, Jackson should be in position to be even more proficient. While fifth-year senior Jasmine Powell returns as the Lady Vols’ starting point guard, transfers Jewel Spear from Wake Forest and Destinee Wells from Belmont add more backcourt scoring pop. Spear was named to the Preseason All-SEC Second-Team. As was Tamari Key, who missed the majority of last season due to blood clots. She thankfully returns to the court, giving Tennessee a rim threat on one end and a rim protector on the other. Backing up the 6-foot-6 redshirt senior center is 6-foot-5 junior center Jillian Hollingshead, allowing Tennessee to play with elite interior size for 40 minutes. The Lady Vols also can threaten opponents with super shooting from the wings, as senior Tess Darby, junior Karoline Striplin and junior Sara Puckett all shot better than 38 percent from 3 last season.
In the past few seasons, head coach Kellie Harper has guided Tennessee back to the precipice of greatness. Yet, the Lady Vols still haven’t quite gotten over edge, with a combination of injuries and untimely losses preventing Tennessee from living up to the standard set by the legendary teams of the past. But this season’s squad just might have the right mix. An intimidating non-conference schedule, with early games against Indiana, Notre Dame and Ohio State, will reveal if the Lady Vols are ready to restock the trophy case on Rocky Top with their first SEC title since 2015. As Jackson announced at SEC Tipoff ‘24, “I’m excited to put the world on blast to see where Tennessee is.”
Tier 2: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Arkansas
After advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2007, head coach Yollet McPhee-McCuin (Coach Yo) and Ole Miss enter the season highly motivated, asking “What’s next?” That’s the motto for a team intent on not being satisfied with a No. 12 preseason ranking, nor again finishing fourth in the SEC. Coach Yo envisions this year as a “season of separation,” where internal competition will result in an external leap into the top tier of the SEC. Senior forward Madison Scott, a Preseason All-SEC First-Team selection, is expected to lead the way.
Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Arkansas also hope to separate themselves from this second tier of SEC teams and challenge the conference’s certified contenders. At State, second-year head coach Sam Purcell again will depend on Starkville stalwart Jessika Carter; the 6-foot-5 fifth-year big is a Preseason All-SEC First-Team honoree. Preseason All-SEC Second-Team nominees JerKaila Jordan, a returning senior guard, and Erynn Barnum, a transfer forward from Arkansas, also will be counted on to contribute, while two more transfers in Lauren Park-Lane, a 5-foot-3 scoring dynamo from Seton Hall, and Darrione Rogers, a breakout guard for DePaul last season, give the Bulldogs dangerous depth.
In College Station, head coach Joni Taylor likewise begins her second season at the helm with roster better suited for SEC success. While Preseason All-SEC Second Team honoree Aicha Coulibaly will provide solid play for the Aggies, the team’s ceiling will be determined by sophomore Janiah Barker, a member of the Preseason All-SEC First-Team who, as noted by Eric Nemchock, has superstar upside. Barker also possess the self confidence of a superstar, saying at SEC Tipoff ‘24, “Janiah is Janiah. I feel like my bag is deep.”
Experience can elevate Arkansas above this tier of teams. The Razorbacks will rely on Preseason All-SEC Second-Team member Makayla Daniels, a senior guard who has started all 122 games of her college career, and junior guard Samara Spencer. Head coach Mike Neighbors is grateful for the guiding influence of Daniels and Spencer, sharing at SEC Tipoff ‘24, “I don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about what’s been talked about in the locker room. I know they’re going to take care of that stuff. I don’t have to worry about me being the one telling the stories of how to handle adversity. Mak and Sam are going to take care of that.” One such player the vets are expected to mentor is freshman Taliah Scott, the No. 11 ranked recruit in the class of 2023 who could pop as Arkansas’ next great scoring guard.
Tier 3: Alabama, Georgia, Florida
This middle tier of SEC teams all profile as squads that will threaten to upset a team or two above them in the standings.
In Tuscaloosa, head coach Kristy Curry sees speed, shooting and a side of grit as the key ingredients to a successful season for the Crimson Tide. The SEC’s most prolific and proficient 3-point shooting team last season, Curry hopes her team adopts the kind of tenacity embodied by senior wing Sarah Ashlee Barker, a willing shooter who plays with a snarl.
. @AlabamaWBB's @SarahAshlee10 Barker on what she looks forward to most this season. @rhendrix35's Full Interview on Thursday's Crimson Drive, driven by @NASCAR at 2 pm on @UA_CTSN: https://t.co/tgBThLFHXX pic.twitter.com/i8rH4yu2Zt— Crimson Tide Sports Network (@UA_CTSN) October 25, 2023
At the school where Barker began her collegiate career, Georgia, there is a similar emphasis on mindset. Second-year head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson (Coach ABE) “want[s] the blood pumping in their heart.” And she’ll be looking to fifth-year senior big Javyn Nicholson to set the tone. At SEC Tipoff ‘24 Nicholson noted, “I don’t feel like Georgia, since I’ve been here, has ever gotten enough credit. But nobody in the SEC wants to play against us.” And like Coach ABE up in Athens, Florida’s Kelly Rae Finley, who enters her second full season as head coach, is fostering a player-first program in Gainesville, doing so by adding former SEC great and current WNBA All-Star Rhyne Howard to her staff as a relatable resource for her players.
Tier 4: Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Kentucky
Although the four teams that begin the season at the bottom of the SEC may not make much noise in the standings, they all feature players with compelling stories worth monitoring throughout the season.
At Missouri and Auburn, it’s an end of eras, as the two Tigers will be turning to sharp-shooting fifth-year players Hayley Frank, a Preseason All-SEC First-Team selection ahead of her final season in Columbia, and Honesty Scott-Grayson, who is intent on valuing her final season on the Plains, to inspire their squads. For Vanderbilt, the season will be defined by a comeback with the return of Jordyn Cambridge, who has suffered multiple serious injuries during college career. With the sixth-year guard who was named to the Preseason SEC All-Second Team running the show, the Commodores will take the court against conference foes with more confidence. And for Kentucky, it’s about the start of a new era, with Maddie Scherr, in second season with her home state team after spending her first two college seasons at Oregon, ready to spark improvement for the Wildcats.