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SEC update: Where do things stand as conference play begins?

South Carolina is great. LSU is really good. But, what about the rest of the conference? As conference play begins, we assess the state of the SEC, with a closer look at Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Auburn.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
With the return of Rickea Jackson, can Tennessee begin to reach preseason expectations?
Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

SEC play begin Thursday, Jan. 4, when the conference’s 14 teams will be in action. Here are the seven conference-opening contests:

  • No. 1 South Carolina (12-0, 0-0) vs. Florida (9-3, 0-0) (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
  • Arkansas (12-3, 0-0) vs. Kentucky (7-7, 0-0) (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+)
  • Texas A&M (12-1, 0-0) vs. Georgia (9-4, 0-0) (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+)
  • Ole Miss (10-3, 0-0) vs. Alabama (13-2, 0-0) (7 p.m. ET, SEC Network+)
  • Vanderbilt (13-1, 0-0) vs. Mississippi State (13-2, 0-0) (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network+)
  • Tennessee (7-5, 0-0) vs. Auburn (11-2, 0-0) (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network+)
  • Missouri (9-4, 0-0) vs. No. 7 LSU (13-1, 0-0) (9 p.m. ET, SEC Network)

Before the games tip, let’s take a look around the conference, assessing what’s changed since preseason and three teams to watch in the first few weeks of conference play.

What’s the state of the SEC?

Entering the season, we expected one team to dominate the conference, with another situated as the clear second-best team. That’s still true. Those teams have just switched places. While defending national champion LSU has experienced some shakiness despite a stacked roster, defending SEC champion South Carolina has looked like the conference’s—and the nation’s—best team even with a less-experienced roster.

After beginning the season ranked No. 6, South Carolina has risen to No. 1, whereas LSU has fallen from their preseason No. 1 ranking to No. 7. No other SEC team currently claims a spot in the top 25. Both Mississippi teams entered the season ranked—No. 12 Ole Miss and No. 25 Mississippi—but have dropped from the rankings due to multiple upset losses. Tennessee, beset by injuries, absences and a difficult schedule, has tumbled out of the top 25 after beginning the season at No. 11. No SEC team that began the season unranked has entered the top 25.

So, it looks like the conference has two great teams and a lot of average teams. ESPN’s Bracketology reflects this reality, currently projecting seven SEC teams to make the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina earns the top overall seed and LSU slots in as a No. 3 seed. The next highest-seeded SEC team is No. 7-seed Texas A&M, followed by No. 9 Alabama, No. 9 Mississippi State, No. 10 Ole Miss and No. 11 Vanderbilt, with Florida and Auburn among the first four and next four outside the field of 68, respectively.

Conference play, however, presents an opportunity for one or two of these seemingly-unspectacular squads to announce themselves superior to their other, average counterparts. Could Tennessee, Vandy or Auburn be one of those teams?

Can Tennessee get on track?

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Tennessee grad guard Jasmine Powell and head coach Kellie Harper.
Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee still has the ingredients to be a very good team. They’ve got size and shooting, plus a star player in grad wing Rickea Jackson. However, a lingering injury to Jackson, an understandably-measured return to form for redshirt senior center Tamari Key, time in concussion protocol for junior forward Jillian Hollingshead and some below-expectation shooting performances—on top of the SEC’s toughest and nation’s sixth-strongest non-conference schedule—has relegated the Lady Vols to a 7-5 record.

But all those ingredients are still there. With a run of good health for Jackson and Hollingshead, continued improvement from Key and some 3-point shooting regression from Jackson, senior guard Jewel Spear, senior guard Destinee Wells and senior wing Tess Darby, suddenly Tennessee might begin to resemble the solid team they were expected to be.

The Lady Vols don’t face one of the SEC’s titans until mid-February. Until then, they need to channel the Big Orange teams of yesteryear and rack up a perfect, or nearly perfect, record against middle-class conference foes. But it won’t be easy, beginning with a matchup on the Plains against a potentially-pesky Auburn team.

Has Vandy’s rise begun?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 07 Women’s - Vanderbilt at Butler
Vanderbilt freshman guard Madison Greene.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before the 2021-22 season, Vanderbilt hired Shea Ralph, luring the UConn legend from Storrs in hopes that she could restore the once-proud Commodore program back to the top of the SEC, and women’s college basketball at large. Her first two seasons didn’t inspire much confidence, with a 4-12 conference record in 2021-22 and a 3-13 mark in 2022-23.

At 13-1 on the eve of conference play, Vanderbilt may, finally, be on the rise under Ralph. In fact, it’s the Commodores’ one loss, rather than any of their 13 wins, that inspires the most confidence. In late November, Vandy appeared to hang with then-No. 5 NC State, losing by eight points, 70-62. The game wasn’t quite that close. While the Commodores led early in the third quarter, the Wolfpack then turned it on, stretching their advantage to 26 points at the beginning of the forth. From there, Vandy mustered a mostly meaningless comeback, never truly threatening the team that now ranks No. 3 and remains undefeated. Yet, Ralph saw the game as a learning experience that showed her team’s potential, saying:

When we get on the plane, I know that we’ve learned a lot about ourselves. So, when we go to SEC play, we need to see that fourth quarter team for the whole game. It’s got to be consistent. That team I saw in the fourth quarter can pretty much compete with anybody.

Can the Commodores find and maintain their top level throughout the conference calendar? It must begin with the high activity they’ve shown through much of the season. Grad guard Jordyn Cambridge leads the SEC with 4.3 steals per game, while junior forward Sacha Washington has grabbed the second-most offensive boards in the conference. Creating extra possessions can give the Commodores the edge needed to tough out conference wins. The first test arrives Thursday, when they travel to Starkville to take on Mississippi State.

Is Auburn a threat?

The Auburn Tigers enter conference play 10-2.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Auburn’s situation resembles that of Vandy. Like Ralph, Johnnie Harris is in her third year as head coach, with the first two featuring few moments of promise. The Tigers finished last in the SEC in 2021-22 at 2-14 and 10th in 2022-23 at 5-11. But, the Tigers’ non-conference performance suggests they no longer belong at or near the conference’s cellar.

The Tigers thus far have benefitted from the experienced play of grad guards Honesty Scott-Grayson and JaMya Mingo-Young. Scott-Grayson leads as the scorer with a team-high 15.8 points per game and Mingo-Young as the playmaker with a team-best 4.3 assists per game. With a SEC-leading 39.2 assist percentage, Mingo-Young is setting up her teammates, including Scott-Grayson, for successful scores.

The duo were the driving force behind Auburn’s best win of the season, a 69-62 win over Washington State just before Christmas. After a scoreless first half, Scott-Grayson rose to the occasion in the second half, scoring all of her team-high 17 points in the third and fourth quarters. She credited Harris for helping her find her best form, sharing after the game, “She gave me a good talking to, telling me that I needed to look for my shots. That’s what got me going in the second half. I was telling myself to relax. We didn’t have any doubt in our minds.”

The whole team seemed to get stronger as the game progressed, going 8-for-10 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and making their last five field-goal attempts. Throughout the contest, Mingo-Young put pressure on the Cougars, finishing with 12 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

The ability raise their play and perform in the clutch should serve Auburn well in SEC play. They’ll have the opportunity to prove it on Thursday, with the aforementioned visit from Tennessee.