Coaches from the Southeastern conference tell us who will be tough this year in the SEC and what to expect from the top teams. We talk to Matthew Mitchell, Andy Landers, Melanie Balcomb, Holly Warlick and Gary Blair.

Kentucky and Georgia top the always tough SEC

November 14, 2012 - 4:31pm
SEC Player of the Year A'dia Mathies and her Kentucky Wildcats are the preseason favorite to win the Conference. (Photo courtesy Kentucky Athletics)

SEC Player of the Year A'dia Mathies and her Kentucky Wildcats are the preseason favorite to win the Conference. (Photo courtesy Kentucky Athletics)

The Southeastern Conference looks very different this year -- for starters, it’s the first time in the history of SEC women’s basketball that Pat Summitt won’t be on the sideline. Longtime Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick takes over for the legendary coach of the Lady Vols and is one of four new head coaches in the conference. Other first year coaches are Vic Shaefer at Mississipi State, Terri Williams-Flournoy at Auburn and Brett Frank at Ole Miss.

The conference has also grown from 12 to 14 teams thanks to Texas A&M and Missouri defecting from the Big 12. If the SEC wasn’t already considered one of the toughest leagues in the nation, it sealed the deal by welcoming Gary Blair and the Aggies, the 2011 National Champions. History says if you finish in the top half of the SEC, you’re a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament -- and half of the seven have a legit chance to make a run for a national title. This year, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt all have a chance to be one of the last teams standing.

1. Kentucky (28-7, 13-3)

Notwithstanding Tuesday's blowout loss to Baylor, expectations are high in Lexington as sixth year head coach Matthew Mitchell has led the Wildcats to three consecutive 25-win seasons for the first time in school history. Not only are the Wildcats the preseason favorite to win the SEC, they opened the season ranked sixth by the Associated Press, their highest ranking in school history, and appear to have all the pieces in place to be a national championship contender -- well, maybe as long they don't run into Baylor again.

The Wildcats return four starters, including SEC Player of the Year Adia Mathies (15 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.7 apg) and SEC Freshman of the Year Bria Goss (11 ppg, 4 rpg 1.5 apg). The SEC regular season champs also added three freshmen, including McDonald’s All-American Janee Thompson, and will get playing time from All-Pac-12 player DeNesha Stallworth, who sat out a year after transferring from California. The deep and talented bench averaged 25 points a game last season, plus the Wildcats get back redshirt sophomore Jennifer O’Neil from injury (the first high school all-American landed by Mitchell).

Offensively, the Wildcats were tied with Tennessee as the highest scoring teams in the conference, meanwhile on defense they led the SEC in steals and led the NCAA with 939 forced turnovers. This team can be scary good, and expect to see them in the SEC championship game and deep into March Madness.

2. Georgia (22-9, 11-5)

The Bulldogs are experienced, athletic and deep as they return four starters who all averaged in double figures: Jasmine Hassell (13 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Khaalidah Miller (12.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.9 spg), Anne Marie Armstrong (11.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and 2011 All-SEC guard Jasmine Jones (10.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.4 apg).  Add to the mix Georgia’s five incoming freshman who made up a top 10 recruiting class and the Bulldogs look poised to compete for an SEC title.

Defense doesn't appear to be an issue, as the Dawgs were second to Kentucky in steals and turnover margin last year, but UGA needs to be better on the boards -- Georgia finished in the lower half of the SEC in all rebounding categories.

Motivation is plentiful, since the Bulldogs, who finished third in the SEC last season, were eliminated in the first round in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. In addition, after 34 seasons in Athens, Andy Landers is just 23 wins away from his 900th career victory, which seems like a lock, but this might also be the year he adds a national championship to his Hall of Fame resume, if he can get this talented bunch clicking on all cylinders.

3. Vanderbilt (23-10, 9-7)

The Commodores were picked to finished third in the SEC based on the fact that all five starters (who produced 97% of the offense) were returning, including All-SEC Christina Foggie, who led the conference in scoring with 17.7 points per game. However, Vandy took a big hit in a preseason game when starting center Stephanie Holzer went down with a season-ending knee injury. The 6-4 junior was the team’s leading rebounder (7.5) and averaged 11 points per game. The center duties will now fall on inexperienced redshirt sophomore Clair Watkins and freshman Kendall Shaw.

But all is not lost in Nashville -- the Commodores also have plenty of other scoring options, including junior guard Jasmine Lister (12.5 ppg, 5.3 apg) and senior forward Tiffany Clarke (11.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Add to the mix six incoming freshmen, and coach Melanie Balcome will most likely work some of her magic to find a combination that will get her team to 20-plus wins and an NCAA appearance for the 11th season in a row.

Kamiko Williams (#4) is one of just two seniors on a Tennessee roster loaded with young, inexperienced talent. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

4. Tennessee (27-9, 12-4)

The Lady Vols are now completely in the hands of 27-year assistant and former Tennessee All-American Holly Warlick, who was officially handed the whistle from Pat Summitt. Tennessee’s mantra this year -- “Same heart, same pride, same fight” -- means expectations haven’t changed in Knoxville. The Volunteers are preparing to compete for an SEC championship aas well as a National title, just as they have done for the past three decades.

However, this will be a tall task as the Vols graduated all five starters and of their returning players, only three, Meighan Simmons (11 ppg), Ariel Massengale (7.4 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Tabor Spani (6.6 ppg), averaged 20 or more minutes a game. This same trio also accounted for just 29% of the Vols offense last season, so exactly who is going to lead this team in scoring has yet to be ironed out. What Vols do have is one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, led by all-American Bashaara Graves and followed by Andraya Carter, Jasmine Jones and Nia Moore. Who can step up from this group and play beyond her years will be critical for the winning tradition to continue in Knoxville.

5. Texas A&M (24-11, N/A)

The Aggies' move from the Big 12 to the SEC is only going to up the level of play in the conference. This is another highly ranked program that won the national championship just two years ago and has one of the best attendance records in the nation, so it will be no cakewalk in College Station for SEC visitors.

After making it to the Sweet 16 last year, Gary Blair will have his work cut out for him with a young but talented roster. Six-four center Kelsey Bone (11.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg) will anchor the team along with sophomore guard Alexia Standish (5.8 ppg, 2 apg) -- the only returning starters. The remaining letterwinners averaged five points or less per game, so the No. 2 recruiting class that Blair hauled in will need to perform early and often if the Aggies are going to show the SEC that the Big 12 was just as good.

6. South Carolina (25-10, 10-6)

It’s two steps forward, one step back for the South Carolina Gamecocks as they graduated four starters, including top scorers Markishia Grant and La’Keisha Sutton, from a team that made its first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade. However the expectations of ultra-competitive head coach Dawn Staley are just as high. She will count heavily on two-time all-SEC senior guard Ieasia Walker (7.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.2 apg), the lone returning starter, to assume a more prominent scoring role. Senior forward Ashley Brunner (7.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), who was an important bench player last season, will move into a starting slot and will anchor the inside game along with sophomore Aleighsa Welch (7.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), on the SEC all-freshman team last year.

The Gamecocks expect big things from their five incoming freshmen, including North Carolina Gatorade player of the year Tiffany Mitchell (5-9 point guard) and South Carolina Gatorade player of the year Asia Dozier (5-10 shooting guard), who both won multiple state championships in high school.

You can bet South Carolina will get it done with defense, as the Gamecocks led the conference is scoring defense (54.0 ppg). They were also the third best rebounding team in the SEC, but scoring might be an issue: South Carolina only averaged 58.5 points a game, so putting more points on the board would not only reduce the number fits Staley has on the sideline, it would propel the Gamecocks into conference title contention.

7. LSU (23-11, 10-6)

Nikki Caldwell set the bar high in her first year as head coach, guiding the Tigers to the SEC championship game and a second-round NCAA appearance. However, she graduated five seniors and McDonald’s All American Krystal Forthan transferred to Utah, and that group accounted for 79 percent of the LSU offense last season. 

Caldwell does have three returning starters in Adrienne Webb (9.9 pppg, 3.5 rpg), Jeanne Kenny (5.6 ppg, 2.8 apg) and Bianca Lutely (5.3 ppg, 2.1 apg), all of whom must step up and score. Also expected to win a starting role is 6-5 junior forward Theresa Plaisance, who shined in the SEC tournament after senior Lashonda Barrett went down with an injury. The Tigers also hope incoming three incoming freshmen will contribute, including Lousiana Gatorade player of the year Kuaneshia Baker.

The issue for LSU will be staying healthy, as with only 10 players on the roster, one major injury could set them Tigers back all season.

8. Arkansas (24-9, 10-6)

The Razorbacks have been on an upward trend since Tom Collen arrived six years ago. Last season, he led Arkansas to the second round of the NCAA tournament and a 24-9 overall record, the best finish in 20 years -- which earned him the SEC Coach of the year honors. The question is, can he have a repeat performance now that all-SEC point guard C’eira Ricketts has graduated along with two other starters? 

This sounds like the perfect opportunity for senior post Sarah Watkins to be the main attraction. She had 63 blocked shots on the season (third best in SEC), averaged 10 points and 4.4 rebounds and was named to the all-SEC second team. Sophomore point guard Calli Berna (3.6 ppg, 2.7 apg), who was named to the All-SEC freshman team, appears to the be the heir apparent to Ricketts, but will have to become a much bigger scoring threat.

Arkansas did have the third best scoring defense in the conference last year, but other than that the Razorbacks are in the middle of the pack in every statistical category, so someone needs to have a breakout year to keep the team on its upward trajectory.

Jaterra Bonds will be expected to step up and help lead a very young Florida squad. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

9. Florida (20-13, 8-8)

The Gators are young but full of optimism after advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second time under sixth year coach Amanda Butler. All-SEC forward Jennifer Georgia (12.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is the lone senior on this squad and the second best rebounder in the conference. This year, she must also be a leader on the floor and in the locker room, along with junior guard Jetera Bonds (8.1 ppg, 2.6 apg), the only other returning starter for the Gators.

The Florida frontcourt got a major upgrade thanks to 6-7 center Vicky McIntire, a transfer from Oklahoma State who had a team high 44 blocked shots for the Cowboys last season and is now the tallest player to ever suit up for the Gators. She is joined by 6-4 redshirt freshman Viktorija Dimaite who hails from Lithuania and should bring a European flair to the post game now that she’s recovered from an ankle injury. Add to the mix six freshmen that were a top 20 recruiting class and things are looking up in Gainesville.

10. Auburn (13-17, 5-11)

A new era has begun for Tiger basketball under first year head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, who had a very successful run at Georgetown before taking over the Auburn program. Williams-Flournoy guided the Hoyas to four 20-win seasons and three straight NCAA appearances, making 2008-2012 the most successful era in team history.

Now at The Plains the goal is to do the same for the Tigers and making the task easier is the fact that Williams-Flournoy inherits three starters and four returning letterwinners. Leading the way will be junior wing Tyrese Tanner, who led the team in scoring last season with 10.6 points and 3.8 assists per game. Big things will be expect of sophomore guard Hasina Muhammad (9.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg), who was the team's second leading scorer last year, earning her a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.

Six-three senior Blanche Alverson (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) is sure to be a key element, as she was the best three-point shooter in the conference and is very close to joining the 1,000-point club.  Four incoming freshmen will also help lay the groundwork for the future.

11. Mississippi State (14-16, 4-12)

Long-time assistant Vic Schaefer (Texas A&M, Arkansas) is the new leader in Starkville after well-loved coach Shanon Fanning-Otis retired after 17 years at the helm. Schaefer inherits two starters and a handful of upper classmen who will need to learn the new system quickly in order to give the Bulldogs a chance to climb out of the bottom half of this very tough conference.

The big question is who will put points on the board? The team was dead last in the conference in scoring offense (56.8 ppg) and was just eighth in scoring defense (64.3 pg) -- a combination that doesn’t add up to wins.  Returning starters Martha Alwal and Kendra Grant combined for 12.7 points per game last season but the other seven returning letterwinners delivered just 8.3 points per game. Schaefer will need to find several players who are capable of scoring in double digits on a regular basis. The bright spot is the 6-4 Alwal, a defensive beast who led the SEC in blocks with 82 last season, earning her a spot on the SEC all-Freshman team.

12. Missouri (13-18, N/A)

Missouri is the other newcomer to the conference, arriving with Texas A&M from the Big 12 -- but the Tigers don't pack the same punch. Not only are they new to the SEC, they have a lot of new faces on the team with seven freshmen on the roster. 

Head coach Robin Pingeton hit the nail on the head about the team's youth: “I think they don’t know what they don’t know. I think that can definitely be a positive, and I also think it allows us as a staff to mold and help them grow and mentor them over the next several years.”

Pingeton returns three solid starters from last year in Morgan Eye (8.1 ppg, 1.5 apg), Liene Pride (6.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Kyley Simmons (4.7 ppg, 3.8 apg). Simmons started all 34 games last season at the point and was named to the Big 12 all-Freshman team after dishing out 111 assists and shooting 41 percent from the field. However, she’ll need to be an even bigger scoring threat and a true floor general if the Tigers hope to do better than their 2-16 Big 12 conference record.

13. Alabama (12-19, 2-14)

Wendell Hudson enters his fifth year as the coach of the Crimson Tide, and you have to imagine he is on the hot seat. After all, even for a school that doesn't always appear to take women's basketball that seriously, a   12-50 conference record in the last four seasons is simply not getting the job done.

The good news is the Tide return four starters and will get McDonald's All-American Kanisha Horn back in the lineup after she was forced to sit out last season recovering from ACL surgery. As a freshman, Horn averaged 8.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, earning SEC all-Freshmen team honors. 

Junior guard Jasmine Robinson (11.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg) led the team in scoring, followed by senior Meghan Perkins (9.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.5 apg). Also added to the mix is Daisha Simmons, a transfer from Rutgers, who should help the defense, which simply must improve. The Tide were were dead last in scoring defense, giving up 64 points a game.

14. Ole Miss (12-18, 2-14)

Everything imploded for the Bulldogs when new coach Adrian Wiggins and two assistants were fired for academic and recruiting misconduct just before the season started. The school has implemented a self-imposed postseason ban for the 2012-13 season and has named Brett Frank, formerly an assistant under Wiggins, as the interim coach.

Frank will attempt to make the best of the situation with just 11 players on the roster (two junior college transfers were found ineligible). Thankfully he has starting point guard Valencia McFarland back, who led the Bulldogs with 13.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game and had six 20-point games. She will need to be a leader on and off the floor if this team has any hope of responding to the adversity.