November 4, 2021 

2021-22 SEC preview

No shortage of storylines or drama ahead in the SEC

Three first-year head coaches. A surprising Hall of Fame addition. A sad exit, a farewell tour, and the return of the dean of them all. The SEC, everybody!

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These are just a few of the storylines from the always-intriguing, never-a-dull moment Southeastern Conference. With open practices in full effect, pre-season games around the corner, and the first tip of the basket not far behind, here’s a sneak preview of what to expect from the conference that never fails to excite.

South Carolina Gamecocks: Know Your Worth

Dawn Staley and her Gamecocks are the crème de le crème of not just the SEC, but arguably of women’s college basketball.

They know their value. They know their worth. And frankly, they are ready to cut down another net as champions. To that end, they enter the season with a focused mindset and a theme  — “Net Worth”.

Every role is not the same, but every person has a “Net Worth” — an added value necessary for the team to achieve its goals.

And the goal is nothing short of a championship.

The Gamecocks’ unfinished business from last season remains as such after losing to Stanford by one point, 66-65, in the first game of the 2021 Final Four. They finished in second place with a 26-5 record (14-2 in SEC).

Staley, widely considered the dean of SEC coaches, is fresh off of winning Olympic gold as coach of the USA National Women’s Team followed by signing a huge contract that will keep her at the helm of Gamecocks through 2028. She enters her 14th season with high expectations awaiting a team that returns all 11 players from the Final Four and SEC Tournament champion team, and adds the nation’s top recruiting class as well as the reigning ACC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year, Kamilla Cardoso, a transfer from Syracuse who will likely make a huge immediate impact on this team.

“I’m super happy Kamilla is here. She’s a force on both side of ball,” Staley said. “She can execute fairly quickly, allowing our players like Aliyah (Boston) to play against someone that big and that long; no one else in the country has that luxury. She’s a communicator, she is not intimated and we want her to score the ball for us.”

After a Final Four run ended with a missed layup and heartache last season, expectations are high for the Gamecocks to run it back, and then some. They are already the pre-season pick for SEC champs and have earned the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press Preseason Poll for the second year in a row.

Ole Miss Rebels: We’ve Only Just Begun

The Ole Miss Rebels gained a ton of confidence last year after a surprising, late-season run landed them in WNIT conference, the best postseason run in program history. They finished the WNIT conference as runners-up. Not bad for one of the nation’s youngest rosters that finished the season 15-12 (4-10 in SEC play).

And they’re hoping that last season’s success is a preview of things to come.

Head Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin begins her fourth year with the main core of her roster back and a vision of “stability” for her talented squad.

“We’re deep in a lot of positions. We have a lot of experience. I couldn’t tell you who our starting five would be today,” McPhee-McCuin told media recently before an open practice session. “They’re competing really hard. We’re excited. We’re grateful that we have 10 TV games. We have high expectations. We’ll be ready to compete. We’re excited to have fans pack the Pavilion and be able to play a high-level brand of basketball. This year is going to show that we’re going to be around for a long time.”

The Rebels’ returning roster include Honorable Mention All-America and First-Team All SEC Shakira Austin, SEC Freshman of the Year Madison Scott and SEC All-Freshman member, Snudda Collins, as well other returners and several newcomers.

“We started off really strong. We had a good offseason coming off the year before,” Austin said. “I think I can speak for the whole team that we are not satisfied. We have way more now to unleash for the conference. It started with the summer. Our mentality is to put in the work. This year, the sky is the limit. Everyone has a better mindset this year. We can definitely win a lot of games. We’re just hoping to get it started the right way.”

Kentucky Wildcats: #CommitToIt

The first time was the charm for Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy. In her first season at the helm of the Wildcats, she led the team to a top 20 listing in the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/Coaches Top 25 all season long. She also became the first Kentucky women’s basketball head coach to lead her team to the NCAA Tournament in their first season at the helm.

Elzy, whose Wildcats finished 5th in the conference with an 18-9 record (9-6 in SEC) was named the espnW National Coach of the Week and her squad won the first-ever United States Basketball Writers Association team of the week. The Wildcats were one of 10 teams in the nation to have four wins against top-25 NCAA NET teams entering the tournament.

The Wildcats enter the ’21-’22 season with the theme: Commit to It. They bring back a good bit of their strong roster from last season including the much-talked about consensus first-team All-America honoree Rhyne Howard. Howard, who averaged 20.7 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game and a team-best 91 assists last season, is widely expected to be the top pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Kentucky’s third and fourth-leading scorers also return in Dre’una Edwards and Robyn Benton. Per team stats, in all, Kentucky returns 70 percent of its scoring, 3-pointers made and assists, while it brings back 64 percent of its rebounding and 60 percent of its steals.

Unfortunately the team’s fifth leading scorer, senior guard Blair Green, ruptured her Achilles during UK’s closed scrimmage vs. EKU on Saturday and will miss the 2021-22 season. Elzy said Green is recovering from successful surgery on Tuesday and that Green will continue to be involved with the team this season.

“Her leadership off the court will still have an impact on our team this season,” Elzy said. “We will be here to support her through this and make sure she comes out better on the other side. I ask that Big Blue Nation fills her and her family with love and support right now.”

Regarding the team, during media day Elzy spoke on what she hopes to see from her team this year.

“I want to play faster than we played last year. So up tempo, I think what makes this team very unique and special is our versatility. We play position-less basketball, we play fast,” she said. “And then we talked about all summer that our defensive intensity must be there. It travels. So no matter where we go, our heart and intensity on defense and rebounding should travel with us at all times.

“And we must play a disruptive style of basketball,” Elzy continued. “We are undersized, but we can press and run and be disruptive, which is a fun brand of basketball, hustle plays. That’s something that we are talking about constantly in practice.”

The team also participated in a team bonding exercise at the end of a team meeting where they had to give up their phone — for a full 24 hours.

“So at the end of the meeting, I told them, that everyone, including the staff, we’re going to drop our cell phones in a bag. You would have thought I was talking a foreign language that they had to give up their cell phones for 24 hours,” Elzy said. “But it was the best thing because it really forced us to communicate and bond and be able to problem solve. And so that was one of the biggest things that we didn’t do down the stretch last year that we will be better this.”

With a strong returning roster, great momentum and a desire to commit to winning, this could be the season the Wildcats see it all come together.

Alabama: Let’s Do It Again

Coming into this season, Alabama is hungry for a more of what they tasted last season. Head coach Kristy Curry and her Crimson Tide rolled right into the NCAA Women’s Tournament for the first time since 1999, earning an at-large bid in the tournament as a No. 7 seed.

Unfortunately, their season would come to an end in the second round where they fell 100-64 against Maryland. With that loss, they finished the season in sixth place with a 17-10 overall record (8-8 in SEC).

Although the results weren’t what they wanted, they got a taste of tournament play after a very long drought, and now, expectations abound that they can do it again – hopefully with different results.

This season, Alabama’s 14-person roster will include eight returners, including two senior starters in Megan Abrams and Hannah Barber, and welcomes six newcomers, including two freshmen and four transfers. It’s a pretty strong roster, though the Tide will surely feel the loss of key veterans Jasmine Walker, Ariyah Copeland, and Jordan Lewis.

Either way, as she builds off the momentum of last season and begins building toward the future, Curry enters her ninth season with a hunger for more of what she and the Tide tasted last season. That hunger may be just enough to propel them even further. They certainly hope so.

“We’re really excited to build off last season, to advance to the round of 32 and take a huge step forward,” Curry said. “I’m just really excited about the momentum we have headed into the year. I think we have one of the best team chemistries with this group of kids.”

Tennessee: Elite again

Their top scorer and rebounder – Rennia Davis – is gone, but the Lady Vols of Tennessee are still a team that many see hovering at or near the top of the SEC rankings this season, much like they did last season under second-year coach Kellie Harper.

In fact, the Lady Vols have already been picked at No. 19 in the Lindy’s Sports Preseason Top 25 before a whistle had been blown or a basketball dropped. That’s based, in large part, on last season when they finished in third-place in the SEC finish and advanced to the NCAA Second Round.

“Our team has practiced really hard. We have great chemistry and really play for each other,” Harper said during media day. “I think we are really progressing and moving in the right direction. I think we are probably a little further along defensively at this point than we were last year.

“We still have a lot of work to do on both ends of the court, but the prospects of this year are really exciting and the style of play that I think we can put on the court. I’m really looking forward to getting going.”

Tennessee return six players from the starting lineup including star guard Rae Burrell,  and welcome a graduate transfer — Alexus Dye — who was Sun Belt conference player of the year at Troy. She led the NCAA in double-doubles (23) and total rebounds (352).

Probably the biggest news out of Tennessee is Marta Suarez, who had an outstanding freshman year, but will miss her entire sophomore season with a foot injury.

“She will not be playing this year. It’s unfortunate for her, unfortunate for our team because I think she brings great talent, size and competitiveness to the court,” Harper said. “We will be there to support her throughout her rehab, and we look forward to getting her on the court in the future.”

All told, Tennessee has nine total letterwinners returning and welcomes five newcomers for a total of 14 players who are determined to help the legendary program rise once again.

Texas A&M: A legend retires

The Lady Aggies of Texas A&M were looking for a storybook ending to last season. Ten years after winning their only NCAA title, they were on the verge of history once again, but were stopped short in the Sweet 16 by the University of Arizona, defeating A&M 74-59.

But never fear, the reigning Southeastern Conference regular season champion(their first such honor), who finished the season 25-3 (13-1 in SEC), are back with a plan and a goal to finish out what they started.

And that goal will now be accomplished during an unexpected farewell tour as long-time coach Gary Blair announced last week that this – his 19th season – will be his last.

“I always evaluate myself on: Am I giving everything I have, is my health good and am I still able to make an impact on young lives? I am fortunate that my health is still great, and I believe that I can still make an impact on our student-athletes and that I can give all my effort every single day,” Blair said.

“However, I know that it is time for this to be my final season. Although I am excited to begin a new chapter in my life, I am even more excited to compete this year. We are the defending SEC Champions and have the toughest conference schedule in the league this year. I don’t want the fans to come out to send me off. I want the 12th Man to come out and support our players and this program. They have worked extremely hard this offseason and they deserve all the love we can give them. Thank you 12th Man, I can’t wait to see you at Reed Arena this year.”

A&M returns eight players from last year’s SEC championship winning squad, including two starters.

The biggest news out of College Station is the return of senior Kayla Wells, a 6′ guard who averaged 11.5 points per game last season. She will team up with sophomore point guard Jordan Nixon to give A&M a pair of key returning starters from a team that was ranked fourth in the final Associated Press regular-season poll.

“I want to thank everyone for their support in this decision. After talking to my family, teammates, coaches and God I believe it will be best for me to stay and finish what has been started at A&M,” Wells said earlier this summer.

Let’s see if she and the always talented Lady Aggies roster can do just that while saying good-bye to their Hall of Fame and beloved coach.

Mississippi State: Unexpected news

In a surprising and sad move, Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson stepped down last month after only one season to focus on health issues.

The Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer said in a news release that she “has been faced again with unspecified health concerns she had hoped were behind her.” She chose to step away to devote her time and energy to addressing her health but added she looked forward to returning to coaching when she is able.

Then interim head coach Doug Novak announced this week that Mississippi State women’s basketball forward Jessika Carter is still with the program but is “taking some time away” from the team as she works through “some personal matters.”

Carter was arrested last month on an assault charge after an Aug. 28 incident in which the 6’5 forward allegedly struck another woman in the face.

The Bulldogs now face the season without their head coach, a slew of familiar faces, and one of their better players. Carter, a senior, averaged 14.3 points with a team-high 8.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks last season. She started every game and was a top-10 finalist for the Katrina McClain Award, which is given to the best power forward in the country.

Last year the Bulldogs were 10-9 (5-7 in SEC) and finished eighth in the conference. They lost many of their top players via the transfer portal. One player to watch that could make an immediate impact is Jasmine Shavers, the four-star high school guard out of Mesquite, Texas who is rated the fourth best player in Texas and the 60th-best player in the nation in the Class of 2021 by ESPN’s HoopGurlz.

Novak – who was previously associate head coach – knows this season will be an uphill battle but he’s still determined to fulfill the goal of adding value.

“I came here to add value as an assistant coach and to help Nikki, and that’s what I thought I signed up for,” he said during the Bulldogs’ media day. “However, things changed pretty quickly. And so, our goal is still the same, or my goal is still the same: to add value. Now it’s just from a different position, a different seat.”

He will have to rely upon returners Rickea Jackson, Anastasia Hayes, newcomer Shavers and others to help a young team who just lost their coach, their best teammate, and are still looking for their identity. Let’s see if they can weather the storm and pull it together.

Vanderbilt: Starting from scratch

Vanderbilt is coming off of a precarious season in which – in an unprecedented move driven by players – it discontinued its season due to a roster hit hard by the pandemic and player-opt outs. Adding insult to injury, a sudden mass exodus ensued when several players – among them Koi Love, Chelsie Hall and Autumn Newby – transferred.

This led to the eventual firing of head coach Stephanie White. The school then hired seven-time national champion as a player and coach, Shea Ralph, as the school’s sixth head coach in women’s basketball history. Ralph took over after spending the previous 13 seasons as an assistant coach at Connecticut under Geno Auriemma from 2008 to 2021.

It’s safe to say, Ralph will have quite a bit of work to do this season.

“The challenge is that the idea that I have for this team is not something that I can be so stuck in. Everyday we’re finding a way to put our team in a position of success both on offense and defense,” Ralph said during media day. “Some of that looks like what I thought it would, some of it doesn’t. It’s important for me to be flexible and to know my players well enough to bring out the best in them.”

With any luck, she’ll bring out their best and the Commodores can pick up the pieces and turn things around after finishing at the bottom (14th) last season.

Georgia Bulldogs: Barking up the right tree

Led by the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in Joni Taylor, the Georgia Bulldogs are looking to capitalize on a successful season. Last year, they finished runner-up in the SEC tournament and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tourney.

Taylor, entering her seventh season, welcomes back 12 letterwinners, three starters and the top two scorers in Jenna Staiti, Que Morrison, along with Mikayla Coombs, Malury Bates and 2021 SEC All-Freshman Sara Ashlee Barker. Georgia also adds a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans with incoming freshmen Reigan Richardson and Jillian Hollingshead. Joining them are highly ranked signees Kimora Jenkins and Alina Sendar.

The team will benefit from the leadership of Morrison, who spoke about her decision to return this season during media day.

“I always had it in the back of my head when I was presented the opportunity.  I wasn’t focused on it because I had a season to finish and that was all I really cared about,” she said. “Once the season did finish, I kept the window open between coming back and entering the draft when honestly, I always knew I was coming back.”

She said she wants to see the team “farther than where we went. Last year is over and I have to look forward to what is in front of me. I see a bright future for this group of girls and I just want to go further and go harder.”

Look for the Bulldogs, who finished 4th last season with a 21-7 record (10-5) in SEC, to do a lot more barking – and a maybe a little biting – as they head into the 21-22 season.

Auburn Tigers: Rebuilding mode activated

Although they retained many of their players before hiring new head coach Johnnie Harris in April, the Auburn Tigers look to be in rebuild mode as they ’21-’22 season begins.

Harris enters her first season with the Tigers after more than a decade as an assistant coach at winning programs like Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Texas. Returning are players including Honesty Scott-Grayson, Annie Hughes, and Aicha Coulibaly.

Unfortunately, sophomore Romi Levy will miss the 2021-22 season after suffering a tear of her anterior cruciate ligament this week. Levy, a 6-2 forward from Herzliya, Israel, was an SEC All-Freshman Team selection in 2021 after averaging 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds. She played in 23 of 24 games last year, earning 14 starts.

It’s going to be an uphill battle for Auburn as they look to be in rebuild mode. Harris is used to winning and perhaps she can bring her magic to Auburn – a team that finished 13 last season (5-19 overall) and 0-15 in SEC.

There’s nowhere else to go but up for a team that is a “work in progress,” Harris said during media days.

“We are working at getting a little bit better every day. We are nowhere near where we need to be. Everything is new for all of them. Most of them played all zone (defense),” Harris said. “We play all (man) defense. It has been different for them.

“I will say they have embraced what we are doing,” she said. “It is hard to play the way we play–you have to want to play that way.”

Hopefully the players will continue that “want to” attitude and help get this program officially pointed in the right direction.

LSU: New kid on the block

The SEC landed one of the biggest coaching hires since, well, Dawn Staley, when Hall of Famer and veteran basketball coach Kim Mulkey left Baylor University in the spring to join the Lady Tigers. LSU, who finished 7th in the SEC with a 8-13 record (6-8 in SEC) will look to take advantage of the basketball power that follows Mulkey.

The team features nine players back from last year’s squad and six first-year players. Guard Khayla Pointer returns as a team leader who was named All-SEC and to the SEC All-Defensive Team. Joining Mulkey at LSU is former Baylor player Hannah Guster, who had six double-figure scoring games as a freshman under Mulkey.

The Tigers also signed Amani Bartlett, who had a 93-scout grade from ESPN HoopGurls, and grad transfer Autumn Newby, who came over from Vanderbilt.

“Certainly I’m a realist. Do you think that just me coming here, I’m going to wave this magic wand and we’re going to win all these games? It’s not going to happen,” Mulkey said during media days. “But I know what I’m going to look for on that floor and I know every day it’s going to be better and better in some capacity.”

Expectations are high for LSU with Mulkey at the helm. It will be fun to watch them meet or exceed those expectations.

Arkansas Razorbacks: On the rise

Razorbacks Head Coach Mike Neighbors comes into the 2021-22 season secure in the knowledge that he has time to continue building up the program he is so closely associated with. Neighbors, entering his fifth season, signed a new agreement with Arkansas to lead the program through the 2028 season.

Under Neighbors, Arkansas’ program has elevated its profile nationally and they are rising in the SEC. Last season they finished 9-6 in the league, the first time in program history with back-to-back winning seasons since joining the SEC back in 1991. The team also beat powerhouses UConn and Baylor last season and landed the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2015.

“We’re ready to start. There’s a first day of school excitement about it. There’s a pep in our step,” Neighbors said. “We haven’t meshed everyone together. We are still trying different combinations to see who works well together.”

Despite the departure of players like Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum and former First-Team All-SEC player Alexis Tolefree, Arkansas now boasts a roster that has five former five-star players, headlined by former McDonald’s All-Americans Amber Ramirez, Sasha Goforth, Maryam Dauda and Jersey Wolfenbarger. He also has developed players like Makayla Daniels and Marquesha Davis, who will both be back for the 2021-22 season.

The sky’s the limit for the Arkansas Razorbacks and knowing that Neighbors will be around for the foreseeable future helps as they build their program one win at a time.

Missouri: Looking for some consistency

Entering her 12th season as head coach, Robin Pingeton and the Missouri Tigers are looking to gain some traction in the competitive SEC while nurturing players and building a program that can sustain itself.

The Tigers finished last season in 10th place with a 9-13 record (5-9 in SEC). Returning are players including Hayley Frank, Lauren Hansen, Aijha Blackwell, and Sara-Rose Smith. But it will take a lot more for them to truly make some noise in the SEC.

But don’t count them out, like a few of their SEC colleagues, there’s only one way to go and that’s up.

“To say we’re excited about this season is probably an understatement. I think we’ve all go a chip on our shoulder,” Pingeton said. “We feel like we have something to prove. Last year losing by one point per game was hard. It was frustrating. There were a lot of emotions but I am so proud of our players and the offseason that we had.”

The offseason included workouts and practices that started as early as April.

We hit the ground running in April and we came back June and July; those were great months. We got a lot of work done on and off the court as well,” she said. “We had lots of work to do with so many new faces.”

The team’s focus is defense after finishing 10th in scoring defense last season. “This is an area we’ve had to hone in on. A lot of that comes down to our heart posture; it’s about grittiness, toughness and covering for each other. I’ve seen so much growth but we haven’t arrived yet.”

Maybe not, but they’re on their way.

Florida Gators: Surviving a scandal

The Gators start the season with questions still surrounding its former Coach Cam Newbauer, who resigned this summer after allegations of abuse were levied about by former and current players. The abuse allegedly included throwing balls at players and making discriminatory remarks.

He was replaced by his assistant of four years, Kelly Rae Finley, who now serves as the interim coach. She addressed questions about whether she knew what was happening this during media day last week.

“I don’t believe I would be here if that were the case,” she said.

Junior guard Lavender Briggs — the Gators’ leading scorer last year (19.5 ppg) was also present during the call, saying, “There’s a bunch of false allegations and narratives going around. We’re not really focused on anything but the people who are fighting for each other. We have each other’s back and that’s all that matters.”

I don’t think if she let any of us down we would be here,” Briggs continued. “I had the opportunity to leave, and I chose to stay because we see something in Kelly that is beautiful, and she’s strong and hardworking, and we love her as a coach and even more as a person. And she didn’t let anybody down, and she’s here to help us become the best we can be as a team and off the court as well.”

Hopefully the team can put this behind them and focus on building something new.

The Gators went 12-14 last season (3-11 SEC) for their fifth consecutive non-winning season and the fourth losing record during that time. Fifth year senior guard Kiara Smith and Briggs should bring some much needed veteran leadership and stability to the team.

Briggs is healthy after she suffered a season-ending injury (broken-foot) in February with 8 games left in the season. The Gators lost six of those eight. Smith averaged 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists last season and both earned second-team All-SEC honors.

The Gators also return three other starters including Jordyn Merritt, a 6’3 All-Freshman forward and they also added Rutgers transfer Zippy Broughton, a lightning-quick guard.

Getting out from under the former coach scandal and focusing on the season ahead will likely be the biggest challenge the Gators face all season.

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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