November 13, 2020 

SEC women’s basketball preview

New faces, new challenges and new opportunities

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A handful of players with the same first name — including three on the same team — a plethora of transfers, a coach taking over unexpectedly and a team ready to resume unfinished business. This is the look of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) as the 2020-21 NCAAW season gets underway this month.

When the pandemic hit in March of this year, cutting short their season, the South Carolina Gamecocks were at the top and seemingly headed for a national championship, Mississippi State was hot on their heels and Ole Miss found itself at the bottom searching for traction.

But that was last year. With new faces, new teams and allegiances, opportunities for second and sometimes third chances, and more, the SEC — an always exciting conference — is back. Let’s look at what’s in store for the powerhouse conference that never disappoints.

Unfinished Business: South Carolina Gamecocks

The Dawn Staley-led Gamecocks “finished” last season ranked No. 1 with a 32-1 record, the nation’s longest win streak at 26 consecutive games and a direct line to an NCAA championship when the coronavirus hit.

The opportunity to claim that crown was stopped leaving the Gamecocks entering this season with unfinished business on their minds, ready to pick up where they left off. But they’ll do so without two of their key senior contributors — Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. “We’ll look different; losing two players like that — they leave a big hole. But the players we have fill them quite nicely for now,” said Staley, the 2020 Naismith Coach of the Year.

Most notably are Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, all starting freshmen last season who return with a solid year of experience under their belt. In particular, look for the forward Boston to continue her stellar play and possibly contend for National Player of the Year. She became the Gamecocks’ first National Freshman of the Year from ESPN, WBCA and USBWA after an outstanding freshman year that included setting the all-time record for offensive rebounds in an SEC game (10). The SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year also owns South Carolina’s record of most blocked shots (10) and second most rebounds (25) in a game.

“Aliyah is a highly driven and motivated young lady. She has definitely gotten better; her outside shot has improved, she’s spreading the floor more and adding a three point shot,” Staley said. “She’s pretty efficient. I don’t know that there is another player in college women’s basketball that can do things Aliyah does at her size.”

Ole Miss Rebels: A Fresh Start

When last season came to a halt due to the pandemic, the Ole Miss Rebels found themselves at the bottom of the SEC standings with a 7–23 overall record and a 0–16 record in conference play. They lost to Missouri in the first round of the SEC Tournament and did not see the postseason.

Then came the 2020 offseason and the addition of two high-caliber transfers ready to make an instant impact: junior Shakira Austin, who transferred to Ole Miss from Maryland, and Tiya Douglas, a three-point specialist sophomore from Trinity Valley Community College in Texas.

Austin broke Maryland’s single-season blocks record with 89 her freshman season. She was also on the 2019 All-Big Ten Freshman and Defensive Teams and 2020 All-Big Ten Second Team. Douglas broke the TVCC single-game record and tied the NJCAA record with 13 three-pointers in a 44-point performance in her freshman season.

Both are joining four freshmen that were ranked as ESPN’s No. 1 signing class in the SEC and No. 13 in the nation. Those highly-ranked freshmen include five-star prospects Jacorriah Bracey and Madison Scott, as well as Snudda Collins and Caitlin McGee.

Head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin begins her third season with Ole Miss and has assembled one of the SEC’s highest-profile signing classes.

“First of all, we’re way more athletic. We have more size, so when you walk into our practice, you know we don’t have a 5’4 guard playing the three. You know, we’re 6-foot, 6’1 at that position, and so that’s been great for me,” McPhee-McCuin said.

“This is the first year hoping that we stay healthy, that we’ll be able to see the fans, we’ll be able to see the type of basketball that we want to play, more aggressive, 94 feet up-tempo and you’ll be able to see that,” she said. “You’re going to see a team that’s young, but a team that is extremely tough. That’s one thing we’ll focus on all preseason, is trying to get them to a mental place where they can compete night-in and night-out in the SEC.”

Kentucky Wildcats: A New Era

All eyes will be on a Wildcat squad that — despite losing five seniors — returns a majority of their team, including 2020 SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard. Howard earned preseason first-team All-America honors by Lindy’s Sports. The 6’2 guard averaged 23.4 points per game for the 22-8 Wildcats, the second-best average in the nation. She also earned SEC all-defensive honors.

The Wildcats — who finished last season in fourth place at 22-8 — will return their top two and five of their top seven scorers from last season while also bringing back its top two rebounders. The Wildcats will also add 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Dre’una Edwards and a talented group of newcomers to the roster this season as they ready themselves for a real run at the title.

But the team also heads into a new era, after longtime head coach Matthew Mitchell was forced to retire due to health reasons. “After much conversation with my family and Mr. Barnhart, I have decided to retire from coaching and effectively have resigned as head coach at Kentucky,” Mitchell said. “This was a difficult decision and I know the timing is not ideal, but I do not feel I can give the job what it requires at this time.”

UK director of athletics Mitch Barnhart has named associate head coach Kyra Elzy as interim head coach, effective immediately.

Prior to his resignation, Mitchell said the Wildcats have added athleticism not only at the post but at the wing — and not just with newcomers, but with some of their returners. “It’s been incredible to me to see the progress they have made in these challenging times,” Mitchell said.

“I really like how we look in some half-court zone that is very aggressive. We are bigger and longer and take up a lot of space and I think we can be a really disruptive zone defense team this year in the half court. So a lot of excitement around that end of the court defensively. I think we have a lot of options where we can really put a lot of pressure on the opponents.”

Moving on Up: Florida Gators

The Gators ended last season at 10th place in the SEC with a 15-15 overall record (6-10 in conference play), good for its best record in four years. They look to keep moving up.

The team returns four starters and seven players overall while welcoming six newcomers, including the addition of graduate transfer Cydnee Kinslow, a 6’2 forward who joins the Gators after spending her last two seasons at Long Beach State University.

Kinslow is the third transfer and second graduate transfer to join the Florida program this offseason. The others are Emily Sullivan, a forward from North Carolina, and Yasmeen Chang, who spent her first year at the University of Miami. Chang will sit out the 2020-21 season, but both Kinslow and Sullivan are eligible to compete.

A key leader on this year’s team is senior guard Kiara Smith.

“She’s one of those players that can be a facilitator and can be a scorer and what we need in the moment,” said head coach Cam Newbauer. “She’s far surpassed anything I thought she would be when we recruited her. The level she competes at with her energy and taking on a different leadership role has been neat to see.”

Newbauer said the team is ready to show how tough and competitive they can be. “We’ve got people who are more hungry, younger players who are talented. We’ll play faster, play different, more attacking than what we’ve been in the past,” he said. “We have a good amount of shooters who can shoot the ball. We are tailoring some things to better suit some of our players, working on spacing and being more aggressive.”

Georgia Bulldogs: Continuing the Momentum

The Lady Bulldogs are looking to build off of last year’s strong finish when the team won five of its final seven games and finished with a 17-14 record. Georgia also enters the season needing just three wins to reach the 1,000-victory mark in program history. The Lady Bulldogs would join Tennessee as the lone SEC programs to reach that milestone.

On the court they return four starters and 10 players off of last season’s squad, close to 90 percent of their scoring and rebounding. The Bulldogs also welcome three eligible newcomers: freshman guard Sarah Ashlee Barker, freshman forward Zoesha Smith and redshirt junior Mikayla Coombs, who transferred from UConn in May 2019 and sat out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Head coach Joni Taylor, entering her sixth year, said her team’s call to action this season is to show up.

From a basketball standpoint we need to show up better, stronger and faster. As competitors, we have been stuck on that theme the last few years,” she said. “Two years ago, we were the youngest team in the SEC and one of the youngest teams in the country, those ladies are all seniors now. We’re returning heavy leadership, heavy experience, and it’s time for us to show up.”

Seeking More Versatility: Aggies of Texas A&M

Last season point guard Chennedy Carter was the No. 1 option offensively for the Texas A&M Aggies. This year the team has more depth — especially at the guard position — and they’ll look for a little more versatility in their offense. Helping with that versatility will be transfers Zaay Green out of Tennessee and Destiny Pitts from Minnesota.

“It’s a lot more versatile just because we have so many players who can go off on any night,” said senior guard Kayla Wells. “All the players coming in can score and create their own shots. Zaay Green, Destiny Pitts and Jordan Nixon — all of those guards are very creative in the way they create space and get their shots off. It’s not going to be a one-man show. It will just depend upon whose night it is. We have the best shooting team.”

One of those shooters is 5’10 guard Pitts, who transferred from Minnesota last spring. Pitts — who spent her first three seasons at Minnesota — also earned All-Big Ten honors in addition to being named the consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2017-18. She fills an immediate need for the Aggies after Carter’s entry into the WNBA.

The Aggies will also have the services of former Notre Dame guard Jordan Nixon this season as they look to replace Carter. Nixon sat out last season as a transfer. The Aggies will also add another transfer, Alexis Morris from Rutgers.

This season the team boasts depth and the ability to score, said long-time head coach Gary Blair. “We have tremendous depth at the 2 and 3 position; proven veterans that can get out there. We haven’t had as many 2s and 3s that can go,” Blair said. “My M.O. is going to be execution, sharing, not just of basketball but of playing time and availability.”

A New Direction: Alabama Crimson Tide

The Crimson Tide are coming off its best season under head coach Kristy Curry, who is in her eighth season, finishing 8-8 in conference play and 18-12 on the season. The eight conference wins are the most since 1998. Alabama also defeated top-15 opponents in back-to-back games for the first time in program history with wins over No. 9 Mississippi State (66-64) and No. 12 Texas A&M (76-63), and swept the series against in-state rival Auburn for the first time since 2002.

Alabama returns four of its five starters including Megan Abrams, Ariyah Copeland, Jordan Lewis and Jasmine Walker. They’ll see five newcomers: Alana Busby-Dunphy, Myra Gordon, Keyara Jones, Ruth Koang and Taylor Sutton. Both Koang and Sutton are out for the 2020-21 season as Koang sustained an ACL tear and Sutton, the 2019 Conference USA Freshman of the Year, will sit after transferring from Middle Tennessee.

“We are (a) very competitive (team),” said Walker. “I feel like everybody can score the ball and everybody wants to win. Being that everybody wants to win, practice is competitive and hard.”

Said Curry: “I’m really proud of everyone in our program, especially our team. I love this group. We’re excited about our leadership, which starts with Jordan Lewis at the point guard and Jasmine Walker at the forward spot. The experience, toughness, grit, gratitude … they’re all about it. We’re returning four starters with a lot of experience, and with those two leading the way, we’re really confident about the direction our team is headed in this season.”

Roster Rebuild: Arkansas Razorbacks

University of Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors — in only his fourth season at the helm — looked at his roster this offseason and knew it was time for a rebuild.

“We had a very depleted roster. The first meeting that I walked into had five returners in it, so we knew we were going to have to build,” Neighbors said. “We actually had two go into the transfer portal this year, which was the first time we ever really dealt with that,” he said.

Last season the Razorbacks were ranked among the top five in the country in scoring offense, averaging more than 80 points a game. When the pandemic hit, they sat in third place at 24-8 and were likely headed for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2015.

The four returning starters: three seniors — Chelsea Dungee, Amber Ramirez and Taylah Thomas — and sophomore Makayla Daniels started every game a year ago. Ramirez set a school record with 106 three-pointers made, which ranked second in the NCAA, while Dungee earned All-SEC honors for the second consecutive season after averaging a team-high 16.9 points per game. Dungee and Ramirez led the team in minutes last year, and they were in the top three in points scored.

The Razorbacks lost first-team All-SEC performer Alexis Tolefree to graduation, but gained graduate transfer Destiny Slocum and the return of senior Jailyn Mason, who redshirted last year because of a foot injury. Slocum, a 5’7 senior guard, was a two-time All-Pac-12 selection at Oregon State, and she led her team to the Sweet 16 in 2019. Mason started 97 of 98 games in her first three seasons for Arkansas.

Neighbors believes this season his team will be defensively around the basket, faster and with the help of veterans — an even more efficient offense. “That is something that everyone of these kids are back in tremendous condition; familiarity, the pace, you will see a faster and more in control team,” he said. “We’ve been able to move at a fast pace offensively because we do have these returners and they’ve been great teachers.”

Looking Up: Missouri Tigers

After a 9-22 season, 5-11 in conference play, University of Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton is ready to turn the page on a tough season and look forward to what’s in store for the Tigers.

“I think we all know we had a pretty tough season last year but in the big picture, I said before, I’m really thankful for it. Diamonds are formed in the fire,” she said. “We had a lot of adversity we met it face on.”

The Tigers were led in scoring and minutes by freshman Aijha Blackwell, who averaged 15 points per game. She was joined in the backcourt by fellow freshman Hayley Frank, who averaged 11.8 points and 38 percent shooting.

But the dynamic duo weren’t enough to get the team over the hump. Pingeton hopes the addition of transfers Ladazhia Williams (South Carolina), Shannon Dufficy (Utah State), and Renetha Dickson (Tulsa) will make a difference. In addition to those players, two international players in Mama Dembele and Sara-Rose Smith have joined the roster.

These additions will hopefully address the Tigers’ biggest weaknesses last year; ball handling and post help.

“We’ve got a lot of talent this year, it’s just a matter of putting it all together and taking it one day at a time.”

Communication and Consistency: Tennessee Lady Volunteers

The Tennessee Vols finished last season in sixth place at 21-10, third in the SEC at 10-6 — their highest since winning the regular-season championship in 2014. They look to continue improving in many areas including communication which was often lacking last season.

“Our communication has been better, but we’re still working on it, we’re still a work in progress and will continue to improve in that area,” said head coach Kellie Harper. In addition to communication, Harper is looking for consistent scoring from the low post position. “We’re definitely capable. I think the consistency was lacking last year. We would have a game where we’d really score underneath and then maybe have a couple games where we didn’t. We’re talented enough, and I think we’ve got the personnel to do it,” she said.

“I think, for us, for our offense to be as good as it can possibly be, we need great balance with not just interior scoring, but scoring in the paint, off the dribble, scoring behind the 3-point line, scoring in transition, scoring at the free-throw line. We want to be able to put points on the board in a variety of ways; obviously, low-post work will be part of that.”

The Lady Vols return five of their top six scorers and rebounders from 2019-20, including the top four in each category. Returning starters from last season’s end include 6’2 senior guard/forward Rennia Davis, 6’1 junior guard/forward Rae Burrell and 6’5 sophomore center Tamari Key. Sophomore point guard Jordan Horston also returns.

Five new players, including a graduate transfer point guard, graduate transfer forward/center, two freshman guard/forwards and a freshman guard will also join the team this year.

The Vols will focus more on offense heading into the season, Harper said, and much of that is by design. “At any point we could lose practices due to COVID, and so what we’ve tried to do is front-load and put in as much of the teaching aspects early, so that at any point we’re still going to be in pretty good shape in terms of what we can do. For us, we felt like the defense would be one of those things that we could pick up late if we needed to.”

Growth and Recovery: Vanderbilt Commodores

The Commodores won seven games in 2018-19. Last season they improved to 14-16. They are looking to continue the positive growth trend upward as they begin the 2020-21 season.

Head coach Stephanie White will welcome back a number of veteran players including senior guard Chelsie Hall who led the team in free throw percentage, assists and minutes and was ranked eighth in SEC in assists and assists per game at 3.9.

Also returning is sophomore forward Koi Love, who earned 2020 All-SEC Freshman honors, and players Jordyn Cambridge, Brinae Alexander, Yaubryon Chambers, Demi Washington, Kyndall Golden, Kiara Pearl and Kaylon Smith. In addition, graduate transfer Enna Pehadzic joined the program from South Florida.

White is also looking for a boost from newcomers point guard Bella Chance and 6’6 center Emily Bowman.

“Bella is a true point guard, vocal, gets them in right position, makes plays for others. and will give you solid minutes,” White said. “She’s a worker, a hype man who has a toughness about her. Emily is a 6’6 freshman. You can’t teach 6’6. Her length is a game changer and her ability to block shots and be an anchor for us in the paint on the defensive end of the floor will be great. I’m excited about what they are going to be able to give us.”

White is focusing on a new offensive attack this season that she hopes will allow the Commodores to be faster and employ multiple lineups.

Fresh New Faces: Auburn Tigers

The Auburn Tigers finished the season 11-18, 4-12 in SEC play and saw the exodus of several different players.

Its second-leading scorer, Daisa Alexander, graduated, while the third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-leading scorers all entered the transfer portal. With the losses, Auburn went into the off-season with seven players on the roster: Unique Thompson, Annie Hughes, Kiyae’ White, Sania Wells, Morgan Robinson-Nwagwu, Jala Jordan and Honesty Scott-Grayson.

Head Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy signed six new players during the offseason which she hopes will get the team back on track and positive in the win category.

Six-foot guard Aissetou Coulibaly is an incoming freshman who will be eligible to play immediately. “Aissetou is the epitome of what we look for when we are recruiting to our identity which is talent, versatility, competitiveness, and unselfishness,” said Williams-Flournoy. “Equipped with a skill set that will allow her to, offensively, shoot from 3, attack the rim, and post smaller defenders while, defensively, being able to play multiple positions in our press, ‘AC’ has the potential to be one of the best two-way players to put on an Auburn uniform.”

Guard Alaina Rice is transferring from Florida A&M and will sit out the 2020-21 season per NCAA rules; she will have three seasons of eligibility beginning in 2021-22.

In addition to Coulibaly and Rice, the Tigers will welcome junior college transfers Alycia Reese, Keya Patton and Kira Lowery along with freshman Romi Levy.

Depth and Hunger for More: LSU Tigers

The LSU Tigers finished the 2019-20 season with a 20-10 record, 9-7 in conference play and the team, head coach Nikki Fargas said, is hungry to build on that success.

They’ll have the personnel to do it as the Tigers bring back seniors Khayla Pointer, Jailin Cherry and Faustine Aifuwa and sophomore guards Domonique Davis and Tiara Young.

“I like the fact that we have a returning nucleus. I know they are starving to play considering how the season had to end for so many student-athletes with not being able to participate in the NCAA tournament,” Fargas said. “Time is of the essence, they understand there is a sense of urgency.”

Fargas is also excited for the depth of the team which offers her a variety of options on the court.

“We have a very deep team this year. It’s exciting. I like the fact that we may be able to do some platoon subbing and bring in waves of players and really keep the tempo at a high pace,” she said.

“I like the fact that we’ve got some experience coming back as well as some newbies. The fact that we have players that can play multiple positions, that will allow us to look at different lineups and schemes. If we can get to 10 deep, that’s an ideal number for the season. It’s a number that allows you to press a lot, run the ball, get up and down the floor and wear down your opponents.”

“We will make our pace very up tempo and exciting to watch.”

Expectations Abound: Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs finished last season four games behind the top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks with a 27-6 overall record (13-3) in SEC play. This season, Lindy’s Sport Annuals magazine has ranked new head coach Nikki McCray-Penson’s Bulldogs as the No. 4 team in the country heading into the 2020-21 season.

The team returns several starters and contributors from last year’s squad including preseason third team All-American’s Jessika Carter and Rickea Jackson. According to the team, last season, Carter led the Bulldogs in rebounding (8.7 rpg), blocks (1.8 bpg), field goal percentage (.585) and double-doubles (11) and was second on the team in scoring (13.0 ppg). The junior forward ranked 13th in Division I in field goal percentage and significantly increased her scoring (+9.8 ppg) and rebounding (+5.6 rpg) during her sophomore year.

Jackson led the Bulldogs in scoring (15.1 ppg) and ranked third in rebounding (5.1 rpg). The three-time SEC Freshman of the Week honoree dominated during league play, ranking fifth among all players with 16.5 points per game and eighth in field goal percentage (.480). Jackson also accounted for 22 percent of Mississippi State’s scoring during the SEC games.

Defensive and discipline is what McCray-Penson is focused on this season. “We have to be disciplined in our bubble, in our bond and in our basketball. Those three things we have to continue to stay disciplined in,” she said.

“I’m a defensive-minded coach and getting them acclimated to defense is key,” she said. “We’ll see where we are but for us it’s tempo, pace of play. I want to dictate offensively and I definitely want to dictate how we play defensively.”

Written by Dorothy J. Gentry

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