October 26, 2022
2022-23 SEC preview
South Carolina leads the way, but conference as deep as ever
All eyes are on the SEC with a carousel of coaching changes, rising programs — and oh, right, the reigning national champions.
Like every conference, transfer madness has hit the SEC like a truck. The transfer portal is allowing player autonomy at a rate we’ve never seen before, and this season will prove which teams can survive the movement and the ones that won’t be able to adjust. Every team in the conference has a slew of players coming and going, with many high-profile transfers leaving the SEC, some joining, and others moving within the conference.
To begin, here is how the SEC’s preseason poll predicts the conference’s standings:
Predicted SEC standings
- South Carolina
- Mississippi State
- Texas A&M
The panel of media voters also predicted reigning National Player of the Year1 Aliyah Boston to repeat as SEC Player of the Year, and voted for preseason All-SEC teams as follows:
Preseason All-SEC First Team
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
Zia Cooke, South Carolina
Rickea Jackson, Tennessee
Jordan Horston, Tennessee
Tamari Key, Tennessee
Preseason All-SEC Second-Team
Brittany Davis, Alabama
Alexis Morris, LSU
Angel Reese, LSU
Jessika Carter, Mississippi State
Anastasia Hayes, Mississippi State
Hayley Frank, Missouri
But of the 14 teams playing in the ever-competitive SEC, how will each one fare?
2021-22 record: 20-14, loss in WNIT Final Four
- IN: Sarah Ashlee Barker (Georgia), Ryan Cobbins (North Dakota State), Aaliyah Nye (Illinois), JeAnna Cunningham (West Virginia)
- OUT: Ahriahna Grizzle
The thesis of Alabama’s preseason is that they’ve retained all five of their starters from last year. In a league that is rife with transfers, very few teams retained so much talent, which will set them apart. And the team is capitalizing on this fact. According to Crimson Tide head coach Kristy Curry, the team has put together book clubs and bonding off the court to make them more unified on the court.
But in addition to retaining their starters, the Tide also snagged Alabama native Sarah Ashlee Barker and a few other important transfers that bring much-needed depth to the squad. However, Alabama did not make the NCAA tournament last year, which is the obvious goal this season. In a tough conference, Curry is going to have to continue to unify her team enough to make an NCAA run.
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2021-22 record: 18-14, loss in first round of NCAA tournament
- IN: Saylor Poffenbarger (mid-season transfer from UConn, sat out last spring), Christianna Carr (Syracuse)
- OUT: Elauna Eaton, Destinee Oberg
This year, SEC media ranked Arkansas No. 4 in the conference, the highest the Razorbacks have been ranked since 1996, and definitely the highest they’ve been ranked since head coach Mike Neighbors joined the program five years ago.
“I wouldn’t put us there, but [the media] did,” Neighbors said about the ranking.
Neighbors also spoke about what this means for Arkansas’ legacy, and although last year’s March Madness showing was not as successful as it could’ve been, the Razorbacks seem to be putting the pieces together to fulfill that fourth-place ranking. The team will be led by senior guard Makayla Daniels and reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Samara Spencer, who came in first and second in the team’s scoring last year, respectively. Arkansas’ Achilles heel could be its lack of size, something that Neighbors cited as an increasing problem because limited bigs are being swiped by top programs.
The Razorbacks are at a pivotal year for continued growth. Retaining top talent is a privilege in this day and age, and so players like Spencer and Daniels stepping up into leadership roles, as well as a strong return from Erynn Barnum after last season’s injury, will be essential for the team’s success and to progress past the first round of March Madness — something they haven’t done in three years. In addition, one of their few newbies, Saylor Poffenbarger, who transferred from UConn and sat out last year, will be another guard presence and brings a high basketball IQ after being ranked the composite2 No. 14 recruit in the class of 2020.
2021-22 record: 10-18
- IN: Jakayla Johnson (JuCo)
- OUT: Adaora Onwumelu, Jala Jordan
Auburn begins this season with seven newcomers, and is expected to incorporate one more in December. It’s a young, new team with potential, although it may be difficult for the Tigers to reach new heights this year. However, the keys to their success are the team’s leading scorers, who both stayed in Auburn: Guard Aicha Coulibaly, who averaged 17.1 points last season, earning her a Second Team All-SEC nod; and guard Honesty Scott-Grayson, who averaged 13 points. Coulibaly said at SEC Media Day that the Auburn’s newcomers are extremely athletic and learning fast, which is essential for the growth of the program. And although the Tigers may not take home the chip this year, they seem to be on an upward trajectory. There’s high buy-in from players, exhibited by players like Coulibaly staying in Auburn, and the fact that this team has the ability to pull out some big surprises, like its win over Tennessee last year.
In addition, Auburn’s fan base seems to be growing, and with more consistent success could be a real asset for home competition.
2021-22 record: 21-11, loss in first round of NCAA tournament
- IN: Aliyah Matharu (Texas), KK Deans (West Virginia), Leilani Correa (St. John’s), Ra Shaya Kyle (Purdue)
- OUT: Lavender Briggs, Floor Toonders, Brynn Farrell
To me, there are three extremely promising teams in the SEC that are all on the precipice of something truly special: Georgia, LSU, and Florida. All three are closing in on different stages of success, but it’s clear in Gainesville, Fla. the Gators are on the verge of building something generational and extremely attractive to slews of potential local recruits. And the key to this is their head coach: Kelly Rae Finley.
On Feb. 28, then-interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley was named Florida’s permanent head coach, thrust into the former role after accusations of harassment and a toxic environment under the team’s previous head coach, Cam Newbauer. And Finley is clearly the person for the job: her players simply adore her, and she’s here to stay and build a strong program in a state with immense potential.
However, it’s no secret that the departure of last year’s second-leading scorer, Lavender Briggs, to Maryland is a huge blow to the growing team. In addition, leading scorer Kiara Smith entered the 2022 WNBA draft, and third-leading scorer Zippy Broughton is out for the season with an injury. That being said, Florida has brought on four transfers that fill some of the gaps.
“We don’t want two players who can do exactly the same two things. We don’t want two players who have exactly the same personality,” Finley said.
It seems that Florida has high buy-in, and despite difficult circumstances, did well making it to the NCAA tournament. And if the team continues to band together around Finley’s leadership, I think they have the opportunity to make it past the first round in March, but more importantly, begin to create a more robust program that the state desperately needs.
2021-22 record: 21-10, loss in second round of NCAA tournament
- IN: Audrey Warren (Texas), Diamond Battles (UCF), Brittney Smith (UCF), Alisha Lewis (UCF), De’Mauri Flournoy (Vanderbilt), Kari Niblack (West Virginia)
- OUT: Sarah Ashlee Barker, Jillian Hollingshead, Kimora Jenkins, Alina Sendar, Maori Davenport, Tineya Hylton, Reigan Richardson, 3 recruits
There’s something brewing in Athens, Ga., thanks to new head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. In a move that shocked many, longtime head coach Joni Taylor announced last March that she would be moving across the SEC to lead Texas A&M’s squad. This created a coaching domino effect that led Georgia alum Abrahamson-Henderson back to her alma mater after eight years at Central Florida. With her she’s brought a slew of players and commits from UCF.
The most prominent transfers are Diamond Battles, Brittney Smith, and Audrey Warren. In an ever-revolving transfer portal, losing and gaining to the portal is nothing to write home about. However, the fact that so many of Abrahamson-Henderson’s players were willing to follow her shows she’s a coach to be trusted and knows how to build up programs, as she did at UCF. Battles was ranked the eighth-biggest transfer by ESPN, averaged 13.9 points, 3.4 assists, and 2.1 steals last year, and will be a central part of the Bulldogs’ offense after they lost last year’s top five scorers.
It’s undeniable that Georgia has lost a lot of talent, with Jenna Staiti, Que Morrison, and Mikayla Coombs graduating and Sarah Ashlee Barker and Reigan Richardson transferring, but there’s serious potential for this team. The Bulldogs could have a seriously competitive season if they can overcome their sheer amount of transfer madness. And at SEC Media Day, that vibe was palpable. Battles and Georgia veteran Malury Bates both glowed about Abrahamson-Henderson — “Abe,” as they call her — and the “women’s empowerment” she leads with as a coach. Hiring Abrahamson-Henderson seems like the strongest decision the Bulldogs have made in a minute.
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2021-22 record: 19-12, loss in first round of NCAA tournament
- IN: Maddie Scherr (Oregon), Eniya Russel (South Carolina), Ajae Petty (LSU), Adebola Adeyeye (Buffalo)
- OUT: Dre’Una Edwards, Treasure Hunt, Jazmine Massengill, Olivia Owens, Jazmine Massengill
Like it seems for every team, Kentucky’s season comes in with plenty of turnover. The roster has 10 new players, with six freshmen and four transfers, to fill the exodus the team dealt with last year. The Wildcats lost Dre’Una Edwards, Treasure Hunt, and Jazmine Massengill all to the transfer portal, along with WNBA Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard. And as head coach Kyra Elzy said, “You don’t replace a once-in-a-lifetime type player,” Elzy adding that the only way to rebuild is “collectively.”
As I see it, the keys to Wildcat success are trifold. First is Jada Walker: she’s only a sophomore guard, but clocked in at third in scoring last season for Kentucky and brings vital confidence to the team, exhibited by her rocking the team’s SEC bling at media day. The second key is the return of Blair Green, who missed last season due to an injury, but adds a serious three-point threat.
“She’s been shooting the lights out and I’ve missed it so much,” Walker said of Green.
And the third key to success in Lexington, Ky. is making good use of transfers — particularly Maddie Scherr, who returns to Kentucky after being named Kentucky Miss Basketball in 2020, and will add to the offensive production the team lost. The Wildcats are definitely in rebuild mode, and in a conference as challenging as the SEC, no games will be handed to them. But as exhibited by their upset over South Carolina in the SEC championship last year, anything is possible, and the team has the opportunity to harness the fan momentum from the Howard era to become a deadly road trip on anyone’s schedule. But ultimately, it’s up to Kentucky and Elzy whether they want to be known as “Rhyne Howard’s alma mater that upset South Carolina for an SEC Championship,” or as a longevous program with much more significance.
2021-22 record: 26-6, upset loss in second round of NCAA tournament
- IN: Angel Reese (Maryland), LaDazhia Williams (Mizzou), Jasmine Carson (West Virginia), Kateri Poole (Ohio State), Last-Tear Poa (JuCo)
- OUT: Hannah Gusters, Grace Hall, Ajae Petty, Sarah Shematsi, Logyn McNeil
Despite some serious losses, Kim Mulkey and her team in Baton Rouge, La. seem to have positioned themselves in the best place they’ve been since Sylvia Fowles donned purple and gold. LSU has nine newcomers this season, after losing four out of its five leading scorers to graduation.
One of these newcomers is big Angel Reese, who surprisingly departed Maryland after two promising seasons. Reese, ranked as the No. 1 impact transfer by ESPN, is a force to be reckoned with in the paint, averaging 17.8 points last season. But what makes Reese a “beast,” in Mulkey’s words, is her prowess on both ends. In addition, key additions like Missouri transfer forward LaDazhia Williams and Jordan Brand Classic MVP freshman Flau’jae Johnson will be important to this new look.
Also key to the Tigers’ success is their sole returning starter, 2022 All-SEC Second Team member Alexis Morris. Morris, who was released from Mulkey’s team at Baylor in 2019, averaged 15.0 points and 4.0 rebounds last year. She is full of energy, seems to have shown growth through her five years playing collegiate hoops, and will need to work well with Mulkey to guide these nine newcomers if the Tigers want to see long-term success.
No team had energy as palpable at SEC Media Day as LSU did, particularly from Morris and Mulkey. Mulkey told the media that winning a first-time championship for her players and for the state of Louisiana is what motivates her, and despite plenty of criticism about her, triggered by her minimal words regarding her former player Brittney Griner, it seems that this team is unified behind Mulkey for both their own personal development and a deep postseason run. If the Tigers can build momentum this year and continue to develop younger players, they could be looking at a top program, something Mulkey is no stranger to developing.
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2021-22 record: 23-9, upset loss in first round of NCAA tournament
- IN: Myah Taylor (Mississippi State), Marquesha Davis (Arkansas), Elauna Eaton (Arkansas), Rita Igbokwe (Pitt), Brooke Moore (Purdue)
- OUT: Mimi Reid, Jaiyah Harris-Smith, Jaccoriah Bracey, Tiya Douglas, Caitlin McGee
Similar to Kentucky, Mississippi has lost its superstar to an already successful WNBA career. Without Shakira Austin and the other nine players that finished their eligibility or elected to transfer this summer, the keys to success for Mississippi are Angel Baker, Madison Scott, and Myah Taylor.
Besides Austin, Baker was last year’s leading scorer, averaging 11.1 points, and was named the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year. Scott is only a junior, won SEC Freshman of the Year in 2020-21, and came in third in last year’s scoring. Although young, she seems to be an important part of gluing this team together, and an important part of their on-court production. Taylor, Mississippi’s biggest offseason get, is a veteran transfer from Mississippi State, and her teammates have taken her in seamlessly. A self-proclaimed “Mississippi girl” and “leader,” she averaged 2.7 steals and 8 points in Starkville, Miss., and wants to lead her team to a defensive focus.
The team’s sights are set on a March Madness appearance, and it is likely to put away quite a few wins until their schedule gets any challenging in February. It’s now up to old and new leaders, alongside head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, to see if they can make a significant run.
2021-22 record: 15-14, loss in WNIT first round
- IN: Ahlana Smith (Louisville), Kourtney Weber (Florida State), Ramani Parker (Louisville), Asianae Johnson (St. Bonaventure), Nyayongah Gony (Miami)
- OUT: Rickea Jackson, Myah Taylor, Ashley Jones, KN’isha Godfre, Jasmine Shavers, Alyza Winston
In March, it was announced that Sam Purcell would be taking over the helm for Mississippi State. Purcell, who cut his teeth coaching in the SEC and just came off a long assistant stint at Louisville, seems poised to bring the Bulldog program to a new level. However, it’s unclear if that transformation will take place this year. After the Purcell news, many players, like Myah Taylor, left the program — though the most notable, Rickea Jackson, ESPN’s fourth-most-impactful transfer, left before he arrived. Both were vitally important to the team’s success on both ends and left for other SEC programs.
However, it seems like the remaining players believe in Purcell. New transfer Ahlana Smith followed Purcell from Louisville and said that “defense will be [their] bread and butter,” and that his game for the team will be up-tempo. It seems that Purcell is all about bonds, and worked hard to retain who he could after the coaching change-up. Anastasia Hayes, last year’s second-leading scorer, was a vital retention for the team and told media that Purcell called her within a couple of hours of arriving on campus.
The SEC is an ever-competitive conference, and so with the loss of talent that Mississippi State has suffered, along with minimal additions, I think this might be a rebuilding year before Purcell can create a system of his own.
2021-22 record: 18-13, loss in WNIT first round
- IN: Katlyn Gilbert (Notre Dame)
- OUT: Aijha Blackwell, LaDazhia Williams, Izzy Higginbottom, Kiya Dorroh
To be honest, right now, it feels like the only thing Mizzou has going for it is last year’s shocking upset over South Carolina.
In the offseason, Robin Pingeton and her squad lost serious talent, most notably Aijha Blackwell and LaDazhia Williams, who were both huge presences. Fortunately, they’ve retained Hayley Frank, a major key to the team’s offense. Frank is lights out from long range, having shot 46.2% from three last year. Katlyn Gilbert, a grad transfer from Notre Dame, could be a mature, versatile presence on the team if she stays healthy.
It seems that Missouri has retained good leadership with Frank and others, but their ratio of talent leaving versus coming is dangerous. After last year’s Gamecocks upset, we know that the Tigers can be surprising, but this season could easily border on bleak.
2021-22 record: 35-2, won NCAA championship
- IN: Kierra Fletcher (Georgia Tech)
- OUT: Saniya Rivers, Destiny Littleton, Eniya Russell, Elysa Wesolek
South Carolina is coming off a championship, and according to just about everyone, they’re slated to repeat this year. However, back-to-back championships is not an easy feat, which head coach Dawn Staley acknowledged at SEC Media Day:
“The first time around it didn’t turn out so good,” Staley said, referring to the Gamecocks following their 2017 title with a 29-point Elite Eight loss to UConn.
Staley harped on the fact that this team is experiencing more injury than they ever have before, and is still struggling to find a true point guard after Destanni Henderson’s graduation. However, as much as Staley can try to set expectations low, it’s clear South Carolina is still a powerhouse. National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston doesn’t seem to be slowing down for a minute, and alongside preseason All-SEC First Team member Zia Cooke, South Carolina will be cooking on both ends. (Editor’s note: pun fully intended.) Staley told media that every one of her players has gotten better, a scary thought in a league the Gamecocks dominated last year. Excluding potential injuries, it’s still South Carolina’s world, and we’re just living in it.
2021-22 record: 25-9, loss in NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen
- IN: Rickea Jackson (Mississippi State), Jasmine Franklin (Missouri State), Jasmine Powell (Minnesota), Jillian Hollingshead (Georgia)
- OUT: Emily Saunders
Tennessee has long been synonymous with greatness, but it seems that this is the season that the Vols could really put together the pieces. They have retained the majority of their talent, and only lost a couple of significant scorers to the WNBA and graduation. But in addition to retaining their core (a unique achievement these days), Tennessee also dominated the transfer portal. Mississippi State’s Rickea Jackson headlines their gains, earning a preseason All-SEC First Team nod. The
Vols are coming into the season very deep, with a lot of talented frontcourt players like Jackson, new transfer Jillian Hollingshead, and 2022 All-SEC Second Team member Tamari Key. But in addition, they are led by one of the better guards in the nation: 2022 All-SEC First Team member Jordan Horston. Head coach Kellie Harper is well poised for a winning season, which media have widely agreed upon, putting Tennessee in many preseason top-fives.
Tennessee has set up a challenging schedule for itself with out-of-conference matchups against Stanford and UConn, and if the team stays healthy and committed, it would be a disappointment if the Vols did not make a deep postseason run.
2021-22 record: 14-15
- IN: Tineya Hylton (Georgia)
- OUT: Keslynn Oxendine, Kenyal Perry
After legendary coach Gary Blair announced he would retire after the 2021-22 season, it was announced this past spring that Georgia head coach Joni Taylor would take the reigns in College Station, Texas. Although Taylor’s departure from Athens surprised many, the fit seems to work. Taylor exclaimed at media day, “I am the SEC.”
Taylor illustrates building greatness at every level, and the Aggies seem in the prime position to rebuild. Unlike so many of their peer teams, Texas A&M has not had a huge transfer turnover, with only one player coming in via the portal. Taylor brought on three freshmen, one of them being composite2 No. 2 recruit Janiah Barker. Barker originally committed to Georgia under Taylor, and when the coaching switch was made, she de-committed from the Peach State and decided to join Taylor in Texas. The trust she has in Taylor seems to be illustrative of players’ attitudes generally; returning players recalled to the media being eager for the opportunity to play for Coach Taylor and are currently adjusting to her system.
The Aggies have lost their top four scorers to graduation and are left with a young team that is definitely in a rebuilding stage, and so although this year may not earn a long postseason run, the discipline and strategy that Taylor brings are likely to bring extended success.
2021-22 record: 16-19, loss in WNIT Sweet Sixteen
- IN: Marnelle Garraud (Boston College), Ciaja Harbison (Saint Louis)
- OUT: Brinae Alexander, Brylee Bartram, Kendal Cheesman
This is the second year at the helm for former UConn great Shea Ralph, and although the offseason proved rough in many regards, Vanderbilt is continuing to ride its solid showing at last year’s WNIT. But as mentioned, this will prove difficult: last season’s top scorer, Brinae Alexander, entered the transfer portal, and Jordyn Cambridge suffered an Achilles rupture after leading the nation in steals last year.
The Commodores only retain one healthy starter from last year and are left with just nine healthy players. Ralph admitted this team would look very different from last year’s overachieving squad, and it seems that Vanderbilt has been dealt a tough hand this year, largely why they’ve been ranked dead last by media. Players like sophomore forward Sacha Washington, who showed real promise at the end of last season, will be forced to bring leadership and production on both ends. And to win games, Vanderbilt will need to play to their defensive strengths and play crafty despite being undersized. With Ralph at the helm, I think the Commodores could surprise folks.
- Boston swept every major National Player of the Year honor last season, including the Naismith, Wooden, Wade, USBWA, and AP’s awards.
- Composite rankings are drawn from an aggregation of ESPN, ASGR, Prep Girls, Blue Star, and Prospects Nation
Written by Gabriella Lewis
Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.
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