SEC Preview: Loaded South Carolina hopes to challenge for a national title

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 SEC Women’s Tournament - Arkansas vs South Carolina
Aliyah Boston was the best freshman in the country last season. | Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The South Carolina Gamecocks look like the team to beat coming into the season. Can anyone challenge the Gamecocks?

The SEC is filled with storylines heading into the nnew season. The South Carolina Gamecocks are favorites to take the SEC once again this year despite the loss of two key players to graduation. Rhyne Howard will look to take another big step in her junior season with the Kentucky Wildcats. Meanwhile, with Chennedy Carter scoring buckets for the Atlanta Dream, the Texas A&M Aggies have their work cut out for them.

Will Tennessee bounce back after a somewhat disappointing season? LSU finished in the middle of the pack last year but with star guard Khayla Pointer at the helm, the Tigers hope to do better.

How the SEC finished in 2020

South Carolina finished ranked No. 1 in the nation after posting a 32-1 record, going 16-0 in conference play and winning the SEC tournament. Mississippi State finished 27-6 with a 13-3 SEC record and lost in the SEC tournament finale. The Kentucky Wildcats ended last season 22-8, 10-6 in SEC play and ranked No. 16 while the Texas A&M Aggies finished with identical records and ranked No. 19. The Arkansas Razorbacks finished 24-8 with a 10-6 conference record and ranked No. 24

Although the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket featured South Carolina as a No. 1-seed and 1st overall and Mississippi State as a No. 4-seed and 14th overall. Additionally, Kentucky and Texas A&M were awarded No. 5-seeds as they were 19th and 20th overall, respectively. Despite finishing seventh in the SEC, the LSU Tigers ranked 21st on our list and was a No. 6-seed. Arkansas was also a No. 6-seed and was 24th overall. Finally, Tennessee, who finished sixth in the SEC, was a No. 9-seed and was ranked 34th overall.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2020-21 season, in order of 2019-20 finish:

1) South Carolina Gamecocks

The Gamecocks are ranked No. 1 in the preseason for the first time in program history. South Carolina graduated Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan but will return three starters, including Aliyah Boston, who was named the National Freshman of the Year last season. Boston was picked an AP Preseason All-American heading into her sophomore season. One big question for the Gamecocks is who will take Harrigan’s spot alongside Boston in the front court. Elysa Wesolek and Victaria Saxton are two candidates but lack playing experience, despite being juniors.

2) Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State was featured in the preseason Top 25 at the No. 6 position, despite hiring a new head coach in Nikki McCray-Penson after Vic Schaefer left for Texas. Jessika Carter and Rickea Jackson were both named as Naismith Award and Wade Trophy candidates with Jackson being named to the Preseason All-SEC First Team and Carter showing up on the Preseason All-SEC Second Team roster. Despite their returning stars, the Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth this season in the SEC.

3) Kentucky Wildcats

Preseason SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard looks to have a monster junior season after averaging 23.4 points per contest as a sophomore. Wildcat fans will hope that Chasity Patterson can have big impact in a full season after being limited to 19 games as a part of her transfer from Texas. Keke McKinney returns after leading Kentucky in blocks last season and will look to be at the helm of the defense of the preseason No. 11 team in the country.

4) Texas A&M Aggies

The Aggies return three of their five starters from last season, all three of whom averaged double-figure scoring. However, the Aggies did lose Chennedy Carter to the WNBA. Kayla Wells and N’dea Jones are the Aggies’ two best players and will look to offset the scoring provided by Carter. The coaches like the talent as the Aggies were picked third in the SEC.

5) Arkansas Razorbacks

The Arkansas Razorbacks return four starters from last year’s team. Additionally, redshirt senior Jailyn Mason is returning from injury and Oregon State transfer Destiny Slocum looks to step into the role as starting point guard. Chelsea Dungee, who averaged 16.9 points last season, was named to the Preseason All-SEC First Team while Slocum was named to the Second Team, despite not having played in the SEC in her career. The Razorbacks look to be highly competitive this season as a Preseason No. 14.

6) Tennessee Lady Volunteers

The Tennessee Lady Vols did not win a game against the Top 25 last season and suffered 10 losses overall. The Lady Vols return five of their top six scorers from the 2019-20 season, most notably Rennia Davis. Davis averaged 18.0 points and 8.2 rebounds last season. Two grad transfers will look to bolster the roster: Keyen Green, a center from Liberty and Jordan Walker from Western Michigan. The Lady Vols hope to outmatch their predicted sixth place finish.

7) LSU Tigers

The LSU Tigers finished seventh last season and are projected to finish seventh this season. As a team returning four starters, LSU looks to break into the NCAA Tournament. Khayla Pointer averaged 14.8 points last season will look to take a big step in her senior season. Pointer was named to the Preseason All-SEC First Team. Faustine Aifuwa is one of the best defenders in the SEC and has a chance to be the conference leader in blocked shots this season.

8) Alabama Crimson Tide

The Alabama Crimson Tide posted an 8-8 SEC record, their best record since 2002 when the Crimson Tide went 7-7. Alabama returns four of their five starts from last season, including its two top scorers Jordan Lewis and Jasmine Walker. Walker was named to the Preseason All-SEC Second Team. Two junior college transfers, Alana Busby-Dunphy and Keyara Jones, join the team along with freshman Myra Gordon to bolster the Alabama’s depth.

9) Georgia Lady Bulldogs

The Georgia Bulldogs finished 17-14, winning five of their last seven games. The Lady Bulldogs return 10 players from last season. One player to watch out for is UConn transfer Mikayla Coombs who is eligible this season after sitting out last season.

10) Florida Gators

The Florida Gators went 15-15 after going 8-23 in the 2018-19 season. Lavender Briggs was named to the Preseason All-SEC Second Team after a freshman campaign in which she averaged 14.0 points, the highest total of any Florida freshman since 1991-92. Grad transfer Emily Sullivan joins the Gators from North Carolina. Sullivan battled injuries throughout her career with the Tar Heels.

11) Missouri Tigers

The Missouri Tigers were 9-23 on the season, despite going 5-11 in the conference. The Tigers are led by two sophomore guards who look to improve on their All-SEC Freshman seasons. Aijsha Blackwell averaged 15.0 points along with Hayley Frank who averaged 11.8 points. Incoming redshirt junior Ladazhia Williams will be eligible this season after sitting out last season due to a transfer from South Carolina.

12) Vanderbilt Commodores

The Vanderbilt Commodores doubled their win total from 7 to 14 last season and hope to continue that momentum in the 2020-21 season. Leading scorer and member of the 2020 All-SEC Freshman squad Koi Love will be looked to as the leader of the club. Vanderbilt had to cancel their November 25 scheduled matchup with Tennessee Tech due to COVID-19 quarantines and injuries.

13) Auburn Tigers

The Auburn Tigers enter this season with a lot of new players, all of whom will be led by Unique Thompson who was named to the All-SEC First Team. Thompson has averaged a double-double over the last two seasons. Auburn will need junior college transfers to fill out their roster.

14) Ole Miss Rebels

The Ole Miss Rebels went 7-23 and 0-16 in SEC play last season. Despite their recent on the court struggles, Ole Miss landed Shakira Austin, a transfer from Maryland who will be immediately eligible. Austin was honored multiple times in two Big Ten seasons. Additionally, the Rebels bring in the No. 1 recruiting class in the SEC.

Preseason nods

Player of the Year: Rhyne Howard (Kentucky)

All-SEC First Team: Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas), Unique Thompson (Auburn), Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Khayla Pointer (LSU), Rickea Jackson (Mississippi State), Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Rennia Davis (Tennessee), N’dea Jones, (Texas A&M)

All-SEC Second Team: Jasmine Walker (Alabama), Destiny Slocum (Arkansas), Lavender Briggs (Florida), Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Jessika Carter (Mississippi State), Aijha Blackwell (Missouri), Zia Cooke (South Carolina), Kayla Wells (Texas A&M)

Key conference dates

Start date: Dec. 31

Must-see SEC matchups

Dec. 31: Arkansas at Kentucky. Two clubs vying for at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament go head-to-head.

Jan. 10: South Carolina at Kentucky. Kentucky looks to upset their conference rivals.

Jan. 10: Texas A&M at Arkansas. A potential statement game for Arkansas against an established SEC program.

Jan. 28: South Carolina at Mississippi State. The SEC regular season crown might be decided in this game.