KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Southeastern Conference’s top women’s basketball programs have reason to believe they will be even stronger than usual this season, creating a potential logjam atop the standings.
”I just think everything’s neck and neck,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.
South Carolina returns all five starters from the team that won last year’s regular-season title and adds freshman forward A’ja Wilson, regarded as the nation’s top recruit in her class. Tennessee, the reigning conference tournament champion, returns five players who started at least 19 games last season. Texas A&M brings back 83 percent of its scoring from a team that reached a regional final in 2014.
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All three are among the top five teams in the preseason Top 25. South Carolina’s second, Tennessee’s fourth and Texas A&M is fifth. Kentucky isn’t far behind at No. 11.
The league returns five of last season’s seven first-team all-conference selections: Mississippi State’s Martha Alwal, Mississippi’s Tia Faleru, Tennessee’s Isabelle Harrison, South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell and Texas A&M’s Courtney Walker.
”I chose to come to South Carolina because of the grind of the SEC,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. ”The first year, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but the pull on your competitiveness, it makes you a better coach. It makes you figure out how to be successful in this meat grinder because there isn’t a conference in the country that’s challenged like we are night in and night out.”
South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky could give arguably the nation’s deepest conference the one thing it’s lacked recently – a legitimate national title contender.
The SEC hasn’t produced a Final Four team since Tennessee’s 2008 national championship, though Texas A&M won the 2011 title when it still played in the Big 12. The SEC had five teams in regional semifinals last season, but only Texas A&M reached the next step.
This year, the problem isn’t finding a potential Final Four contender. It’s identifying which of those teams is the best of the bunch.
”You always take pride in being in the SEC,” Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said. ”We like to think we’re the best women’s conference in the country, and I really think this year is going to prove that.”
Here are some things to watch in SEC women’s basketball this season.
RETURN OF THE REBOUNDERS: The SEC must replace its top five scorers from last season, but the league returns five of its six leading rebounders. The league’s top returning rebounders include Faleru (9.4), Harrison (9.3), Alwal (8.8), Florida’s Kayla Lewis (8.7) and South Carolina’s Alaina Coates (8.4). Alwal also had a league-high 2.69 blocks per game last season.
AGGIES’ COURTNEY COMBO: Texas A&M benefits from the return of its two leading scorers: Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams. They’re part of a solid perimeter attack that also includes Jordan Jones. ”I don’t believe anybody in the SEC has the guards and the depth that we have at the guard position,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. ”The question is going to be how good are we going to be at the post position.”
ONE STEP AWAY: Kentucky and South Carolina are seeking their first Final Four appearances in school history. Both have come close. Kentucky reached regional finals in 2010, 2012 and 2013 before falling in a regional semifinal last season. South Carolina advanced to a regional semifinal two of the last three years.
EYEING A RECORD: Missouri guard Morgan Eye enters her senior year aiming to become the most prolific 3-point shooter in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history. Eye has 283 career 3-point baskets, 109 shy of the Division I record of 392 shared by Kansas State’s Laurie Koehn (2002-05) and UT Martin’s Heather Butler (2010-14). Eye set an SEC single-season record with 112 3-pointers as a sophomore and sank 108 more last season.
FROM BOOTH TO BENCH: Arkansas made perhaps the most intriguing coaching move of the offseason when it hired former ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes. Although Dykes has no previous women’s basketball coaching experience, he was a men’s assistant at six different schools from 1984-91. ”I realize the magnitude of the hire and the talk of the hire across the country, both positive and negative,” Dykes said. ”I heard all that clutter, but it does not influence or drive me one minute of my day. What drives me is the pressure I put on myself to get this job done over the next three to four years.”
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, and Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, contributed to this report.