No shortage of SEC challengers for Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) SEC coaches were lining up to anoint South Carolina as the team to beat during media day on Thursday, and then more than ready to talk about bringing the Gamecocks down.

South Carolina is the preseason favorite to win the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball championship for a third straight year, a feat only Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols and Auburn have been able to pull off.

It’s not going to be easy for the Gamecocks to join such elite company.

”It’s a loaded league,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose Bulldogs are one of those other teams thinking title run. ”It’s a nightmare every night.”

Several teams believe they can give South Carolina a run for the championship.

”You’ve got to put them on top, but it’s amazing this conference how much stronger it’s gotten from top to bottom,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, whose club was picked second in the preseason poll.

Mississippi State was third, Texas A&M fourth and Kentucky fifth – all believe they’re solidly in the title mix.

”When you look at South Carolina and Tennessee, obviously, they have more talent than us,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. ”But talent doesn’t win championships.”

It’s a good starting point, though, and there’s an abundance of it in the SEC.

South Carolina’s three top scorers in two-time defending SEC player of the year Tiffany Mitchell, A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates all return. Then there is Mississippi State forward Victoria Vivians, who averaged 14.9 points a game her freshman year last winter; Kentucky guard Makayla Epps, the leading scorer in SEC play at 15.1 points a game; and Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields, a North Carolina transfer who was the national freshman of the year two seasons ago before sitting out last year.

Tennessee, who shared the SEC regular-season title with the Gamecocks, is probably the leading candidate to knock off South Carolina.

Along with DeShields, the Lady Vols feature Bashaara Graves, a 1,000-point scorer who averaged 10.6 points and seven rebounds a game last year.

”South Carolina, they’re a great team right now,” Graves said. ”But we’re also a great team and our goal is to win the SEC and get to the Final Four every year. That never changes.”

Schaefer and his Bulldogs feel the same way. They have 10 returners coming back and add Parade All-American Teaira McCowan.

The Mississippi State coach said his team is no longer a surprise to opponents after going 27-7 and improving by five games over a year earlier in SEC play with an 11-5 mark. Despite their increased expectations, Schaefer said the Bulldogs must still ”embrace the hunter mentality.”

Texas A&M is led by a group of seniors who came to Blair’s program the year after the Aggies won the national championship in 2011, including standouts Jordan Jones, Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker. The trio combined for 40.1 points a game last season as Texas A&M.

”They don’t want to go out quietly,” Blair said.

Kentucky was the only SEC team to defeat South Carolina last year – the 34-3 Gamecocks other losses came to national champion Connecticut and Final Four runner up Notre Dame. Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell, however, doesn’t see much value in using the past to motivate this season’s team.

”I wish we could bring stuff from one year into the next,” he said, laughing.

Kentucky starts with Epps, who is looking to build on a stellar sophomore season. They also return Janee Thompson, a point guard and leader who was lost to a horrifying left ankle injury while playing at South Carolina last January.

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley thinks her team is capable of handling the SEC’s best shots.

South Carolina’s ”corps of them understand what it is to be the hunted,” she said. ”They are challenging themselves each day in practice to carry that load. Not a load of pressure, it’s a load of expectations and goals.”

There are several other teams trying to fight their way into the upper echelon.

Georgia’s Joni Crenshaw-Taylor, the league’s lone first-year coach, said the Lady Bulldogs won’t simply fold on the season because the odds are against them. Crenshaw-Taylor has four seniors who reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in 2013, all who understand the work it takes to win.

”There aren’t any excuses,” said Crenshaw-Taylor, who took over longtime leader Andy Landers. ”I tell them all the time let’s see what happens at the end of the year. … I see no reason why we shouldn’t be in the mix with all those other teams.”

That is the prevailing preseason attitude around the SEC.