Summitt’s departure creates uncertainty in SEC

The Southeastern Conference begins the first year of the

post-Pat Summitt era in an unfamiliar situation.

Tennessee, the eight-time national champion and longtime

conference heavyweight, isn’t favored to win the league. The Lady

Vols aren’t even considered among the top few contenders.

The Lady Vols don’t return anyone who started an NCAA tournament

game last year during their run to a regional final. That creates

opportunity for the rest of the SEC, which is seeking to produce

its first Final Four team since Tennessee won the national title

and LSU reached the semifinals in 2008. Texas A&M won the 2011

national championship when it was still a Big 12 member.

”I think you’ll see some changes in the league,” Georgia coach

Andy Landers said. ”I think going into the year most people would

probably pick Kentucky as the team to beat. I think you’ll have a

number of very, very good teams. I think you’ll have probably as

many as four or five that could be ranked at some point during the

season in the top 10.”

At this point, the league has five teams in the Top 25. No. 6

Kentucky, No. 10 Georgia, No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 16

Vanderbilt are all ranked ahead of No. 20 Tennessee.

Kentucky returns four starters from a team that went 28-7, won

the SEC regular-season crown and reached a regional final last

season. The list of returning starters is headed by 5-foot-9 senior

guard A’dia Mathies, the 2012 SEC player of the year. Kentucky also

benefits from the return of 5-6 point guard Jennifer O’Neill and

the arrival of California transfer DeNesha Stallworth.

O’Neill sat out last season with a stress fracture in her right

foot after starting three games as a freshman in 2010-11.

Stallworth, a 6-3 junior center, ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in

scoring (13.3) and 12th in the league in rebounding (6.4) two

seasons ago before sitting out the 2011-12 season as a

transfer.

”We just have to stay focused and just do the things we have

been doing in the past,” Mathies said. ”My freshman year we were

picked 11th (in the league) and finished second, so we can’t just

go by on what other people say. We just have to put in the work to

fulfill that.”

Kentucky has plenty of competition.

Georgia returns four starters from a team that went 22-9 and got

upset by Marist in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament.

Senior guard/forward Anne Marie Armstrong and senior forward

Jasmine Hassell were second-team all-SEC picks last season.

Vanderbilt brings back its top eight scorers from a team that

overcame injuries to go 23-10 and reach the second round of last

year’s tournament. Christina Foggie, a 5-9 junior guard, led the

SEC in scoring (17.9) and 3-point percentage (.429) last

season.

”I look at the conference being as open as it’s been – and this

is my 11th year – and as strong as it’s ever been,” Vanderbilt

coach Melanie Balcomb said.

And, of course, it would be foolish to count out Tennessee. The

Lady Vols have wasted no time using their lower-than-usual spot in

the Top 25 as incentive.

Summitt stepped down in April following her 38th season as the

Lady Vols’ head coach, one year after announcing she had

early-onset dementia Alzheimer’s type. She now has the title head

coach emeritus and remains on the Lady Vols’ staff under new coach

Holly Warlick, an assistant to Summitt for the last 27 years.

Tennessee’s No. 20 position is its worst preseason ranking since

the Lady Vols weren’t included in the first poll ever in 1976-77.

The only other year the Lady Vols were ranked outside the top 10 of

the preseason poll was 1984-85.

”All I’m telling you is that is serving as motivation for us,”

Warlick said. ”If you lose five starters and you lose the

winningest coach in the country, I understand that expectations

(from) a lot of people will be lowered, but they’re not lowered for

me. They’re not lowered for this program, not for these fans. We

don’t like being ranked 20th, but it’s preseason and we’re using

that as a motivation factor.”

Still, the turnover represents a season of transition for the

entire league, not just Tennessee.

Warlick is one of the SEC’s four new coaches, one of whom was

just named last week. Ole Miss selected former assistant Brett

Frank as its interim coach Wednesday after dismissing Adrian

Wiggins amid an investigation into recruiting and academic

misconduct. The league also welcomes two new teams in Texas A&M

and Missouri.

Texas A&M has only two returning starters, but junior center

Kelsey Bone gives the Aggies a legitimate all-conference candidate

in her return to the SEC. Bone, who began her college career at

South Carolina, averaged 11.9 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds

last season.

South Carolina and Arkansas earned their first NCAA tournament

bids since 2003 last season, but both are retooling their lineups.

Arkansas must replace four-year starting guards C’eira Ricketts and

Lyndsay Harris. Ieasia Walker, a 5-8 senior guard, is South

Carolina’s lone returning starter.

LSU and Florida each reached the second round of the NCAA

tournament last year. Florida returns 6-foot senior forward

Jennifer George, who ranked second in the SEC in rebounds (8.8) and

10th in scoring (12.8) last season.

”We have a lot of folks (in the SEC) that are getting a lot of

people back and a lot of newness,” Florida coach Amanda Butler

said. ”It’s hard to make predictions.”

Auburn and Mississippi State are attempting to bounce back from

losing seasons with new coaches.

Terri Williams-Flournoy led Georgetown to three straight NCAA

tournament appearances before coming to Auburn to replace Nell

Fortner, who stepped down after posting a 145-106 record in eight

seasons. Mississippi State chose former Texas A&M assistant Vic

Schaefer to take over for Sharon Fanning-Otis, who retired with a

281-232 mark in 17 seasons.

Alabama has four returning starters and Ole Miss welcomes back

second-team all-SEC point guard Valencia McFarland, but both teams

have a long way to go after posting identical 2-14 conference

records last season. Missouri also posted just two conference wins

in the Big 12 last year while going 13-18 overall.

”It’ll be a different kind of year in the Southeastern

Conference,” Landers said. ”I think fans around the league

probably need to study a little bit because the teams that you’re

accustomed to wanting to go see when they come to your town may not

be the teams you want to see this year.”

AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., Charles Odum in

Athens, Ga., and Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to

this report.