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
”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
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
”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
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
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