The recent era of elite post players dominating Southeastern Conference women’s basketball may have ended with Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan following former South Carolina star A’ja Wilson into the WNBA.
Their absences have the SEC’s 12 other teams hoping the league will have a more competitive conference race this year.
South Carolina won the 2017 national championship and claimed at least a share of three SEC regular-season titles and four straight SEC Tournament crowns with Wilson leading the way from 2014-18. McCowan helped Mississippi State sweep the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles as a senior last season after the Bulldogs reached back-to-back NCAA championship games in 2017 and 2018.
“There’s still great, great players in the league, (but) I think A’ja and Teaira both were these matchup problems that really no one else could solve,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said.
South Carolina and Mississippi State remain top contenders for the league title along with Texas A&M, which has preseason SEC player of the year Chennedy Carter. But the gap separating the top teams from the rest of the league might be narrowing.
“One through eight in our league is as strong as it’s been in the last five years,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said.
South Carolina signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class to join a nucleus that includes guard Tyasha Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who removed her name from the transfer portal during the offseason. The Gamecocks went 23-10 and finished second in the SEC last year in their first season since Wilson’s departure.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said her team is so deep that “we’ve got legit 10 starters.”
Mississippi State, the two-time defending league champion, has been picked in the preseason media poll to finish behind South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs went 33-3 and reached a regional final last year.
Texas A&M is the only Sweet 16 team from last season that returns all of its starters from a year ago. Carter, a 5-foot-7 guard, is back for her junior season after averaging 23.3 points last year to rank sixth among all Division I players.
“I think this could be our season,” Carter said. “I really do.”
The return of Carter and Arkansas guard Chelsea Dungee could signal the SEC’s transition into more of a perimeter-oriented league. But the conference still has plenty of notable frontcourt players such as Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, who averaged 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds as a freshman last season.
“It’ll be interesting to see what does develop,” Mitchell said. “Somebody will develop as a dominant player in the league. We always have that. We have I think the best players and best athletes in the country in the Southeastern Conference. It will be interesting to see who emerges.”
Some other things to watch in SEC women’s basketball this season:
Tennessee’s new chapter
Tennessee fired Holly Warlick and hired Kellie Harper as coach after the Lady Vols went 19-13 and barely preserved their status as the only program to appear in every NCAA Tournament.
Harper was known as Kellie Jolly when she played on three straight Tennessee national championship teams from 1996-98. She led Missouri State to the Sweet 16 last season.
Tennessee is picked to finish sixth in the SEC, its lowest spot in the 30-year history of the league’s preseason poll.
Mississippi State seeks threepeat
Mississippi State is chasing a third straight outright SEC championship. The only teams to win at least three straight outright SEC titles are Auburn in 1987-89, Tennessee in 1993-95 and Tennessee again in 2001-04.
South Carolina finished atop the league standings every year from 2014-17 but shared the 2015 title with Tennessee.
Arkansas has made only one NCAA Tournament appearance over the last six years but could take a giant step forward.
The Razorbacks went 22-15 last year and made a surprising run to the SEC Tournament final. Arkansas returns one of the league’s top overall players in Dungee, who averaged 20.5 points last season.
Carter is the only returning Associated Press first-team all-SEC selection from last season, though LSU’s Ayana Mitchell earned first-team all-conference honors from the league’s coaches .
AP second-team all-SEC players back from last season include Dungee, Harris, Howard and Tennessee’s Rennia Davis.
Kentucky’s roster features three Division I transfers in Nae Nae Cole (North Carolina State), Sabrina Haines (Arizona State) and Chasity Patterson (Texas). Patterson won’t be eligible to play for Kentucky until the end of the fall semester.
Other notable transfers making debuts for their new teams this season include Tennessee’s Lou Brown (Washington State), Mississippi’s Deja Cage (DePaul), Alabama’s Shelby Gibson (Ole Miss), Arkansas’ Amber Ramirez (TCU) and Mississippi State’s Promise Taylor (Ole Miss). South Carolina is waiting to learn whether the NCAA grants a waiver enabling Texas transfer Destiny Littleton to play for the Gamecocks this season.