The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC Tipoff Blog: Women's Basketball

1100 days ago
Photo: SEC

 Auburn

Don't question Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy about her defense. Or do so at your peril.

"Oh my God, I'm always confident in my defense," she said. "Ask me a tougher question. When you say Auburn basketball, the first thing you think of is our defensive pressure."

The Tigers led the SEC and ranked second in the nation in steals last season while finishing third in the country in turnovers forced per game. What gives Williams-Flournoy confidence that they can improve on last season's 14-15 record is combining that defensive presence with added punch on offense.

"It's exciting when you bring back 80 percent of your scoring," she said, including the top three scorers led by point guard Janiah McKay. The senior point guard paced the Tigers in scoring and assists last season.

"Defense has always been our MO," McKay said, "but we're trying to be a more balanced team."

Sophomore forward Unique Thompson, who led the SEC's freshmen in rebounding a year ago, expects the Auburn offense to present more problems for opposing defenses.

"The thing that gives me confidence is knowing we have more than one or two people who can score," Thompson said. "Everybody on the floor will have to be defended."

And every Auburn player will have to defend, Thompson said. "Or else."

 Texas A&M

Chennedy Carter is known for her offense and with good reason. En route to being named unanimous National Freshman of the Year, the 5-foot-7 point guard set the Texas A&M single-game record with 46 points and averaged 31.3 points in the NCAA Tournament during A&M's run to the Sweet 16, the fourth-highest total in tournament history.

"Her ability to create a shot in space is the best I've ever had," A&M coach Gary Blair said. "I think she's the most exciting guard in college basketball today. She would remind you on the men's side of Collin Sexton (the NBA lottery pick from Alabama).

"She's got a tremendous future in this game."

"It's really a blessing for my coach to see so much potential in me," Carter said.

"The best thing about Chennedy is she's bought into defense this year," Blair said.

"I have," Carter said. "It's one of those things I've started to take personally. I want to make sure I'm a lockdown defender."

With Carter leading the way on both ends of the floor, the Aggies hope to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 14th straight year.

"Nobody (else) in the SEC has four starters gone," Blair said, "so we've got our work cut out for us."

 Mississippi State

What can Mississippi State do for an encore?

The Bulldogs are coming off the best season in school history, with 37 wins, the program's first SEC regular-season title and a second straight trip to the national championship game.

But there's a sense of unfinished business after coming up one shot short in that final game.

"We're not satisfied," senior center Teaira McCowan said. "We're a little disappointed."

McCowan's presence gives State a chance to continue its run of 126 wins over the last four years. She's the preseason SEC player of the year after an All-American junior season, which featured SEC records of 544 rebounds and 29 double-doubles. She had a dominant run through the NCAA Tournament, averaging 20.8 points and 18.2 rebounds a game.

"Those numbers are off the chart," State coach Vic Schaefer said. "She's special. I'm excited about her senior year. She's going to have to take her game to another level."

McCowan said she can do that by finishing her initial shot and making more jumpers from the free-throw line.

"It's an honor" to be preseason SEC player of the year, she said, "but I still have to go out and prove what I can do."

Missouri

Sophie Cunningham has a chance to make history. The senior guard has a chance to be the first Missouri player to earn first-team all-conference honors three times during her college career.

The 6-foot-1 scorer was the only player in the nation last season to shoot better than 54 percent from the field, 45 percent from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free-throw line. She's in the top 10 in school history in seven different statistical categories.

Coach Robin Pingeton said Cunningham already "has left a legacy" on the Missouri program.

"She's just such a great player," Pingeton said. "She's elevated us to getting some national recognition."

The Tigers have a chance to advance to a fourth straight NCAA Tournament, something the program hasn't accomplished in three decades. Cunningham's looking forward to that opportunity while embracing the "position-less" style that can put her at any of the five spots on the floor.

"Right now I'm a center, which is cool," she said. "I haven't done that since third grade."

The Columbia, Mo., native said she's "trying to embrace everything" as she approaches her senior season in her hometown.

"Some people might look at it as pressure," she said. "I look at it as an opportunity. I want to enjoy every bit of it."

Tennessee

Losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament may be an accomplishment for some programs. Tradition-rich Tennessee is not one of those programs.

"That's not something we want to be a part of," senior guard Meme Jackson said. "It was a slap."

Despite winning 25 games, last season's early postseason exit motivated the Lady Vols to get in the gym and go to work during the offseason.

"It didn't sit well with us last year, that loss," sophomore guard Rennia Davis said. "We said we've got to do something more."

Tennessee will try to do more during the season with the longest team of coach Holly Warlick's tenure. The Lady Vols have 10 players who stand at least 6-feet tall, with five measuring 6-3 or taller, but taller doesn't mean slower.

"Our wingspan is huge," Warlick said. "We're extremely lengthy and athletic. It's going to help us play the way we want to play, which is fast."

Jackson said the combination of extra work, added length and increased tempo is going to help UT write a different ending to this season.

"You guys will see when the season comes," Jackson said. "It's going to be great.

Georgia

Here's a fun fact about the Georgia program under coach Joni Taylor: Her Bulldogs have exceeded expectations, based on preseason predictions, in each of her three years in Athens.

In 2016, they were picked ninth in the SEC and finished sixth. In 2017, they were picked 12th and finished eighth. Then came the biggest leap of all last year.

Picked eighth, they tied for second place in the best conference in the country with 12 SEC wins. They won 26 games overall, the most by the program in 11 years, and played host to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003, winning a first-round game. Caliya Robinson was one of five finalists for the prestigious Katrina McClain Award as top power forward in the country.

With Robinson coming back as the SEC's only returning player to finish in the top 20 in the conference in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals in 2018, Georgia has been picked fourth by a panel of SEC and national media members.

Can Robinson and company exceed expectations again?

"The expectation is set by the standard of Georgia basketball, not by what anyone else is saying," Taylor said. "That's why we've been able to achieve what we have here. So far, it's been the secret to our success."

Ole Miss

New Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin made a strong impression on her players at her first team meeting.

"When we first met her, when she walked in," senior guard Shandricka Sessom said, "she lit up the room."

That relentless energy hasn't dipped.

"It's all about energy," senior forward Cecilia Muhate said. "Anytime we go to practice, it's energy, energy, energy. I love playing for her."

It's never easy to go through a coaching change after finishing last in the league, but McPhee-McCuin's personality has eased the transition for the Rebels. After a successful five-year run as head coach at Jacksonville, coming off three straight postseason trips, she's embraced the challenge of returning the Ole Miss program to its former glory.

"Once we get this thing rolling, it'll be full of energy, poise, intensity and grit," she said. "My biggest challenge is the Jimmies and the Joes. Or the Jesses and the Jamies."

If the impact she's made on her seniors is any indication, recruiting the kind of talent you need to compete in the SEC is going to pick up in a hurry.

"We know she's always going to give it her all," Sessom said. "We've got to give it back."

South Carolina

How do you replace a player the stature of A'ja Wilson? She finished her college career at South Carolina as national player of the year and started her WNBA career as the No. 1 overall draft pick and rookie of the year.

"We leave a big void in not having our All-American," coach Dawn Staley said.

But don't weep for the Gamecocks, one year removed from the 2017 national championship. There's no shortage of talent on the roster led by preseason All-SEC pick Alexis Jennings. The 6-foot-3 senior forward said she doesn't feel the need to try to pick up where Wilson left off for a team coming off a trip to the Elite Eight.

"I don't feel any pressure to fill her shoes because we're two different players," Jennings said. "I've learned a lot from her, but my game is different from hers."

The Gamecocks, who'll try to extend their unprecedented streak of four straight SEC Tournament titles, have a more guard-heavy roster so Staley expects them "to try to play position-less basketball."

"This team is totally different," Staley said. "The identity will be different. The leadership will be different."

The expectations won't change because, as Staley said, "nobody remembers second."

Arkansas

Malica Monk is nothing if not confident in her quest to "put Arkansas back on the map." The 5-foot-5 senior point guard has high expectations for her final college season.

"NCAA Tournament," she said. "Final Four. Championship. All of it."

It sounds like a tall order for a team that finished 13-18 in its first year under new coach Mike Neighbors, but he knows the territory. He led Washington to the 2016 Final Four before taking the Arkansas job.

As confident as Monk is, her teammates have that same kind of belief in her.

"She's our game-changer," fellow senior Bailey Zimmerman said. "She sets the tempo. She's invincible. I don't think anybody can stop her."

Neighbors said Monk "had an All-SEC season by all accounts. We didn't win enough games for her to earn that honor."

Neighbors said he's "going to expect even more" from Monk this season and "her expectations of herself are even higher."

Monk scored more points as a junior than she had in her first two seasons combined, and she believes she can continue that progression.

"You guys have to be there to watch," she said. "It's going to be amazing."

Kentucky

For a Kentucky program used to winning, the 2018 season was uncharted and unwelcome territory. After eight straight seasons with at least 20 victories and winning SEC records, the Wildcats slipped to 15-17 overall and 6-10 in the conference.

Senior guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, the team's leading scorers, both said the Wildcats are using that speed bump as "a learning experience."

"We're taking what we learned from that season," Murray said, "and applying it to this season."

Kentucky returns the bulk of the roster and adds one of the nation's top recruiting classes. Murray said that depth will allow the Wildcats to get the most out of Coach Matthew Mitchell's "40 minutes of dread" defense.

"Defense is the key to winning," Murray said.

Another key: The senior backcourt of Morris and Murray.

"I'm a very, very fortunate and blessed coach to be going into this season with the senior leadership of Maci Morris and Taylor Murray," Mitchell said as he heads into his 12th year in Lexington. "We are ultra-motivated for this season."

LSU

Nikki Fargas knows what it takes to compete on the SEC and national stages. She won national championships as a player and as an assistant coach at Tennessee. She's led LSU to six NCAA Tournament appearances in her seven seasons in Baton Rouge.

A year ago, her Tigers went 11-5 during the grueling SEC regular season, the most conference victories for the program during her tenure. Overall, she's the second-winningest coach in program history behind the legendary Sue Gunter.

How do LSU and Fargas take the next step? The Tigers will lean on the return of three starters, led by top returning scorer and rebounder Ayana Mitchell, along with an influx of three junior college transfers who are expected to contribute immediately.

"They definitely fit in," Mitchell said of the newcomers. "They're going to have an immediate impact for us this year."

LSU exceeded expectations last year, finishing fourth in the SEC after being picked seventh. Can the Tigers outperform their ninth-place preseason prediction this year?

"We've flown under the radar since I've been here," Fargas said. "I'll bring it up at the right time."

Florida

Cameron Newbauer's first Florida team wasted no time adapting to his "Chuck It from the Cheap Seats" philosophy. The Gators fired from deep early and often and set a school record with 249 made 3-point shots, second in the conference to only national runner-up Mississippi State.

"I kinda wish we didn't set the record the first year," Newbauer said. "We set the bar high. I'm proud of the way our ladies shot and shared the ball."

It'll be a challenge to approach that record this year as the Florida roster returns just three players. The good news: Two of them, senior guard Funda Nakkasoglu and junior guard Delicia Washington, were among the team's top four scorers last season.

"We always want to spread the floor, shoot 3s and play fast," Newbauer said. "Ideally. I can't say we're there right now."

The Gators underwent the kind of roster turnover that's not unusual after a coaching change. Newbauer's challenge in his second season in Gainesville is to continue blending a group heavy on transfers.

"We're trying to find players that fit our values," he said. "We have a bunch of young ladies who are all in for Gator Nation."

Alabama

Don't be fooled. Yes, Alabama lost three 1,000-point career scorers from the team that reached the WNIT quarterfinals for the second straight year and won at Tennessee for the first time in program history, but Kristy Curry expects the Crimson Tide to take another step forward in her sixth season.

"It's the most energetic, most versatile and deepest team we've had," Curry said.

A solid returning core led by Jordan Lewis and Shaquera Wade is joined by "the best recruiting class we've signed," Curry said, which includes five freshmen who won high school state titles and Cierra Johnson, the national junior college player of the year.

With all that depth, Curry said, "we're going to play faster than we ever have." She heard Alabama men's coach Avery Johnson use the phrase "Fast and Furious" at the Tide Tipoff event and plans to borrow it to motivate her team.

Lewis, the junior point guard who led the Tide in scoring and assists, loves the idea of pushing the tempo.

"You're more being yourself and playing the game as you know it," Lewis said. "Our depth is really going to help us play that way."

Curry said the difference between winning in the WNIT and reaching the NCAA Tournament will be her team's ability "to minimize the little things. It's a possession here or there."

"We have moved the program forward," Curry said, "and we will continue to move the program forward."

Vanderbilt

Coach Stephanie White is realistic as she heads into her third year at Vanderbilt. Progress in the premier women's basketball conference in the nation is a gradual thing.

"Our biggest goal is to get into the middle of the pack," White said after finishing tied for 11th in the league in 2018. "That's our goal. We've been at the bottom of the pack. It's an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves and raise our standards."

The Commodores, with a roster of only 10 players, won't be able to push the ball as much as White would like, but the transition to a slower tempo will be helped by the low-post presence of transfer Mariella Fasoula.

The 6-foot-5 Fasoula led Boston College in scoring and rebounding two years ago before transferring to Vanderbilt. She spent the summer competing for the Greek national team in the FIBA World Cup in Spain.

"She really is our most experienced player, and she can bring that experience to us on a daily basis," White said. "For the first time, we have a true low-post presence."

Sophomore guard Chelsie Hall welcomes Fasoula as an anchor on the low block.

"She's played against WNBA players," Hall said. "She knows how to win."