Next Thursday, the SEC will host its annual media day for the upcoming women’s basketball season. In preparation for that, the conference has asked media members to predict the conference’s order of finish and pick an all-SEC team and player of the year.
The results of that poll will be released next Tuesday, but The State is releasing its ballot early for Gamecock fans.
Order of finish
1. South Carolina
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The defending champs lose a lot, there’s no way around it. But they also bring back national Player of the Year contender A’ja Wilson and plenty of reinforcements, including three top-50 recruits and transfers Alexis Jennings and Lindsey Spann. Dawn Staley’s squad will grind out a fifth straight regular season title.
2. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs feature Connecticut-killer Morgan William and All-American Victoria Vivians and don’t lose a whole lot. However, their freshman class isn’t as good as you’d expect from a national finalist. Circle Feb. 5, 2018 on your calendar: That matchup with South Carolina could be what decides the conference.
This Tennessee team presents a stark split between experience and youth. On one hand, the Volunteers return all-SEC seniors Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell. On the other, they bring in the nation’s top-rated recruiting class, according to ESPN. The end result will include plenty of growing pains — and potentially huge wins.
4. Texas A&M
The Aggies return four of their main starters from last season and replace guard Curtyce Knox with elite freshman Chennedy Carter. Together, they form a team that, if they get hot at the right time, could go all the way to the Final Four.
The Tigers are all about one player: junior guard Sophie Cunningham. One of the most electric players in college basketball, Cunningham led Missouri in both points and assists last season, accounting for most of the team’s offense. She’s losing three of her fellow starters from last year, but as long as she’s around, Mizzou won’t fall far.
The two starters Kentucky loses from its last campaign — Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator — accounted for 47 percent of their points, 42 percent of their rebounds, 38 percent of their steals and 35 percent of their assists. That’s a lot to come back from.
Star guard Raigyne Moncrief returns, along with most of the team’s scoring from 2016-2017. The key for the Tigers will be winning away from home — they had the worst away record in the top half of the conference last year — and doing more against SEC competition, as their nonconference schedule is extremely weak.
The Lady Bulldogs don’t bring a whole lot of firepower back from last year’s squad that finished 16-15 overall, but they bring in a highly regarded recruiting class, and the future looks bright for coach Joni Taylor’s squad.
The Crimson Tide returns every starter, including two SEC all-freshman selections, from last year’s squad that fared poorly in SEC play but still posted a 22-14 record overall. This is a team capable of surprising a lot of people.
Reigning SEC co-Freshman of the Year Delicia Washington will be relied upon heavily to lead the Gators this season, along with junior Haley Lorenzen. Florida, however, doesn’t have much a freshman class coming in, and the loss of first-team All-SEC star Ronni Williams will be big.
The Razorbacks start this season with new coach Mike Neighbors, who is fresh off coaching Washington to two Sweet 16s and one Final Four in four seasons. They also return most of their players from last year, but expecting a dramatic turnaround in one year is a bit much.
12. Ole Miss
The Rebels had a miserable time away from home last season, finishing 1-9. This year, they have to face Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road after losing three of their five starters.
The Tigers lose more than half their offensive scoring power from last season, as well as All-Defensive team SEC honoree Katie Frerking. They also play Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi State on the road, which is adding insult to injury.
The Commodores feature a roster stacked with young players: 10 of 14 are redshirt sophomores or younger. Head coach Stephanie White is entering her second season, and it’s clear she’s still building her squad. Don’t expect too much this year.
Guard: Sophie Cunningham, Missouri
She’ll likely lead the conference in scoring and drag Missouri to another NCAA tournament berth and high seed.
Guard: Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State
The best player on the only team to beat mighty Connecticut since November 2014, she should be even better this year.
Forward: A’ja Wilson, South Carolina
The defending conference player of the year, Wilson will attract a lot of double teams this year. That still might not stop her.
Forward: Khaalia Hillsman, Texas A&M
She’s started 76 straight games for the Aggies, improved dramatically last season and will likely flourish as her teammates draw defensive coverage.
Center: Mercedes Russell, Tennessee
She almost averaged a double-double last season and will be tasked with guiding an inexperienced but talented Tennessee team.
Player of the Year
A’ja Wilson, South Carolina
Without South Carolina’s three top WNBA draft picks, it’s all eyes (and defenders) on Wilson this year. As a result, it’s entirely possible her stats might not improve. But she’s far and away the most important player for the Gamecocks and more than capable of leading them to glory again.