For the past half-decade in SEC women’s basketball, it’s been pretty much all South Carolina — four consecutive tournament titles, four regular season crowns and a 71-9 conference record.
But as summer workouts rev up and more and more transfers announce their new schools, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no far-and-away league favorite heading into the 2018-2019 season.
A large reason for that is graduate transfer Anriel Howard. After news broke that Howard, a rebounding and double-double machine, was potentially leaving Texas A&M, it didn’t take long for USC and Mississippi State to become the front-runners for her services.
But she won’t be announcing a decision until August, and while that decision may tip the balance between Starkville and Columbia, there are still several other teams with realistic chances at topping the conference come March 2019.
Why they will win: Power forward Caliya Robinson is a two-time All-SEC defender, and coach Joni Taylor returns all but one of the top seven scorers from last year's team, which vastly overachieved.
Why they won't: The Lady Bulldogs don't have much in the way of star power — there's no one player that seems like she can consistently take over games. Georgia also has a strong defense, but commits a lot of fouls in the process.
Why they will win: It's simple really — Teaira McCowan. The 6-foot-8 rising senior will almost certainly be an All-American and should be in the running for national player of the year. The Bulldogs also return most of their bench and add a pair of five-star freshmen.
Why they won't: Four starters, including the most successful class in program history, are gone, along with nearly 60 percent of last season's scoring. Talented transfers Promise Taylor (SEC all-freshman) and Andra Espinoza-Hunter (UConn) have to sit out the year.
Why they will win: Love her or hate her, Sophie Cunningham is one of the conference's best players, and she's back for her senior season with two other returning starters and highly-touted freshman Grace Berg.
Why they won't: The Tigers' second- and third-leading scorers from last year are gone, including a key cog in their frontcourt, Cierra Porter, who had to retire because of medical issues.
Why they will win: Four returning starters, the nation's top-ranked freshman point guard in Destanni Henderson, transfers Te'a Cooper and Nelly Perry and a fearsome corps of guards all add up to a team that could surprise a lot of people despite the absence of a certain star player. Speaking of ...
Why they won't: A'ja Wilson, or a lack thereof, will be what everyone talks about to start the season, and the hole she leaves in the Gamecocks' lineup is staggering — she accounted for more than a quarter of the team's points, rebounds and blocks last year and led the SEC in usage rate.
Why they will win: The talent is there for the Lady Vols, who have eight former five-star recruits on their roster. They return two SEC All-Freshman performers, the SEC Sixth Woman of the Year and a steady role player in Meme Jackson and add yet another top-10 recruiting class.
Why they won't: All that talent hasn't translated to much in the way of results for coach Holly Warlick, with two consecutive early NCAA Tournament exits and no SEC trophies of any kind for three seasons running. UT will still be extremely young and perhaps a year or so away from returning to the top of the conference.
If Howard picks South Carolina, the Gamecocks should be the narrow favorite, as she will go a long way towards filling the team's major need: rebounding.
If she picks Mississippi State, the Bulldogs certainly will be dramatically better and arguably even the front-runner, but they’ll still have to radically adjust from last year’s four-guard lineup to a big-dominated starting five, and there still may be holes among the guards.
As it stands, and if Howard surprises everyone and returns to Texas A&M, my favorite, by a hair, is Tennessee. The Lady Vols don't return the most depth and will rely heavily on underclassmen; but at the moment, they seem to be more balanced than USC, more experienced than MSU, more talented than Georgia and deeper than Missouri. I don't expect Howard to stay at A&M though.