Predict SEC women’s basketball? It’s a tossup

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

It’s time for women’s basketball media to pick the preseason All-SEC team and the predicted order of finish in the conference – and it’s not an easy task. The ballots are due today to the SEC, so, in the interest of transparency, my predictions will be published here. The SEC should release the media results within a week.

First, here is my ballot for First Team All-SEC: Jordan Horston, guard, Tennessee; Alexis Morris, guard, LSU; Jessika Carter, forward, Mississippi State; Rickea Jackson, forward, Tennessee; and Aliyah Boston, center, South Carolina.

The media’s team is set at five players with two guards, two forwards and a center. The coaches, who can’t vote for their own players or team, get two teams of eight players each for a total of 16. Tiebreakers aren’t broken, and last year the coaches’ Second Team All-SEC had nine players.

This clearly means the media are better at identifying – or at least trying to identify – the best five players in the SEC at specific positions. The truth is the coaches want lots of choices so a lot of players can be recognized. (NOTE to SEC: Please give the media two teams of five players each in 2023.)

(IF I had a second team it would have included Zia Cooke, a guard at South Carolina; Anastasia Hayes, a guard at Mississippi State; Hayley Frank, a forward at Missouri; Jordyn Merritt, a forward at Florida; and Tamari Key, a center at Tennessee who became the all-time leading shot blocker in Tennessee program history in three seasons. I also could have easily selected a third team. The SEC is loaded with talent.)

Tamari Key (Tennessee Athletics)

The Player of the Year has to come from the All-SEC team, so my vote went to Boston, the reigning winner who led the Gamecocks to SEC and national championships in 2021-22.

Disagreement is welcome – accompanied by who you would take off my ballot and place on yours. That’s where it got tricky, and I crumpled my list – literally, I hand-wrote it on paper – several times.

Second, here is my predicted order of finish: South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Auburn.

Again, disagreement is welcome, and I might even agree with you. Some decisions were made because of who graduated, transferred out or transferred in via the portal. This also wasn’t an easy task because last season, the top seven teams were bunched up together until the last week of the regular season with the eighth- and ninth-place teams chasing them. The teams that finished 10th and 11th in 2022 were tied and a win away from moving up two spots.

My reason for picking South Carolina at the top is simple – the Gamecocks are the champions until someone knocks them off the perch.

Different sport, but my thought process was the same for the Atlanta Braves – they are the National League East Division champs in MLB until someone picks them off. It took until the penultimate game of the 2022 regular season, but the Braves finally clinched first place after wresting it from the New York Mets, who had held it nearly the entire season. The Braves were in first or tied for first place only eight days over six months and 162 games. Still, the Mets had to take it from them. The Braves kept it instead.

Back to basketball, Tennessee finished third in the SEC last season and has the roster to win an SEC title. But the Lady Vols have to take it from South Carolina and fend off a lot of challengers, including LSU. The rest of the SEC after the top three – which was based to some degree on portal additions – was harder to pick. Florida was the “surprise” team close to the top last season, as was Ole Miss – I put surprise in quotes because after 25 years of covering the SEC, nothing should surprise me – and the Gators could challenge again.

Ole Miss lost its best player to the WNBA, but I may have the Rebels too low. Mississippi State can compete for an even higher spot if it adjusts quickly to its fourth head coach in four seasons. The talent is there, but can the team mesh in time?

Kentucky lost a singular talent – Rhyne Howard went to become the 2022 WNBA Rookie of the Year – but the Wildcats still have a senior core and added talent in the portal. Texas A&M had a disappointing season in Gary Blair’s farewell one and now has a new coach in Joni Taylor, who left Georgia. Taylor can get the team back on course quickly, so I may have the Aggies too low, too. Georgia, in turn, lost a lot of senior starters, one of its best young players in Jillian Hollingshead, who transferred to Tennessee, and now has a new coach.

Jillian Hollingshead

The teams I have bunched up in the middle and those near the bottom – all of which will pull off upsets and push teams this season – reflect how deep the SEC is now.

Any team in the SEC is capable of taking down any other team at any time. It’s a sports cliché and also true in this league.

South Carolina had one loss in the conference in the regular season. It was to Missouri, which finished 7-9 in the SEC. South Carolina had just two losses the entire season and was the last team standing when it mattered. The other loss? To Kentucky in the SEC tournament. The Wildcats were on the bubble to make the NCAA tourney and then earned the automatic bid by claiming the SEC tourney crown.

The SEC is a league for grown women. So take the predicted order of finish with the proverbial grain of salt. The only guarantee is that it will be entertaining and maddening for fans to watch.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.

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