Texas A&M, Missouri join SEC

A'dia Mathies and Kentucky start out as the favorites in the SEC race. Mark Zerof/US Presswire

The only thing that will be normal in the SEC this season is that Tennessee will be the most talked-about team in the conference. After that, it's all about change. And that too begins with that little ol' program in Knoxville.

The day that once seemed impossible to picture has arrived -- Pat Summitt is no longer the head coach at the University of Tennessee. Longtime assistant Holly Warlick takes over the program, and no other coach in the country will face a brighter spotlight.

And while Warlick is replacing Summitt, she has to replace longtime Lady Vols Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning and Vicki Baugh on the court. The new coach will unveil one of the smallest, least experienced Tennessee teams in a long time when the Lady Vols open their typically challenging schedule Friday at Chattanooga. Much will be placed on the shoulders of Meighan Simmons, inconsistent and sometimes erratic in her first two seasons, and Ariel Massengale, who dealt with some minor injury issues last season.

All the eyes on Tennessee might take some attention from SEC favorite and defending regular-season champion Kentucky. A deep and talented Wildcats team led by reigning conference player of the year A'dia Mathies will have loftier goals than the Lady Vols and is a legitimate Final Four threat.

A changing of the guard has taken place in the SEC, but a change in the shape of the conference is here, too. Texas A&M and Missouri have been added, expanding the league's breadth. In the Aggies, the SEC now boasts another national power.

One day not too long ago, Tennessee and LSU were at not only the top of the conversation in the SEC, but also customarily the top of the standings. At least part of that is no longer the case.

Predicted order of finish

1. Kentucky (28-7): Not only do the Wildcats have the SEC's best player (A'dia Mathies), incredible depth and a style of play that is difficult to deal with, but they now have the experience of winning a conference title and a deep NCAA tournament run. The dual threat in the post of Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth adds another dimension. The program Matthew Mitchell has built is poised to reach its high mark.

2. Georgia (22-9): Jasmine Hassell, Anne Marie Armstrong and Jasmine James are now seniors, meaning the biggest season the program has seen in a long time has arrived.

3. Vanderbilt (23-10): Big expectations in Nashville -- with five starters back, 10 overall returnees and a top-25 recruiting class -- took a hit when center Stephanie Holzer went down for the season with a dislocated knee in an exhibition game. Fellow juniors Christina Foggie (the SEC's leading scorer) and point guard Jasmine Lister will have to do even more.

4. Tennessee (27-9): If the Lady Vols are going to begin the Holly Warlick era in a place to which Tennessee fans have grown accustomed, Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale will have to emerge as a dominating backcourt.

5. Texas A&M (24-11): Gary Blair has the country's second-ranked recruiting class ready for the Aggies' first SEC season, but A&M's initial success will hinge largely on the play of Kelsey Bone and Karla Gilbert in the post.

6. LSU (23-11): Nikki Caldwell will have to find a way to improve an inconsistent offense that lost four of its top five scorers, including the do-it-all LaSondra Barrett.

7. South Carolina (25-10): The 2011-12 backcourt elevated the Gamecocks to one of the greatest seasons in school history. Now Dawn Staley must do some rebuilding around senior Ieasia Walker and a promising recruiting class.

8. Arkansas (24-9): The Razorbacks lost five seniors from a team that set a school record with 10 SEC wins. The fourth-place finish was also an all-time best. Any chance to duplicate that rests on senior Sarah Watkins having a huge season.

9. Florida (20-13): Eight of the 12 Gators are new players, and six are freshmen. That means senior and leading scorer Jennifer George (12.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg) will carry a big burden. She was one of four players who received votes for the SEC preseason player of the year.

10. Auburn (13-17): Terri Williams-Flournoy takes over a program that hasn't been the same since DeWanna Bonner graduated in 2009. The Tigers return just one senior, Blanche Alverson, who played a significant role last season.

11. Mississippi State (14-16): Vic Schaefer was leaving Texas A&M for the SEC just as those Aggies were doing the same. Schaefer's transition will be more difficult. He takes over for longtime coach Sharon Fanning-Otis after 11 seasons at Gary Blair's side in College Station. Schaefer has just two returning starters from a team that won four league games last season.

12. Mississippi (12-18): Just three weeks after his first practice as Ole Miss coach, Adrian Wiggins was put on indefinite leave while an investigation into impermissible recruiting contacts and academic misconduct began. Brett Frank steps in as interim coach and will rely on junior point guard Valencia McFarland (13.4 points and 37 minutes per game last season) plenty to lead a depleted roster.

13. Missouri (13-18): The Tigers don't have a double-figure scorer returning, lack size and are extremely young. It didn't work well in the Big 12, and until the nine freshmen and sophomores grow older, it won't work well in the SEC, either.

14. Alabama (12-19): The Crimson Tide bring back four starters, but this group shoots it better (last in the SEC in field goal percentage) and stops people more (last in the SEC in points allowed). Still, getting out of the bottom third of the league won't happen.

Players to watch

Alexia Standish, sophomore, G, Texas A&M: Standish, along with Adrienne Pratcher, is the only real experience Aggies coach Gary Blair has in his backcourt. She will move from a fifth or sixth option on offense to quite possibly the second. If A&M is to challenge the SEC's elite in its first season, Standish likely will have to score much more than her 5.2 scoring average last season.

Jennifer O'Neill, sophomore, G, Kentucky: The former McDonald's All-American who missed all of last season with a foot injury returns to provide pure point guard play to talented lineup. If O'Neill is physically ready to go for an entire season, the lives of A'dia Mathies and Bria Goss become easier and more free.

Adrienne Webb, senior, G, LSU: Webb watched LaSondra Barrett carry a big load for the Lady Tigers last season and might very well have to assume that responsibility in 2012-13. The senior's 9.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game are easily the best numbers of any returning LSU player. She'll be expected to bring along a young team.