Lady Vols, Wildcats on top in SEC

DeNesha Stallworth and Kentucky play a pressure defense that most teams struggle against. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Talk all you want about Tennessee's Final Four drought, but keep in mind that the Lady Vols' 2008 NCAA championship marked the last time any SEC team reached the game's showcase event.

Three of the conference's best teams -- Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia -- reached the Elite Eight a year ago. All three lost. Kentucky has made consecutive trips the regional finals, only to fall short against Connecticut each time.

If the streak is to end in 2014 in Nashville, the teams from Knoxville and Lexington have the best chance.

The Lady Vols might not have made it to the Final Four a year ago, but they disproved any notion that there would be a drop-off as the program transitioned from the leadership of Pat Summitt to Holly Warlick. Tennessee replaced a bunch of seniors and a legend and still won the SEC regular-season championship, and the Lady Vols are expected to repeat this season. The talent runs thick in Knoxville with Meighan Simmons poised for her senior year, Bashaara Graves, who is back after establishing herself as one of the best interior players in the country as a freshman, and 6-foot-6 freshman Mercedes Russell, widely considered 2013's top high school player.

Tennessee always plays a rugged schedule, but one drawback is that with the expanded SEC, the Lady Vols again face Kentucky only once in the regular season (Feb. 16). The matchup of Graves, Isabelle Harrison and Russell against the Wildcats' DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker in the post seems too good to see only once. This could also be the meeting that helps decide the SEC race.

Nikki Caldwell seems to have things moving in the right direction at LSU. The Lady Tigers were also in that Final Four in 2008 but haven't been the same since. They might not be ready for that status just yet, but this should be the best team in Baton Rouge since the Sylvia Fowles days.

Texas A&M, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt all lost significant personnel, so if a challenge is be mounted to Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU, it will likely be led by a new face. For the much of the rest of the SEC, it is a year of transition. For the Lady Vols and Wildcats, in particular, it's a season to get the conference back to the top.

Predicted order of finish

1. Tennessee (27-8 in 2012-13): This might be as deep and talented as the Lady Vols have been since the back-to-back title teams in 2007 and 2008. A focused Meighan Simmons is one of the country's best scorers, and the gifted size of Bashaara Graves, Isabelle Harrison and highly regarded freshman Mercedes Russell up front will be tough for anyone to match.

2. Kentucky (30-6): With A'dia Mathies gone but DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker back, the Wildcats might become more post-oriented this season. Don't expect the pressure defense to disappear -- no team might benefit more from the new 10-second backcourt rule. While Matthew Mitchell's two best offensive players reside down low, wing Bria Goss could be in for a big leap forward.

3. LSU (22-12: Theresa Plaisance, Danielle Ballard and Japan native Rina Hill give the Lady Tigers the kind of well-rounded offensive nucleus they haven't truly had since Nikki Caldwell took over as coach three years ago. There is enough in Baton Rouge to once again seriously challenge for a conference title.

4. Texas A&M (25-10): Courtney Walker could be ready for elite status. Karla Gilbert has a big opportunity in her final season in the post. But the Aggies will likely miss Kelsey Bone and Adrienne Pratcher too much to repeat last season's 25 wins and SEC tournament title.

5. Vanderbilt (21-11): If Christina Foggie can return to All-SEC first-team level she played two seasons ago, the Commodores could challenge for a top-three conference spot. Jasmine Lister is back at the point, giving Melanie Balcomb a veteran, reliable backcourt. Replacing Tiffany Clarke's post presence will be the biggest challenge. Freshman guard Rebekah Dahlman scored more than 5,000 points in high school and was the two-time Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year.

6. Georgia (28-7): Coach Andy Landers hasn't seen many of these in his long career, but the Lady Bulldogs are in a rebuilding year. After 28 wins and an Elite Eight appearance, Georgia said goodbye to program mainstays Jasmine James, Jasmine Hassell and Anne Marie Armstrong, who accounted for nearly half of Georgia's scoring last season. Senior Khaalidah Miller and sophomores Tiaria Griffin and Shacobia Barbee have plenty of experience, but filling James' shoes at the point will be nearly impossible.

7. South Carolina (25-8): Top scorer Aleighsa Welch is back, but nearly all of the other meaningful production is gone. But while another trip to the NCAA tournament is realistic, a third straight 25-win season probably isn't.

8. Auburn (19-15): Auburn struggled in SEC play (5-11) but reached the WNIT quarterfinals in Terri Williams-Flournoy's first season as coach. Now she has all five starters returning; 6-foot-1 wing bookends Tyrese Tanner and Hasina Muhammad lead the way.

9. Missouri (17-15): An up-and-down debut SEC season was highlighted by a shocking upset of Tennessee. But with just two starters back, it isn't enough to build on. Much will be expected of the overall play of senior Bri Kulas and the deep shooting of junior Morgan Eye.

10. Florida (22-15): The Gators hope star recruit Ronni Williams can shine immediately to give senior Jaterra Bonds a running mate. Williams was the top high school player in the state of Florida a year ago. Guards Kayla Lewis and Carlie Needles will also be asked to play bigger roles.

11. Mississippi State (13-17): Second-year coach Vic Schaefer has 6-foot-4 Martha Alwal to rely on in the middle, but otherwise the rebuilding continues in Starkville. A big step would be winning a little more on the road, where the Bulldogs went 1-8 a year ago.

12. Arkansas (20-13): Seven of the 12 Razorbacks are freshmen, so Tom Collen will have plenty of coaching to do his seventh season. He will rely heavily on junior point guard Calli Berna to lead the young group.

13. (9-20): Matt Insell becomes the fourth coach for the Rebels in three seasons. Under interim coach Brett Frank, Ole Miss suffered through its worst season in program history. Frank had to replace last year's new hire, Adrian Wiggins, who was removed three weeks into his stay after allegations of recruiting and academic misconduct surfaced. Insell was a top assistant and helped Matthew Mitchell build the Kentucky program into a national program. He inherits three veteran double-figure scorers -- Valencia McFarland, Tia Faleru and Diara Moore -- to get him started.

14. Alabama (13-18): The Crimson Tide haven't been particularly relevant in the new century, but the program's most significant moment in a long time took place in May when AD Bill Battle lured Kristy Curry away from Texas Tech to coach in Tuscaloosa. The rebuild is extensive, but Curry managed to get undermanned Lady Raiders teams to the NCAA tournament and was a big winner at Purdue. Neither will happen at Alabama for a while in the ultra-competitive SEC, but the veteran coach has last year's top two scorers, Daisha Simmons and Shafontaye Myers, to work with in year one.

Players to watch

Karla Gilbert, Texas A&M, senior: Gary Blair has been blessed with and has nurtured two tremendous post players in Danielle Adams and Kelsey Bone over the past few seasons. Gilbert has been the caddy to both of those All-Americans. Now, it's her turn to swing the club. Her ability to raise her game will have plenty to do with the Aggies' ability to challenge the conference elite.

Mercedes Russell, Tennessee, freshman: The Lady Vols have remained plenty talented since their last Final Four appearance, in 2008, but what they have lacked is a true difference-maker. The end of that spell might have arrived in Russell. The 6-foot-6 freshman is the biggest Tennessee catch in the recruiting game since Candace Parker, and she has the skills to have the same kind of career. Versatile and smart, Russell should have an immediate impact and will get even better as her strength in the post grows.

Rina Hill, LSU, freshman: In Hill, the Lady Tigers have a true point guard, something the program has largely lacked for the past few seasons. Hill might not be the most talented of the freshmen guards brought in by coach Nikki Caldwell and her staff -- Raigyne Moncrief and Jasmine Rhodes are also highly regarded -- but if the Lady Tigers are going to convert to a more up-tempo style, Hill could be the key.