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South Carolina sets standard in SEC

The SEC once again is the deepest conference in the country. Four teams appear to have Final Four potential. Last season, South Carolina came out of nowhere to win the regular-season championship and now has become the favorite.

SEC predicted order of finish

1. South Carolina (29-5 in 2013-14): The Gamecocks made a number of people look silly last season. Picked to finish seventh in the SEC by the media, South Carolina won the conference title and earned the school's first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. With SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell back, along with all-league forward Aleighsa Welch and conference Freshman of the Year Alaina Coates, the Gamecocks have become the hunted. That kind of veteran talent, plus the additions of top-rated freshmen A'ja Wilson and Jatarie White, not only make South Carolina the SEC favorite, but also the top contender to challenge the national dominance of UConn.

2. Tennessee (29-6): Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves become the focal point in Knoxville with Meighan Simmons' graduation. That will redirect the Lady Vols to being a more inside-oriented club, the kind of team that has typically brought the program its most success. Point guard inconsistency was an issue last season, but a healthy Ariel Massengale could fix that. Tennessee's Final Four drought has reached six years, but the last time the Lady Vols were there it was also in Tampa.

3. Texas A&M (27-9): In Courtney Walker, Courtney Williams and top-rated juco transfer Shlonte Allen, coach Gary Blair has put together one of the best trios of guards in the country. The difficulty might be competing with the size of South Carolina and Tennessee. That gets much easier to handle if highly regarded 6-foot-5 freshman Khaalia Hillsman can contribute by the time conference play rolls around.

4. Kentucky (26-9): The Wildcats go back to being highly guard-oriented with the departures of DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker. Matthew Mitchell will likely give the keys to his fast-moving car to the experienced group of Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Janee Thompson and Linnae Harper. McDonald's All-American Alyssa Rice should be an impact freshman, giving Kentucky the inside presence it will need to break through to a Final Four.

5. LSU (21-13): The Lady Tigers will go as far as their deep and talented backcourt can take them. Danielle Ballard looked like a star during LSU's Sweet 16 run last March. Raigyne Moncrief and DaShawn Harden played much better late in the year after an otherwise inconsistent year. Nikki Caldwell will spend the early part of the season trying to find some frontcourt combinations that work in order to have the muscle to compete with the likes of Tennessee and South Carolina.

6. Georgia (20-12): Shacobia Barbee and Erika Ford are the lead Lady Dogs, but Andy Landers has a balanced team returning and should have plenty of options to explore. That also includes a top-20 recruiting class. Finding that player to take over for Khaalidah Miller at the point, perhaps junior Marjorie Butler or freshman Haley Clark, will be an important element to the season's first two months.

7. Mississippi State (22-14): In his third year in Starkville, Vic Schaefer is building something after the Bulldogs had hit hard times. Last season's 22-win team snapped a string of three straight losing seasons. Four starters return. First-team All-SEC center Martha Alwal is back for her senior year and Breanna Richardson made the all-freshman team. A top-20 recruiting class should continue Mississippi State's upward trajectory.

8. Vanderbilt (18-13): Coach Melanie Balcomb pulled in what is likely the best recruiting class in school history. It will have to make an immediate impact because program mainstays Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister, last season's top two scorers at Vanderbilt, have graduated. Christa Reed headlines the new class and could be the replacement for Foggie. The healthy return of last year's top recruit, Rebekah Dahlman, who made 18 of 35 3-pointers over the first nine games before a blood clot ended her season, would be a huge lift.

9. Florida (20-13): The Gators were good enough to nearly have four players average in double figures and beat the likes of St. John's, Oregon State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky (twice) and Dayton. But they also managed to lose early in the season to Illinois State and later to Missouri at home. That elusive consistency might be easier to find with three of those scorers back, led by senior Kayla Lewis. Someone will have to fill the leadership and scoring void left by the graduation of Jaterra Bonds.

10. Auburn (19-15): Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy has turned over the roster in her two seasons running the Tigers and this season will have a group that consists of nine freshmen and sophomores. Brandy Montgomery is one of those players. A member of the 2013-14 SEC all-freshmen team, Montgomery is Auburn's top returning scorer, but she needs much more help. The Tigers' offense was the second-worst in the SEC, and Auburn was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country.

11. Arkansas (19-11): Tom Cullen's seven-year stint as Arkansas coach just didn't bring enough in-conference and postseason success, so he was fired and popular Razorback alum Jimmy Dykes was hired to make a splash and re-energize a stagnant program. Having a senior point guard in Calli Berna, sixth in the country in assists in 2013-14, and a forecourt duo of Jessica Jackson and Jhasmin Bowen who combined to average 25 points a game last season, should help Dykes as he adapts to the women's game.

12. Missouri (17-14): The Tigers faded down the stretch and ended their season with a blowout loss to Creighton in the WNIT. Four returning starters, led by Morgan Eye, one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in the nation last season, try to erase those memories. But Bri Kulas, who led Missouri in scoring the last two seasons, is gone and coach Robin Pingeton doesn't have an easy answer to replacing those 18 points per game.

13. Alabama (14-16): The offseason was tough with some bad public relations stemming from the transfer of former player Daisha Simmons to Seton Hall. With the top two scorers from a year ago gone, the regular season could be even tougher. Much will be asked of sophomore Ashley Williams, the third-leading scorer and top rebounder. A healthy Karyla Middlebrook, who missed all but nine games of her freshman season with a hip injury, at the point will maintain some of the momentum gained from last year's five-game improvement in conference play in coach Kristy Curry's first season in Tuscaloosa.

14. Ole Miss (12-20): Winning two of the final three games, including the first SEC tournament victory since 2010, constitutes small progress at a school that has recorded just seven conference victories in the last three years. Matt Insell will take that for a first season as head coach. Now he welcomes eight new faces to Oxford as he continues to remake the program. Tia Faleru, the Rebels' top rebounder and second-leading scorer at 16.4 PPG, returns to give the young players someone to lean on.