Can SEC topple Pac-12 as best women's basketball conference? Kentucky holds the key

Strange as this might have sounded just a few years ago, few things in basketball are as predictable these days as South Carolina and Mississippi State running the show in the SEC. But if the conference is going to silence all the talk about Pac-12 dominance, it's going to need more than those familiar faces to make a run at the Final Four.

Good thing the SEC has Kentucky's Rhyne Howard, a player supremely overqualified to play the role of underdog. The SEC's not-so-secret weapon? It just might be the Wildcats.

ESPN.com reporters Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme address SEC sleepers and some of the other hottest topics in women's college basketball this week.

Besides South Carolina and Mississippi State, which SEC teams have the best chance to make noise in the tournament?

Charlie Creme: Kentucky has veterans, a star player and a disruptive defense, all of which are part of the recipe for success in the NCAA tournament.

Transfers Sabrina Haines and Chasity Patterson and senior Jaida Roper give coach Matthew Mitchell other pieces to put around Rhyne Howard, ensuring that the star sophomore isn't continually double- and triple-teamed. But make no mistake: Any success the Wildcats have in the NCAA tournament will come because Howard, who leads the SEC with 23.2 points per game, is excelling. She makes it all go. Her return from a broken finger on her non-shooting hand was a welcome sight, and in her second game back, Kentucky beat Mississippi State. The Wildcats lost to Florida and narrowly beat Alabama without Howard.

The Wildcats force more than 21 turnovers per game. That number could jump when they meet other teams that haven't seen their press and how Kentucky challenges the passing lanes.

Graham Hays: When in doubt, pick the team that has the best player on the court. Unless Kentucky faces Oregon, it is likely to have the best player on the court in just about every game. So I'll second Charlie's nomination. I wish the Wildcats had one additional consistently prolific 3-point shooter to keep defenses honest; Sabrina Haines is the only player other than Howard who averages at least a 3-pointer per game. Still, Kentucky has a lot of players with good enough range on a given day. That was a big part of why it almost pulled off ab upset against Louisville earlier this season, with Haines, KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt all shooting well from outside while the Cardinals paid attention to Howard.

I agree with Charlie about their ability to force turnovers, though I worry that the Wildcats are a little boom-or-bust defensively, with conference opponents shooting 45% against them.

Speaking of which, defense is a reason to like a team that recently scored more than 100 points against Kentucky. Although Arkansas plays at a pace that makes it easy to overlook its defense, the Razorbacks have the third-best defensive field goal percentage in the SEC. Some of that is due to a weak early schedule, but a lot of it is the program continuing to improve under Mike Neighbors. The way Alexis Tolefree is playing of late, they're much less reliant on Chelsea Dungee offensively. If they could somehow find their way to a No. 6 seed, avoiding any potential second-round meeting with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, this team could be a Sweet 16 sleeper.

Mechelle Voepel: With Chennedy Carter back from an ankle injury, Texas A&M again has its primary weapon. We've seen her have some very big games in the postseason. But she isn't the Aggies' only standout: N'dea Jones is averaging a double-double (11.6 PPG, 11.4 RPG), and Kayla Wells (13.1 PPG) and Ciera Johnson (12.6 PPG) also helped hold down the fort while Carter was out. The Aggies still have a shot at a big regular-season victory, as they face South Carolina on March 1.

By then, we'll see how the current four-way tie for third in the SEC -- Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M -- breaks down.

We'd all feel better about LSU's chances if not for the unfortunate ACL injury to senior Ayana Mitchell on Feb. 2. But the Tigers still have juniors Khayla Pointer and Faustine Aifuwa, who have really stepped up.

Which players whose teams aren't expected to make the tournament have had big seasons under the radar?

Hays: By strict definition, sitting in second place in Conference USA and with little hope of an at-large bid at the moment, Rice isn't expected to make the NCAA tournament. But it would be nice to get Rice and Western Kentucky (currently in first place and a stronger at-large candidate) in the field because Erica Ogwumike deserves the big stage. Entirely on her own merits, without regard to her last name, the senior is one of the best players in the country who isn't playing in a Power 5 conference.

About that last name: The 5-foot-9 guard remains the best inch-for-inch rebounder in her family, averaging a double-double this season and double-digit rebounds in her three seasons with the Owls. She's currently averaging better than 20 points and 12 rebounds in conference games.

Ogwumike had 22 points and eight rebounds in an overtime loss against Marquette in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, her tournament debut. She deserves an encore.

Creme: The triple-double has been making news, thanks to Sabrina Ionescu, but the double-double is still plenty impressive. No one does that better this season than Auburn's Unique Thompson.

It's easy to get lost in a league such as the SEC, especially if your team is not winning and your games aren't getting national television exposure. That is what has happened to Thompson during her extremely productive season.

The season hasn't turned out the way the Tigers hoped, one year removed from an NCAA tournament appearance. Auburn is 9-14, tied for 11th in the SEC and facing an early exit from the SEC tournament. Yet Thompson keeps producing. She is averaging 16.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, with a 57.8% field goal percentage, and she has hit double figures in both categories an NCAA-best 19 times this season. The Tigers are one of the worst shooting teams in the country, which explains much of their struggles. That means more opportunities for Thompson, but the 6-foot-3 junior is salvaging as many as she can, with five offensive rebounds per game. That ranks her second nationally.

Thompson, who also averaged a double-double last season, has been the SEC player of the week twice and leads the league in rebounding.

Voepel: The reigning Big 12 player of the week and freshman of the week, post players Peyton Williams and Ayoka Lee of Kansas State have had very bright seasons, despite the Wildcats' not quite catching fire.

The 6-foot-4 Williams, who is also a volleyball standout at K-State, was averaging 16.0 points and 11.8 rebounds going into Wednesday's game against TCU. She had one of the best games of this season Sunday in K-State's overtime victory against Oklahoma, with 31 points, 19 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals.

Lee is averaging 16.0 PPG and 11.1 RPG and is the front-runner for Big 12 freshman of the year. She leads the Wildcats with 71 blocked shots. If Williams and Lee both finish the season averaging double-doubles, it will be the first time that two teammates from a major conference have done that since Stanford sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike did it in 2011-12.

Williams could be selected in the 2020 WNBA draft, as could another Big 12 player worthy of mention whose team likely isn't NCAA tournament-bound: Texas Tech center Brittany Brewer, who is averaging 16.0 PPG and 10.3 RPG, plus a Big 12-best 4.3 blocks per game.

Despite huge preseason expectations, Oregon State just fell to .500 in conference play. Is that a sign of the competitive Pac-12 or a bigger concern that the Beavers can't compete in big games? What should we expect going forward?

Hays: It's mostly a sign that the Pac-12 really is that good, with a few Oregon State-specific concerns mixed in. Other than last weekend's loss at USC, there isn't a conference loss in which the Beavers were clearly heavy favorites. They would have been slight favorites at home against Arizona and maybe on the road at Arizona State in early January. Everything else was a coin flip or worse. The conference is really good, and Oregon State hasn't played weaker Washington and Washington State teams yet (and plays each of them only once this season).

That said, Oregon State runs into fallow offensive stretches with alarming regularity in big games. The Beavers shoot the 3 well, take reasonably good care of the ball and have two players in Mikayla Pivec and Destiny Slocum who, at least at first glance, seem capable of getting their own shots when sets break down. This isn't a team that should have a lot of single-digit scoring quarters. Yet sometimes things just stall.

I'm still of the mind that the bad moments are largely, though perhaps not entirely, random. Logic suggests that a team that fares as well as Oregon State in so many metrics -- field goal offense, field goal defense, assist-to-turnover ratio, 3-point offense -- is going to see bad luck balanced by good luck, especially once it gets to stop playing Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and the Arizona schools all the time. This still isn't a team I'd want to play in the Sweet 16.

Creme: As Graham mentioned, the Pac-12 schedule has contributed to Oregon State's record. The Beavers had to play Oregon twice and both Arizona schools twice, and they'll eventually play Stanford twice. Throw in Monday's game against UCLA -- that loss really has to sting, by the way, because Oregon State controlled most of it -- and that is six of Oregon State's seven losses. By comparison, the Bruins face Stanford and Oregon once each.

Injuries have played a role, too. Kennedy Brown, a 6-foot-6 freshman, was second in the Pac-12 in blocked shots and averaged 6.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game before she suffered a torn ACL two weeks ago against Arizona State. The Beavers are 0-3 since Brown went down. She was a defensive centerpiece and was continuing to improve and get more productive before the injury, though the offense struggled with consistency even before she was lost for the season.

This is still a good team, one with at least Sweet 16 potential, but the Beavers need a win against a good team. The most recent one came in a near-miracle finish against Arizona State. Their last regular-season opportunity is Friday against Stanford. It wouldn't surprise me if Oregon State finds another gear come Pac-12 tournament time.

Voepel: At one point earlier this season, Oregon State was earning votes as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll. As Charlie and Graham point out, injuries and the difficulty of the Pac-12 have taken a toll.

But I wonder if coach Scott Rueck's public complaining about officiating and rough play -- which earned him a reprimand from the Pac-12 last week -- will motivate the Beavers or make them think too much about how games are being called. Rueck has strong veteran leadership, and one can assume he knows his team's psyche better than anyone else. But things aren't going to get easier or less physical the rest of the way.