By The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Southeastern Conference begins the first year of the post-Pat Summitt era in an unfamiliar situation.
Tennessee, the eight-time national champion and longtime conference heavyweight, isn’t favored to win the league. The Lady Vols aren’t even considered among the top few contenders.
The Lady Vols don’t return anyone who started an NCAA tournament game last year during their run to a regional final. That creates opportunity for the rest of the SEC, which is seeking to produce its first Final Four team since Tennessee won the national title and LSU reached the semifinals in 2008. Texas A&M won the 2011 national championship when it was still a Big 12 member.
“I think you’ll see some changes in the league,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “I think going into the year most people would probably pick Kentucky as the team to beat. I think you’ll have a number of very, very good teams. I think you’ll have probably as many as four or five that could be ranked at some point during the season in the top 10.”
At this point, the league has five teams in the Top 25. No. 6 Kentucky, No. 10 Georgia, No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 16 Vanderbilt are all ranked ahead of No. 20 Tennessee.
Kentucky returns four starters from a team that went 28-7, won the SEC regular-season crown and reached a regional final last season. The list of returning starters is headed by 5-foot-9 senior guard A’dia Mathies, the 2012 SEC player of the year. Kentucky also benefits from the return of 5-6 point guard Jennifer O’Neill and the arrival of California transfer DeNesha Stallworth.
O’Neill sat out last season with a stress fracture in her right foot after starting three games as a freshman in 2010-11. Stallworth, a 6-3 junior center, ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in scoring (13.3) and 12th in the league in rebounding (6.4) two seasons ago before sitting out the 2011-12 season as a transfer.
“We just have to stay focused and just do the things we have been doing in the past,” Mathies said. “My freshman year we were picked 11th (in the league) and finished second, so we can’t just go by on what other people say. We just have to put in the work to fulfill that.”
Kentucky has plenty of competition.
Georgia returns four starters from a team that went 22-9 and got upset by Marist in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament. Senior guard/forward Anne Marie Armstrong and senior forward Jasmine Hassell were second-team all-SEC picks last season.
Vanderbilt brings back its top eight scorers from a team that overcame injuries to go 23-10 and reach the second round of last year’s tournament. Christina Foggie, a 5-9 junior guard, led the SEC in scoring (17.9) and 3-point percentage (.429) last season.
“I look at the conference being as open as it’s been – and this is my 11th year – and as strong as it’s ever been,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said.
And, of course, it would be foolish to count out Tennessee. The Lady Vols have wasted no time using their lower-than-usual spot in the Top 25 as incentive.
Summitt stepped down in April following her 38th season as the Lady Vols’ head coach, one year after announcing she had early-onset dementia Alzheimer’s type. She now has the title head coach emeritus and remains on the Lady Vols’ staff under new coach Holly Warlick, an assistant to Summitt for the last 27 years.
Tennessee’s No. 20 position is its worst preseason ranking since the Lady Vols weren’t included in the first poll ever in 1976-77. The only other year the Lady Vols were ranked outside the top 10 of the preseason poll was 1984-85.
“All I’m telling you is that is serving as motivation for us,” Warlick said. “If you lose five starters and you lose the winningest coach in the country, I understand that expectations (from) a lot of people will be lowered, but they’re not lowered for me. They’re not lowered for this program, not for these fans. We don’t like being ranked 20th, but it’s preseason and we’re using that as a motivation factor.”
Still, the turnover represents a season of transition for the entire league, not just Tennessee.
Warlick is one of the SEC’s four new coaches, one of whom was just named last week. Ole Miss selected former assistant Brett Frank as its interim coach Wednesday after dismissing Adrian Wiggins amid an investigation into recruiting and academic misconduct. The league also welcomes two new teams in Texas A&M and Missouri.
Texas A&M has only two returning starters, but junior center Kelsey Bone gives the Aggies a legitimate all-conference candidate in her return to the SEC. Bone, who began her college career at South Carolina, averaged 11.9 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds last season.
South Carolina and Arkansas earned their first NCAA tournament bids since 2003 last season, but both are retooling their lineups. Arkansas must replace four-year starting guards C’eira Ricketts and Lyndsay Harris. Ieasia Walker, a 5-8 senior guard, is South Carolina’s lone returning starter.
LSU and Florida each reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last year. Florida returns 6-foot senior forward Jennifer George, who ranked second in the SEC in rebounds (8.8) and 10th in scoring (12.8) last season.
“We have a lot of folks (in the SEC) that are getting a lot of people back and a lot of newness,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “It’s hard to make predictions.”
Auburn and Mississippi State are attempting to bounce back from losing seasons with new coaches.
Terri Williams-Flournoy led Georgetown to three straight NCAA tournament appearances before coming to Auburn to replace Nell Fortner, who stepped down after posting a 145-106 record in eight seasons. Mississippi State chose former Texas A&M assistant Vic Schaefer to take over for Sharon Fanning-Otis, who retired with a 281-232 mark in 17 seasons.
Alabama has four returning starters and Ole Miss welcomes back second-team all-SEC point guard Valencia McFarland, but both teams have a long way to go after posting identical 2-14 conference records last season. Missouri also posted just two conference wins in the Big 12 last year while going 13-18 overall.
“It’ll be a different kind of year in the Southeastern Conference,” Landers said. “I think fans around the league probably need to study a little bit because the teams that you’re accustomed to wanting to go see when they come to your town may not be the teams you want to see this year.”