BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Defending national champion and unanimous preseason No. 1 South Carolina is, not surprisingly, the favorite to win another Southeastern Conference title.
The Gamecocks were picked Tuesday to win their seventh SEC championship in 10 seasons and third straight in voting by league and national media. The SEC didn't release vote totals, but the pick seemed a no-brainer with South Carolina unanimously voted preseason No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley stays on the lookout for signs of complacency.
“It’s a big worry, because once you’ve won and you return basically almost your entire team, you tend to want to take the beginning part of your season — the meat and potatoes of your season — lightly,” Staley said. "They haven’t shown signs of it. But we haven’t been healthy, healthy either.
“It’s in my mind and on my heart to keep this team engaged and challenged every day when we’re out there practicing.”
South Carolina's Aliyah Boston was named preseason player of the year and was joined as first-team All-SEC by teammate Zia Cooke. Boston was the unanimous national player of the year last season.
Preseason No. 5 Tennessee was picked to finish second and No. 16 LSU third, followed by Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida and Kentucky. The Lady Vols filled out the other three spots on the first team with Rickea Jackson, Jordan Horston and Tamari Key.
Jackson is one of four offseason transfer pickups after she led Mississippi State in scoring each of the past three seasons. The others are Jasmine Franklin (Missouri State), Jasmine Powell (Minnesota) and Jillian Hollingshead (Georgia).
“I think they bring something special,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “Each one of them brings something different, but they're all very explosive and they're veterans.”
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors figures it might be hard to rank the SEC teams from 4-14. The top three are clear-cut.
“We have three teams that have separated themselves,” Neighbors said.
Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy wasn't at all surprised when former Wildcats star Rhyne Howard “took the WNBA by storm.”
The two-time SEC player of the year was the No. 1 overall pick by the Atlanta Dream. She was a WNBA All-Star and rookie of the year.
Elzy moves on with a more balanced team that lacks that one huge star.
"People ask me, What do you do without Rhyne Howard? I say, You don't replace a Rhyne Howard," she said. “She is a once-in-a-lifetime type player that we had the honor to coach at Kentucky. But now, we do it collectively.”
The Hayes sisters — Anastasia, Alasia and Aislynn — get to play together once again. It went pretty well the last time.
The Mississippi State guards led Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to a 34-0 record and second straight state championship in 2016-17 when Anastasia was a senior. They were named national champions by MaxPrep.
“We play really well together,” Anastasia said.
Having all three sisters on the same team makes it easy on their parents to attend games “and support all of us at once,” she said. “It’s just so cool.”
Anastasia, a second-team All-SEC pick last season, was the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year at Tennessee in 2018. She transferred to Middle Tennessee, where she was named Conference USA player of the year and tournament MVP.
Alasia sat out last season with an injury after spending one season at Notre Dame. Aislynn mostly came off the bench last season after also transferring from Middle Tennessee.
The SEC has four new head coaches, including Mississippi State's Sam Purcell, Georgia’s Katie Abrahamson-Henderson and Texas A&M’s Joni Taylor. Florida’s Kelly Rae Finley officially got the job in February after serving as interim coach last season following the September resignation of Cameron Newbauer over his treatment of players and staff.
“She loves and cares for us deeply, and that makes it easy to fight every night for her,” Gators forward Faith Dut said. “And she just does it with such style and grace.”
Taylor spent the past seven years at Georgia, taking the Lady Bulldogs to four NCAA Tournaments and earning SEC coach of the year honors in 2020-21.
Purcell was an assistant at Louisville the past nine seasons.
Abrahamson-Henderson is a former Georgia player who has been head coach at UCF, Albany and Missouri State. She inherits a team that has been to two straight NCAA Tournaments.
She intends to lean on her former coach, Hall of Famer Andy Landers, for input.
“He is going to be a tremendous resource for me,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Just the way he built this program and how he did things, his vision of how he looks at it may be a little different from the outside in, where he used to be the inside out and now he’s looking on the outside in.”
UCF star Diamond Battles, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, followed her to Athens.
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll