Lady Vols, Lady Dogs on top in SEC
Even more rare than the blue moon appearing, Tennessee shows vulnerability every great once in awhile. It happened last season, when the freshmen-laded team lost five SEC games and 11 overall, falling in the NCAA tournament's first round. While Tennessee this season is not back up to its status of 2007-08, it's still looking like the boss of the SEC again. Especially as long as sophomore Shekinna Stricklen, who had just the second triple-double in Tennessee history in a win over Oklahoma on Sunday, stays healthy.
Georgia, however, is the SEC team that went undefeated in nonconference play. Andy Landers' squad rallied to win its SEC opener against Alabama on Sunday and, at 14-0, ties a school record for best start.
Georgia has one of the top freshmen in the nation in guard Jasmine James. She and rookies like South Carolina's Kelsey Bone, Vanderbilt's Tiffany Clark, Kentucky's A'dia Mathies, Auburn's Morgan Toles and Tennessee's Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams are all first-year players already making an impact.
Last year, as mentioned, Tennessee slid into the SEC pack after winning back-to-back national championships. But are the rest of the SEC teams about to see Tennessee separate from them again? Georgia, with a good mix of older and younger players, hopes to be able to hang with Tennessee -- but has only won twice in that series in the past decade. LSU's only loss thus far was at undefeated Nebraska, and coach Van Chancellor does have a more experienced team this season than last. But only senior Allison Hightower (17.1 ppg) has been a consistent double-digit scoring threat. After big wins against Tennessee last season, Auburn and Florida have senior losses to replace.
Question to answer
Can more than five teams earn NCAA tournament bids? It's worth wondering about now because seven of the 12 teams already have at least four losses. Three of Mississippi State's four, however, came in a row at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. And the Bulldogs' other defeat came at Xavier. With Alexis Rack and Armelie Lumanu leading a senior-dominated team, Mississippi State could still have a very solid SEC season.
Team to watch
Is Georgia for real? Victories over Oklahoma and Virginia were impressive, although both came in Athens, Ga. Landers feels he has in senior Ashley Houts a point guard who's underappreciated nationally. Redshirt senior Angel Robinson has had many ups and downs, but at her best she's still one of the top post players in the SEC. She and junior Porsha Phillips make for quite a rebounding duo inside. We might not have a good read on Georgia, though, until after a Jan. 14 game at Vanderbilt and a Jan. 21 visit from Tennessee.
Player to watch
Bone is the highest-profile recruit coach Dawn Staley has brought in so far at South Carolina, where she's in her second season. Staley knew that Bone would have to get in better condition and toughen up as a post player. Starting off the SEC season Sunday, Bone had nine points and 12 rebounds in a loss to LSU. It's a tough league for a young post player to grow up in, but Bone has the talent to do it.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Graham Hays and Mechelle break down the 2009-10 conference races.
Graham Hays• Big East is UConn's to win or lose
• Rest of Pac-10 chasing Stanford
• Lots of competition in A-10, Mountain West
• More mid-major previews
Mechelle Voepel• Duke emerging as ACC favorite
• Big 12 might be most interesting race
• Can Spartans test OSU in Big Ten?
• Lady Vols, Lady Dogs on top in SEC