Hellwege more optimistic about Mizzou women’s basketball than others

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

Part 1

The Missouri women’s basketball team started out the year with a win, but how will the Tigers do as they get deeper into this, their first season in the Southeastern Conference? This year, the conference jumps to 14 schools with the addition of Missouri and the 2011 NCAA champion Texas A&M Aggies. With a handful of programs primed for strong years and many storylines to follow, the 2012-2013 season looks as exciting as ever.

Predictions

Place Hellwege SEC/Media
1 Kentucky Kentucky
2 Georgia Georgia
3 Texas A&M Vanderbilt
4 Tennessee Tennessee
5 Vanderbilt Texas A&M
6 LSU LSU
7 Arkansas South Carolina
8 South Carolina Arkansas
9 Mississippi State Florida
10 Florida Auburn
11 Missouri Mississippi State
12 Auburn Ole Miss
13 Mississippi Missouri
14 Alabama Alabama

Here are Darren Hellwege’s predictions for the upcoming season, with a capsule featuring each of the SEC’s seven Western Division teams:

Alabama (12-19 overall, 2-14 SEC)
Predicted finish: 14
The 2002 Crimson Tide team was a WNIT quarterfinalist and was the 10th consecutive Bama team to make the postseason. Since then, the once-proud program has made it past the SEC tourney only once, in 2011 when they made the Sweet Sixteen of the WNIT. Instead of the start of forward momentum, last year’s team stumbled to a 2-14 record in the league and with three new assistants and a major roster upheaval there’s little to indicate much reason for optimism. Coach Wendell Hudson welcomes three new assistant coaches and six new players, including two transfers from Rutgers. There are four starters returning from last year’s team, and a player to watch is Kaneisha Horn. She was an All-SEC player two years back as a freshman. If she’s fully recovered from a torn ACL that cost her the 2011-2012 season, Alabama may have the experience to climb out of the basement. But it’s doubtful they’ll be very far out of it this year.

Arkansas (24-9, 10-6)
Predicted finish: 7
Although the Razorbacks lose some top talent off last year’s team, there’s still plenty left in the cupboard for coach Tom Collen. While it may not be “40 Minutes of Hell”, this team follows the Arkansas tradition of fierce defense. If they can extend the tremendous play they showed in an eight-game win streak last season, they may go further than the second round of the NCAA tournament this year. Sarah Watkins is back for her senior year, the post player from Tennessee was a second team All-Conference player last year. She is tough to stop on offense and a scary shot-blocker on defense, and is just one on a roster with a lot of talent and depth. The Hogs may not be a serious challenge to the SEC Championship, but they’re a solid pick for the upper division and Razorbacks fans should start saving now for another trip to the NCAA tournament.

Auburn (13-17, 5-11)
Predicted finish: 12
Terri Williams-Flournoy takes over for legendary coach Nell Fortner, the former Olympic coach steps down after eight seasons. Williams-Flournoy had some success coaching at Georgetown and her 20-year resume includes a stint with Team USA. She’ll inherit a decent amount of talent off a team that started with some hope last year but limped across the finish line, going 5-13 down the stretch. Of just five victories in league play last season, four came against basement-dwellers Alabama and Ole Miss. That starts with better talent and Williams-Flournoy has a reputation as a top-notch recruiter. She knows the SEC, having coached at Georgia, and her trips to visit new SEC member Missouri won’t be entirely strange, as she spent two years in Springfield as an assistant coach for Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State), where she helped two teams to the NCAA tourney.

Louisiana State (23-11, 10-6)
Predicted finish: 6
Coach Nikki Caldwell had a fine first season at LSU, overcoming an injury to point guard Destini Hughes and still putting together a six-game win streak and finishing a strong 10-6 in league play. Hughes is one of five seniors who graduated, but three starters and a top-grade recruiting class give Tiger fans reason for optimism. Senior guard Adrienne Webb leads the way as one of the top 3-point shooters in the league. Jeanne Kenney is the leading returner in assists and an excellent free throw shooter. And of the newbies, Danielle Ballard is especially exciting, a top-20 national prospect who led the way at Memphis Central, one of the nation’s top teams and a Tennessee state champion. Caldwell is an outstanding coach who played for and was an assistant coach under Pat Summitt at Tennessee. While at UCLA she had a pretty good team in her first season, but her Bruin teams showed marked improvement in their second and third seasons.

Ole Miss (12-18, 2-14)
Predicted finish: 13
It was a rough season for the Rebels, who put together two wins in one week and otherwise struck out entirely against the league. They were looking for an answer in new coach Adrian Wiggins, who had some impressive success at Fresno State. But it all hit the fan last week when recruiting, ahem, “irregularities” came to light. The alleged chicanery involved the nation’s top junior college player, Kay Caples. The Rebs will now play with interim coach, Brett Frank, the Ole Miss roster does not list Caples, and any reason to think Ole Miss might climb out of the basement has melted away. Which is a pity, because the team features one of the more complete players in the league in Valencia McFarland, and returns team captain Courtney Marbra. It’s hard to imagine the Rebs having much success this year, they may struggle even to match last year’s record.

Mississippi State (14-16, 10-6)
Predicted finish: 9
There’s a startling contrast between the free-for-all in Oxford and the situation down the road in Starkville, where the Bulldogs have made a great hire in bringing Vic Schaefer and much of the brain trust from Texas A&M to take over at State. A&M won the National Championship two years back, and much of the credit goes to Schaefer and the other assistant coaches. With not just his record at A&M but having taken Arkansas to a Final Four as an assistant coach, Schaefer had probably earned his shot years ago but now that he has it, I expect to see big things from him at MSU. He inherits a team that is very young, and while this year may be a bit of a struggle for this great teacher of the game, it bodes well for the long haul. Kendra Grant made the all-freshman SEC team last year, and is one of only two returning starters. I’ve picked them higher than I might otherwise have based solely on the talent because the teams Schaefer has coached have shown a remarkable talent to win the close games, and he gets more out of his players than other coaches might have. Call it a hunch, but I expect the Bulldogs to win a few games that nobody thinks they have a chance to win.

Texas A&M (24-11, 11-7 in Big 12)
Predicted finish: 3
Two years removed from their national title, the Aggies are in rebuilding mode. Not only did they lose three senior starters from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, they also lost much of their coaching staff as Vic Schaefer took a good part of the brain trust with him to Mississippi State. Coach Gary Blair and his newly rebuilt coaching staff welcome back Kelsey Bone, last year’s Big 12 newcomer of the year (and chosen to the All-SEC Preseason team) and all-freshman performer Alexia Standish. They also have a tremendous recruiting class coming in. But they’re going to be depending on a lot from some very young players. It’s doubtful Texas A&M’s first season in the SEC will be especially successful, but Blair has come back from much worse situations than this, and one expects much better days won’t be far off for his Aggies in the SEC.

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