Part 2: Hellwege more optimistic about Mizzou women’s basketball than others

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

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 Eastern Division teams:

Florida (20-13, 8-8)
Predicted finish: 10

While this program of five consecutive postseason berths has had a great deal more recent success than Missouri, the Gators will resemble the Tigers in one way—Florida’s going to be a “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard” team this year, with eight newcomers including six freshmen and two transfers. The only senior is a great one, forward Jennifer George who was a first team All-Conference pick and honorable mention All-American. Junior guard Jaterra Bonds started all 33 games last year, so she’ll join with George to give the Gators what little experience they possess. The freshman class is a dandy, ranked in the top-20 nationally and coach Amanda Butler’s a fine teacher, so there may be long-term success. But it’s hard to imagine much out of the team this season. Among the transfers is  6-foot-7 post player Vicky McIntyre. She was part of a WNIT championship team at Oklahoma State, but was extremely close to coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, who were killed in a plane crash last season, and felt the need for a new start in Gainesville.

Georgia (22-9, 11-5)
Predicted finish: 2

A program with a rich history, only fellow SEC member Tennessee has more trips to the NCAA tournament than the Bulldogs, and it’s been 19 years since the tourney was played without a team from UGA. This year’s team will be strong, even by Georgia standards. Coach Andy Landers has four starters back including honorable mention All-American performer Anne Marie Armstrong, a difference maker both on offense and defense. Jasmine Hassell is also a returning All-SEC player. If reports about Jasmine James are accurate, she is fully heeled from a badly sprained knee that slowed her late last year. That’s as strong a top three as you’re likely to find anywhere. If you want to search for question marks, a roster with five freshmen might be a small one. But they’re going to be counted on only for depth at this point, and they’re darn good as freshmen go. Barring injury problems, the Bulldogs will be in the mix for the SEC championship in March.

Kentucky (28-7, 13-3)
Predicted finish: 1

When it was announced that Missouri would be joining the Southeastern Conference, there were a few thoughts that bordered on frightening. Playing Alabama in football, or South Carolina in baseball. While they may not be quite as intimidating as the men’s team, the Wildcats are quite likely to be a top-five competitor nationally. UK has been to the Elite Eight two of the last three years; they now need only take the final step up to be in the same category as UConn, Baylor and Tennessee. This Wildcats club may have just the right ingredients. You start with superstar A’dia Mathies, a unanimous pick for Player of the Year in the SEC last season. You add experience, and eight of nine players who started on last year’s SEC regular season championship team are back. Add to the team an all-Pac 10 player, DeNesha Stallworth who sat out last year. She led Cal in scoring, then surprised everyone on the West Coast by leaving the Bears because basketball in Berkeley was “too laid-back.” Add in fine coaching from Matthew Mitchell and a great atmosphere and the pieces are in place. Kentucky has eight national championship banners hanging in Rupp Arena, all from the men’s team. There’s a decent chance one more will be added this year, the first from the Kentucky women.

Missouri (13-18, 2-16 in Big 12 Conference)
Predicted finish: 11

Speaking of young teams, coach Robin Pingeton’s third season will feature six freshmen and (it appears) only one player with more than a season playing under the coach. The freshman class is very impressive. Darian Saunders is a rough and tumble forward from Arizona; from the St. Louis area, sisters Maddie and Morgan Stock will bring a lot of scoring and a knowledge of how to win, and Lianna Doty will push for time at the point immediately. Last year Pingeton (mostly out of necessity) showed a willingness to play freshmen and was rewarded with excellent play from Morgan Eye, a deadly long-range shooter, and Kyley Simmons, who played point guard with a skill and poise that looked nothing like a freshman. If big post player Kendra Frazier is unable to play, the only real hope this team has of winning much right away is a big step up from senior Sydney Crafton. She played with a lot of skill and effort in the team’s inter squad scrimmage and they’re going to need everything they can get from her or this year will be about getting young players ready for that word Missouri fans have heard too much of over the last…hell, I’ve lost count…years—the future.

South Carolina (25-10, 10-6)
Predicted finish: 8

Another team that lost quite a bit to graduation, the Gamecocks still have one of the league’s best in two-time All-SEC performer Ieasia Walker. She’s moved from being a pure scorer to a complete quarterback type player, and makes those around her better. There’s a lot of optimism around the team as coach Dawn Staley led to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament — the best record in years in Columbia. And remember this name, one of the best in the nation—Wilka Montout. If this 6-foot-3 center, a third team All-American transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma Junior College, can step in and play at this level, the Gamecocks become very scary and may threaten the very top of the SEC. They showed flashes last year, with two wins over Vanderbilt and a victory at Tennessee. Mix in a little consistency and chemistry with the new players and USC may reach new heights in 2012-2013.

Tennessee (27-9, 12-3)
Predicted finish: 4

This may be the hardest team in the nation to handicap. After so many years with Pat Summitt in charge, there will be a new face on the bench. Except, not really. Holly Warlick has been an assistant at UT for 27 years and obviously while emotionally it’s a massive change, the system won’t be that different.
And that may or may not be good news. Sometimes, the “long-time assistant stepping into a legend’s shoes” plan doesn’t work out so well. And Warlick has her work cut out for her. Last year’s team made the Elite Eight, then promptly struck up the tune “Pomp and Circumstance” and watched all five starters march across the stage and out of Warlick’s program.
Any team with no returning starters and a new coach would be a challenged. But Warlick’s not been left a bill of goods, there is some serious talent in Knoxville. She’ll have Meighan Simmons, last year’s freshman of the year, back. Ariel Massengale was a freshman All-American last year, and senior point guard Taber Spani (a native of Lee’s Summit, Mo.) provides experience and leadership. Warlick lassoed a top-five recruiting class as well. Don’t expect one of those all-time great Volunteer teams that won so many championships for Summitt, but don’t expect Rocky Top to crumble, either.

Vanderbilt (23-10, 9-7)
Predicted finish: 5

How can they miss? A fairly strong team last year, the Commodores return 10 of 11 players off last years team. Christina Foggie led the league in scoring, Jasmine Lister led the league in assists. They return a great deal more talent, add a top-20 recruiting class, and a coach in Melanie Balcomb that’s put 10 straight teams into the NCAA tourney. But here’s how this seemingly good team could fail: only Alabama gave up more points in SEC play last year, Vandy is not a defensive powerhouse and its turnover margin is also an area for concern. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but with the great teams at the top of the SEC, Vandy is a step behind the Georgias and Kentuckys of basketball. I may be proven wrong, but this looks to me to be another good but not great Vanderbilt team.

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