Women's basketball preview: Mississippi State is set for a power struggle in the SEC
The wait is almost over. Almost. Half the year has dragged on without college basketball, and our appetite for hoops is enormous.
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Today, we feast on the SEC.
Best player: A’ja Wilson, South Carolina
There may not be a more sound argument for anything than there is for Wilson being the best player in the SEC. She was last year’s SEC Player of the Year, was a first-team All-American selection far and wide, landed on the SEC All-Defensive Team, and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player… and now she’s back for an encore.
What will she do? Only she knows, but it feels safe to bet it’ll be impressive.
Wilson averaged 18.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game to lead the Gamecocks last year, a sturdy line, and ranked in the Top 15 in the country in field goal percentage. She’s an efficient scorer, a master on the defensive end (she already owns South Carolina’s record for blocks in a career!) and a leader on and off the floor.
Wilson is going to be dominant again this year; to watch her will be to witness greatness in motion.
Best team: Mississippi State
It’s tempting — almost too easy? — to pick the defending national champions when they return their best player, which is why we haven't done that. The runner-up Bulldogs are returning two tremendous players in Morgan William and Victoria Vivians while not leaving too much talent behind from last year’s squad, leaving them primed for a big season.
When it comes to William, the UConn destroyer, and Vivians, an All-American selection who may have flown under the radar if not for the Bulldogs’ tremendous NCAA tournament run, Mississippi State has two of the five best players in the conference. Vivians averaged 16.2 points per game last year, while William dominated from the free throw line and set a school record for assists in a season.
If Vivians can improve her efficiency and William can increase her output by one or two points per game, Mississippi State will be right where it needs to be.
The Gamecocks will prove a great challenge for the Bulldogs, and if South Carolina’s freshman class lives up to its pedigree they might even take the regular season crown. But it seems like Mississippi State’s returning talent makes for a top-notch spot in the SEC heading into the season.
Sleeper team: Texas A&M
The Aggies can gear up and make noise in the SEC if they can find depth and defense beyond their stars.
Losing Curtyce Knox, a solid three-point shooter and dynamite playmaker, will take away a versatile weapon, but Texas A&M returns its top two scorers, Danni Williams (16.6 points per game) and Khaalia Hillsman (16.4 points per game), along with Hillsman’s 8.2 rebounds per game and Anriel Howard, who averaged a double-double last season.
Between Howard and Hillsman, the Aggies have a one-two punch to dominate the inside game. Where A&M needs to improve if they want to keep pace with the conference’s best teams is from beyond the arc, where Williams is the only returning scorer to attempt more than 10 threes last year.
If Gary Blair can find one or two pieces to fill out the role players necessary for a 20-plus win season, watch out for the Aggies to make a statement come March.
Freshman to watch: Lele Grissett, South Carolina
Grissett is going to be one of the best freshman wings in the country this season, and her playmaking ability will be on display playing alongside A’ja Wilson.
She scored plenty of points in high school, but also flashed her passing skills early and often; in her first year against college talent, Grissett will probably lean on her passing early on, to settle in to the higher competition level, which will be smart for her development and for her team’s success.
Grissett’s size at 6-0, the fifth-tallest on South Carolina’s team this year, will also help her produce in her first year in South Carolina, as Dawn Staley uses her newest playmaker to push for a championship repeat.