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Breana Bacon | | October 12, 2017

Five SEC matchups to watch this season

A'ja Wilson was a key player in South Carolina's national title run. She'll be relied on in her senior season, too.

Last season’s national championship game was a showdown between two Southeastern Conference teams, guaranteeing the conference's first title since Tennessee in 2008. In all, the SEC produced eight NCAA tournament teams last season. All but Auburn (an 11 seed) were seeded within the Top 10.

RELATED: Dawn Staley, Gamecocks get serious after championship run

Only two SEC teams cracked the Top 10 in the final rankings, and the conference gave up eight of its players to the WNBA. But the SEC still promises some intriguing basketball for the 2017-18 season. Here are five games to watch:

Dec 31: Tennessee at Kentucky

Tennessee is tasked with filling holes left by players like Diamond DeShields, Te’a Cooper and Alexa Middleton, but has the luxury of some pretty talented freshman.

The Lady Vols will add combo guard Rennia Davis to the lineup, as well as Evina Westbrook and Anastasia Hayes. Tennessee also will have some familiar faces on the court, led by senior center Mercedes Russell, who notched 19 double-doubles last season, second only to former Vol Candace Parker in the Tennessee record books.

Don't discount Kentucky this season. Junior Maci Morris, who started all 33 games last season, put up a team-high 164 3-pointers last season (eighth in the SEC), made 32.3 percent of them (sixth in the league) and led the SEC by shooting better than 88 percent from the line. Junior Taylor Murray, who scored 23 points and grabbed six rebounds in the Wildcats’ 72-65 loss last season in Knoxville, also returns.

Jan. 21: Auburn at Georgia

When No. 9 Auburn met No. 8 Georgia in the SEC tournament last season, Georgia pulled out a 56-52 win, completing a two-game season sweep of the Tigers.

MORE: Lady Vols relying heavily on freshmen as they open practice

The stars in that game for Georgia were Pachis Roberts (3-for-5 from beyond the arc, 15 points) and Caliya Robinson, who had 12 points and three blocks. Roberts has since graduated but the Bulldogs still have Robinson, senior post player Mackenzie Engram and Que Morrison, a 5-foot-6 guard. Morrison’s athleticism combined with Engram and Robinson’s experience and scoring ability should give Georgia a boost.

Auburn has to replace dual threat Katie Frerking, who averaged 15.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game last season, both best on the team. But the Tigers still have junior Janiah McKay, who has improved progressively in her two seasons on The Plains, returning to run the point (she started all 32 games there last season and averaged 12.9 points a game) and kick the Tigers’ offense into high gear.

Feb. 5: South Carolina at Mississippi State

The NCAA championship game rematch — South Carolina won that game, 67-55 — should be a no-brainer in terms of quality basketball. South Carolina will be missing the defensive tenacity of Allisha Gray and the versatility of Kaela Davis, both of whom gave up their last year of eligibility to declare for the WNBA Draft. Gray was named the WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Still, the Gamecocks aren’t expected to miss a step.

Returning for the champion Gamecocks are A’ja Wilson and Tyasha Harris. Wilson, the 2016 SEC Player of the Year, is the Gamecocks’ most threatening tool (17.9 points a game in 2016-17) and, when paired with Harris, will be a nightmare to stop. Harris had 117 assists last season, eighth in the SEC. South Carolina has added a scorer in the form of graduate transfer Lindsey Spann. The 5-foot-5 guard averaged 10.5 points a game last year at Penn State.

Women's Basketball: South Carolina's title moments

Also back for another year is Morgan William of championship runner-up Mississippi State. William was an integral part in the Bulldogs’ successful season, scoring the game winner in overtime to upset previously unbeaten UConn, and ranking third in the SEC in assists per game. She was held to only eight points in the loss against South Carolina. Back to support WIlliam this year is another one of the Bulldogs' top three scorers from last season in Victoria Vivians, who was named to the All-Final Four Team alongside William. MSU also returns Teaira McCowan, who earned the 2017 SEC 6th Woman of the Year.

Feb. 11: Georgia at Tennessee 

Early in February, Tennessee was knocked off by an unranked Georgia team in double overtime, 81-78. Tennessee’s Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell combined for 58 of the Vols’ 78 points. Even though DeShields is now gone, senior Russell will play a huge role this season and will likely fill in the scoring gap with the help of the freshman class.

MORE: Women’s basketball Final Four bid cycle for 2021-24 to begin

Georgia’s Haley Clark dished out six assists in that game and was among the Top 10 in the SEC in assists last season. She hit a career high last season against Arkansas with nine assists. Georgia’s defense will have to be a priority this game, going up against what could become one of the best scoring teams in the conference. The Vols were third in the SEC last season in scoring, at 73.3 points a game.

Feb. 25: Missouri at Texas A&M

At the end of the regular season comes a head-to-head matchup between Texas A&M and Missouri, both of whom were knocked out in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. A&M beat No. 23 Missouri in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, 62-48.

Texas A&M returns Khaalia Hillsman after an impressive season. Hillsman sparked the Aggies’ 21-point comeback against Penn in last year’s NCAA tournament, scoring 27 points, including two in the final minute to seal the win. The Aggies welcome freshman Chennedy Charter, a physical 5-foot-7 guard from Mansfield, Texas.

Sophie Cunningham led Missouri to its 11th NCAA tournament appearance last year. Cunningham (17.5 points a game in 2016-17) made First Team All-SEC last season and will almost certainly join Mizzou’s 1,000-point club after recording 989 points through her first two seasons as a Tiger. She was also second in the SEC in points scored per game, so her offensive domination could be a decider against the Aggies.

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