BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — New Tennessee coach Kellie Harper understands the enormity of her task as she tries to get the Lady Vols back among the nation’s premier women’s basketball programs.
Tennessee has been picked to finish sixth out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference, its lowest projection in the 30-year history of the league’s media poll. Never before was Tennessee projected to finish lower than fourth.
“I keep talking about not trying to worry about the big picture so much,” Harper said Thursday at the SEC women’s basketball Media Day event. “How good can we be today? I think sometimes when you look big picture, it can be daunting, but every day if you can just walk away from practice, walk away from your day and be better. That’s all you can do anyway.
“If we just manage that and really commit to that process — and understanding it’s a process — I think that needs to be our goal.”
One of the programs to pass Tennessee is Texas A&M, which is picked to finish second behind South Carolina. The Aggies, coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, return all their starters from a 26-8 team led by junior point guard Chennedy Carter, voted the league’s preseason player of the year by the media.
“Chennedy has taken her game to the next level,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “She’s playing the best defense she’s ever played in her life. The country needs to get to know her as an individual and not just a player.”
A&M, which joined the SEC for the 2012-13 season, made an Elite Eight appearance in 2014 and is coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 losses to Notre Dame, which won the title in 2018 and was the runner-up to Baylor last year. Carter said the loss last year to Notre Dame, led by four seniors and a junior who went to the WNBA, motivates the Aggies to take the next step this season.
“That made us grow,” she said. “That’ll make us better.”
For this Texas A&M team, she said “anything is possible.”
A&M was third in the SEC last season at 12-4, behind Mississippi State (15-1) and South Carolina (13-3). It was the second straight regular-season title for Mississippi State, which turned things around with Vic Schafer, a former Blair assistant. MSU was the national runner-up in 2017 and ’18.
While Tennessee struggles to regain its footing, virtually all its rivals have shown stability.
For the second straight year, the league had only one offseason coaching change. Harper, who led Missouri State to a Sweet 16 berth last year, is the SEC’s only new coach. Mississippi’s Yolett McPhee-McCuin is entering her second year.
“In our league, you get opportunity to be successful,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “Our AD’s [athletic directors] and administrators give us an opportunity to be successful by keeping us around a little longer. They understand that it’s really hard in our league. It’s really, really hard. It takes a program 3-4-5 years to start seeing the pendulum move a little bit.”
Coaches say the lack of recent coaching turnover reflects the league’s recent success. The SEC has received at least seven NCAA Tournament invitations each of the last eight years.
“Stability is hard in the Southeastern Conference,” Schaefer said. “I don’t care what sport you’re in, it’s very difficult. I think it speaks volumes of the level of coaching, as well as the level of players that we have in our conference.”
SEC Network analyst and former Georgia coach Andy Landers says there’s still room for improvement. Landers believes SEC teams aren’t doing enough damage in the NCAA tournament.
South Carolina beat Mississippi State in the 2017 NCAA final, and Mississippi State reached the championship game again in 2018. But no other SEC school has advanced beyond the Sweet 16 over the last three seasons.
“It wasn’t very long ago that you’d look in the regional and you’d still have three or four teams still alive in the Sweet 16, two or three in the Elite Eight,” said Landers, who coached Georgia from 1979-2015. “I know South Carolina and Mississippi State were in the Final Four a couple of years ago and MSU was in the Elite Eight last year, but we’ve slipped in our advancement once we got to the tournament. That concerns me. I think we need to try to get better competitively at the national level. It would be nice if we recruited a little bit better.”
South Carolina earned at least a share of the SEC title every year from 2014-17. Mississippi State is the two-time defending league champion.
“With South Carolina, just the back-and-forth with who owns really the SEC on the women’s side, it’s great to have,” Mississippi State guard Jordan Danberry said. “It’s fun. It’s a lot of energy in both gyms. I’m just excited for that rivalry for women’s basketball overall.”
The emergence of that rivalry underscores how much the SEC has changed since Harper’s playing career.
When she was known as Kellie Jolly while playing for Tennessee from 1995-99, South Carolina and Mississippi State posted a combined 22-80 conference record. Now they’re the teams that everyone’s chasing.
“I do think what both Vic and Dawn have done have been really inspiring for a lot of people,” Harper said. “I think they did it a certain way. They did it leading the way with their defense and their toughness. I think they [made a] hallmark of that and turned it into national prominence. We feel really good about where we can take our program.”