CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows the work it took to reach the top of the Southeastern Conference. She understands it'll be an even greater challenge for the defending SEC champs to stay there.
Gone are the days when everyone would pencil in Tennessee to dominate the SEC, win the league title and easily move on to the Final Four. While the Gamecocks were picked to repeat, Staley expects the defending champions to be challenged by a hungry, talented group of teams looking to finish on top.
"You have to be prepared for this meat grinder," Staley said Tuesday. "There isn't a conference in the country that's challenged like we are night in and night out."
Last season, eight SEC teams reached the NCAA tournament with five making the Sweet Sixteen. Staley expects that to continue this season.
"If you can survive our conference, you're going to put yourself in position to make some noise nationally," Staley said. "That's not just one team, that's a number of teams."
The Gamecocks were voted the preseason favorites to repeat in the SEC. South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell was picked to win a second straight player of the year award while teammate Aleighsa Welch was part of the preseason, five-member all-SEC team in a vote of media.
The host of title contenders start with the Lady Vols.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was on Pat Summitt's staff with the Lady Vols from 1985 until succeeding her friend and mentor in 2012-13. Warlick was part of a run where the school won 15 SEC regular-season titles and 15 league tournament crowns. By the time SEC rivals and their administrators fully embraced Summitt's vision, Tennessee had built a talent gap that took years to bridge.
Warlick has no such advantage.
She has, however, proved the Lady Vols are still a force in the SEC. Warlick led Tennessee to the regular-season title in her first season and the SEC tournament crown last winter — and the Lady Vols shouldn't be counted out this year.
"We've been the hunted and we've hunted people as well," she said. "This group enjoys a challenge."
Georgia coach Andy Landers said the SEC has improved through expansion, most recently adding 2011 national champion Texas A&M and Missouri to an already difficult schedule.
"And whoever is the more traditional powers in the conference, the top five or six teams, haven't changed," said Landers, starting his 36th season at Georgia.
Those traditional powers stack up right behind South Carolina and Tennessee in the preseason picks. Texas A&M was voted third. Kentucky was fourth, followed by Vanderbilt, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State and Florida. All but Mississippi State played in the NCAA tournament last year.
Auburn was 10th while Arkansas and Missouri tied for 11th. Alabama and Mississippi rounded out the selections.
Landers said league teams are looking for — and hiring — coaches who can succeed. Arkansas brought in ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes as its new coach. Nikki Caldwell has reached the NCAA all three seasons at LSU while Mississippi's Matt Insell and Alabama's Kristy Curry are in the second year of revamping their programs.
"Schools are finding the right fit in their coaches," Landers said.
Vanderbilt forward Marque's Webb believes the SEC's depth motivates players across the league to push harder to stay in that lead pack.
"It's not a goal," Webb said. "It's a standard, 'We've got to make the NCAA tournament.' We expect that of ourselves."
Alongside the Gamecocks' duo of Mitchell and Welch on the all-SEC team were Mississippi State's Martha Alwal, Tennessee's Isabelle Harrison and Texas A&M's Courtney Walker.
Harrison, the Tennessee senior who averaged 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds a game last season, said it might be hard at times for Tennessee fans to adjust to the reality the SEC is no longer a one-team league.
"There's a lot of teams rising up and getting great players," she said. "Of course, I feel like Tennessee's a great school to play for, but there are other great schools as well."
That's helped Staley build a power program with the Gamecocks.
Along with Mitchell as SEC player of the year in 2013-14, South Carolina 6-foot-4 freshman Alaina Coates won the award as the league's top newcomer.
Staley added to her stocked roster with one of the country's top recruiting classes, led by 6-5 A'ja Wilson, the nation's leading college prospect who picked the Gamecocks over Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee.
"It's an exciting time," Staley said. "Our players have done some tremendous things at South Carolina. We've won a lot of games in this league the last couple of years. We want to be one of the best teams in this league because it means you're one of the best teams in the country."
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