As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top conferences. We wrap up our league previews with the SEC, where the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks continue to dominate. The Mississippi State Bulldogs and Kentucky Wildcats have new head coaches, and all eyes are on Kellie Harper in her second season with the Tennessee Lady Vols.
SEC 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Mechelle Voepel: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Graham Hays: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Charlie Creme: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Newcomer of the Year
Voepel: Destiny Pitts, Texas A&M
Hays: Destiny Slocum, Arkansas
Creme: Destiny Pitts, Texas A&M
SEC 2020-21 writer roundtable
What does Matthew Mitchell's abrupt retirement mean for national player of the year front-runner Rhyne Howard and Kentucky?
Voepel: First off, you feel for Matthew Mitchell and his family, and hope for the best for them. In an interview published by the Lexington Herald-Leader on Oct. 28, Mitchell said his recovery -- he had brain surgery in the summer after a fall in March -- had gone slower than he expected, but he was "rounding the corner" and anticipated being back to his full duties by the time the season started. Then, shockingly, he resigned on Nov. 12. Howard and the rest of the Wildcats are obviously sad and concerned for Mitchell. But by the same token, interim coach Kyra Elzy had essentially had been acting in a head coaching capacity while Mitchell was recuperating. So the players already have had time with her in that role.
Elzy said philosophically she is a lot like Mitchell, especially with her emphasis on defense, and she has a great relationship with Howard. So this change -- while difficult emotionally for all involved -- is probably going to be relatively smooth. It's also notable that now the 14-team SEC has seven Black women as head coaches with Elzy's elevation, and four SEC head coaches are former Tennessee Lady Vol players.
Hays: I agree that, first and foremost, what this means for Mitchell is the most important part of the story. In a Zoom call a week or two before he retired, even while sounding a note of optimism, he didn't hide the difficulty of his recovery. Hopefully he now has an opportunity to continue and complete that recovery at his own pace and figure out what comes next in his life.
On the basketball side, Mitchell's retirement was abrupt ,but Kentucky had been adjusting to his absence for months because of the difficulty of that retirement. Elzy and the rest of what is now her staff were largely running things on a day-to-day basis throughout most of the summer. So not only do the players know her well, they know what it feels like when she's the one who has the final word. In that sense, as sudden as Mitchell's decision was and as much sadness as those involved might feel, the transition of power should be relatively seamless.
Kentucky will look and play differently this season, but that's less because of Mitchell's departure than the influx of post talent -- specifically Maryland transfer Olivia Owens. And Elzy has already talked about the influence Lin Dunn had on her when it comes to emphasizing offensive execution and efficiency rather than relying on defense to fuel everything.
I don't really think the coaching change affects Kentucky's outlook much. It was always going to take some time for the new faces (which now include junior guard Robyn Benton, after her transfer waiver) to settle in and for the playing style to evolve. But as long as Howard is out there, this team has a chance to matter in March.
That might be Mitchell's legacy, especially given the turmoil he and the program faced four years ago after more than half a dozen players and recruits, as well as multiple assistant coaches, parted ways with the program within a matter of months. He recovered from that, partly by bringing Elzy back from Tennessee, and left the program in good shape and good hands.
Creme: Kentucky will still be very good and should have a major impact on the SEC race and the NCAA tournament. In fact, the Wildcats might now be even better than expected.
They have someone and something bigger to play for. That kind of positive emotion can be powerful. It could be just the energy that brings the new faces together even faster. Elzy has been a steady, commanding presence in the program for a few years. That doesn't change. More importantly, Howard is still the best player in the country and the perfect talent to build everything else around.
Mitchell -- who built the program, saw it through a rough patch and now had it on the brink of big success -- will be missed, and everyone involved with Kentucky basketball and beyond hopes his full recovery comes soon. Nothing would give this story a happier ending than that, and it would be made even better with a deep NCAA tournament run.
What do you expect from Tennessee in Kellie Harper's second season?
Voepel: I expect a big performance from Rennia Davis, who will be in her fourth year as a starter. And a move forward for players such as junior Rae Burrell and sophomore Jordan Horston. We'll see if that's enough to move Tennessee more toward the status it had for so long. The Lady Vols also have UConn visiting -- the first time the teams have played in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 2006 -- and that will be a measuring stick.
Hays: A season in which the Lady Vols don't have to worry about the NCAA tournament bubble and put a team on the floor that fans enjoy watching. Both of those goals seem achievable.
Despite some of the personnel turnover that can be expected with a coaching change, Zaay Green and Jazmine Massengill among those leaving, Harper has some incoming help, too. Keyen Green (Liberty) and Jordan Walker (Western Michigan) are two of the more interesting graduate transfers and bring invaluable experience and energy to give Davis the supporting cast she deserves. That, in turn, eases the pressure on Burrell, Horston and sophomore center Tamari Key as they continue to develop.
Tennessee looks like a team that should have a clear identity and a solid rotation. With Davis leading the way, that ought to be enough to make the NCAA tournament a given.
Talent is the only way for Tennessee to get back to where its fans want the program to be, or at least as close as is possible in an environment that makes Pat Summitt-like domination nearly impossible. We don't know which top recruits will be stars, but history suggests that most stars will have been top recruits. With the notable exception of Davis, Tennessee in recent years either didn't find the right fits or came up short on those recruiting pitches. Harper, too, will ultimately be judged on how she fares in that regard. But in the meantime, she has a team this season with modest expectations and the assets to overachieve. That's not a bad formula.
Creme: Graham hit on what is most important for Tennessee this season: establishing an identity. Who have the Lady Vols been over the last few years? What characteristic has defined the program? The fact that those questions do not have clear answers is exactly why Tennessee spent nearly all of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons on the bubble. It could be defense or rebounding or Davis as star; if the Lady Vols can develop one characteristic on which to lean they won't have to worry about NCAA tournament selection and will be better than the middle-of-the-pack SEC finisher they have been predicted to be.
More tangibly, Harper needs two things to happen: Davis to be more assertive and Horston to be more consistent. Davis' talent is undeniable, but she has a tendency to defer to teammates or let the game come to her. If she develops a take-over-the-game mentality, Tennessee will greatly benefit -- and so will her WNBA draft stock. Horston (10.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG) went to Knoxville as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2019 class, but never completely found her groove as a freshman. Expect much more production this season -- and with it, better play from the Lady Vols.
Mississippi State finished three games behind South Carolina and three games ahead of everyone else last season. Are the Bulldogs closer to the Gamecocks or the rest of the pack this season?
Voepel: I lean toward Mississippi State being closer to the pack, and the pack being a pretty interesting group of teams. South Carolina is the preseason No. 1 team in the country. And while the Gamecocks will miss Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the strong sophomore class -- led by Aliyah Boston -- should be a big part of what keeps South Carolina in charge of the league and in the running for the Final Four.
Mississippi State and Kentucky are under new head coaches this season, and both will look to have relatively smooth transitions. Texas A&M lost star guard Chennedy Carter to the WNBA, but four starters are back from last season who all have bigger roles now. Arkansas will have exceptional, experienced guard play, and it could be a breakthrough season in Fayetteville for coach Mike Neighbors. Tennessee, Georgia and LSU -- the league's traditional powers -- will be trying to prove they're in the top tier.
Hays: Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M (yes, even without Chennedy Carter) could all be improved versions of themselves this season. I think Mississippi State can be as good in its first season under Nikki McCray-Penson as it was in its last season under Vic Schaefer, but asking the Bulldogs to improve on that showing is a tall order. That adds up to the chasing pack closing the gap, without anyone necessarily getting any closer to South Carolina at the top.
Creme: Let me round out the consensus and say that Mississippi State will be closer to the pack than South Carolina this season. I believe that the Bulldogs are the second-best team in the conference, but South Carolina proposes to be better than anyone else in the country, let alone the SEC. The gap remains sizable. To echo Graham's comments, the rest of the pack is better, too. Even if Mississippi State plays at the same level of a year ago, the Bulldogs will have a much harder time finishing second than the Gamecocks will finishing first.
What's the biggest Bracketology question in the SEC?
Creme: Depending on what happens with the NCAA tournament -- the NCAA said last week it's proposing the men's tournament be played at a single site from start to finish, and it's hard not to expect a similar decision on the women's side -- this might not be as significant as it would be in a typical year, but the SEC could put five teams in the top-16 seeds. If the tournament is played in one location, the ability to host would no longer be the reward for a top-four seed, but it is a measure of how good a conference is.
In my last projection -- and we'll update Bracketology before the season tips Nov. 25 -- South Carolina, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Arkansas all landed in the top 16. That distinction, plus, getting possibly eight or nine total teams into the tournament, would make the SEC the top league in the country. That is, unless, the Pac-12 can do the same.