Just how much have things changed for the Mississippi State women's basketball program? As recently as three years ago, the Bulldogs had never beaten Tennessee. They'd played in just one SEC tournament final (which they lost to the Lady Vols in 2000). They were not a program anyone expected to see at the Final Four.
Now? They're coming off back-to-back national championship game appearances. They won their first SEC regular-season title in 2018. They've played in three consecutive SEC tournament finals (they're still looking to win that title). And even after losing four starters, they're picked to win the league this season.
That speaks volumes about how many SEC teams need to prove themselves, but also how much and how quickly the Bulldogs have elevated their reputation. Last season, they lost just twice: in the SEC tournament final to South Carolina, and the NCAA final to Notre Dame.
"It's going to be an interesting year, for sure: We've been voted No. 1 [in the SEC] with one starter returning," Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said. "That's kind of crazy. There are several teams in our league that are probably sitting there going, 'We're going to be right there with them.' And rightfully so."
Perhaps, but by the same token, the Bulldogs still enter this season with much in their favor. It starts with their frontcourt: 6-foot-7 senior Teaira McCowan is the most dominant center in the league, and forward Anriel Howard, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M, was the second-leading rebounder in the SEC last season, behind McCowan.
"I feel like we're making each other better," Howard said. "So I hope that will be even scarier for the competition we'll have to face. It's been an honor to play with her, and I think she appreciates playing with me, as well."
Senior guards Jazzmun Holmes and Jordan Danberry should play bigger roles this season. Redshirt freshman guard Myah Taylor should make an immediate impact. Sophomore forward Chloe Bibby also might step forward; she's the team's leading returning 3-point shooter.
Bibby made just 15 treys last year. That's because the four departed senior starters -- Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, Roshunda Johnson and Morgan William -- combined for 257 of the Bulldogs' 278 3-pointers.
It seems certain Mississippi State won't make that many 3s this season, so it will look to score in other ways. McCowan averaged 18.2 points last season while shooting 60 percent from the field. Howard averaged 12.1 points with the Aggies. Combined, they averaged just over 26 rebounds a game; now they're on the same team. They could make the Bulldogs the most lethal second-chance offense in the country. And McCowan is already pretty great on her first chances.
"We all feed off of Teaira daily; she can impact our team in a lot of ways," said Schaefer, acknowledging the Bulldogs can be up or down depending on McCowan. "Her growth and development is an ongoing thing. She would tell you that, as well. She's an emotional player; she plays with a lot of passion. And I love that about her.
"Because of her experience in our program, she knows what it takes from everybody, not just her. We don't have four shooters like we had last year, but we're still going to shoot it. She's going to have that many more opportunities to clean up the mess. Then you throw Anriel in there; both of those kids can really go get it."
Thus, the Bulldogs carry the SEC favorite's role into this season. It's not that other teams don't have significant talent -- this is the SEC, after all -- but some lost key players and/or are coming off seasons in which they didn't perform as well as they'd hoped. Seven teams finished with losing records in SEC play; one of them, Alabama, had a winning overall record and made it to the WNIT quarterfinals.
Seven SEC teams went to the NCAA tournament: Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, Texas A&M and LSU. All but LSU are ranked in the current preseason Top 25. All had some significant player losses from last season.
"We don't have four shooters like we had last year, but we're still going to shoot it. She's going to have that many more opportunities to clean up the mess." Vic Schaefer, on center Teaira McCowan, who averaged 13.9 rebounds last season
South Carolina said goodbye to hometown hero A'ja Wilson, who did all she hoped to accomplish -- and more -- in her college career. That included a national championship and four SEC tournament titles. The three-time SEC player of the year (22.6 ppg, 11.8 RPG last season) made the transition to the WNBA seamlessly. But it will be a bumpier path for the Gamecocks, who are now led by junior point guard Tyasha Harris and senior forward Alexis Jennings.
And coach Dawn Staley, coming off leading the U.S. team to a gold medal in the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, now can relish being more of an underdog -- as much as the No. 10 team in the nation can be an underdog.
No. 11 Tennessee lost Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell, both now in the WNBA, and with them about 32 points and 17 rebounds a game. The Lady Vols' terrific freshmen from last year are back, save guard Anastasia Hayes, who was dismissed from the team in August. Sophomore guard/forward Rennia Davis is the top returning scorer (12.0) and rebounder (7.6) for Tennessee.
No. 14 Georgia lost co-leading scorer Mackenzie Engram, but she's the only one of their top seven scorers who is not back; look for a big season from senior forward Caliya Robinson. No. 16 Missouri returns senior star guard Sophie Cunningham (18.5 PPG) but lost its top two rebounders, Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter, who both averaged 7.6 per game.
No. 20 Texas A&M has back the SEC's leading scorer, dynamic guard Chennedy Carter (22.7 PPG), who was last season's top freshman in the nation. But Howard transferred to Mississippi State for her final season of eligibility, and Danni Williams (14.2 PPG) left to play for Texas.
All of that helps explain why Mississippi State, despite personnel losses, still has the preseason tag to win the SEC. McCowan carries a lot on her shoulders, both in terms of the production needed (which she's used to by now) and some of the lingering disappointment from two consecutive NCAA championship losses. But she's ready to be the leader in every way for the Bulldogs.
"I am one of those players that people are talking about," McCowan said. "So I use that as fuel, but don't want to use it too much. I've been really working on finishing my shots. I know there were a couple shots I should have made [in the NCAA final] that I missed. And I can't afford to miss shots like that. Defense is going to be big for us, too, because we know everybody is coming for us."