NCAAW: South Carolina, LSU rise as Tennessee struggles in SEC

For our first SEC update of the 2022-23 season, let’s take a look at the consensus top 3 teams from the conference and only nationally: the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks (3-0), No. 11 Tennessee Lady Vols (1-2) and No. 15 LSU Lady Tigers (4-0).

Despite Gamecocks’ depth and dominance, there are weaknesses worth watching

Yeah, we gotta start the slam!

Freshman Ashlyn Watkins capped South Carolina’s 85-31 evisceration of rival Clemson with the first dunk in program history. The 2022 McDonald’s All-American Dunk Contest winner turned a tiger turnover into an authoritative one-handed flush.

Watkins did more than just dunk, scoring 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench while also notching five planks, three steals, a pair of blocks and an assist. The talent pouring out of the Colombian native embodies why Dawn Staley suggested, “I think this team could be better than last year’s team.”

While there’s a more impressive array of talent out there, it’s worth wondering if South Carolina is actually a better, optimally balanced team. Yes, after their commanding start to the season it seems strange to ask that question.

However, the performances still revealed some potential concerns. South Carolina seems to be missing the dynamism of Destanni Henderson. With the ball in her hands, the former point guard was a fuzzy quick breaker capable of creating easy, sweeping buckets on the transition. Crucially, she was also the team’s top 3-pointer.

Staley has expressed confidence in her point guard pairing of redshirt newcomer Raven Johnson and transfer student Kierra Fletcher, both returning from injuries and thus limited in the early days. While lacking Henderson’s pace, both possess good size which should allow them to see the court better and, most importantly, get the ball on the block to Aliyah Boston. However, neither is a particularly menacing 3-point shooter.

While South Carolina lost its first five 3-pointers to Clemson before finishing 7 of 12 from deep, Maryland packed the paint against South Carolina and made a point of preventing the Gamecocks from getting the ball to Boston, and instead allowing often reluctant perimeter players to take open threes. The Gamecocks made just eight of their 28 attempts from deep against the Terrapins.

Of course, as they showed after a late third-quarter argument, South Carolina’s top gear can make any stagnation at half-court irrelevant as the Gamecocks would ultimately cruise to the 81-56 win.

Sunday’s showdown against No. 2 Stanford Cardinal will provide an intriguing test case. Will a Stanford team much larger than Maryland adopt a similar strategy, sealing off the interior and challenging South Carolina to rely on their shaky perimeter batting technique in the halffield? And if so, do the Gamecocks still have enough defensive drive and overall talent to overcome them?

Tennessee is struggling with a tough schedule and turnover

Competing against teams from the Big Ten, Tennessee didn’t look like big, bad Tennessee. Instead, the roster, which has been projected as the SEC’s second-best team, has been thrown off balance too often. Against the now no. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes, the Lady Vols gave up an astronomical 29 turnovers as they proved unable to take the full pressure of the court. Senior Jordan Horston, who is not a traditional primary ball handler, was a frequent culprit, spitting out the ball seven times in the 87-75 loss.

Tennessee upped his ball security somewhat in his 79-67 loss to the No. 12 Indiana Hoosiers with just 15 freebies. However, with Horston absent from the lineup due to a lower leg injury, senior Rickea Jackson was overloaded with additional ball-handling duties, resulting in six turnovers.

Intensifying the Vols’ struggles in the loss to the Buckeyes was a nasty problem for senior center Tamari Key, limiting her to 13 minutes of action. Even on the pitch, she didn’t have the expected impact. The program’s all-time leader in blocked shots didn’t manage a single shot against both Ohio State and Indiana. The 6-foot-6 key also only grabbed six rebounds in the two games.

In short, the older stars of Lady Vols need to step up. Otherwise, the team could become a Big Ten team again when they meet the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in Battle 4 Atlantis on Saturday morning.

Reese and Lady Tigers are running, albeit against a soft schedule

Unlike Tennessee’s tough roster, LSU’s preseason schedule was a cakewalk. And the Lady Tigers ate, scoring 100+ points in all four competitions. Sophomore forward Angel Reese immediately introduced her superstar advantage to the folks at Baton Rouge, dropping 31 points in 23 minutes in LSU’s season-opening 125-50 obliteration of Bellarmine and 29 points in Houston’s recent 101-47 obliteration Christian by the Lady Tigers. She also totaled 59 boards, 10 dimes, 10 steals, and eight blocks for the season.

Due to a breezy off-conference schedule, Reese and LSU will not face a real test until their SEC roster begins. Until then, expect her and her team to keep putting together some stunning numbers.