2018-19 SEC preview: Will Mississippi State or South Carolina prevail?

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NASHVILLE, TN – MARCH 01: Missouri Tigers guard Sophie Cunningham (3) makes the lay up as Mississippi Lady Rebels guard Chyna Nixon (0) chases during the third period between the Missouri Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels in a SEC Women’s Tournament game on March 1, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN – MARCH 01: Missouri Tigers guard Sophie Cunningham (3) makes the lay up as Mississippi Lady Rebels guard Chyna Nixon (0) chases during the third period between the Missouri Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels in a SEC Women’s Tournament game on March 1, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Missouri Tigers
Last season: 24-8 (11-5, T-4th)
Predicted finish this season: 5th

Key returners (last season’s stats)
G- Sophie Cunningham, 6’1, SR- 18.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3 APG, 54.2% FG, 45.7% 3pt (2nd in SEC, 4th in NCAA), 32.7 MPG, First Team All-SEC selection
G- Amber Smith, 5’11, JR- 9.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.3 APG, 43.5% FG, 36.4% 3pt, 25.4 MPG

Biggest losses (last season’s stats)
F- Jordan Frericks, 6’3– 11.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 52.3% FG, 25.8 MGP (graduated)
F- Cierra Porter, 6’4- 9.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 46.6% FG, 24.4 MPG (retired due to injuries)

Newcomers
F- Grace Berg, 6’1, (Indianola, IA), FR- Ranked #36 in 2018 class, #7 small forward
PG- Akira Levy, 5’8, (Baxter, TN), FR- Ranked #67 in 2018 class, #16 point guard
F- Brittany Garner, 6’4, (Philadelphia, PA), FR- Ranked #212 in 2018 class, #32 center
G- Haley Troup, 5’10, (South Carolina/ Gadsden, AL), R-FR- Ranked #182 in 2017 class, #45 shooting guard. Originally signed with South Carolina before transferring after summer

Head Coach- Robin Pingeton, 9th season
What a job Pingeton has done at Missouri. A program who had made the NCAA tournament just three times in the 16 seasons prior to her arrival, the Tigers have made the tournament three years straight now. She has moved steadily up the SEC since Mizzou switched over to the conference in 2012 (T-8th, 8th, T-7th, T-7th, T-3rd, T-3rd) and has built a team around Sophie Cunningham who is a contender yet again. Her team has a favorable schedule (only have to play Mississippi State, Georgia and South Carolina once each) so this might be the year for the Tigers to win the whole thing. One of the eight finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year a season ago, if Pingeton can get this Mizzou team to finish in the Top 3, she will have a real shot at the award again and it would be much deserved.

Key non-conference games
Nov. 16- v. Green Bay
Nov. 23- Michigan (Fort Myers, FL, Gulf Coast Showcase)
Dec. 2- at West Virginia
*Potential game v Texas on Nov. 24 in Gulf Coast Showcase

Outlook
Can you believe Sophie Cunningham is still in college? She has been causing opponents problems for years and she has a chance to lead her team to uncharted territory in her final season. A key to the Tigers’ success besides Cunningham, of course, will be Amber Smith. A former SEC Freshman of the Year, Smith’s play in her second season was about the same as her first. In order for this team to truly compete for a title, she needs to take a big step forward, something I think she is more than capable of. This step is even more important with the untimely news that Cierra Porter, the team’s leading rebounding and third-leading scorer a season ago, was forced to retire due to injuries. Mizzou has a solid batch of freshmen and between them and some of the returners who didn’t play as much, someone will have to step up and provide a lift.

There is no question this team is in the upper tier of the conference. The real question is if they can beat the other teams on that same level. Of their 11 conference wins a season ago, only two of them (South Carolina and Tennessee, both at home) were against teams in the top half of the conference. If they can, the Tigers are more than capable of winning this conference.

Best Case Scenario-  Cunningham and Smith lead the charge as First Team All-SEC members with Cunningham nabbing POY honors, the team takes care of business only dropping two road games and winning the conference with a 14-2 record. Pingeton wins COY and the Tigers establish themselves as a force.

Worst Case Scenario- The loss of Porter is too much for the team to handle. Cunningham still makes First Team All-SEC but the rest of the team levels off. They still have a fine season going 11-5 but a loss in the conference tournament quarter-finals leaves them feeling like they missed a great opportunity.

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