KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Southeastern Conference enters this season seeking to end a Final Four drought.
Although Texas A&M won the 2011 women's basketball national championship when it still belonged to the Big 12, no team has reached the Final Four as an SEC member since Tennessee beat LSU in a national semifinal and went on to capture the title in 2008.
That's a humbling statistic for a conference that considers itself the nation's best.
"Not having a team get to a Final Four in the last couple of years is kind of eye-opening a little bit," Tennessee forward Bashaara Graves said. "A lot of teams have gotten to the Elite Eight, but that's still not good enough. I'm looking forward to this year and seeing how it turns out."
Graves' team may have the best chance of reversing that trend.
Tennessee returns five of its top six scorers from a team that went 27-8 and won the SEC's regular-season title last year. One year after emerging as the conference's biggest surprise, Tennessee is back in its customary position as the team to beat.
The Lady Vols have the league's preseason player of the year in Meighan Simmons, the 2012-13 newcomer of the year in Graves and one of the nation's most highly touted freshmen in 6-foot-6 center Mercedes Russell.
That represents a major change from last year, when the SEC media picked Tennessee to finish fourth and the league's coaches had the Lady Vols fifth in their preseason poll.
Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia all advanced to regional finals last year, showing the SEC still has plenty of quality programs even if it's lacked elite teams lately.
The Lady Vols have fallen in the regional finals three straight years. Kentucky has reached a regional final three times in the last four seasons and could emerge as the Lady Vols' toughest challenger in this season's SEC race. Kentucky returns four starters from a team that set a school record with 30 wins last season.
"They don't just hand out free passes to the Elite Eight," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "You have to get there. It is quite an accomplishment. We're proud of where our program has been. We're proud of where we're headed. We think that we're on a real successful track right now, so we're going to try to push it and see if we can get to a Final Four one of these years.
Here's a look at five things to watch in the SEC this year:
TOP SCORERS RETURN: The SEC returns its top two scorers from last season in LSU forward Theresa Plaisance (17.0) and Simmons (16.8). "My confidence in myself and my team this year is very strong," Plaisance said. "If I could be the player of the year, that would be amazing, but really that's all lagniappe and, you know, extra." The league returns eight of its top 12 scorers from last season overall. Other top scorers returning include Auburn teammates Tyrese Tanner (14.2) and Hasina Muhammad (14.0), Missouri's Bri Kulas (13.8), Vanderbilt's Christina Foggie (13.4), Graves (13.2) and Florida's Jaterra Bonds (13.1).
NEW COACHES: Alabama and Mississippi head into the season with new coaches. Alabama hired Kristy Curry, who owns a 309-149 record in 14 seasons at Purdue (1999-2006) and Texas Tech (2006-13). Mississippi chose Matt Insell, who had spent the last five seasons as an assistant at Kentucky.
ANOTHER DEEP FIELD?: The SEC will have a tough time matching its accomplishments of last year, when it earned a league-record 11 postseason bids to lead all conferences. LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt joined regional finalists Georgia, Kentucky and Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament. Arkansas, Auburn, Florida and Missouri reached the WNIT.
ROSTER TURNOVER: Georgia, South Carolina and defending SEC tournament champion Texas A&M all lost plenty of talent from last season. Georgia must replace Anne Marie Armstrong, Jasmine Hassell and Jasmine James. Aleighsa Welch and Tiffany Mitchell are South Carolina's only returning starters. Texas A&M's lone returning starters are Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams.
VANDY'S SENIOR BACKCOURT: Vanderbilt will seek a 15th straight NCAA tournament bid by relying on the senior guard duo of Foggie and Jasmine Lister, who each have over 1,100 career points. Foggie and Lister will lead a young team in which junior guard Kady Schrann is the only other upperclassman.