Setting the scene for Missouri and the SEC in women’s basketball conference play

The conference’s 40th season of women’s basketball will be Missouri’s seventh since joining the league in 2012-13.
The Missouri women's basketball team huddles up before a game on Feb. 1, 2018.

The SEC women’s basketball conference schedule tips off on Thursday, Jan. 3 with a full slate of seven games. Missouri and the rest of the league will work through the 16-game conference lineup before heading to Greenville, South Carolina for the conference tournament on March 6 to 10.

With five teams currently ranked in the AP poll and a few bona fide national championship contenders, the SEC has a reputation as one of the toughest leagues in the country.

“[I think] the SEC is the toughest conference out there,” Missouri redshirt junior Amber Smith said at a team media day on Jan. 2. “You've got to bring your A-game out there every night.”

As conference play begins, The Maneater is taking a look at where each team stands heading into conference play and dissecting Missouri’s road to the postseason.

To break down how each team has performed in the first half of the season, we are separating the 14 squads into four tiers based on their postseason prospects heading into conference play.

Tier 1: The national contenders (Mississippi State, Tennessee)

The Bulldogs and Lady Vols each possess losses to Pac-12 powerhouses (Oregon and Stanford, respectively) as the only blemishes on their records from nonconference play. Coming off of consecutive national championship game defeats, coach Vic Schaefer and No. 7 Mississippi State are once again making a run for April glory and are led by the one of the conference’s premier frontcourts in Anriel Howard and Teaira McCowan.

This season has been business as usual so far for No. 10 Tennessee, which is once again in the mix nationally and claimed a key nonconference win at then-No. 12 Texas last month.

Tier 2: The solid tournament teams (South Carolina, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Missouri, Georgia)

This tier rounds out the top half of the conference and features teams who should find themselves in the NCAA bracket come March but may not be expected to make a deep run. South Carolina normally finds itself in the national conversation, but struggled out of the gate this season with an 0-3 record against AP top 25 teams during nonconference play. The Gamecocks are now ranked 23rd in the AP poll after starting the season in the No. 10 spot.

No. 21 Texas A&M boasts Chennedy Carter, the SEC’s leading scorer with 21 points per game. The Aggies’ best non conference win came on December 8 against then-No. 8 Oregon State.

No. 16 Kentucky was perhaps the SEC’s biggest surprise during nonconference play, cruising to a 13-1 record with a single 5-point loss to then-No. 5 Louisville.

Missouri has struggled to live up to its preseason expectations and has dropped out of the AP poll entirely since beginning the season ranked 16th. The Tigers may have found some needed help with the return of Cierra Porter, but will need to work her back into the rotation as conference play heats up.

While Georgia wasn’t particularly impressive in nonconference play, it has only missed the NCAA Tournament four times in its program history and won’t have to face any of the SEC’s best teams more than once before the conference tournament.

Tier 3: The outside contenders (Auburn, Louisiana State, Arkansas, Alabama)

The teams in this tier could conceivably sneak into the NCAA Tournament, but still have a lot of work to do to during conference play. Auburn has found itself on the fringes of the AP poll after dominating a weak nonconference schedule, but it still needs to prove itself against top competition. It will have an early chance to do just that when it opens up SEC play at home against Tennessee.

LSU is led by junior Ayana Mitchell in both scoring and rebounding. The Lady Tigers will have their chances to pull off signature wins in conference play with Texas A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State all making the trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in January.

Arkansas showed flashes of brilliance in single-digit losses to then-No. 22 Arizona State and then-No. 23 Iowa State during the non conference slate, but a lot still needs to happen for the Razorbacks to start appearing on NCAA Tournament radars.

Alabama was drubbed by then-No. 24 Miami in its lone top 25 non conference test. With a few other questionable losses also on its resume, it needs to take advantage of just about every winnable game from here on out.

Tier 4: The also-rans (Florida, Vanderbilt, Mississippi)

These three were the only teams in the SEC to emerge from nonconference play with losing records. Barring a stunning turnaround, it is hard to imagine the Gators, Commodores or Rebels making any noise this year.

Breaking down Missouri’s SEC schedule

Things haven’t gone quite as well so far as coach Robin Pingeton’s Tigers may have hoped before the season. Their 11-3 record masks a number of wins over inferior opposition that gave Mizzou a much harder time than expected.

Sophie Cunningham will continue to be the face of the program as she prepares for the final stretch of her college career. If Missouri is to hold its own against the SEC’s best and make a run in March, it won’t be without significant contributions from its leading star.

The conference slate opens with a home contest against against Ole Miss on Thursday before Mizzou faces its first major test on Sunday at Tennessee. The Lady Vols boast the SEC’s second-highest average attendance behind South Carolina and have never lost a home game to Missouri in SEC play.

The back half of January features a crucial four-game stretch for the Missouri, which will host Georgia before traveling to South Carolina and Kentucky and then returning home to host Auburn.

That matchup with the Gamecocks, set for Jan. 21, is one both teams will have circled after the teams split their season series last year amid controversy on and off the court. Scuffles and physicality over the two hard-fought games gave way to allegations of misbehavior against both sets of fans as well as a feud between Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley over whether Staley had promoted an negative atmosphere in her home arena.

After facing LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in early February, Mizzou will take on Mississippi State and Tennessee in the space of four days on Feb. 14 and 17. The trip to the Magnolia State on Valentine’s Day looks to be Missouri’s most daunting matchup of the season.

The Tennessee clash on Feb. 17, which features a Sunday afternoon tipoff, will be a prime opportunity for the Tigers to pack Mizzou Arena and make a run at their program’s attendance record, which was set in a similar setting last year against the Lady Vols.

After trips to Auburn and Arkansas, Missouri will host Alabama on March 2 to wrap up the regular season in what will be the long-awaited senior day for Cunningham and fellow senior Lauren Aldridge. Even though the Tigers won’t be up against a flashy opponent, it seems fair to expect another big atmosphere as the Cunningham era comes to a close.

A full two months of SEC basketball will begin as all 14 teams take the court on Thursday night. In Columbia, Missouri will meet Ole Miss at 7 p.m. CST at Mizzou Arena.

Edited by Emily Leiker |

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