As strong as ever
Updated: Friday November 17, 2000 10:56 AM
By Seth Traub, Special to CNNSI.com
The Southeastern Conference was the toughest conference in the nation for women's basketball again last year.
Its non-conference record led the nation at 151-31 (.830) and was the best in SEC history. The competition should get even stronger this year as all but one SEC team returns at least three starters. Eight teams return four or more with Tennessee returning all five.
While men's college hoops is plagued by early defections to the NBA, the women tend to stay all four years of their eligibility.
It may be because the WNBA has not yet created the draw of money and fame of its counterpart, but the result is that fans of women's basketball see experienced players and have time to get to know their favorite players.
No. 9 Louisiana State head coach Sue Gunter said the NBA is a draw to the men, and sometime in the future the WNBA may be to women because it is getting more popular, but it is not an option just yet.
"The men's game has gone haywire in the last few years because of the NBA," Gunter said. "With the women getting better every year, it helps the game and brings more people to the games. It just doesn't benefit the women to leave early."
In her 18 years as a coach, Gunter said she sees the benefits when she looks around the league and it keeps getting better.
"I look around and it seems like no one is graduating anybody because we are all as strong as we were the year before and maybe even stronger," Gunter said. "I think some teams can't get any better, and they do."
Eyes on the prize
There are two SEC teams expected to challenge consensus No. 1 Connecticut, who returns all five starters, for the national championship this season.
No. 5 Georgia (0-1) returns four starters to a squad that was 13-1 in the SEC and 32-4 overall, shared the SEC championship and advanced to the Elite Eight last season. Bulldog head coach Andy Landers said the SEC benefits from the amount of experience in the conference because it creates better competition.
"Since there is so much of it and our conference was so successful last year, the experience will make the conference that much better," Landers said.
Georgia is contending for its third Final Four in six years and No. 2 Tennessee wants to one-up its NCAA runner-up season of a year ago.
Gunter's Tigers (1-1) with four returning starters, also are expected to compete for the national championship. The Tigers were 11-3 in the SEC and 25-7 overall, advancing to the Elite Eight last season.
Top to bottom
In the SEC, Gunter said that if you take out the perennial top-two teams, Georgia and Tennessee, and the two that are always at the bottom, the eight in the middle are all fighting for position. The SEC tied the Big 12 Conference for the most bids into the NCAA Tournament, with six last season.
Florida is in that pack, returning three starters from last year's WNIT runner-up team. Coach Carol Ross said the entire SEC is out for one thing; a championship, and whether you have one or five returning starters doesn't matter with the depth of overall talent in the conference.
"The SEC is a power year in and year out, we have the best players and are the best conference year after year." Ross said. "It doesn't matter if teams have five returning starters or not, everyone knows they are facing great talent every time we play."
Seth Traub is a reporter for The Independent Florida Alligator, the student paper that serves the University of Florida.