SEC preview: Once again, it’s Florida and Kentucky at the top

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Florida 6-foot-8 middle Rachael Kramer/ UAA Communications photo by Tim Casey

The SEC is annually a two-team-at-the-top affair: Florida and Kentucky.

And this year isn’t expected to be any different, not after the Gators went to the NCAA championship match last season and entered the season at No. 7 in the AVCA preseason poll, while Kentucky was ranked No. 5.

Missouri is always in the hunt, but look for a major shift after that as Georgia, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas look to move into the top half of the pack.

The SEC had the most coaching turnover of any of the power-five conferences with new leaders at Texas A&M, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State.

SEC Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Missouri
4 (tie) Georgia
4 (tie) LSU
6. Auburn
7. Arkansas
8. Texas A&M
9. South Carolina
10. Tennessee
11. Ole Miss
12. Alabama
13. Mississippi State

Alabama
2017 Record: 18-14, 6-12
Analysis: The Crimson Tide was picked to finish 12th in the 13-team league. It’s a team with five freshmen and they need to make an impact. No player on the team is taller than 6-2. The leader will be OH Ginger Perinar, second on the team last year with 277 kills (2.95/set). Alabama has to replace MB Leah Lawrence, who led in kills (279) and blocks (123, 39 solo).

Arkansas
2017 Record: 19-11, 9-9
Analysis: Coach Jason Watson has been building a team that could bust loose in 2018.  The Razorbacks got out quick last season but then stumbled in the middle of league play. This year the focus won’t be all one player on offense like it was last year, when Pilar Victoria led with a whopping 634 kills. Sophomore OH Hailey Dirrigi should get big numbers. Four of the five freshman are from Texas.

Auburn
2017 Record: 15-12, 8-10
Analysis: Coach Rick Nold has had Auburn going in the right direction and the feeling around the SEC is this is the Tigers’ year to make a move. There are only two seniors, but one, Brenna McIlroy, is the returning kills leader (292, 2.86 kps) who had 21 aces and 278 digs. Junior MB Shaina White averaged 2.71 kills and hit .367. Auburn has six freshmen, including 6-4 outside Tatum Shipes.

Florida
2017 Record: 30-2, 17-1
Analysis: The record is worth noting, because Florida lost to Kentucky, came back and beat the Wildcats at their place, and never lost again until the NCAA title match with Nebraska. Gone are two mainstays, All-American middle Rhamat Alhassan, do-everything outside Carli Snyder and spectacular right side Shainah Joseph, but coming in is the most highly touted freshman in the country in outside Thayer Hall. Among the returning players are 6-8 MB Rachael Kramer, who had a breakout season in 2017, senior setter Allie Monserez and sophomore outside Paige Hammons, who will get her chance to go big time.

Georgia
2017 Record: 22-12, 10-8
Analysis: In his first season in Athens, coach Tom Black made Georgia the surprise team of the nation. A big key was freshman outside T’Ara Ceasar (484 kills, 4.4 kps, 294 digs, 45 aces, 49 blocks), who won’t be a secret anymore as a sophomore. The other OH is another sophomore in Rachel Ritchie (421 kills, 25 aces, 154 digs, 26 blocks), giving Georgia as good a pin pair as there is anywhere.

Kentucky
2017 Record: 29-4, 17-1
Analysis: Coach Craig Skinner has built a powerhouse. Junior OH Leah Edmond (539 kills, 4.53 kps, 40 aces) is as good a player at her position as anyone in the country. Sophomore Madison Lilley is among the nation’s setting elite. Sophomore OH Avery Skinner was second on the team in kills with 362. Kentucky is loaded and don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats in Minneapolis in December.

LSU
2017 Record: 20-10, 11-7
Analysis: The Tigers took some major steps forward in 2017, buoyed by 6-foot-5 right side Taylor Bannister, who led in kills with 361, 3.22/set. Veteran coach Fran Flory had a nice surprise from junior middle Jacqui Armer, who went from backup to standout as she not only had 221 kills, but led LSU with 126 blocks, 22 solo. Sophomore Raigen Cianciulli proved to be a quality libero and junior Anna Zweibel was a more than capable setter.
LSU, still young but way more experienced, was one of the last teams into the NCAA field and lost a first-round match at San Diego, but look for the Tigers to be stronger this year, both in the regular season and NCAA tourney,

Ole Miss
2017 Record: 23-13, 9-9
Analysis: Coach Steve McRoberts has almost everyone back, minus OH Kate Gibson, a key cog, from a team that got hot late and won the NIVC. Junior OH Emily Stroup had 474 kills and 291 digs in 2017. The coaches have the Rebels a preseason 11th in the league, but it could go better than that for Ole Miss if any of its five freshmen can contribute.

Mississippi State
2017 Record: 10-23, 1-17
Analysis: New coach Julie Darty has a tough task ahead of her. State  hasn’t ever made the NCAA Tournament and its highest SEC finish was fifth in 1984. The good news is there are only two seniors and seven freshmen.

Missouri
2017 Record: 22-12, 13-5
Analysis: Coach Wayne Kreklow always has the Tigers in the hunt. This team, led by senior middle Ashlyn Munlyn (277 kills, .381 hitting percentage, 189 blocks), will be no exception. The other middle, Kayla Caffey, had 202 kills and 130 blocks. Mizzou has been to the NCAA round of 16 the past two seasons. The Tigers will look a bit different this year, but expect them to give Florida and Kentucky a battle.

South Carolina
2017 Record: 12-18, 5-13
Analysis: Tom Mendoza had a great two-year run as head coach at High Point after serving as assistant at Creighton. He knows what it takes, but it will take a lot to turn South Carolina in the right direction. He can build around senior right side Mikayla Shields (429 kills, 20 aces, 75 blocks, 283 digs) and sophomore MB Mikayla Robinson (260 kills, 121 blocks).

Tennessee
2017 Record: 12-15, 5-13
Analysis: The coaching community was ecstatic when longtime North Carolina assistant Eve Rackham got the nod at Tennessee. She is another new coach with a major task on her hands. Senior MB Erica Treiber led the Vols in kills with just 226.

Texas A&M
2017 Record: 10-15, 7-11
Analysis: Coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn, the longtime assistant at Kansas, takes over a program that was beset by injuries and took some major steps backward the past couple of seasons. The good news is senior libero Amy Houser is the only senior and A&M has seven freshmen, including 6-4 MB London Austin-Roark. The Aggies also got a boost when 6-3 MB Sydnye Fields transferred from North Carolina. Junior outside Hollann Hans is the only all-SEC preseason team member. She led A&M in kills (298) and aces (36).

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