As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women’s college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top conferences. We wrap up our league previews with the SEC, where the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks continue to dominate. The Mississippi State Bulldogs and Kentucky Wildcats have new head coaches, and all eyes are on Kellie Harper in her second season with the Tennessee Lady Vols.
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SEC 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Mechelle Voepel: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Graham Hays: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Charlie Creme: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Newcomer of the Year
Voepel: Destiny Pitts, Texas A&M
Hays: Destiny Slocum, Arkansas
Creme: Destiny Pitts, Texas A&M
SEC 2020-21 writer roundtable
What does Matthew Mitchell’s abrupt retirement mean for national player of the year front-runner Rhyne Howard and Kentucky?
Voepel: First off, you feel for Matthew Mitchell and his family, and hope for the best for them. In an interview published by the Lexington Herald-Leader on Oct. 28, Mitchell said his recovery — he had brain surgery in the summer after a fall in March — had gone slower than he expected, but he was “rounding the corner” and anticipated being back to his full duties by the time the season started. Then, shockingly, he resigned on Nov. 12. Howard and the rest of the Wildcats are obviously sad and concerned for Mitchell. But by the same token, interim coach Kyra Elzy had essentially had been acting in a head coaching capacity while Mitchell was recuperating. So the players already have had time with her in that role.
Elzy said philosophically she is a lot like Mitchell, especially with her emphasis on defense, and she has a great relationship with Howard. So this change — while difficult emotionally for all involved — is probably going to be relatively smooth. It’s also notable that now the 14-team SEC has seven Black women as head coaches with Elzy’s elevation, and four SEC head coaches are former Tennessee Lady Vol players.
Hays: I agree that, first and foremost, what this means for Mitchell is the most important part of the story. In a Zoom call a week or two before he retired, even while sounding a note of optimism, he didn’t hide the difficulty of his recovery. Hopefully he now has an opportunity to continue and complete that recovery at his own pace and figure out what comes next in his life.
On the basketball side, Mitchell’s retirement was abrupt ,but Kentucky had been adjusting to his absence for months because of the difficulty of that retirement. Elzy and the rest of what is now her staff were largely running things on a day-to-day basis throughout most of the summer. So not only do the players know her well, they know what it feels like when she’s the one who has the final word. In that sense, as sudden as