Tennessee Lady Vols has a roster to beat Dawn Staley, South Carolina

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Singer Darius Rucker helped South Carolina celebrate their national women’s basketball championship and took a lay shot at Tennessee in the process.

He changed the lyrics to “Wagon Wheel” and encouraged the crowd to join him in singing “F…Tennessee.” Class, huh?

But all is fair in the celebrations of love, war and championship, which in this case included Rucker’s free concert at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina. In fact, the edited version of “Wagon Wheel,” which went viral, was an unintended compliment to the Lady Vols program.

Tennessee hasn’t made a Final Four since 2008, when it won its eighth national championship under former coach Pat Summitt. Nonetheless, 14 years later, the UT program is still a measuring stick for women’s basketball.

Coach Dawn Staley brought South Carolina into the SEC’s preeminent program, won 30 or more games five times, won two national championships in the past six years and will be favored to win a third next season .

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However, this is only a fraction of what Summitt has achieved. In fact, as good a coach as Staley has been through 14 seasons in South Carolina, she’s not even the best coach in the SEC. LSU sophomore coach Kim Mulkey, who won three national championships at Baylor, is the league’s best coach.

Both Mulkey and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper will challenge South Carolina for conference supremacy. And it won’t take as long as you think.

Mulkey’s track record speaks for itself. She flipped a switch and turned LSU from a loser into a 26-game winner in one season, which ended with her being named National Coach of the Year.

Harper’s resume doesn’t compare to Mulkey’s. But the program has improved in each of its three seasons, and it has assembled a staff capable of recruiting effectively. Moreover, she has proven that she can succeed in a changing game.

Harper has embraced the transfer portal and NIL activity, which allows players to earn money through their name, image and likeness. As a result, she assembled a team that could make a Final Four and challenge South Carolina for the SEC title.

Reaching the Final Four might be easier than winning the SEC, given the talent and experience South Carolina will come back to. But the Lady Vols are not lacking in talent either.

Tennessee will essentially field an all-star team as well as a senior team next season.

It could start five seniors who have been either first or second team in all conferences: center Tamari Key, guard Jordan Horston, Mississippi State transfer forward Rickea Jackson, Minnesota transfer guard Jasmine Powell and Missouri State transfer forward Jasmine Franklin.

That doesn’t take into account the overall strength of his roster, which also includes promising young players like rookie Sara Puckett; star signing Justine Pissott; and repatriated all-rounder Marta Suarez, who suffered an injury last season.

Tennessee also improved its chances of competing with South Carolina by adding Georgia transfer Jillian Hollingshead, a 6-foot-5 center.

The secret to beating South Carolina is to be competitive in the position against 6-5 National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston and the rest of her tall, athletic front line. The 6-6 key cannot do this on its own.

Hollingshead is considered a potential All-SEC player. The only concern would be a knee injury that sidelined her at times during her first season at Georgia.

If healthy, she could provide the rebound that UT lacked against the Gamecocks last season when they edged Lady Vols 59-38. That rebound proved decisive in South Carolina’s 67-53 win.

But Tennessee will be stronger in all areas next season. And if he still needs some extra incentive to pass South Carolina, he can watch Rucker’s concert on YouTube.

John Adams is senior columnist. He can be reached at 865-342-6284 or [email protected] Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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