Gators could be most improved

Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI

The 6-foot-4 Azania Stewart was second in the SEC in blocked shots last year and led the Gators in rebounds.

British import and Florida senior center Azania Stewart takes into consideration her late introduction to an unfamiliar game -- she first played basketball at 15 after being spotted by a youth league coach playing netball, an English sport with hoop similarities -- and cuts quickly to a key to her speedy success.

"I'm tall," she said.

That's true. At 6-foot-4, the London native is the tallest of all 208 female athletes on the Florida campus, and no woman in the SEC will claim a height advantage over her this season. But if you want to credit Stewart's size exclusively for her success, you might as well explain Elvis' golden records as a result of a pretty good guitar.

"American basketball is very traditional," Stewart said recently. "Overseas, the 5 [center] can guard anyone. The 5 can shoot the ball. I've kind of brought that game. I can score off the block, run the floor and shoot.

"[This year] I've been given the green light. I've been given all the freedom to do that. It's definitely helping my game."

And that should help Florida this season as the Gators attempt to raise their game.

For the first time since 2003-04, the Gators return all five starters. UF's roster will feature five seniors, each with starting experience. All told, there will be 11 returning letter winners from last year's 20-15 team that finished eighth in the SEC.

"We have our expectations set very high," coach Amanda Butler said. "The competitive level in general has been very, very high."

Senior guard Jordan Jones led last year's balanced offense, which had nine players contribute at least five points per game, but Stewart is the player who must put the go in the Gators.

Stewart led the SEC in field goal percentage in 2009-10 at .619. Last year she ranked second in blocked shots (1.8 per game), while also pulling down a team-high 6.1 rebounds.

"Coaching her is fantastic in how much I can rely on her as a solid, consistent performer," Butler said, pointing to Stewart as "essential'' to her team's success. "Her leadership is immeasurable. She wants to be a lot more than just the reliable player or the good defender -- she really wants to be an impact player."

Remembering the sting of a number of close losses last season --four by two points or less, plus an overtime loss in the third round of the WNIT postseason tournament -- Stewart says she is ready to help the Gators turn things around.

"Our goal is to go into the SEC undefeated," she said. "That would help our confidence tremendously. …What's so nice about this team is, and the reason our chemistry is so different this year, is because we know from the losses we shouldn't have had last year, and know how it feels and what you need to bring every day. I think that's going to be the difference."

It has been quite a journey for Stewart. As a freshman in 2008, before she had played a game, Stewart had to be rushed to a hospital. It was discovered she had a diseased, non-functioning kidney, and it was removed. Since then, she has spent summers playing on the U.K. national team, hoping to strengthen her chances of playing for the home team in next summer's London Olympics.

Before that, however, is her final season with the Gators.

What would she like to leave behind?

"A little bit of history up on the wall, definitely," she said. "Winning the SEC here would be great. To leave here with that would make me really happy.

"But just to go out with no regrets. I think that's my goal right now, to do everything in my power to be a winner."

A few good bounces this year for Florida, and that might not be such a tall order.

Team to beat

Under the leadership of coach Pat Summitt, preparing for her 38th season, Tennessee has qualified for every NCAA women's tournament since it began in 1981-82.

Last year's SEC champs were stopped one game short of the NCAA Final Four. They return six seniors, led by All-American and guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen (12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds per game), the SEC regular-season player of the year and tournament MVP, and 6-foot-3 post player Glory Johnson (12.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg).

Top challengers

Four starters and three additional letter winners are back from the 23-11 Georgia team that advanced to the Sweet 16. Junior Jasmine James headlines the returnees, a second-team All-SEC pick who led the team in scoring, assists and steals. Also back are guards Meredith Mitchell, an All-SEC defensive-team choice, and Khaalidah Miller, an All-SEC freshman pick.

Kentucky returns four starters from last year's 25-9 squad and also gets senior point guard Amber Smith back from a knee injury. If that's not promising enough, coach Matthew Mitchell scored one of the nation's top recruiting classes last year with Bria Goss, Azia Bishop and Bra'Shey Ali. Also, sophomore forward Samarie Walker, a transfer from Connecticut, becomes eligible after the fall semester.

Could surprise?

The arrival of coach Nikki Caldwell, a former player and assistant at Tennessee who comes to LSU after turning UCLA into a national power, has lit a fire of optimism in Baton Rouge.

Caldwell, who coaches a high-octane attack, will take over a 19-13 team that returns 10 letter winners, including All-SEC senior forward LaSondra Barrett and leading scorer Adrienne Webb.

"The way this team has embraced the change and the new staff, it is going to be an exciting year for us," Caldwell said.

Preseason player of the year

Tennessee's Stricklen may be the most versatile player in the country.

She started games last year at the point, on the wing and in the post, averaging 12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

She returns after winning being named SEC player of the year and SEC tournament MVP. Stricklen played in the World University Games over the summer, helping the U.S. win the gold medal.

Game of the year

Kentucky at Tennessee: There could be a lot on the line Feb. 13 when the Lady Vols host Kentucky. If the Wildcats live up to preseason expectations and UT labors to any degree, this could be the game that ends the Lady Vols' stranglehold on the conference in the regular season. If not, the game should still greatly impact postseason seedings.

Fab freshmen

Tennessee's Isabelle Harrison, a 6-foot-3 forward/center from Nashville's Hillsboro High School, helped her team to a 36-1 record en route to the 2009 Tennessee AAA state championship. As a senior, she shot 61 percent from the field, averaging 19.3 points, 13.1 rebounds and 7.1 blocked shots.

Kentucky's Bria Gross, a 5-foot-10 guard from Indianapolis, was last year's Indiana Miss Basketball and Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year, along with being selected a McDonald's and Parade All-American. She averaged 21.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.6 steals and 3.2 assists per game for Ben Davis High School, which won 81 straight games and back-to-back Class 4A state titles.

Story to watch

No matter what happens on the basketball court, there is one SEC story this year that will draw the most focus: The health of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt after a diagnosis of early-onset dementia was announced in August.

Comeback story

Tennessee's Vicki Baugh came back last year to play in 24 games after missing almost two full years because of a serious left-knee injuries and surgeries. But this year, the Lady Vols think she's ready to be back to full form.

Compared to Tennessee great Candace Parker after arriving in Knoxville, Baugh, if back to full strength, has the do-everything skills to take over a game.

Going to the dance

The SEC has sent at least five teams to the NCAA tournament every year since the field expanded to 64 in 1994. Nothing is expected to change this year. Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, LSU and Florida appear to be likely picks.

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