NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When South Carolina and Mississippi State met in an all-Southeastern Conference national championship game last season, it underscored the league's dramatic transformation in the post-Pat Summitt era.
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Anyone watching SEC women's basketball for the first time since Summitt stepped down in 2012 would hardly recognize it.
"There's no denying there has been a lot of change in the Southeastern Conference," said Andy Landers, who coached Georgia from 1979-2015 and is now an SEC Network analyst. "For probably 25-30 years, Tennessee, Georgia and some mix of Auburn, LSU, Vanderbilt probably was the top of the league. Mississippi State and South Carolina were always at the bottom of the league."
South Carolina, which reached the NCAA Tournament just twice from 1992-2011, is the reigning national champion and has arguably the nation's top player in A'ja Wilson. The Gamecocks have earned at least a share of the last four SEC titles and are favored to win it again this season.
"I'm extremely proud of where we've come from," said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who is entering her 10th season. "It is what fuels us."
Mississippi State has emerged as the Gamecocks' top challenger for now. Tennessee, which won eight national titles during Summitt's tenure, has been relegated to playing catch-up. Georgia, Vanderbilt and LSU are struggling to regain the relevance they once enjoyed as annual NCAA Tournament teams.
Tennessee hasn't been to the Final Four since its 2008 national title. The Lady Vols have still reached four regional finals in six seasons under coach Holly Warlick, but lately they've taken another step back.
After going 86-20 in Warlick's first three seasons, Tennessee went 42-26 the last two years. Last season marked just the second time the Lady Vols failed to advance beyond the NCAA Tournament's round of 32 .
"I don't care who's playing (for the title), if it's not Tennessee, it motivates you," Warlick said. "We're at a point where we're expected to be there, we're expected to win games. It's a part of Tennessee. It's a part of our Lady Vol tradition. If we're not there, I'm not very happy."
Tennessee isn't the only traditional SEC stalwart that isn't what it used to be.
LSU made five straight Final Fours from 2004-08 but hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014. LSU fell to 10-21 when injuries decimated the roster in 2015-16 before bouncing back to reach the NCAA Tournament last season.
The Tigers know there's still more work to be done.
"We're not just doing it for us," LSU guard Raigyne Moncrief said. "There are so many other people, legacies that paved the way for us and went to five straight Final Fours. We want to do it for them as well. ... We want to make it back to the tournament and let people know LSU's always a tournament team."
Vanderbilt and Georgia have similar goals.
Georgia made 20 straight NCAA Tournaments from 1995-2014 but has earned just one NCAA bid over the last three seasons. Georgia's streak ended in its final season under Landers, who had led the Lady Bulldogs to five Final Four berths.
Lady Bulldogs senior Mackenzie Engram acknowledges Georgia's streak caused her to assume she'd play in the NCAA Tournament every year.
"Being part of the 'bad' Georgia history is not something that I wanted to do, but this is my last year and I'm trying to leave that behind and move forward and put Georgia basketball back to where it was before," Engram said.
Vanderbilt reached 15 straight NCAA Tournaments from 2000-14 but hasn't been back since. The Commodores have gone a combined 47-46 over the last three seasons.
Commodores coach Stephanie White says the SEC's depth makes it "incredibly difficult" for a program to regain its footing after it stumbles, but she adds that "it's doable."
"You certainly want to play in the best league in the country," White said. "You certainly want to go against the best teams in the country, and so it gives us as a team that's trying to get back in the NCAA Tournament, a great measuring stick. Every night we're competing against the best."
And it takes time to climb back on top.
South Carolina and Mississippi State have shown what a little patience can do for a program, if its headed in the right direction. The Gamecocks finished below .500 each of Staley's first two seasons.
"Sometimes you've got to prepare to handle losing before you're able to handle winning," Staley said. "We had our fair share of losing the first two years. We learned and grew from those experiences to set us up for being gracious winners."
Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee
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