Sometimes Nikki Fargas likes to take out her 1991 national championship ring just to admire it for a little bit.
She rarely ever shows it to her LSU basketball players, but Fargas — then Caldwell — has a lot of good memories from her playing days at Tennessee.
There’s the friendships and relationships she made as a guard for the Lady Vols and the lessons she learned playing for legendary coach Pat Summitt, setting her up for her own coaching career down the road. Of course the way she earned the ring in the first place, helping Tennessee take down Virginia in overtime of the championship game, stands out.
But a secondary thought that comes across her mind is how much the game changed in the past quarter century.
The game Fargas now coaches is almost unrecognizable to the one she played growing up. Players throw fancy passes instead of a simple bounce. Coaches can no longer call extra practices because of NCAA rules.
Even the landscape of college basketball looks different.
It’s been five years since Summitt last coached a game. Tennessee hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2008. Neither has LSU, for that matter.
Long gone are the days the Southeastern Conference dominated the sport from top to bottom.
At least that was the case before South Carolina cut down the nets in Dallas in April.
Winning the program’s first national championship is unquestionably the biggest moment in Gamecocks history. Winning it over a conference rival in Mississippi State only made it sweeter.
But South Carolina wasn’t the only team to win almost nine months ago to the day.
The Gamecocks ushered in a new era of SEC basketball, one the league hadn’t seen in almost a decade.
Once the top conference in women’s college basketball, the SEC, relative to the unparalleled heights it was accustomed to, fell on hard times before last season.
For eight years, the league was all but forgotten on the sport’s biggest stage in its longest championship drought since the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1982.
That changed with South Carolina.
The SEC is back.
“South Carolina really has given the SEC that credibility — if you’re looking at the five-year span (since Summitt) — from a national, Final Four stage,” Fargas said.
South Carolina’s win and Mississippi State’s run to the championship breathed life back into the SEC this year.
Coaches like South Carolina’s Dawn Staley never stopped believing the SEC was dangerous top to bottom, thus giving their teams an advantage in the postseason.
Fargas pointed out tall those great Tennessee teams wouldn't have been so great if it weren't for programs like LSU constantly pushing them in SEC play.
But greater parity across the country in recent eyars meant other conferences could make the same claims.
For a few years, the league was still putting seven or eight teams into the NCAA tournament on an annual basis, but those teams weren’t surviving as long as usual.
With Tennessee and LSU slipping, only one SEC team — South Carolina — made a Final Four in the eight years before 2017. In the eight seasons preceding, the SEC put 10 teams in the Final Four.
“I don’t think (the SEC’s reputation) fell off,” Staley said. “I think what happened is parity in the women’s game. It’s hard to get to the Final Four. It's not an easy feat. But I believe we put ourselves into position to compete at the highest level when it comes to playing in the NCAA tournament because we’ve already seen some style of play we’ll see in the tournament.”
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said last year’s championship game reminded her of some of the conference’s brightest days when the Lady Vols played conference rivals Auburn and Georgia for national titles.
The longtime Summitt assistant and former player said in those days the SEC was one of the few leagues to build up women’s basketball programs, so they naturally had the best teams.
The SEC may be back to those days with both South Carolina and Mississippi State entering conference play ranked in the Top 5, Tennessee right outside at No. 7 and Missouri and Texas A&M also in the Top 25.
“It’s a tough conference, and when you get in this conference it’s a grind,” Warlick said. “If you can get out of it, it’s tough. I don’t think it’s been down. I think it continues to get better.”
LSU enters SEC play 8-3 and on a six-game win streak, but conference play has been where the Lady Tigers tend to fall short the past few years.
Fargas is 48-48 in SEC play at LSU, including 11-21 the past two years.
This year’s team is much healthier than it has been in the past, but also features almost exclusively underclassmen.
Fargas said it might be time to show off the championship ring to players to give them some extra motivation.
“We’re expecting this program to be one of those teams, I want our team to be respected. I want to be a team where people come to play us and they respect the hard work they put on the floor. You’re ultimate goal is to get to a Final Four and give yourself a national championship. You first have to get there.”
South Carolina: As the four-time defending SEC champs and fresh off the league’s first national title in almost a decade, if any program wants to claim the top spot, they have to go through South Carolina first. Until that happens, the Gamecocks rule the conference.
Mississippi State: The Lady Bulldogs might actually be better than the team that beat them in the national championship. Mississippi State returns the bulk of last year’s team, including Morgan William and Victoria Vivians.
Tennessee: Not quite the dominant power they once were, but still a force in the league and extremely dangerous to threaten South Carolina’s stranglehold.
A’ja Wilson (South Carolina, forward): The two-time SEC Player of the Year and the main reason her team cut down the nets at the end of last season is back for he senior season and it’s gong to be tough to stop her. Wilson is already in the running for the nation’s top player and every SEC team knows she’s the force that drive the Gamecocks.
Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State, forward): Morgan William may have hit the big shot to topple UCONN, but Vivians was the driving force behind the Lady Bulldogs’ miraculous run last season. A preseason first team All SEC selection, Vivian averaged 16.2 points per game last year and will continue to give teams fits.
Sophie Cunningham (Missouri, guard): Cunningham finished fourth in the league for scoring last season despite suffering from back pain most of the year. If she’s healthy this time around, she could be one of the conference’s best talents.