When the NCAA women's basketball season begins Tuesday there will be clear favorites to win the national championship, but this is likely to be the most competitive and unpredictable season in recent memory. Here are some of the biggest storylines we're watching now and we could still be watching in April at the 2020 Women's Final Four in New Orleans.
The reigning national champion Baylor Bears will look to go back-to-back with coach Kim Mulkey and player of the year candidate Lauren Cox leading the way.
This looks like it will be as unpredictable as any season for UConn in quite a long time as the Huskies look to advance to a 13th straight Final Four this season.
Legendary Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has yet another team capable of winning a national championship, mixing veteran leadership with youthful exuberance.
Texas A&M may present the most unpredictability, but what can't be argued is the fact that they have one of the country's best scoring guards.
And then there's the Oregon Ducks and their star, Sabrina Ionescu. When Ionescu was a freshman, that Kelly Graves-led Ducks team was up-and-coming, and a bit of a surprise, making it all the way to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed. Their reward was having to face the four-time reigning national champions and No. 1 seeded Connecticut Huskies. Not only did they have to play UConn, they had to travel to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to do so. Fast-forward three years. It's Ionescu's senior year, and this Graves-led Ducks team is not only coming off of their program's first Final Four, they are the favorite to win the national championship. They also return to Connecticut to play UConn in a huge non-conference game Feb. 3, 2020 -- this time, by choice.
Let's take a look at how our preseason top 25 shakes out heading into the season's opening week.
Women's Top 25 Power Rankings
1. Oregon: Oregon is the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country. The return of Sabrina Ionescu, the reigning Wooden Award winner and projected No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, sparks a loaded Duck roster led by coach Kelly Graves. Following the program's first trip to the Final Four last season, the expectations are high in Eugene, Oregon. Ionescu will be joined by Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally to create what might be the best scoring tandem in the country. Newcomer Jaz Shelley is a freshman guard who can flat out make plays, and should have an immediate impact for the Ducks. Sedona Prince, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Texas, would provide another inside presence to complement Oregon's terrific guard play, but she still awaits news on her request for immediate eligibility.
2. Stanford: The ultimate mix of youth and experience helps Stanford claim the No. 2 spot behind Oregon and give the Pac-12 two teams in the top two slots. The Cardinal return three starters from last season's Elite Eight team in Kiana Williams, DiJonai Carrington and Lacie Hull. Lexie Hull and Maya Dodson, who both saw starting minutes last season also return, while Nadia Fingall, who started all 12 of her games last season before injuring her knee, will also return for the Cardinal. Coach Tara VanDerveer brought in the nation's No. 2 ranked recruiting class -- behind only South Carolina -- which features top-ranked Haley Jones, sharp-shooting Hannah Jump, 6-5 forward Ashten Prechtel and Fran Belibi. Belibi and Jones should see significant time and have an immediate impact. Jones is a 6-1 guard that can really score and is used to winning. Belibi, who took social media by storm with her in-game dunks and alley-oops, is an impressive all-around talent whose athleticism at 6-1, might be tops in the conference. In the grind that will be the Pac-12 this season, the Cardinal might just have the conference's and possibly the nation's deepest team. For that reason, I have them just slightly ahead of the reigning national champion, Baylor Bears.
3. Baylor: While many believe that Oregon is the clear No. 1 team right now, the No. 2 team, for most, is Baylor, the 2019 NCAA Tournament champion. The Bears were dominating Notre Dame in last season's NCAA Tournament championship game before their All-American forward Lauren Cox went down with an injury in the second half. Cox will return at full strength for the Bears, as they look to get back to the Final Four. While the losses of Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson will have a significant impact, the addition of South Carolina graduate transfer Te'a Cooper, might be the most important addition in all of women's college basketball. Cooper, a former All-SEC performer, will take over for Jackson, who played a huge role in the Bears championship run. Junior Didi Richards will be a defensive presence for coach Kim Mulkey, while Juicy Landrum and NaLyssa Smith will look to take the next step and improve upon their 11.1 and 8.4 points per game, respectively.
4. Oregon State: One team that Pac-12 opponents and others across the country will not want to sleep on this season is Oregon State. The Beavers went 26-8 last season, ultimately falling to Louisville in the Sweet 16. The one thing that stands out about Scott Rueck's team is the balance. They will boast one of the biggest frontcourts in the country with the return of 6-9 Andrea Aquino and 6-7 Patricia Morris, to go along with 6-6 Kennedy Brown, 6-4 Taylor Brown, and 6-9 Jelena Mitrovic. While few teams, if any, will be able to matchup with the size of the Beavers frontcourt, their backcourt will be extremely important and may just dictate what type of season the Beavers will have. Veteran senior guards Mikayla Pivec and Kat Tudor will join redshirt junior Destiny Slocum, in what could be a top-five backcourt in the country when healthy.
5. Maryland: In a month, we could be talking about Maryland as a top-two or top-three team. Following a second-round defeat to UCLA in last season's NCAA Tournament, the Terrapins will return all five starters, led by Big Ten Player of the Year and Wooden Award candidate Kaila Charles. Charles averaged just over 17 points per game last season. Joining Charles will be Taylor Mikesell, Stephanie Jones, Shakira Austin, and Blair Watson. Channise Lewis, who started 12 games for Maryland last season, also returns for coach Brenda Frese. Couple the returners with two elite recruits in freshmen Diamond Miller and Ashley Owusu and Frese will have plenty of scoring options in College Park, Maryland. The Terrapins should win the Big Ten, which would likely get them a top two-seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they can defend and rebound at the level in which they can score the ball, Frese and the Terrapins may be set for a return trip to the Final Four.
6. UConn: Remember five years ago when the Huskies were winning four straight national championships and the question was whether or not UConn was good or bad for women's college basketball? Five years later, it's safe to say that they were great for women's basketball. They forced other programs and coaches to raise their game. This UConn team is terrific, yet here they are ranked No. 6. Following a third straight Final Four defeat, as they fell to Notre Dame each of the past two seasons, the Huskies will look to get back to the Final Four for the 13th straight time. The keys will be the play of junior forward Megan Walker and sophomore guard Christyn Williams. Walker and Williams averaged 12.1 and 11.7 points per game, respectively, while shooting 3-pointers at just under 40% and 37% respectively. The Huskies will need the continued growth of Walker and Williams, as they look to replace the scoring left behind by the graduation of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. Senior guard Crystal Dangerfield is explosive in transition, while Olivia Nelson-Ododa will be the Huskies defensive stalwart. The big news for UConn will come when they hear a final status on the waiver request for Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook. If eligible, the Huskies would certainly move into the top-five.
7. South Carolina: South Carolina may just fit the category of being the most unpredictable team in the country, that everyone believes will be extremely good. The question is, how good? This will be almost a completely new team following the graduation of four players and the transfer of three more, including All-SEC guard Te'a Cooper (Baylor). The good news for coach Dawn Staley, is that seniors Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris, last season's third and fourth top scorers, respectively, will return for the Gamecocks. The big news is that Staley brings in the nation's top-ranked recruiting class led by 6-5 post Aliyah Boston and 5-9 point guard Zia Cooke. Cooke has the ability to step in and be an impact freshman on day one. Boston and Cooke are joined by Laeticia Amihere and Breanna Beal, giving Staley four of the top-12 in the 2019 recruiting class. The last recruiting class to have three or more players ranked in the top-12 was the 2012 class of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. They went on to win four consecutive national championships for UConn.
8. Texas A&M: Chennedy Carter. That's the player that you need to know. The junior was second in the country in scoring last season at 23.3 points per game, and she has the ability to go for 30 on any given night. The Aggies return a plethora of talent after falling to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 last season. Joining Carter will be juniors Ciera Johnson, Kayla Wells and Aaliyah Wilson, all of whom averaged double figures in scoring last season. N'dea Jones and senior Shambria Washington, also return for coach Gary Blair, giving the Aggies five returning starters, their top six scorers and one of the most prolific and elite scorers in the country. For the Aggies, it will come down to their ability to defend and rebound. If they can do both of those things at a high level, it could be Texas A&M that reigns supreme in the SEC.
9. Louisville: Asia Durr is now in New York, playing for the Liberty of the WNBA, and coach Jeff Walz is looking for a new face of the program. While there are still plenty of options, such as returning starters Jazmine Jones and Bionca Dunham, or the only returner who averaged double digits in Dana Evans, Louisville may find the answer in sophomore Elizabeth Balogun, a Georgia Tech transfer. Balogun, along with 6-5 post Elizabeth Dixon, both transferred to Louisville from the Yellow Jackets and were granted immediate eligibility. While Dixon will bring terrific athleticism, scoring, and rebounding to the post, Balogun is a dynamic playmaker and scorer, and should flourish in Waltz's system. Bringing experienced playmakers into the mix, along with top 2019 guard Nyah Green, the Cardinals should be right back in the fold for a Final Four run.
10. UCLA: It's difficult to rightfully argue that a team in my top-10 can be considered a dark horse, but I'm making that claim for UCLA. This is a Bruin team that flew under the radar last season, and will likely do so again in a loaded Pac-12 conference, but they have Final Four talent and one of the best coaches in the country in Cori Close. The Bruins fell to UConn in a terrific Sweet 16 game last season after upsetting Maryland in the second round in College Park. Kennedy Burke is gone, but the Bruins return junior forward Michaela Onyenwere, who is a player of the year candidate following her 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game performance last season. Shooting guard Japreece Dean is also back and will be joined by two dynamic freshmen guards in Jaden Owens and Charisma Osborne. UCLA is not just a dark horse to compete and potentially win the Pac 12, it has Final Four-level talent.
11. Mississippi State: Coach Vic Shaefer and the Bulldogs have been a model of consistency over the past few seasons. Following back-to-back losses in the national championship game in 2017 and 2018, the Bulldogs fell just short of the Final Four last season, losing to Oregon in the Elite Eight. Teaira McCowan and Anriel Howard, the team's two best players from last season, have both moved on, but the Bulldogs return guard Jordan Danberry and forward Chloe Bibby, who averaged 13.1 and 11.9 points respectively last season. Schaefer added four top-100 recruits, led by 6-2 wing Rickea Jackson, to go along with Aliyah Matharu, Jayla Hemingway and JaMya Mingo-Young. For the Bulldogs, outside of the development of their freshmen, the biggest question mark may be the development of former UConn transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter.
12. NC State: The key for the Wolfpack, who are looking to improve upon their Sweet 16 run last season, will be the return of senior point guard Kaila Ealey. Ealey returns after missing last season with an injury, and I'm all in on her having a significant impact on this team. While they lost All-ACC guard Kiara Leslie, Wes Moore's squad will return two other key senior guards in Grace Hunter and Aislinn Konig. The experience, along with the return of Ealey, should bode well for NC State..
13. Kentucky: Last year, I felt like this Wildcat team was a year away from making a significant run. After staving off a game Princeton team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, it fell to NC State in the second round. The SEC is loaded, but seemingly wide open. Matthew Mitchell returns espnW and WBCA Freshman of the Year Rhyne Howard, who could be the SEC Player of the Year. Junior Tatyana Wyatt's development will be key. While Howard is an elite talent, I'm tempering expectations just a bit, as some new faces work their way into the rotation.
14. Texas: Texas struggled down the stretch last season, finishing 3-5, including a loss to Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That said, there's reason to believe in Austin, Texas, as seniors Sug Sutton and Joyner Holmes return. The big news is that senior Lashann Higgs will be back following an ACL injury that ended her season last November. Higgs was the Longhorns' leading scorer before the injury. Coach Karen Aston also brought in a terrific young guard in Celeste Taylor, a top-40 recruit, that should have an immediate impact and will add much needed depth to the Texas roster.
15. Florida State: Coach Sue Semrau has the Seminoles trending in the right direction in what could be a wide-open ACC this season. Seniors Kiah Gillespie and Nicki Ekhomu are the keys for Florida State. They led the team in scoring last season and will need to maintain and improve that level of scoring. The Seminoles barely held on to defeat Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to South Carolina in the second round. Beyond Gillespie and Ekhomu, junior Iho Lopez returns following injury and two top-40 recruits, River Baldwin and Sammie Puisis, will join Semrau's squad and should see significant minutes.
16. Indiana: Junior guards Ali Patberg, Jaelynn Penn and Bendu Yeaney will join senior Brenna Wise as not only returning starters, but the Hoosiers' top four scorers from last season's team that defeated Texas in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Oregon in the second round. Add two top-60 recruits in 6-0 wing Jorie Allen, and 6-3 post MacKenzie Holmes, and the Hoosiers are set for another, possibly even deeper tournament run, and could be the surprise in the Big 10.
17. Notre Dame: While some teams on this list return two, three or even four starters, Notre Dame and Muffet McGraw will look to replace the entire starting lineup. The Fighting Irish also lose forward Danielle Patterson, who transferred to Indiana. Coming off of consecutive national championship game appearances, new-look Notre Dame will lean on returners Mikayla Vaughn and Abby Prohaska to take the reins. Danielle Cosgrove also returns and will be joined by two top-20 recruits in Samantha Brunelle and Anaya Peoples. The addition of these two freshmen, to go along with graduate transfer Marta Sniezek (Stanford), will have an immediate impact in South Bend, Indiana.
18. Minnesota: Minnesota is going to be much improved under second-year coach Lindsay Whalen. Freshman point guard Jasmine Powell will join junior guard Destiny Pitts and senior forward Taiye Bello as the Golden Gophers look to build on last season's WNIT performance. Side note: Minnesota's top returning scorer, Pitts, and top recruit, Powell, both went to the same high school, Detroit Country Day.
19. Drake: If you're looking for a mid-major team that could make a significant run in March, look no further than Drake. They return a veteran squad, including three starters in Becca Hittner, Sara Rhine and Maddie Monahan. Hittner is the two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, as she averaged a conference high 19.7 points last season. Rhine was right behind her at 18.3 points per game. Drake will be tested early in the non-conference with games against Iowa State, Purdue and Oklahoma among others.
20. Miami: Coach Katie Meier has a bona fide pro in 6-4 senior Beatrice Mompremier. The addition of two ESPN top-100 recruits in 6-3 forwards, Sydnee Roby and Brianna Jackson, will add frontcourt depth for the Hurricanes, while the development of junior guards Mykea Gray and Kelsey Marshall will be key.
21. Arizona: Arizona won the WNIT last season and returns the nation's reigning leading scorer in junior point guard Aari McDonald. McDonald averaged 24.1 points last season and is poised to lead a team that returns all five starters. Graduate transfer Amari Carter (Penn State), will add much needed depth to this Wildcat team, as they look to compete in arguably the country's best conference. The Wildcats won 24 games last season, including wins over California and Arizona State, and had a slim 2-point loss to Stanford. This team is one to watch.
22. DePaul: DePaul won a thriller over Marquette in the Big East Tournament championship game last season, but were upset by Missouri State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The key pieces for coach Doug Bruno will be sophomore guard Lexi Held, senior guard Kelly Campbell and senior forward Chante Stonewall. The Blue Demons will do one thing for certain, and that is shoot a lot of 3-pointers. They attempted 1,121 shots beyond the arc last season compared to just 651 for their opponents. When they shoot it well, they are tough to beat.
23. Tennessee: The Kellie Harper Era has begun at Tennessee as Harper takes over the Volunteers following an extremely successful run at Missouri State including a Sweet 16 appearance as a No. 11 seed last season. While last year's co-leading scorer Evina Westbrook (14.9 ppg) transferred to UConn, their other co-leader from last season, Rennia Davis, returns. Sophomore Zaay Green is also back, and newcomers Jordan Horston and Tamari Key should have the Vols in the mix, in a wide-open SEC.
24. Michigan: Michigan recorded a few major wins last season, defeating the likes of Rutgers, Indiana, Minnesota and an Iowa team that went to the Elite Eight. Kim Barnes Arico has won 20 games in each of her seven seasons in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The return of leading scorer, Naz Hillmon, as well as two starters, Hailey Brown and Amy Dilk, should have the Wolverines in position to win 20 games again this season. Add freshman sensation Michelle Sidor and the maize and blue will compete for the top of the Big Ten.
25. Rice: After winning a program-record 28 games last season, the Owls will return four starters from last season's NCAA Tournament squad. They will be led by senior Erica Ogwumike and junior Nancy Mulkey. Ogwumike and Mulkey averaged 16.5 and 13.9 points respectively last season. Coach Tina Langley has quickly become one of the country's best coaches, and we will likely learn early how good this team can be, as Rice is set for a Nov. 17 clash with Texas A&M in Houston.
Just out: Arkansas, Arizona State, Michigan State, UNC, Princeton and Auburn