In two days, women's college basketball will be back. Eight months after the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the 2019-2020 season, canceling conference tournaments and ultimately, the 2020 Women's NCAA Tournament, programs across the country are set to begin on Wednesday.
While the hype and the excitement is palpable, so is the uncertainty. As schools, programs, and conferences battle against COVID-19, putting various safety protocols in place for workouts, practices, and games, this will likely be the most challenging season we will collectively experience.
That said, it is going to be a tremendously satisfying sight to see some familiar faces such as Geno Auriemma, Dawn Staley and Brenda Frese patrolling the sidelines, while Vic Shaefer and Nikki McCray-Penson take over new programs and Niele Ivey returns to lead her alma mater.
Some of the country's best players like Aliyah Boston, Dana Evans, Rhyne Howard and Aari McDonald are back, while newcomers Paige Bueckers, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cordoso will look to take the country by storm as freshmen.
The transfer portal was certainly active this past spring and summer as well, as we will see a number of new faces in new places this season.
At some point soon, I will make my Final Four and national championship predictions, but for now, let's take a look at 25 of the best teams in the country heading into the 2020-21 season.
Women's Top 25 Preseason Power Rankings
1. South Carolina
The Gamecocks head into the 2020-21 season as the best team in the country. While there are a number of teams on their tail, coach Dawn Staley's team, right now, is the best. USC is led by reigning Lisa Leslie Award winner Aliyah Boston, whose freshman campaign was one of the best in recent memory. Fellow sophomore Zia Cooke, may end up being the best player on this team and the most important player in the country this year. Add in returning starter Brea Beal and freshman Eniya Russell, it is easy to see why this team is the clear favorite in the SEC and the favorite to win the national championship.
As I said in May, "welcome to the Paige Bueckers era." Bueckers is set to take Storrs, Connecticut, by storm and is one of the most unique and special players that I have ever seen play. Her game certainly speaks for itself, but she is already showing the leadership capabilities that separate the great players from everyone else. Two other top-25 recruits, Mir McLean and Aaliyah Edwards, join a strong group of returners in Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Anna Makurat and Cristyn Williams. Add in Evina Westbrook, a prolific scorer who had to sit out last season after transferring from Tennessee, and this may be Geno Auriemma's best team since the 2016 national championship team.
Louisville is an interesting team and has made quite a leap for me into the top-three. In May, I had them in the No. 8 spot, but the more I look at their team, the more potential for greatness I saw. Coach Jeff Walz is one of the best coaches in the country and they return reigning ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans. The Cardinals will look for more production from returning starter Elizabeth Balogun, while also looking to work two top-20 recruits, Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran into the mix. Van Lith has star potential and she may be the one who steps in and becomes a key second scorer to Evans right away.
I was continuously high on the Cardinal last season, and despite some major setbacks due to injuries, they continued to play well, despite their struggles with Oregon. This team has a breadth of talent. Haley Jones, who missed some time as a freshman last season, was the No. 1 ranked player in the 2019 recruiting class and has all of the talent to showcase why. Lexie Hull can really shoot it and Hall of Fame coach Tara Vanderveer has a strong front line, highlighted by sophomore sensation Fran Belibi. Add in another top recruit in Cameron Brink, a 6-4 forward that can play both inside and out, Stanford is the favorite in the Pac-12. It will be interesting to see which players rise to the top on a team that certainly isn't short on talent.
Before the Baylor faithful get on me for having the Bears at No. 5, I want to be clear: I think this is a top-three team when healthy. The key phrase there is 'when healthy.' A few weeks ago, I had Baylor at No. 2. With the spinal injury to Didi Richards, and the uncertainty around when she will return, I'm pumping the brakes just a bit. Reports have been good that she will return, but the timing is uncertain. Kim Mulkey added talented graduate transfer DiJonai Carrington to go along with a strong returning nucleus in NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo, to go along with top-ranked recruits Sarah Andrews and Hannah Gusters, but Richards is the key to this team. That said, watch out for Andrews. She may end up being one of the top two or three players in the 2020 class.
There is plenty of excitement in Tucson, Arizona, as the Wildcats return star guard Aari McDonald, and coach Adia Barnes is as good as it gets on the sidelines in another year in which the Pac-12 is loaded with good teams. Beyond being a prolific scorer, McDonald is an elite defender. The Wildcats attention to detail on the defensive end, led by McDonald, may be what puts them in the Final Four conversation this season. Double-digit scorer Cate Reese also returns, while the additions of transfers Bendu Yeaney, Trinity Baptiste and Shaina Pellington will provide Barnes's team with additional scoring threats. Lauren Ware, a 6-5 post, and one of the nation's top recruits, will also look to make an immediate impact on the interior for the Wildcats. I think this is a Pac 12 championship team that is more than capable of reaching the Final Four.
7. Mississippi State
It was a bit of a wild offseason for the Bulldogs, as they lost coach Vic Schaefer to Texas, but in comes new coach Nikki McCray-Penson, and it looks like Mississippi State may not skip a beat. The Bulldogs are loaded on the front line again this season, led by sophomore Rikea Jackson. Junior Jessika Carter, another double-digit scorer for the Bulldogs, also returns, to give them one of the best frontcourt combinations in the country. The loss of Bibby (Maryland) certainly hurts them at the guard spot, but freshman Madison Hayes has the potential to step in and provide some stability at the guard spot for McCray-Penson's team. Junior Myah Taylor will also be looked upon to provide not just stability to the guard position, but production on both ends. The Bulldogs can't win the SEC or contend for a Final Four berth with frontcourt play alone. They need great guard play too. If they get it, this will be a team to watch in March.
No team in the country lost as much talent from their starting five as Kelly Graves and the Oregon Ducks. Sabrina Ionescu, Ruth Hebard and Satou Sabally were three of the top eight picks in this past season's WNBA Draft. What may have gone unnoticed beyond the stardom of the Oregon "Big Three" is how deep and talented last year's team really was. The Ducks' next three scorers from last season, Erin Boley, Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley are all returning, and all shot greater than 40% from 3-point range last season. Add in Maryland transfer Taylor Mikesell, who can also shoot it, the Ducks offensive style, while taking time to develop, will continue to be very tough to defend. They also add in 6-7 Sedona Prince, who sat last year out as a transfer, and five top-25 recruits in Sydney Parrish (No. 8), Te-Hina Paopao (No. 11), Kylee Watson (No. 17), Maddie Scherr (No. 19) and Angela Dugalic (No. 22). This team is loaded with talent. If you are asking whether or not the Ducks have a star like they have had in the past, that is a fair question. To me, they do. Her name is Te-Hina Paopao.
9. N.C. State
It seems as if each of the past two seasons, the Wolfpack have started the season a bit under the radar, and then we look up in January and Wes Moore has an undefeated team ready to compete for an ACC championship. Well, last year, the Pack did win that ACC championship and they are under the radar no "Moore," as they head into the season as a serious contender to win the conference again.The Wolfpack return four starters including star center Elisa Cunane who, at 16.4 PPG and 9.6 RPG, was just shy of averaging a double-double. Kayla Jones, Kai Crutchfield and Jakia Brown-Turner also return to a veteran Wolfpack squad. In May, I wrote that 'The concerns here are the loss of Aislinn Konig, the lack of a top-recruit in the 2020 class, and a non-conference schedule that needs to improve. A ranking at No. 6 may be a bit high, but right now I like this team and it is Final Four-good.' The No. 6 spot proved to be a bit high for me. The rest holds true. Moore can get this team to the Final Four.
This may be a bit of a stretch for a team that lost Kaila Charles to graduation and transfers Taylor Mikesell and Shakira Austin, but hear me out. Reigning Big 10 Freshman of the Year Ashley Owusu returns and could be poised for a breakout season in a new role. Coach Brenda Frese has also made some key additions to the roster in sharp-shooting guard Chloe Bibby, who transferred from Mississippi State, and newcomer Angel Reese, the No. 2 ranked player in the 2020 class. Reese was second only to Bueckers in the recruiting rankings and her ability to play inside and out should make an immediate impact for the Terps. Add, in my opinion, the most underrated addition in the country, Harvard transfer Katie Benzan, and this team should easily win the Big 10 and compete for a Final Four spot. Benzan is under the radar a bit, but she wins.
One of the country's best players and scorers, Rhyne Howard, is back for the Wildcats, in what is shaping up to be another loaded SEC. Add freshman Treasure Hunt, who can be a superstar, and Kentucky has one of the best five backcourts in the country.
12. Iowa State
This is an exciting team. The Cyclones will fill it up offensively behind Ashley Joens and return three other starters from last year's 18-11 squad. Iowa State will also welcome four top-100 recruits including Ashley's younger sister Aubrey, who can also light it up from behind the arc.
13. Texas A&M
I struggled with this ranking in May and I am struggling with it again, but the addition of Minnesota transfer Destiny Pitts makes this a lot easier. I think the Aggies will be very good with Pitts, as well as the return of four starters including N'dea Jones and Kayla Wells. They are talented and deep, but is it enough to make up for the loss of Chennedy Carter?
Michaela Onyenwere is a star and a double-double machine, and one of the best players in the country. Cori Close's team will need a big year from sophomore Charisma Osborne if they want to make a run at a Pac-12 championship and potentially a final four.
The Wildcats may have been the biggest surprise last season. This year, they won't take anyone by surprise as coach Joe McKeown returns top scorer Lindsey Pulliam and one of the best defenses in the country.
16. Notre Dame
In May, I thought Notre Dame would be better behind new coach Niele Ivey, the return of Destinee Walker and Sam Brunelle, as well as an incoming recruiting class featuring four players in the top 50. With the addition of Virginia Tech transfer Dara Mabrey, they will be better -- much better.
Chelsea Dungee, Amber Ramirez, Taylah Thomas and Makayla Daniels are all returning for Mike Neighbors and the Razorbacks. Add in Oregon State transfer Destiny Slocum, and you have a deep, talented, veteran team that will light it up on the offensive end. If they can defend, they are another Final Four sleeper.
Indiana was the only team to beat South Carolina last season and it was no fluke. First team All Big Ten selection Ali Patberg returns for Teri Moren's team. We will also get to see Danielle Patterson, a Notre Dame transfer who sat out last season. The name of the game for the Hoosiers this season? Consistency. Can they consistently play at a level that will help them compete for a Big Ten championship?
Quentin Hillsman's team is going to be a very exciting team to watch and one that many people will be rooting for. The Orange return four starters and get Tiana Mangakahia back after missing all of last season. Her battle to defeat breast cancer was and continues to be an inspiration. She is also a terrific player. This is a team that could win the ACC.
Reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year Jill Townsend returns for the Bulldogs as do both Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth. Lisa Fortier has done a terrific job at Gonzaga, as her team cracked our top 10 last season and will win the WCC again this year.
While DePaul may no longer be the favorite to win the Big East, they are still a very formidable team, capable of beating any team in the country. Doug Bruno is a terrific coach and the Blue Demons return three starters in Deja Church, Lexi Held and Sonya Morris. They will score enough to win a lot of games.
22. Missouri State
Missouri State went 26-4 last season and should lead the pack yet again in the Missouri Valley Conference, as the Bears return four starters, including two double-digit scorers in senior Brice Calip and junior Jasmine Franklin. Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton begins her second season at the helm and I expect them to take another serious step forward.
23. Oregon State
Oregon State spent a number of weeks at the No. 1 spot in our rankings last year, before faltering a bit late. The return of Taylor Jones, who will lead another formidable and strong front line, is big, but the losses of Mikayla Pivec and Destiny Slocum can't be understated.
24. North Carolina
The Tar Heels welcome two top-50 players in Deja Kelly (No. 10), Anya Poole (No. 49) to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They also added graduate transfer Petra Holesinka, who is a capable scorer to go along with senior Janelle Bailey, who was second on the team in scoring last season. I figured it would take Courtney Banghart three-to-four years to get this team to where they are contending in the ACC, but she is ahead of schedule.
25. Ohio State
The Buckeyes beat Louisville at home last year and took UConn to the final minute. Braxtin Miller is back for Kevin McGuff's team, who also welcomes Kateri Poole, one of the country's best incoming guards. While the Buckeyes will still be young, I think we will see the version of the Buckeyes that competed with the best in the country last season.
First five out: Texas, Michigan, Bradley, Tennessee, and South Dakota