In these unprecedented times, we’ve been subjected to so much uncertainty. And if the NCAA football season is any indication, we’re in for a wild ride for basketball. Football games have been canceled because rosters can’t be filled due to positive COVID-19 cases. Major conferences have withdrawn from playing this year, only to renege and join again. Amidst all of these wild events, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who knows exactly what to expect from this year’s basketball season. Luckily, we’re here to share what we do know and our hot predictions for women’s hoops (follow this link for our Men's basketball preview).
Which Powerhouses Will Stay on Top?
It’s no secret that a handful of powerhouse schools have long dominated NCAA women’s basketball. Colleges like UConn, Mississippi State, and Baylor have been at the top for years now, making it a battle between the big guys. In the AP Preseason Top 25, the top five are: (1) South Carolina, (2) Stanford, (3) Connecticut, (4) Baylor, and (5) Louisville. This marks South Carolina’s first preseason #1 ranking ever. Will the Gamecocks have enough stamina to remain in the top spot? If coach Dawn Staley has anything to do with that, she’ll make sure of it, especially since they finished the 2020 season at #1 and, due to the canceled March Madness tournament, had no opportunity to defend that ranking.
UConn Touch This?
The Geno Auriemma era at UConn has arguably been the greatest run in women’s basketball history. Throughout the 2010s, they dominated the field, including a record 111-game winning streak and four consecutive championships in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. They’ve seemed to slip in the last few seasons, notably beginning with Breanna Stewart’s departure to the WNBA in 2016. But they’re undoubtedly still a contender this year, with a #3 ranking in the preseason polls. They’ll be starting the season off with a challenge, as they just announced they’ll be pausing activities for two weeks after confirmed COVID-19 cases in the program. If the Huskies don’t take it all home this year, the five year gap between UConn championships will be the longest since their first championship in 1995. No pressure though, Geno.
Oregon without Ionescu
One team of note this year is Oregon, which is ranked #9 in USA Today’s preseason poll. For the first time in four years, the Ducks are competing without Sabrina Ionescu, easily the greatest player in school history, men's or women's. Ionescu holds the NCAA record for most triple doubles with 26; to put that into perspective, the men’s record holder, Kyle Collinsworth, has less than half of that with 12. It’s also worth mentioning that the Robin to Ionescu’s Batman, Satou Sabally, was drafted at #2 after Ioenscu in last year's WNBA draft. One of the big favorites to win last year’s tournament (which was of course canceled due to COVID-19), we’re in for a treat to see if Oregon can still compete with the big schools, while filling a massive hole in their roster.
We’ve known for a long while that women’s basketball focuses more on the fundamentals than the men’s side, which is more about raw talent (Golden State Warriors superstar Draymond Green told Sports Illustrated that he watches the WNBA to ‘improve his game’). So there’s evidently a lot to be said about the coaching in women’s hoops; they play a vital role in getting these programs to the top. And this year, we’ll see many changes to coaching staffs. After 33 seasons, Notre Dame’s legendary Muffet McGraw announced her retirement in April. Mississippi State recently became a powerhouse largely due to coach Vic Shaefer, but he left last year to head up the Texas Longhorns program. And the Duke Blue Devils will have a new coach in WNBA legend Kara Lawson after Jeanne McCallie announced her departure after 13 years. It will be interesting to see how much these changes will impact the landscape.
Don’t Rule Out the Other Teams
We've spent most of this article commending the powerhouses, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for shake ups. Arizona is ranked in the top 10 for the first time in their program’s history, so we’ll see if they can handle the pressure and compete with the big schools. Iowa State takes the #15 spot after being previously unranked, largely due to them snapping Baylor’s 58-game Big-12 win streak last season. As an alumni myself, I’m also excited to see a lot of love for the Big Ten in the preseason rankings. The league boasts five preseason top 25 rankings in Maryland (12), Indiana (16), Northwestern (17), Ohio State (20), and Michigan (25). That equates to a lot of opportunities for the Big Ten to win big this year, as they haven't seen an NCAA champion since Purdue in 1999. And luckily you, Sling just added the Big Ten Network to our lineup last month, so you can watch plenty of their games too.
My way-too-early nobody-asked-for-it championship prediction is UConn, as we’ll likely see Geno’s fiery determination and desire to win play out as he looks to re-establish UConn as the definitive women’s hoop powerhouse. But no matter what, we’re in for a wild ride this season with no one knowing exactly what to expect.
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