One of the most exciting NCAA women’s basketball seasons in recent memory was forced to come to an abrupt ending in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, we have seen three Oregon Ducks drafted in the top eight of the WNBA Draft and 75% of the top-eight picks in the draft coming from the three schools that many people believed had the best chance to win the national championship: South Carolina, Oregon, and Baylor.
There have been significant coaching changes, most notably, Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw announcing her retirement and Niele Ivey leaving the Memphis Grizzlies after just one season, to return to her alma mater as Notre Dame’s next coach. Vic Schaefer left Mississippi State for Texas, while Nikki McCray-Penson left Old Dominion to replace Schaefer in the SEC.
Some of the country’s top recruits in the 2021 class have announced their commitments recently and meanwhile, the transfer portal is, well, let’s just say it’s active. Graduate transfers have gone from mid-major programs where they were stars to major programs where they may just be the missing piece to a championship.
The 2020-2021 season is still just over six months away, but the excitement is growing with each passing day. As rosters continue to be filled, it’s never too early to look at the top 25 teams heading into next season.
1. South Carolina
This isn’t as much of a landslide, unanimous No. 1 as many might think, but Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks are clearly the best team entering next season. They lose some terrific players in Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris to the WNBA, but return three starters in Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Aliyah Boston — all sophomores. Boston may be the best post player in the country and we have only seen the beginning of what Cooke and Beal can do. Add incoming guard Eniya Russell to the mix and this is the team to beat.
Welcome to the Paige Bueckers era at UConn. Sure, she hasn’t played one collegiate basketball game yet, but, I’ll take my chances by saying she is UConn’s next star. The early departure of Megan Walker to the WNBA hurts, but Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook, who sat out this past season, will be back and ready to go for Geno Auriemma and the Huskies. Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Anna Makurat, and Cristyn Williams are returning starters, while Aubrey Griffin, who showed flashes of brilliance last season, also returns. Along with Bueckers, Auriemma also adds dynamic wing Aaliyah Edwards and another strong guard in Mir McLean–two other top-25 recruits. Depth was an issue for the Huskies last year. I don’t see that being the case again with this group. Also, UConn is in the mix for DiJonai Carrington, a 5-foot-11 graduate transfer from Stanford. If Carrington, who missed all but five games last season, is healthy, the Huskies have a good case for the preseason No. 1 spot. This is a Final Four team on Day One already.
At this point, Stanford and UConn are the only teams that can challenge South Carolina for the top spot. Stanford was consistently good this past season, but couldn’t match-up with Oregon. Next year, the Cardinal will be the favorite in the Pac-12. Kiana Williams is a star and both Haley Jones and Maya Dodson — who missed time with injuries — will be back and ready to go for Tara Vanderveer’s team. Lexie Hull can light it up from behind the arc and their frontcourt, while young, is formidable with sophomore returners Francesca Belibi and Ashten Prechtel. Add the No. 3 recruit in the country in 6-4 Cameron Brink, who can play both inside and out and the Cardinal will be a problem for teams in the Pac-12.
Aari McDonald is back, as coach Adia Barnes is set for one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory in Tuscon, Arizona. McDonald will bring her 20.3 ppg average, while being one of the country’s best defenders, back to the court for Arizona, as double-digit scorer Cate Reese also returns. In terms of newcomers, 6-3 post Lauren Ware, will have the chance to have an immediate impact, while Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington will provide another scoring punch for Barnes’s team. More news came for the Wildcats just a few weeks ago when Virginia Tech graduate transfer Trinity Baptiste committed to Arizona. This team will be deep, talented, and will compete for a Pac-12 championship.
Baylor lost three starters to the WNBA in Lauren Cox, Te’a Cooper and Juicy Landrum. Those are three huge losses for a Bears team that was certainly Final Four-bound. They return Didi Richards and one of the country’s most underrated players in NaLyssa Smith. Kim Mulkey also brought in UCLA transfer Jaden Owens, who is currently set to sit out next year, unless the NCAA can pass a vote on immediate eligibility, which could happen this May. That would be huge for a Bear team that will also welcome two top-10 recruits in Sarah Andrews and Hannah Gusters. Bears fans will love these two young players. A lot has to do with Owens. If she is immediately eligible, Baylor will be extremely dangerous, as usual. The Bears, like UConn and Oregon, are also in the mix for Carrington.
6. NC State
This Wolfpack team is going to be tough. Coach Wes Moore will bring back four starters led by Elisa Cunane, who was just shy of averaging a double-double last season at 16.4 ppg and 9.6 rpg. The Wolfpack also return rising seniors Kayla Jones and Kai Crutchfield, to go along with rising sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner. They will have some tremendous experience in Cunane, Jones and Crutchfield, especially coming off of a season in which they won the ACC Championship and would’ve likely been a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 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.
7. Mississippi State
The departure of former coach Vic Schaefer to Texas was a surprise to some, but the Bulldogs filled the vacancy quickly and got themselves a great coach in Nikki McCray-Penson. Penson will inherit a terrific team, and one that is capable of competing for both an SEC and national championship. Freshman sensation Rickea Jackson is back and will look to expand on her 15.1 ppg, while Jessika Carter also returns. Madison Hayes, a 5-10 guard, and the No. 26 ranked player in the 2020 class will look to make an immediate impact as well. The losses of Jordan Danberry to graduation and Chloe Bibby to Maryland are big losses. That, coupled with a new staff and new system, gives me just a bit of hesitation heading into the season, especially when looking at the teams ranked above them. Last year I said that about South Carolina and by January, it was the No. 1 team in my rankings and held that spot for the remainder of the season.
Louisville is going to be a fun team to watch next season. They bring in two top-20 recruits in Hailey Van Lith (No. 7) and Olivia Cochran (No. 18). Van Lith is an electric guard that has been compared to Asia Durr. Coach Jeff Walz would certainly take that. The Cardinals do lose three starters, which is certainly cause for concern. Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook provided offensive punch and will look to do the same in the WNBA, while Bionca Dunham is also gone. Dana Evans, the team’s leading scorer, is back and will look to carry the offensive load early on, while Van Lith, who can certainly fill it up, gets used to Walz’s system. The Cardinals will need to find production from a third scorer and that could be Elizabeth Balogun. If the Cardinals defend like they are used to defending, they will be right there again in the hunt for a top seed, but it might take some time.
Oregon had three players go in the first round of the WNBA Draft in Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, while a fourth starter Minyon Moore is also gone. The Ducks bring in the country’s top-ranked recruiting class, as five players in the top 25 are heading to Eugene, Oregon. Sydney Parrish (No. 8), Te-Hina Paopao (No. 11), Kylee Watson (No. 17), Maddie Scherr (No. 19) and Angela Dugalic (No. 22), will look to keep the Ducks atop the Pac-12. This is an amazing group, but it may take some time for them to mesh. Oregon is also a potential landing spot for Stanford’s Carrington. Playing in the Pac-12, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her land at Oregon.The Ducks return starter Erin Boley, as well as key reserves Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley, to go along with a very good post in Sedona Prince, who transferred in from Texas and sat out last season. I could see this going one of two ways. The newcomers take a while to adjust, the Ducks hit a few bumps, and are a dangerous No. 4 or No. 5 seed in March. Or, Chavez, Boley, and Shelley step right in and are terrific, Prince is dominant in the middle, and the newcomers fill their roles quickly. With one of the country’s best coaches, Kelly Graves calling the shots, I’d bet on the latter.
I’m not sure if any team has had a more interesting offseason than Maryland. The loss of senior Kaila Charles is a big one, while Shakira Austin has transferred to Ole Miss and Taylor Mikesell is in the transfer portal. Seniors Stephanie Jones and Blair Watson are also gone, but the Terrapins will also have an influx of talent to pair with Ashley Owusu. Coach Brenda Frese added Mississippi State sharp-shooting transfer Chloe Bibby, along with Harvard graduate transfer Katie Benzan, to a top-notch recruiting class led by No. 2 ranked player Angel Reese. If Bibby can gain immediate eligibility, I’m betting on the balance of veteran transfers and outstanding incoming talent will come through rather quickly and the Terps will climb the rankings. For now, let’s wait and see.
If you like fun, exciting, scoring backcourts, look no further than Kentucky. The country’s second leading scorer and preseason All-American Rhyne Howard is back for coach Matthew Mitchell’s team, while KeKe McKinney and Chasity Patterson also return. Patterson, who played just 19 games last season due to having to sit out the first semester due to transfer rules, didn’t start any of those 19 games, but will all but certainly be in that role next season. The Wildcats do lose five seniors including starters Sabrina Haines and Jaida Roper, but they will bring in a terrific player in Treasure Hunt, the No. 29 ranked player in the 2020 class, to go along with two other top-100 players, Nyah Leveretter and Erin Toller. Having seen Hunt play a number of times, I am confident in saying that this kid will have an immediate impact, particularly when paired with Howard. While the Wildcats did lose a lot of talented players, they have one of the country’s best scorers, and will come out of a strong league extremely battle-tested heading into the NCAA Tournament.
12. Iowa State
The Cyclones ended last season at 18-11, but had a strong finish to the season, including a big win over Baylor. They return four of five starters and their top four leading scorers, led by Ashley Joens, who averaged 20.5 ppg. Kristin Scott, Rae Johnson and Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw will also return to lead coach Bill Fennelly’s team. While four starters return, which would likely put this team in the top-25, their recruiting class propels them even further. Ashley’s younger sister Aubrey Joens, joins three other top-100 recruits, Emily Ryan, Kylie Feuerbach and top-15 recruit Lexi Donarski. All four of these recruits play the guard position and Joens and Donarski, in particular, can really shoot the ball. Five players shot better than 40% from the 3-point line last year and the 3-pointers will continue to fly for an Iowa State team that will be talented, deeper and far better than last year.
13. Notre Dame
Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw has retired and new coach Niele Ivey has hit the ground running. This initial ranking might be a bit high, and maybe one year away, but heading into the 2021-2022 season, we may be looking at Notre Dame as a top-five team, so it’s possible this is just right. Their top two scorers in senior Destinee Walker and sophomore Sam Brunelle are back, while junior Mikayla Vaughn, sophomore Katlyn Gilbert and freshman Anaya Peoples also return. Walker, Brunelle, Gilbert, Peoples and Vaughn all averaged double digits last season. Enter a very strong recruiting class with four top-50 recruits in Madeline Westbeld, Allison Campbell, Natalija Marshall and Alasia Hayes, and it may just be about finding the right combination and new players stepping up. This will be a much more experienced team this time around, with newcomers that can change a program. I’m not going to get caught underrating this team, especially with Ivey at the helm.
Cori Close is one of the best coaches in the country and she will get to a final four very soon. That said, I’m worried about the Bruins this season. I’m certainly not worried about Michaela Onyenwere, who is a double-double machine and can be a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams. She will be the main option for UCLA, while Charisma Osborne, who averaged just over 12 ppg last season, is a very good guard and will likely be much improved. The Bruins will need their one-two punch of Onyenwere and Osborne to be great every time out. Jaden Owens has transferred to Baylor and Japreece Dean is also gone. The Bruins, who are without a top-100 recruit in the 2020 class, will need their stars to shine, while also finding steady production from others if they want to compete in the ever competitive Pac-12.
Anyone who followed my rankings last season knows that I struggled to rank an Arkansas team that was regularly ranked in most polls, including the AP Top 25 poll. That is no longer the case. The Razorbacks will be very good next season and add to an already loaded SEC. Coach Mike Neighbors has gotten his team better each and every season and that is likely to continue. Leading scorer Chelsea Dungee is back, as are Amber Ramirez, Tayla Thomas and Makayla Daniels. Dungee, Ramirez and Thomas are all seniors, making this a very veteran nucleus. Gone is Alexis Tolefree and while Arkansas will certainly miss her ability to score the ball, here comes one of the most coveted transfers in former Oregon State standout Destiny Slocum. The addition of Slocum is huge for this team, as they will also bring in top-50 recruit Elauna Eaton (No. 38.) I am on the Arkansas bandwagon heading into next season. There may be two teams between them and South Carolina here, but don’t be surprised to see a USC-UA SEC final.
Indiana coach Teri Moren has done a terrific job with the Hoosiers. Many forget that it was Indiana that dealt South Carolina their lone loss of the season last year at the Paradise Jam. First team All Big Ten selection Ali Patberg returns, and the Hoosiers will return three other starters in Mackenzie Holmes, Grace Berger and Jaelynn Penn. The Hoosiers don’t have a top-100 recruit this season, but they only lose one starter in Brenna Wise and have added some terrific transfers. Danielle Patterson, who transferred from Notre Dame last year and had to sit a year, will be eligible, while George Mason transfer Nicole Cardano-Hillary, who was her team’s leading scorer at just over 20 ppg , is another wait-and-see impact transfer. If eligible, she’s another elite-level scorer for the Hoosiers. Indiana is likely going to be better this year. The question is, can they get to Maryland’s level? I think they can.
17. Ohio State
Ohio State was likely a tournament team this past season, picking up some big wins, most notably against Louisville at home, while also playing UConn fairly close early in the season. They were young and will be young again this coming season, but more experience, versatile, and much deeper. The Buckeyes and coach Kevin McGuff will need to work past the loss of Kierstan Bell, a former top-10 recruit, who transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. Freshman Kaelynn Satterfield and sophomore Janai Crooms are also currently in the transfer portal. As for who is returning, junior Braxtin Miller is back, as is the 6-4 sophomore forward Dorka Juhasz and freshman guard Jacy Sheldon. The Buckeyes will also welcome Kateri Poole, one of the country’s most versatile, physical guards in the 2020 class. While the loss of Bell certainly hurts Ohio State, there is certainly enough talent for them to contend in the Big Ten.
You have to feel for a Northwestern team that made a significant leap this season, likely would have hosted the first two rounds of the tournament, and could have been a legitimate final four sleeper. For Joe McKeown and his staff, it’s less about what could have been and more about what’s next. The Wildcats lose two starters in Abbie Wolf and Abi Scheid, but Lindsey Pullium returns as the team’s leading scorer and may be set to take an even bigger leap next season. Two more returning starters in Veronica Burton and Sydney Wood bolster one of the country’s top defenses, and with top-50 recruit Anna Morris on the way, the Wildcats may not be as deep, but they will be formidable in the competitive Big Ten.
19. Texas A&M
Honestly, this is the ranking I struggled with most. Chennedy Carter, a player that I love to watch, is gone. She could take a game over with her ability to score at will. Coach Gary Blair will bring in three top-100 recruits in Kayla Green (No. 48), Sahara Jones (No. 75) and Maliyah Johnson (No. 76), as they join top returners N’dea Jones and Kayla Wells, who both averaged double digits last season. The recent news of Minnesota transfer Destiny Pitts joining the Aggies is huge, for sure, but I’m tempering expectations for a bit. I’m sure I’ll feel much better about this team in December. The Aggies will be good, but the SEC is loaded and they will be young, so I’m tempering expectations just a bit.
We are all hopeful that Tiana Mangakahia will be granted another year of eligibility. Her fight and battle to beat and overcome breast cancer is inspiring. Also, don’t give Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman time to come up with plays and strategy–he will take advantage and win. His “napkin play” last second win over Florida State at home was epic. The Orange will return four other starters from a team that, while their record wasn’t great, they were a play or two away from a number of top-25 wins. The Orange are a sleeper Final Four team.
21. Oregon State
Oregon State was an interesting team this past season and may be one of the most difficult teams to project into next season. Mikayla Pivec is gone, as is her ability to not only score the ball at just under 15 ppg, but also rebound it at just under 10 rpg. Pivec was one of the best rebounding guards in the country. That loss would’ve been enough, but fellow guard Destiny Slocum is also gone, as she has transferred to Arkansas. The frontcourt remains formidable, as Taylor Jones returns and both Taya Corosdale and Kennedy Brown will look to return from injuries that sidelined them for portions of the season. They do bring in top-25 guard Sasha Goforth, but there is some concern about the ability to score the ball, particularly for a team that went through scoring droughts in some of their bigger games last season.
Jill Townsend, the WCC Player of the Year, is back for a Gonzaga team that cracked our top-10 last season. The loss of senior Kelly Campbell is a huge blow, but Townsend and the Wirth twins, Jenn and LeeAnne, give coach Lisa Fortier’s team the core that they need to both win the WCC again and get a high seed and possibly host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
23. North Carolina
North Carolina had an interesting season under first-year coach Courtney Banghart last year. They handed NC State their first loss of the season in a major upset, but also lost to Yale at home. That said, Banghart will have this team ready in year two. Her recruiting chops have already come out in full force, as three top-100 players, Deja Kelly (No. 10), Anya Poole (No. 49) and Alexandra Zelaya (No. 99) are headed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This will be the surprise team in the ACC next season.
Losing seniors Chante Stonewall and Kelly Campbell will be an extremely difficult thing for coach Doug Bruno and DePaul to overcome. That said, the return of Lexi Held, Deja Church and Sonya Morris, and their ability to play in Bruno’s system, should give this team plenty of offense. The question is: how will they defend?
Princeton lost one of the best players to ever play in the Ivy League in Bella Alarie, a first-round WNBA draft pick, so how are they a top-25 team? I had them here most of last season and well before anyone else. Carlie Littlefield is a pro, Carla Berube is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, they are balanced, and top-100 guard Katelyn Chen can defend, score, and create. The Tigers are here to stay, but keep your eyes peeled for other upstart teams in the conference like Yale, Columbia and Harvard to join Penn in pushing the champs for the title.
Others considered:Michigan, Georgia Tech, Missouri State, Minnesota, West Virginia, Penn, and TCU