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UConn rules as South Carolina emerges

The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament is on the books. Stanford has been crowned the new national champion, which means it’s time to look to the next season and the Way-Too-Early Top 25 leaderboard for 2021-22.

The transfer portal and the players’ decision to move to a new school already had a big impact on the ranking. And this year, as the NCAA allows seniors to return for another year of eligibility, the teams listed below are fluid and are likely to change as more players make decisions and reconfigured rosters.

For now, the top teams will look familiar. Three of the last four contestants are expected to have most of their rotations back – UConn and South Carolina should both return all five starters – making them early favorites for next season.

With Ohio State back in the postseason mix and because so many players at the conference announced they’ll be returning for 2021-22, the Big Ten could be even better than it was this season when four teams hit the Sweet 16. Six Big Ten teams are included in this ranking, and the conference could take over the top league next season as the SEC and ACC may not be quite as strong.

While the Pac-12 has three teams in the rankings, the NCAA runners-up, Arizona didn’t make a list.

1. UConn Huskies

How does a Final Four team get better? That’s an important question for the huskies who have AP Player of the Year in Paige Bueckers, add a talent of the generation for the second year in a row and have no seniors. Guard Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the country and one of Bueckers’ close friends, has a reputation as an elite marksman and will join the Huskies in 2021-22. Three more top 30 recruits join a team that is expected to bring back Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards and Bueckers, the game’s most successful newbie in years.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

The country’s top-rated recruitment class of 2019 has already paid off. Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere formed the basis for a program that played 58-6 over the two seasons. Now Dawn Staley brings another class No. 1 with her. Point Guard Raven Johnson, Guard Saniya Rivers and striker Sania Feagin are second, third and fourth behind Fudd on the espnW 100 list for 2021. Add in Gamecocks starters Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton, and the real-world competition could be bigger than what South Carolina faces in some games.

3. Stanford Cardinal

Replacing Kiana Williams and Anna Wilson’s backcourt will have its challenges, but the talent at Stanford is still stunning. And after waiting 29 years to win another title, the cardinal will try to do it two times in a row. The experiences Cameron Brink and Fran Belibi gained in the postseason this season should only make them an even more impressive duo on the forecourt. In every game, Lexie Hull, Hannah Jump and Ashten Prechtel have proven that they can change the game. The point guard problem could be resolved by having Haley Jones take on a bigger role as playmaker or Jana Van Gytenbeek, a five-star recruit from a year ago, willing to take on more minutes.

4th Baylor Lady Bears

DiDi Richards and Moon Ursin were the heart and soul of the Lady Bears, and that can’t be replaced immediately, but trainer Kim Mulkey should be able to reload production on the pitch. This process began with Chrislyn Carr’s decision in January 2019 to move from Texas Tech to Baylor. With the return of Sarah Andrews and Jaden Owens, the point guard spot has had depth it hasn’t had in years. NaLyssa Smith (18.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG) will begin her senior year as one of the top three or four players in the country. Queen Egbo (11.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG) joins her again for an elite front court combo. The gap left by DiJonai Carrington could be Baylor’s only question.

5. Maryland Terrapins

Brenda Frese redesigned her squad in the last off-season due to transfers and deals, turning it into a Sweet 16 run and AP Trainer of the Year award. Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby, who each came to College Park as graduate transfers, both announced they were coming back, earning the Terps a spot. With Benzan’s 3-point shooting and Bibby’s versatility, plus point guard Ashley Owusu, wing Diamond Miller and striker Angel Reese, Frese will continue to have a dynamic offensive. Despite some great regular playing times, the Terrapins haven’t crossed Sweet 16 since reaching the Final Four in 2015. How quickly Maryland can overcome disappointment over this year’s loss to Texas in the regional semi-finals could be the key to the end of this streak.

6th Louisville Cardinals

On the same day that Dana Evans declared in favor of the WNBA draft, the Cardinals announced the addition of two transfers that should only improve their chances of a return to the Final Four. Emily Engstler, a 6-1 guard who nearly scored double-doubles at the ACC this season (10.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG), has left Syracuse to join Louisville, and the Chelsie Hall guard is coming off Vanderbilt, where she averaged 10.7 points and over 3.3 supported over 34 career games from 2018-21. Guard Hailey Van Lith (11.2 PPG) and 6-3 striker Olivia Cochran (9.9 PPG) have had a solid season for newbies and should replace Evans as faces of the program. If everyone else returns, coach Jeff Walz could have a rotation of up to 10 players.

7th Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers weren’t that high in that rankings until Ali Patberg announced she’ll be returning for another season at Bloomington. That means the core Patberg, Grace Berger, Mackenzie Holmes and Aleksa Gulbe who led Indiana to an elite eight run and a runner-up in the Big Ten – the most successful season in program history – will try again . Patberg, who began her career with two seasons at Notre Dame, will enter her seventh year of study next fall.

8th. NC State Wolfpack

The model will stay the same in Raleigh: play solid defense, ricochet, and take the offensive through Elissa Cunane (16.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG). The 6-5 center will be on every preseason All-American list and be one of the best prospects for the 2022 WNBA draft. She will also be surrounded by familiar faces, Jakia Brown-Turner (13.5 PPG), Jada Boyd (11.5 PPG) and point guard Raina Perez, who have decided to take the extra year granted by the NCAA.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes have started a freshman, three sophomores, and a junior this season and if all stay 97% of their point production will be returned. Caitlin Clark is the star, but trainer Lisa Bluder has set up the parts around her well too, and another top 25 recruiting class on the way. Addison O’Grady could give Bluder another postal player alongside Monika Czinano, who led the nation in percentage of field goals this season. If Iowa can find a rim protector on the transfer portal to solidify its defense, that team may have potential for the Final Four.

10. Oregon ducks

This season didn’t go as the Ducks had hoped, but they still hit a Sweet 16. Expectations will be high again next season in Eugene. Full, healthy seasons will be key for point guard Te-Hina Paopao, center Sedona Prince, and guard Taylor Chavez. Taylor Mikesell regained her outside shot (down to 34.8% in 23 games this season from 42.5% in 32 games in Maryland in 2019-20), and Nyara Sabally’s continued growth into a dominant internal force would for Oregon enough to restart the rivalry Stanford at the head of the Pac-12.

11. Michigan Wolverines

With momentum from year to year, the Wolverines could be ready for great things. Hitting Sweet 16 and almost angry Baylor should build confidence in 2021-22. Naz Hillmon (23.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG), one of the country’s top postal players and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Wing Leigha Brown (18.2 PPG) and point guard Amy Dilk (7.7 PPG, 4.0 APG) will all Be Seniors and give coach Kim Barnes Arico the best and most experienced team she had in Ann Arbor.

12th Iowa State Cyclones

With three newcomers and a string of injuries, coach Bill Fennelly was still able to score a 17:11 record and a win in the NCAA tournament. One of the best players in the country, Ashley Joens (24.2 PPG) will be back for her senior year to become the Cyclones’ top scorer. Kylie Feuerbach, Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski, a Big 12 freshman of the year, are a core rookie who will take Iowa State to the next level in year two.

13th Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes would likely have been number 6 or 7 in the NCAA tournament if they hadn’t put a year-long postseason ban on some infractions on themselves. They were the only team in the Big Ten to beat Maryland all year and were possibly the second best team in the conference until a late-season injury against Madison Greene derailed last month’s second month. With security guard Braxtin Miller’s decision to claim the extra year of eligibility, the state of Ohio will have four of its five starters back. But losing Dorka Juhasz, who recently entered the transfer portal, hurts. She averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game that season.

14th Kentucky Wildcats

Just having Rhyne Howard back for her senior year is enough to put the Wildcats in the top 25. A full year to develop better chemistry and get used to Kyra Elzy as head coach might be good enough for a top 10 push. Howard (20.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG) will be back on every preseason internationals list of the year, and Elzy, who took over as head coach from Matthew Mitchell just before the 2020-21 season began, now has one extensive seasonal experience. The four transfers brought in last year – Robyn Benton (Auburn), Dre’una Edwards (Utah), Olivia Owens (Maryland) and Jazmine Massengill (Tennessee) – will have more time to work with Howard and the rest of a talent roster. Kentucky could be South Carolina’s main challenger in the SEC.

15th Oregon State Beavers

That ranking would have been higher if freshman Sasha Goforth hadn’t been chosen to move to Arkansas. With Aleah Goodman’s decision to retire from college, coach Scott Rueck will have to replace his backcourt but that seems to be in good hands. The top 50 recruits Talia von Oelhoffen (11.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 44% from the field), who made a significant contribution as an early entry player in the second half of the season, and Greta Kampschroeder hope that next big wave to be Oregon State guards. A healthy sophomore return from Kennedy Brown (6-6) to Taylor Jones (12.3 PPG, 8.9 RPG) would be a big boost.

16. West Virginia climber

The transfer portal was already good for the mountaineers. Coach Mike Carey has added graduate transfers to Ari Gray, who averaged 13.3 points per game at Xavier last season, and the 6-6 center Yemiyah Morris from Mississippi. They’ll be added to a rotation that should include the return of four starters: Kirsten Deans (13.7 PPG), Esmery Martinez (13.6 PPG, 11.6 RPG), Kari Niblack (9.1 PPG), and Madisen Smith (8.2 PPG).

17th Florida State Seminoles

All five starters and almost every key reserve are expected in Tallahassee, but the return of head coach Sue Semrau is big news. The program’s architect has taken a leave of absence during the 2021 season to look after her mother. Associate Head Coach Brooke Wyckoff took over and led the Seminoles to their eighth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Semrau’s mother’s health has improved so she will be back along with top scorers Bianca Jackson (14.1 PPG) and Morgan Jones (12.8 PPG). Florida State also adds 5-4 point guard and Florida wife basketball O’Mariah Gordon.

18th Tennessee Lady Vols

Losing Rennia Davis will be tough to beat, but coach Kellie Harper can take comfort knowing that Rae Burrell (16.8 PPG), the other half of Tennessee’s All-SEC duo, is back. Harper will build around Burrell and the 6-5 Sophomore Center Tamari Key, planning the continued growth of second security guard Jordan Horston and newbie Marta Suarez, as well as the impact of the recruiting class in 15th place.

19th South Florida Bulls

With a 31-day COVID-19 off-season midseason it wasn’t easy, but the Bulls won both the AAC’s regular season and tournament titles and won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in five years. Manager Jose Fernandez should position South Florida for an even better season in 2021-22 as at least his top three goalscorers are likely to return.

20th Georgia Tech yellow jackets

The yellow jackets didn’t have a victory record in the ACC for five years before Nell Fortner arrived as head coach. She did it in Atlanta both seasons. Now that guard Kierra Fletcher and striker Lorela Cubaj have decided to return for a fifth year, all five starters will be back and Georgia Tech can pick up where it left off after making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2012.

21. Michigan State Spartans

Sophomore guard Nia Clouden (18.7 PPG) will appear on some of the preseason All-American teams next year. Freshman guard Alyza Winston (11.1 PPG) has the all-big-ten potential. The Spartan backcourt will be one of the best at the conference, giving Trainer Suzy Merchant a solid foundation for a veteran team.

22nd Texas A&M Aggies

Point guard Jordan Nixon, a sophomore student who hit a summer beater in overtime to lead Texas A&M to the Sweet 16, became the Aggies star late in the season, and that should last by 2021 / 22 stay that way. Senior Guard Kayla Wells will also return to College Station for an additional season. Alexis Morris and Zaay Green join them in what should be a deep and strong backcourt. How coach Gary Blair replaces N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson in the forecourt will determine the fate of the Aggies in the SEC.

23 Virginia Tech Hokies

The decision of Aisha Sheppard, the ACC’s third leading goalscorer with 17.7 points per game, to return should mean a second direct NCAA tournament appearance for the Hokies. Trainer Kenny Brooks is now expected to have all five starters back, including All-ACC center Elizabeth Kitley (18.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG) and Point Guard Georgia Amoore (11.8 PPG, 4.6 APG).

24 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Getting her first job as head coach, replacing a legend in Muffet McGraw and then scoring a COVID-19 hit wasn’t easy for Niele Ivey. The 10-10 record reflected those struggles, but the future should be better. Oliva Miles came to the Irish as an early participant and gave an insight into the star potential at Point Guard. Striker Maddy Westbeld was the ACC rookie of the year. Junior guard Dara Mabrey, second striker Sam Brunelle and second guard Anaya Peoples should also be back.

25th South Dakota Coyotes

In Hannah Sjerven and Chloe Lamb, the Coyotes had two of the best players in the Summit League. Now they’re getting them back after the two are chosen to take the extra year of eligibility. That makes South Dakota a big favorite to win the conference. If coach Dawn Plitzuweit can win some quality non-conference games and the Coyotes get a win or two, they’ll stay in the top 25 for the entire season. Sjerven (17.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and Lamb (15.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG) will be joined by Liv Korngable (14.7 PPG), South Dakota’s third top scorer this season, who also stands for decided the additional year.

Also taken into account: UCLA, BYU, Florida Gulf Coast

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