A season crowns one champion but contains countless stories. Last season wouldn’t have been complete without Baylor celebrating on the court in Tampa. But it also wouldn’t have been complete without the story within the story of Lauren Cox’s injury in that final game. Nor would the season have been complete without Megan Gustafson’s monster numbers, Oregon’s rise to Pac-12 supremacy or the end of an era at Tennessee.
A season contains thousands of games and almost as many stories.
With that in mind, Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel look at the top 25 storylines we’re watching for the 2019-20 women’s college basketball season, which tips off Nov. 5.
1. Baylor goes for a repeat.
The Lady Bears lost guard Chloe Jackson, the Final Four’s most outstanding player, and center Kalani Brown. But senior Lauren Cox returns as one of the country’s top players, and she’s a strong leader for the squad. Transfer Te’a Cooper will try to fill Jackson’s graduate-transfer role. Baylor has dominated the Big 12 the past several seasons and is expected to do the same again. But can the Lady Bears put together another NCAA tournament run? The last time they were defending NCAA champs (2012), they were upset in the Sweet 16 by Louisville. No program other than UConn and Tennessee has won back-to-back NCAA titles since Southern Cal in 1983-84. — Mechelle Voepel
2. Can UConn make a 13th consecutive Final Four?
The Huskies’ chances to continue one of the most impressive streaks the sport has ever seen took a hit when Tennessee transfer Evina Westbook was denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Replacing the 39.3 points per game and 17.1 rebounds per game, plus leadership, provided by Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson just got more difficult. No one on the roster has won a national title, but the talent is still plenty with Crystal Dangerfield, Megan Walker, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.
Westbrook would have given the Huskies an added dimension as a ball handler and distributor with big-game experience. Dangerfield, who had offseason hip surgery, and Williams will have to shoulder more of that responsibility. Another transfer, Evelyn Adebayo (18.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG at Murray State last year), and highly regarded freshman Aubrey Griffin will have to provide plenty of production if UConn is to be considered a Final Four favorite once again. — Charlie Creme
3. Historic heavyweights under new management at Tennessee and North Carolina
Only 15 programs have won NCAA Division I championships, so it’s a lot of change in a short amount of time when two of the more storied former champions change coaches the same year. Sure, new coaches are a story every season, but the arrivals of Kellie Harper at Tennessee and Courtney Banghart at North Carolina are big-time stories, even if it remains to be seen if either team will be a major player come March. — Graham Hays
4. Can Oregon win the national championship?
The Ducks reached their first Final Four in 2019, losing in the semifinals. Soon after, Sabrina Ionescu, who was eligible for the WNBA draft, announced she’d return for her senior season. That made Oregon one of the bigger favorites for 2020. But the Ducks will face plenty of challenges, especially in a highly competitive Pac-12. Even so, led by Ionescu and forward Ruthy Hebard, Oregon has the talent to win it all, plus the benefit of the experience of the Final Four. There’s also a regional in Portland again this season. If the Ducks can win it all, it will be a breakthrough for the Pac-12: the first women’s basketball title for the conference since 1992, when Stanford won and the league was still the Pac-10. — Voepel
5. The return of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry
There isn’t likely to be much on the line when UConn and Tennessee play on Jan. 23 in Hartford, Connecticut. We’ll need to wait a few years to know if Kellie Harper is the coach who can restore the Lady Vols to the heights to which their fans are accustomed. But having this game back matters. UConn and Tennessee form the rivalry that women’s basketball created. It didn’t luck into it by geography. It didn’t borrow it from other sports. It carved it out of the similar successes and polar opposite personalities of Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. Having this game back on the schedule for the first time since 2007 matters because history matters. — Hays
6. Is the top of the ACC more open than in past seasons?
Notre Dame has dominated the ACC since its arrival in 2014. Louisville has been the only program to threaten that supremacy. That’s not necessarily so anymore. This is the first season in five years in which as many as five schools could win the regular-season championship. Are Florida State, Miami and NC State ready to make the jump? Can the Cardinals retool behind two transfers? Is this the season Notre Dame relinquishes its grip on the conference?
The Irish have relied heavily on veterans and experience during their recent run of success, reaching the NCAA title game in six of the past nine seasons, including winning the 2018 championship. But all five starters from last season’s Final Four team were selected in the first 19 picks of the WNBA draft, and one returning player who had some big-game experience — sophomore guard Abby Prohaska — is out indefinitely with blood clots in both lungs. No one else on the roster averaged double-figure minutes over the 2018-19 season. Freshmen Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples might be Notre Dame’s most talented players. Will this drastically different Irish team still compete for an ACC title? — Creme
7. What kind of impact will No. 1 recruit Haley Jones have at Stanford?
Stanford has the best college volleyball player in the country (Kathryn Plummer). It has the best college soccer player in the country (Catarina Macario). Could it have … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But by all accounts, Stanford has someone special on its hands with the arrival of Haley Jones, the nation’s top-ranked freshman. When Tara VanDerveer, no pushover, can’t stop gushing about a freshman’s versatility and basketball IQ, we’ll listen. A certain point guard from Oregon might get in the way of Jones matching Candice Wiggins by winning Pac-12 freshman and player of the year, but stay tuned. — Hays
8. Can the No. 1 recruiting class make an immediate impact at South Carolina?
Dawn Staley’s roster turned over quite a bit, but that makes room for not just the top freshman class this year but also what many believe to be the best recruiting haul in a number of years. Based on the talent of this group, the Gamecocks are expected to compete for an SEC championship. If the likes of Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke are as good as advertised and don’t suffer the typical first-year inconsistencies, South Carolina just might get back to the top of the league. — Creme
9. What’s the top conference?
Move over, ACC and SEC. The Pac-12 looks ready to assume the crown as the best conference in the country. At the top, Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State could all battle for No. 1 seeds. UCLA might be even better than last season. Arizona State looks as steady as ever, and Arizona is a team on the rise. Will the conference have enough depth to be considered the best? Programs such as USC, Washington and Washington State might decide. — Creme
10. Arizona has the look of a party crasher.
Speaking of the Wildcats, like Kelsey Griffin’s Nebraska or Megan Gustafson’s Iowa, there is often a lesser known team that catches lightning in a bottle with a special player. Could Arizona and Aari McDonald be that this season? The Wildcats have been building toward relevance under Adia Barnes, and McDonald might be growing out of the high-risk part of a high-risk, high-reward style. — Hays
11. With Megan Gustafson gone, who might lead the nation in scoring?
Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter (23.3 PPG in 2018-18), Arizona’s Aari McDonald (24.1 PPG) and Arkansas’ Chelsea Dungee (20.5 PGG) are the top returning scorers in the country, and all will have enough shooting opportunities to challenge for the scoring crown. Washington State’s Borislava Hristova could be a sleeper candidate. The native of Bulgaria elected to stay in Pullman rather than return home and turn pro, and she could build on her 19.9 PPG from last season and get the Cougars to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. — Creme
12. How strong is the WNBA draft class beyond Ionescu and Cox?
This will depend in part on how many draft-eligible juniors decide to leave early. Among those who can are Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter and Oregon State’s Destiny Slocum. For the 2019 draft, the biggest name among the draft-eligible juniors — Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu — opted to not leave early. But the No. 1 overall pick was a junior, Notre Dame’s Jackie Young. Then there are seniors such as Texas’ Joyner Holmes who have a chance to make a big impact in their last seasons, which would improve their draft stock. In general, WNBA coaches say they are seeing more players better prepared for the league, even though it’s still hard for many rookies to make rosters with just 144 spots available. — Voepel
13. Winners and losers in the transfer carousel
Although there were some high-profile waiver denials — Evina Westbrook at UConn and Destiny Littleton at South Carolina — transfers will make an impact this season. No program benefitted more than Louisville, which will have Georgia Tech transfers Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon on the court after both were granted waivers. Oregon, too, boosted its title hopes with graduate transfer Minyon Moore from USC, and Baylor hopes for a boost from Te’a Cooper. Meanwhile, former Baylor starter Natalie Chou will be key to UCLA’s fate. From Georgia Tech’s Sarah Bates to Michigan’s Deja Church to Middle Tennessee’s Anastasia Hayes, plenty of players could make significant contributions in new homes. — Hays
14. Returning talent could fuel mid-major surprises in March.
While several teams used to being at the top of the national polls have their work cut out for them replacing special talents, the story in the mid-major ranks is how many contenders return their best players. Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine at Drake? They’re back. Same for Rice’s Nancy Mulkey and Erica Ogwumike. South Dakota still has Ciara Duffy, and Princeton still has Bella Alarie. No group of teams is impervious: We’ll miss watching Macy Miller at South Dakota State, Cierra Dillard at Buffalo and, well, the entire starting lineup at Quinnipiac. But continuity this time of year for so many mid-majors spells trouble for everyone else in March. — Hays
15. Syracuse plays for and without Tiana Mangakahia.
In a different world, one of the most hotly contested races this season would likely be Sabrina Ionescu and Tiana Mangakahia pushing each other to lead the nation in assists. That won’t be possible after Syracuse’s star guard announced this summer that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Mangakahia recently completed her eighth and final round of chemotherapy, which is the only news that really matters. But will the Orange, picked to finish sixth in the ACC, be able to withstand her absence on the court and rally around their teammate? — Hays
16. Has Mississippi State become a program that reloads instead of rebuilds?
Mississippi State answered a lot of questions about staying power under Vic Schaefer by earning a No. 1 seed a season ago (losing to Oregon in a regional final worthy of the Final Four). But Teaira McCowan’s departure makes it more or less a clean sweep from the team that played for a title two years ago. What is Schaefer’s next trick? The Bulldogs were picked to finish third in the SEC, so will preseason all-league picks Chloe Bibby and Jordan Danberry shine? Is super freshman Rickea Jackson ready? — Hays
17. Which coaches in their first years at new schools will fare best?
North Carolina and Tennessee have the most history, but they aren’t the only programs dealing with change. Cal’s Charmin Smith, Georgia Tech’s Nell Fortner and Penn State’s Carolyn Kieger are among the other high-profile coaches settling in for their first seasons at new jobs, and Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw see their coaching trees grow as Morgan Valley takes over at Hartford and Megan Duffy moves from the MAC to the Big East at Marquette. — Hays
18. Which coaches could be on the hot seat by season’s end?
The reality is that seats tend to take longer to get hot in women’s basketball, but some inevitably do. One situation to keep an eye on is Vanderbilt and Stephanie White. She’s entering her fourth year with the Commodores and has a 28-63 record with no trips to the NCAA tournament. Also, will Purdue think about moving on from Sharon Versyp, who is in her 14th season, if the Boilermakers don’t advance to the NCAA tournament? Purdue has missed the Big Dance the past two seasons, going to the WNIT in 2018. The Boilermakers haven’t advanced past the NCAA tournament’s second round since 2009. — Voepel
19. Will Holmes have a breakout season for the Longhorns?
Last season was a disappointment in Austin, and much of it had to do with individual players not meeting expectations. Joyner Holmes (11.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG) certainly wasn’t the only one, but given her talent level, she was the most notable. Holmes was the No. 2 recruit behind Lauren Cox in the Class of 2016, but she has yet to fulfill her promise. Injuries, a suspension and conditioning have held the 6-foot-3 forward back in her first three seasons. Coach Karen Aston is hoping that the desperation that a senior season can bring will help produce the results Holmes’ undeniable talent should bring. –– Creme
20. Does NC State own the Triangle?
NC State is the only school in the Triangle that begins the season ranked. There’s good reason to think the Wolfpack can challenge for the ACC title with their returning talent. Has Wes Moore rendered one of the biggest rivalries in basketball moot by supplanting both Duke and North Carolina? Or can the Blue Devils, with another season of Haley Gorecki and a solid recruiting class, and North Carolina, with the energy of a new era, make this competitive? — Hays
21. Did time off help Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer refresh?
If the big coaching story in the Big Ten a season ago was newcomer Lindsay Whalen taking over at Minnesota, its equal this season involves one of the longest-serving names in the business. Approaching 50 years in coaching, Stringer returns to the bench after stepping away late last season because of exhaustion. The first coach to take three programs to the Final Four, Stringer is saying all the right things about healthier work habits. The league to which she returns is certainly up for grabs, at least after Maryland, and freshman Maori Davenport gives Stringer some serious talent to work with. — Hays
22. Is Oklahoma at a crossroads?
Baylor, UConn, Stanford and … Oklahoma. That was the final quartet of teams in the 2009-10 season. It was a decade ago that the Sooners made the second of back-to-back Final Four appearances and the third under coach Sherri Coale. They haven’t been back since, with Baylor cementing its Big 12 reign and Texas resurgent in the interim. Is this an extended lull for Oklahoma, similar to the one Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame weathered between golden eras in South Bend? Can the Sooners, picked seventh in the Big 12 this season, make it 20 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament under Coale? — Hays
23. In-state rivalries will shape national contenders.
We said that part of what makes the UConn-Tennessee rivalry special is how little it has to do with geography. But there’s nothing wrong with backyard bragging rights. From Oregon-Oregon State to Louisville-Kentucky, there are a lot of in-state rivalries that will affect the balance of power nationally. In all, seven states have at least two teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. Now, if only we could get former conference rivals Baylor and Texas A&M to schedule each other again. — Hays
24. Will UConn complete a perfect run in the AAC before returning to the Big East?
Some people say a rising tide lifts all boats. Then again, some people said the Titanic was unsinkable. Maybe nautical metaphors aren’t the way to go. UConn will play its seventh and final season in the American Athletic Conference, and the competition has thus far not quite met the challenge. The Huskies are 102-0 in the regular season in the American and seeking to complete a perfect stay. USF was picked second in the preseason poll, though Geno Auriemma apparently gave his first-place vote to UCF (coaches can’t vote for their teams).
Meanwhile, in the Big East, teams such as DePaul and Marquette finally had a chance to contend for titles when the Huskies (and others) left the league. Will UConn’s impending return make those around them better by bringing increased attention and a higher standard of play, or is this the last season of joy for the Blue Demons, Golden Eagles and the rest? — Hays
25. From Champ Week run to season-long success?
Mike Neighbors took Washington to the Final Four in his third year in Seattle. Could his third year at Arkansas also be a breakout season? No team got Championship Week buzzing like the Razorbacks, making a run to the SEC championship game as a No. 10 seed. Neighbors brings back most of his roster, including All-American candidate and top-flight scorer Chelsea Dungee. Things change when hope turns into expectations, though. How Arkansas handles those expectations will determine if the Razorbacks take the next step into contenders. — Creme
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