Top 25 storylines in women’s college basketball for 2019-20

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

Candace Parker, who led Tennessee to NCAA titles in 2007 and ’08, scored 30 points in the last Tennessee-UConn game, a 70-64 Lady Vols win on Jan. 6, 2007. John Dunn /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

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?

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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?

Senior guard Tyasha Harris will help the nation’s top freshman class fit in at South Carolina. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

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.

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