Once again, Connecticut is an easy choice to take the women’s basketball national title. The Huskies will be aiming for their 11th championship, which would tie the fabled UCLA men’s program for the most all time.
There will be some talented teams pursuing the Huskies, but the crew from Storrs is an overwhelming favorite.
1. Connecticut (38-1)
The Huskies lost All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, but the program is so strong that it should only be a bump in the road. It starts with senior forward Breanna Stewart, who was the consensus 2015 National Player of the Year. UConn will also rely on returning double-digit scorers Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck and Kia Nurse. Katie Lou Samuelson, the nation’s top-rated recruit according to the All Star Girls Report, could step into Mosqueda-Lewis’ spot.
2. Notre Dame (36-3)
Coach Muffet McGraw will have to replace standout Jewell Loyd, but the Fighting Irish have successfully replaced All-Americans before. Four proven starters are back, and a tremendous recruiting class will join the program. Sophomore Brianna Turner may be Notre Dame’s next All-American, and she will be joined in the starting lineup by Lindsay Allen, Taya Reimer and Michaela Mabrey. Arike Ogunbowale leads a freshman class that includes three top-20 recruits.
3. Tennessee (30-6)
Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields were two of the best freshmen in the country in 2013-14, and they both sat out last year. Now, Russell (who underwent surgery on both feet) and DeShields (who transferred from North Carolina) will be playing together for the Lady Vols. Add in returnees Bashaara Graves and Jasmine Jones, plus two outstanding recruits, and Tennessee could be the top team in the SEC.
4. South Carolina (34-3)
Tiffany Mitchell returns as the Gamecocks’ unquestioned leader, but the spotlight at USC may fall on sophomore A’ja Wilson and junior Alaina Coates. Those two delivered impressive numbers last year while coming off the bench. Can they move to another level as starters in 2015-16?
5. Ohio State (24-11)
The Buckeyes should top the Big Ten under third-year head coach Kevin McGuff. Ohio State will be powered by sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell, who netted 24.9 points per game as a freshman. Backcourt partner Ameryst Alston will provide senior leadership, while forwards Shayla Cooper and Alexa Hart are also returning starters.
6. Mississippi State (27-7)
A very young Bulldogs team set the school record for wins last year, so expectations are soaring in Starkville. MSU’s nucleus will feature four returning starters: juniors Breanna Richardson and Dominique Dillingham, plus sophomores Victoria Vivians and Morgan William. Teaira McCowan, a 6'7" freshman center, should also make an impact this winter.
7. Baylor (33-4)
The talented tandem of junior forward Nina Davis and senior point guard Niya Johnson will make the Bears a serious Final Four contender. Juniors Imani Wright, Khadijiah Cave and Alexis Prince are proven veterans. The contributions of newcomers Alexis Jones (a Duke transfer) and freshman post players Kalani Brown and Beatrice Mompremier could be critical.
8. Louisville (27-7)
The Cardinals lost three starters, so they will be looking for help from one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Louisville, which has reached the Final Four two times over the last seven years, will be paced by the team’s top two scorers from 2014-15, sophomore forwards Mariya Moore and Myisha Hines-Allen. Asia Durr, who was listed as the No. 2 prospect in the country by the All Star Girls Report, leads an outstanding five-player recruiting class.
9. Texas A&M (23-10)
The Aggies should have strong senior leadership and an equally strong bench this year. Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker return after they both tallied over 14 points per game in 2014-15, and point guard Jordan Jones should be back after suffering a knee injury during the season.
10. Texas (24-11)
Heading into her fourth season in Austin, coach Karen Aston has done a tremendous job rebuilding the Longhorns. Eight players who saw significant minutes last year return, with 6'5" junior Kelsey Lang and 6'7" senior Imani McGee-Stafford forming an impressive baseline tandem. The development of freshman shooting guard Lashann Higgs could prove to be a key for Texas.
11. Oklahoma (21-12)
The Sooners used a balanced attack to cross the 20-win plateau last year, and they have four starters returning. A productive perimeter group features juniors Peyton Little and Gioya Carter, along with sophomore Gabbi Ortiz. Senior forward Kaylon Williams will need some help on the baseline.
12. Northwestern (23-9)
After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years, the experienced Wildcats should have their sights set even higher in 2015-16. Four starters return for coach Joe McKeown, and all four scored in double figures last year. That quartet includes seniors Maggie Lyon and Lauren Douglas, plus juniors Nia Coffey and Ashley Deary.
13. Duke (23-11)
Elizabeth Williams is gone, but Azurá Stevens appears to be the heir apparent to Williams’ All-American legacy. Stevens, a 6'6" sophomore wing, contributed 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a freshman. Rebecca Greenwell is another sophomore who is a proven scorer, and the Blue Devils will also rely on Amber Henson, Oderah Chidom and an outstanding recruiting class that features four top-50 prospects.
14. Arizona State (29-6) The Sun Devils were the surprise team of 2014-15, and they have a strong cast returning. Senior sharpshooter Katie Hempen is the top scoring threat, and junior Sophie Brunner is productive in the paint. Senior Elisha Davis will be back running the point, with junior Quinn Dornstauder returning in the post.
15. Florida State (32-5)
The Seminoles enjoyed a great run last year, and four the of the team’s five double-digit scorers will be back in Tallahassee. Senior center Adut Bulgak will lead the way after she averaged 12.3 points and 9.5 rebounds in 2014-15. Bulgak should get plenty of help from junior center Leticia Romero, junior forward Ivey Slaughter and sophomore forward Shakayla Thomas.
16. Maryland (34-3)
The Terrapins have reached the past two Final Fours, but the graduation of Laurin Mincy and the late transfer of Lexie Brown created major voids. Senior Malina Howard and juniors Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones will form a solid foundation, but highly regarded freshmen Brianna Fraser and Kiah Gillespie will have to adapt to the college game quickly.
17. Stanford (26-10)
The Cardinal will rely on 3-point shooting and a strong junior class that features guard Lili Thompson, who led a balanced attack with 13.3 points per game last year. Thompson will be supported by classmates Erica McCall, Briana Roberson and Karlie Samuelson, and sophomore Kaylee Johnson is another proven performer.
18. Oregon State (27-5)
The Beavers are coming off their best season in school history, and expectations should be even higher in Corvallis for 2015-16. Four starters return, including three who piled up impressive numbers last year. Jamie Weisner (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Ruth Hamblin (12.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Sydney Wiese (12.7 ppg, 5.6 apg) will give Oregon State an outstanding core.
19. Kentucky (24-10)
The Wildcats were inconsistent last year, but a veteran backcourt should keep UK on target this winter. Senior point guard Janee Thompson will work with juniors Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper on the perimeter. Highly regarded newcomers Evelyn Akhator (the No. 1 junior college recruit in the nation) and freshman Batouly Camara will be counted on for immediate help.
20. North Carolina (26-9)
The Tar Heels have talent, but these are tumultuous times in Chapel Hill. After Diamond DeShields transferred following a tremendous 2013-14 freshman campaign, leading scorer Allisha Gray opted to transfer this summer. Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel will give UNC two talented forwards, but freshmen Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker will have to step up immediately in the backcourt.
21. George Washington (29-4)
The Colonials will have plenty of depth and plenty of size. The impressive George Washington frontline will be led by senior Jonquel Jones, who averaged a double-double in 2014-15. The 6'4" Jones will be joined on the baseline by 6'5" sophomore Kelli Prange and 6'2" junior Caira Washington. Junior Hannah Schaible will be the Colonials’ top perimeter threat.
22. Chattanooga (29-4)
The gaudy 2014-15 win total included victories over Tennessee and Stanford, and a strong nucleus returns for veteran coach Jim Foster. Junior forward Jasmine Joyner led the Mocs in scoring and rebounding last year, and senior point guard Alicia Payne is back to run the show. Junior Chelsey Shumpert and sophomore Keiana Gilbert are also reliable contributors.
23. South Florida (27-8)
All five starters return for the Bulls, including a pair of supremely talented seniors. Courtney Williams delivered 20.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game last year, while Alisia Jenkins posted 12.8 points, 11. 3 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots.
24. Syracuse (22-10)
The Orange are another program with five returning starters. The backcourt combo of Alexis Peterson and Brianna Butler will lead the way after they combined for just under 30 points per game last year. The key performer may be center Briana Day, who contributed 9.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest as a sophomore.
25. Princeton (31-1)
The Tigers ripped off 31 straight wins before they fell to Maryland in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Princeton lost the player on top of its scoring column, but the next six players on that list return. Most important, the Tigers will have five proven seniors — guards Michelle Miller and Amanda Berntsen, plus forwards Alex Wheatley, Annie Tarakchian and Taylor Williams.