College basketball season is officially upon us, and the first Associated Press poll has already been released. While the AP Poll serves as an official source for rankings, there is still room to debate those numbers.
Here’s where we think voters got it right, and where they got it wrong, in the Just Women’s Sports women’s college basketball preseason poll.
The Gamecocks had all the tools to win a title last season, with their run ending in a one-point loss to Stanford in the Final Four. The team returns Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson — who combined to average 41.8 points per game — and adds three of the top four freshmen in the country (Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin), another five-star recruit in Bree Hall, and 6-foot-7 Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso. The rich certainly got richer. With Boston and Cardoso in the paint, experienced guards and stellar young talent, it’s hard to imagine anyone being better than this squad.
The Cardinal, coming off of a national championship, return four of five starters in Haley Jones, Lexie Hull, Cameron Brink and Anna Wilson, plus sixth woman Ashten Prechtel. Losing Kiana Williams is tough, but this Stanford team has experience on its side — four of those players are juniors or older — and should be able to overcome that blow. They also added freshman Brook Demetre, a versatile stretch four and No. 11 recruit, and two four-stars with potential in Kiki Iriafen and Jzaniya Harriel. Those two may not play right away, but they certainly give the Cardinal options and should make for competitive practices.
What a top three. Stanford gets the edge because of experience and the NCAA title, but UConn is right there. You already know Paige Bueckers, National Player of the Year, and you probably know the No. 1 ranked freshman, Azzi Fudd. Forget Robin: This dynamic duo is Batman and another Batman. Plus, UConn returns its entire roster and adds transfer Dorka Juhász. This is a squad with dynamic scorers — Bueckers, Fudd and Christyn Williams — and talented bigs — Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards, making for a well-rounded team.
The Terrapins have two very different, but very talented, scorers in Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, who both average over 17 points per game. Add in third-leading scorer Chloe Bibby, who’s returning for a fifth year after averaging 13.2 points per game, and you get a team that can really score the ball. Maryland retains 80 percent of its scoring from last season. The Terrapins will miss Katie Benzan’s 12.7 points per game and 3.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but it’s nothing they can’t handle, especially since now-juniors Owusu and Miller are even more experienced.
The Hawkeyes can score the ball. Last season, they were second in the country with 86 points per game (not far behind Maryland’s whopping 90.8 average). Leading the charge for Iowa is sophomore star Caitlin Clark, who led her team and the country in scoring with 26.7 points per game. Meanwhile, Minika Czinano is the picture of efficiency, leading the nation in shooting percentage at 66.8 percent while averaging 19.5 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. Then there’s Makenna Warnock, who was nearing a double-double average with 11.8 points and eight rebounds a game, and two other players (Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin) who can contribute when needed. Iowa finished last season ranked 19th and AP has them at No. 9 to start this year, but this squad could be Final Four-bound if all the pieces realize their potential.
Louisville ended last season ranked sixth in the final AP poll after an impressive 60-42 win over Oregon in the Sweet 16 and then a loss 78-63 to eventual national champion Stanford in the Elite Eight. The Cardinals graduated top scorer Dana Evans (20.1 points per game), but senior Kianna Smith was steady all season, and sophomores Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran are poised for big years in 2021. Then there’s grad transfer Chelsie Hall, who brings 15.4 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game with her from Vanderbilt, and Peyton Verhulst, a five-star freshman guard. Louisville has plenty of scorers to take over for Evans.
Experience, experience, experience. That’s what makes this Indiana team so good. Last season, the Hoosiers made their way to the Elite Eight before losing to Arizona. This year, they return all five starters, and those players know what it’s like to grind through a college basketball season year after year — Indiana starts a junior, two seniors, a fifth-year player and a seventh-year player. You read that right, Ali Patberg started her college career at Notre Dame, where she didn’t play as a freshman due to injury, then transferred after her sophomore season, sat out a year, and now because of COVID-19, is granted another senior season. This squad is also efficient with the basketball. Leading scorer Mackenzie Holmes averaged 17.8 points on 60.7 percent shooting, and the Hoosiers had the fifth-fewest turnovers in the nation, committing just 11.1 a game.
Michigan ended last year in a close Sweet 16 loss, 78-75, to a Baylor team that had two current WNBA players — DiDi Richards and DiJonai Carrington — and a future one in NaLyssa Smith. The Wolverines return efficient forward Naz Hillmon along with her 62.3 percent shooting (second in the country), 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. Hillmon is the centerpiece for Michigan, while second-leading scorer Leigha Brown (18.2 points per game) provides another experienced scoring option. Returners Amy Dilk and Maddie Nolan are ready to contribute more this season, and the Wolverines also added two four-star freshmen to their roster. The Big Ten has some great teams this year, and Michigan is certainly among them.
A healthy Wolfpack team jumps up this list at least a few spots, but it is starting the season without Jada Boyd. The junior, who averaged 11.5 points and 5.9 boards a game last season, will likely be sidelined for a couple of months after tearing a tendon in her shooting hand during the preseason, as reported by the Charlotte News & Observer. But the Wolfpack still have Jakia Brown-Turner, who is the team’s second-best 3-point shooter (42.3 percent) and second-leading points getter. And don’t worry, I’m not forgetting Elissa Cunane. The ESPN First Team All-American and AP Second Teamer contributes 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, but her 6-5 frame impacts more than the stat sheet on both ends of the floor. She should be able to keep the Wolfpack in good position while they await Boyd’s return.
It was a rough offseason for the Ducks, as they looked to replace four players who transferred out and two who graduated. But they retained 6-5 Nyara Sabally (12.9 points, 7.3 rebounds per game) and 6-7 Sedona Price (10.4 points per game), who not only bring a serious height advantage for the Ducks, but also experience, as they were part of an Oregon team that went to the Final Four in 2019. Ducks guard Te-Hina Paopao was solid during her freshman campaign, averaging 10.2 points, 4.4 assists and an impressive 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Expect even more from the Pac-12 All-Freshman player this season as she builds on that success. Add in Ahlise Hurst, a transfer from New Mexico, and you’ve got a Ducks team worthy of a top-10 ranking.
The Cyclones will be eager for success this season after a disappointing second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament. All that stood in the way of a Sweet 16 matchup with eventual runner-up Arizona was a buzzer-beater from Texas A&M. Iowa State wants more this season and has the tools to get there, starting with senior Ashley Joens. Her 24.2 points and 9.5 rebounds a game led the Cyclones last season, and she will be the star of the show once more. She’s joined by two other returning starters in Lexi Donarski and Emily Ryan. Together, they combined for 59 percent of Iowa State’s scoring last year.
AP has the Bears much higher on this list, and I get why. There’s a lot of talent on this Baylor team, starting with senior NaLyssa Smith, who could be Player of the Year by the time the season wraps up. They also return senior Queen Egbo, who averaged 11.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, and add Alabama transfer Jordan Lewis. But too much happened to this Baylor team in the offseason for me to feel confident putting it in the top 10. The Bears graduated Richards and Carrington, both of whom are now in the WNBA, and of course, long-time coach Kim Mulkey departed for LSU. She was at the helm for 21 years, accounting for every Baylor NCAA Tournament appearance, Big 12 Tournament Championship and Big 12 regular season title. That is a huge loss, no matter how much talent a team has.
There’s a lot to like about this Ohio State team. AP voters likely saw the Buckeyes’ 13-7 record from last season and the departures of Dorka Juhász (transferred to UConn) and Aaliyah Patty (graduated), but I see a team that topped Iowa twice and beat Maryland, Michigan and Indiana once. In those games, the Buckeyes got huge contributions from leading scorer Jacy Sheldon, Madison Greene and Braxtin Miller, who are all returning. They also add experience in Taylor Mikesell, who played previously at Maryland and last year at Oregon. She led the Ducks in 3-point makes (39) and averaged 9.3 points per game. The Big Ten is stacked this year, but Ohio State has the goods to make some noise.
Senior Rhyne Howard (20.7 points per game) is one of the best players in the country and arguably one of the best pure scorers in college basketball. With her as a centerpiece, Kentucky is already off to a great start. It was an up-and-down season for the Wildcats with first-year head coach Kyra Elzy in 2020-21, but the Wildcats should gel better this time around. In addition to Howard, Kentucky returns Dre’una Edwards (9.7 points per game), Robyn Benton (6.6) and Blair Green (6.0), who are all ready to contribute more this season. Transfer point guard Jazmine Massengill (3.3 assists per game) will also get to play in her first full season, and overall, the Wildcats should be more comfortable with each other and Elzy’s system.
Georgia Tech returns its top seven scorers and plenty of experience. Leading the way is Lorela Cubaj, last year’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC, and her 12.5 poitns and 11.5 rebounds per game. Fifth-year senior Kierra Fletcher recorded 13 points and nearly four assists a game, and fellow guard Lotta Maj Lahtinen led the Yellow Jackets with 15 points per game. The two of them make up a talented backcourt, and with Cubaj at forward, Georgia Tech has a great core. The team also has solid role players, including three who scored between six and eight points a game last year. With all those pieces returning to a team that fell to South Carolina, 76-65, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Yellow Jackets are better than their No. 18 AP ranking.
Oregon State had 11 games postponed or canceled because of the pandemic last season. But the Beavers went on a five-game winning streak to end the season that extended to a Pac-12 semifinals loss to Stanford. During that stretch, they beat UCLA and topped Oregon twice. It’s likely what earned them an NCAA Tournament bid and allowed people to finally see what the team actually had. Two key pieces aren’t on the team this year: Aleah Goodman (16.2 points per game) graduated, and Sasha Goforth (11.4) transferred. To combat those losses, the Beavers added two experienced grad transfers in Tea Adams and Emily Codding. Returning double-digit scorers Taylor Jones and Talia von Oelhoffen, and adding All-American freshman Greta Kampschroeder, certainly helps soften the blow.
Tennessee graduated leading scorer and rebounder Rennia Davis, and while that’s a big hit, the rest of the Vols’ key pieces are back. Preseason Cheryl Miller Award candidate Rae Burrell (16.8 points per game) will lead the team this year, and 6-5 junior center Tamari Key (8.9 points, 2.9 blocks per game) will be an impact player. They also return guards Jordan Horston and Jordan Walker, and forward Keyen Green. Those three played over 20 minutes a game last season. The SEC won’t be an easy conference, but Tennessee has an experienced squad this year that should be able to compete. The Vols are even predicted to finish second in the conference, per the SEC Media Poll, ahead of Kentucky.
After successful sophomore campaigns, the Mountaineers are counting on KK Deans and Esmery Martinez to take over for Kysre Gondrezick, who led the Mountaineers in scoring last season and is now in the WNBA. The two should be more than ready. Deans posted 13.7 points per game and shot 41 percent from the 3-point line, while Martinez averaged 13.6 points per game and a team-leading 8.2 rebounds per game. Seniors Kari Niblack and Madisen Smith are two other scoring options who also bring experience.
Last season, Florida State finished 10-9 after seven of its first 16 games were canceled because of COVID. The Seminoles struggled to get into a rhythm because of it. But they showed promise throughout the season, with a high point being a 68-59 win over then-No. 3 Louisville in February. They return all five starters, including three double-digit scorers — Bianca Jackson, Morgan Jones and Kourtney Weber — and will get help from Auburn transfer Erin Howard, who redshirted last season because of an injury. Freshman guard O’Mariah Gordon, the No. 31-ranked prospect, could also see court time.
AP voters clearly have a lot of faith in coach Adia Barnes, putting her Arizona squad in the top 25 after graduating Aari McDonald, who almost single-handedly led the Wildcats to the NCAA title game. I do, too. McDonald accounted for 24.7 of Arizona’s 64.3 points per game in the tournament, and it’s obviously not easy to replace the best player in program history, but this Wildcats’ roster isn’t barren. There’s talent there, and Barnes will find a way to use it. Senior forward Cate Reese averaged 10.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, and fellow senior Shania Pellington showed what she was capable of in the title game, scoring 15 points. Then there’s 6-5 sophomore and the former No.13-ranked player in her class, Lauren Ware, who is poised to break out. Add in two four-star freshmen, and Barnes has plenty to work with.
The Bruins are coming off of a 17-6 season with wins over Stanford, Arizona and Oregon, but that was with WNBA Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere. She led the team in points and rebounds per game, but UCLA does retain second-leading scorer Charisma Osborne (17 points per game). Osborne, who was also the Bruins’ leader in 3-point makes, assists and steals, will guide the team this year. The Bruins also return two players who opted out last season in Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson, and redshirt freshman Izzy Antsey, who was stuck in Australia. They’ll be without freshman Emily Bessoir, who sustained an ACL injury. She showed promise in her first season, scoring 7.5 points per game and having her best performance (11 points, nine rebounds against) against Stanford. There are good pieces on this team, but it could take a while for them to come together.
It was a big season for a South Florida squad that missed a month midseason because of COVID-19. Despite the interruption, the Bulls were still able to sneak past Washington State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to No. 1 seed NC State. The Bulls return nearly their entire roster, including three double-digit scorers in Elena Tsineke (13.6 points per game), Sydni Harvey (11.7) and Elisa Pinzan (10.3). That roster, which took No. 4 Baylor to the brink to start last season before losing 67-62, is poised for a stellar year, hopefully without a month-long interruption.
Virginia Tech will play through 6-6 junior Elizabeth Kitley in the paint, and fifth-year guard Aisha Sheppard. The two were a killer combination for a Hokies squad that made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years. Kitley averaged a double-double with 18.2 points and 10.2 rebounds last season, while Sheppard averaged 17.7 points to go along with her three assists per game. The Hokies also retain their entire starting five, with another year of experience under their belts. They are projected to finish fourth in the ACC after Louisville, NC State and Georgia Tech.
When it comes to polls, the Eagles are going to get knocked for playing in the Atlantic Sun Conference. They went 26-3 last season, but the competition isn’t on par with most of the teams on this list. Still, Florida Gulf Coast has two big things working in its favor. The first is junior guard Kierstan Bell, who averaged a double-double with 24.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. She’s a versatile player who can win games on her own. The second is a very, very veteran squad. The Eagles’ roster has 12 players (out of 15) who are juniors or older, with six fifth-year players.
Missouri State spent time in the AP top 25 last season and was ranked 20th in the final poll. The Bears were consistent in their play, going 23-3 overall, 16-0 in conference play and winning in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual champ Stanford. Plus, they had an impressive early-season upset of No. 12 Maryland. The Bears retain their top two scorers in Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin, and add Cleveland State transfer Mariah White, who averaged 19.6 points per game and was named Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year.
Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.