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Way-too-early NCAA hoops Top 25: South Carolina, Stanford reign

Aliyah Boston leads South Carolina into 2022-23 after a trophy-filled junior season. (Bri Lewerke/Just Women's Sports)

It has been three weeks since the South Carolina Gamecocks were crowned as NCAA champions, and a lot has already happened in that interim.

Transfers — like South Carolina’s Saniya Rivers and Maryland’s Ashley Owusu and Angel Reese — are going to change the landscape of college basketball next season. Players coming back for fifth seasons and injuries have the potential to do the same. In other words, there is a lot we don’t know about what the 2022-23 season will look like. But it’s still fun to speculate.

If play started today, here’s what the JWS Top 25 would look like.

1. South Carolina

Destanni Henderson was drafted by the Fever, but the rest of South Carolina’s starting five will return, including National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. The Gamecocks also have 6-foot-7 standout Kamilla Cardoso coming back for her junior season.

That’s more than enough to put the defending champions at No. 1, but that’s not all they have. Raven Johnson, the No. 2 recruit in 2021, will return after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury, and classmates Bree Hall and Sania Feagin will be ready to take on bigger roles.

2. Stanford

The Cardinal are losing a lot in Lexie Hull, Lacie Hull and Anna Wilson, but they retain Haley Jones and Cameron Brink — one of the best guard and post duos in the country. With shooters like Hannah Jump and Ashton Prechtel around them, plus Fran Belibi as another post option, the Cardinal will be more than fine. And the top-rated freshman in the country, 6-7 Lauren Betts, will be ready to contribute right away.

3. UConn

The Huskies lose Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams, two key pieces of their run to the national championship game, but 2020-21 National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers is back and, more importantly, healthy. So is Azzi Fudd.

UConn isn’t a team that ever worries about reloading, welcoming in two top-10 freshmen next fall in No. 4 recruit Ayanna Patterson and No. 5 Isuneh Brady.

4. Iowa

Creighton put a damper on an otherwise stellar end-of-the-season run for the Hawkeyes. Iowa won its last seven games prior to the NCAA Tournament, knocking off teams like Michigan and Indiana to win the Big 10 title. Caitlin Clarke is back, of course, but so are the rest of those Hawkeyes. When Monika Czinano announced she was returning for another year, Iowa instantly put itself in the national title conversation.

Iowa State's Ashley Joens, a two-time Cheryl Miller Award winner, returns for her fifth year. (Rebecca Gratz/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

5. Iowa State

Here’s another team that’s retaining the bulk of its roster and benefiting from extra eligibility. Ashley Joens isn’t hanging up her Cyclones jersey just yet, which gives this team an instant bump. Joining her are an excellent point guard in Emily Ryan and another solid perimeter player and scorer in Lexi Donarski.

6. Texas

Led by freshman Rori Harmon, the Longhorns played a suffocating, up-tempo style that made them a team nobody wanted to face in March. Harmon will be even better this season, and so will fellow rising sophomore Aaliyah Moore. Senior Aliyah Mathuru will continue to contribute on both ends of the floor, and the ever-annoying Longhorns defense will be just as pesky in 2022-23.

7. North Carolina

I was so impressed by this UNC squad in March. Deja Kelly and Alyssa Utsby played with poise despite being sophomores, and the two will be even more experienced next season. They are a great starting point for the Tar Heels. Kennedy Todd-Williams also started every game as a sophomore, and 6-3 guard/forward Destiny Adams has star potential beyond her freshman season.

8. Ohio State

Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell proved themselves to be one of the nation’s top backcourt duos during Ohio State’s Sweet 16 run. With those two back, the Buckeyes will be tough once again. Combining them with post player and third-leading scorer Rebeka Mikulasikova should make Ohio State a force in the Big 10 once more.

9. Notre Dame

Olivia Miles led the Fighting Irish to the Sweet 16, where they nearly knocked off No. 1 seed NC State. That experience will be vital for Notre Dame as it looks to build on last season. Sonia Citron got better and better as the year went on, and Dara Mabrey is also returning, meaning four of five starters will be back for a talented Irish squad.

Hailey Van Lith turned it on for Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, leading them to the Final Four. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

10. Louisville

Emily Engstler’s departure for the WNBA will be the biggest loss for the Cardinals. But Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran, now entering their junior seasons, proved themselves to be a dynamic guard/post duo last season. Payton Verhulst played limited minutes as a freshman, but the former five-star recruit is poised to break out as a strong partner for Van Lith in the backcourt.

11. Tennessee

Rae Burrell may have moved on to the WNBA, but a healthy Jordan Horston and all-time blocks leader Tamari Key make for a solid foundation to build around. Coach Kellie Harper hasn’t wasted any time finding players to add to the roster: Mississippi State transfer Rickea Jackson and former Minnesota guard Jasmine Powell should both contribute right away.

12. Virginia Tech

With leading scorer and rebounder Elizabeth Kitley entering her senior year, and third-leading scorer Georgia Amoore ready to play an even bigger role, the Hokies are in good shape. Kayana Traylor and Cayla King provide them with two other solid scoring options.

13. Arizona

Get used to seeing Arizona in the top 25. Adia Barnes is bringing in a great recruiting class led by two five-stars, forward Maya Nnaji and guard Paris Clark. That young talent coupled with experienced returners Cate Reese, Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeaney make the Wildcats a Pac-12 frontrunner once again.

14. Creighton

I slept on the Bluejays last season, and I’m not about to make the same mistake. Lauren Jensen, Morgan Maly, Molly Mogensen and Emma Ronsiek are all entering their junior years, and Carly Bachelor will be a senior. That group includes all four of Creighton’s top scorers and the sixth, allowing the Bluejays to continue their dominant, sharp-shooting style of play.

Grace Berger returns after leading the Hoosiers in scoring last season as a senior. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

15. Indiana

It’s easy to look at what Indiana lost — Ali Patberg, Aleksa Gulbe and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary — and think this team will falter. But the Hoosiers retain top two scorers in Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes and key bench contributor Chloe Moore-McNeil, who blossomed at the end of the season. Oregon transfer Sydney Parrish rounds out the roster, making IU a solid team once more.

16. Kansas State

The Wildcats return their starting five, including their leading scorer and rebounder, 6-6 Ayoka Lee. Three other starters — Serena Sundell, Brylee Glenn and Jaelyn Glenn — also all return. They showed their potential last season, but also their youth. This time, the trio will have more confidence and experience.

17. NC State

Standout post player and Seattle Storm draft pick Elissa Cunane was the focal point of NC State’s offense in 2021-22. Now, you can expect the Wolfpack to be more guard-oriented. Diamond Johnson and Jakia Brown-Turner were NC State’s second- and third-leading scorers, giving the team a great base for the upcoming season.

18. Oklahoma

Ana Llanusa is coming back from injury, while leading scorer Madi Williams and 3-point leader Taylor Robertson will play fifth years. The Sooners also have plenty of role players to work with, as nine players started at various times throughout the past season.

19. Princeton

Losing leading scorer Abby Meyers is a big blow for the Tigers, but second- and third-scoring leaders Julia Cunningham and Kaitlyn Chen will be back. They were key to Princeton’s 25-5 record and upset of Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. Grace Stone and Ellie Mitchell are also solid pieces to the Princeton puzzle, capable of averaging double digits on any given night.

20. Utah

The Utes dominated Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come. Led by sophomore Kennedy McQueen’s 20 points and freshman Gianna Kneepkens’ 16 in that contest, the Utes showcased their young talent on a big stage. Jenna Johnson (freshman) and Kelsey Rees (sophomore) each scored in double figures as well.

21. Kansas

The Jayhawks were a surprise success story last season, making it to the Big 12 championship game and winning in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This time, there are expectations. Top scorers Holly Kersgieter and Zakiyah Franklin will lead the way.

Kayleigh Truong is a big reason Gonzaga could be in top-25 contention next season. (Michelle Hutchins/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

22. Gonzaga

The Zags topped Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament and then showed flashes in an 11-point loss to No. 1 seed Louisville. Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong will be back to lead the squad, but GU fans should be most excited about rising sophomore Bree Salenbien. She didn’t play to end the year due to a knee injury, but the Michigan native is GU’s best prospect in history, and she is poised for a breakout season.

23. UCLA

The Bruins had a disappointing season that ended with an loss in the NIT semifinals, but Charisma Osborne was a bright spot. She will lead UCLA and get help from two talented freshmen — No. 2 recruit Kiki Rice and No. 19 Gabriela Jaquez. It might take time for them to get their footing, but the Bruins should have enough to make some noise later in the season.

24. Nebraska

Another team that had surprising success, Nebraska was upset-minded throughout the Big 10 season. The Huskers return their top eight scorers, bumping them from an upset-type team to a legitimate contender.

25. UNLV

This is a young team that gave Arizona all it could handle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That experience will help a talented Rebels squad that returns its top three scorers. Loaded with athleticism, UNLV will be the favorite in the Mountain West.

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.