High expectations, a missing star and some upstart teams with chances to make a deep run.
A new women’s college basketball season will tip off on Monday, and the same teams that dominated the last two campaigns will be favored to do so again.
South Carolina is the reigning N.C.A.A. champion and is No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll for the third straight season. Stanford, which won the national championship in 2021, is ranked No. 2.
Those two schools — along with Connecticut — have all appeared in the Final Four in back-to-back seasons.
While the UConn star Paige Bueckers is out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, the other schools return with much of their star power. Senior forward Aliyah Boston of South Carolina is back as the projected No. 1 pick in the W.N.B.A. draft after being named national player of the year and most outstanding player of the Final Four. Stanford’s Haley Jones and Cameron Brink both return and were key members of the 2021 championship team. This group, along with the Iowa star Caitlin Clark, figures to dominate many of the sport’s headlines this season.
“It’s always great that we’re putting our best products on the floor because I do think women’s basketball is at a place where there are a lot of eyeballs on us,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said in a phone interview. “I think we’re in high demand, and I do think decision makers have to meet the demand because people want to see women’s basketball.”
Here are some things to watch as the women’s college basketball season begins:
South Carolina has its sights set on another title.
Many coaches who win championships follow up by speaking in platitudes about starting the next season with a clean slate, with no pressure and no expectations.
Not Staley, who led the Gamecocks to titles in 2017 and last season.
“No, we’re not going to discount the fact that we’re the defending champs,” Staley said. “We’re the defending champs. And that doesn’t come by very often. Until someone dethrones us and we exit from the N.C.A.A. tournament, speak to us as defending champs.”
Staley has back 10 letter-winners from last season’s championship team, including four of the five starters. Boston and senior guard Zia Cooke were named to the preseason All-SEC first team. The sophomores Sania Feagin (forward) and Bree Hall (guard) look to have a bigger impact, and the redshirt freshman Raven Johnson and the Georgia Tech transfer Kierra Fletcher will battle for the point guard position left vacant by the W.N.B.A. draft pick Destanni Henderson. Cooke also figures to play some at point guard.
“When you have a new point guard, it changes things,” Staley said.
Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, winner of 11 national championships, believes the Gamecocks remain the team to beat.
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“Anytime you win it and you have the majority of your team, almost your entire team back, it’s pretty hard not to pick them, you know?” Auriemma said.
Texas is eyeing its first Final Four since 2003.
In two seasons at Texas, the defensive-minded coach Vic Schaefer has led the team to a 50-17 mark and back-to-back Elite Eight appearances.
Before that, he guided Mississippi State to the national championship game in 2017 (losing to South Carolina) and 2018 (Notre Dame).
Now the Longhorns are ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll and are eyeing the program’s first Final Four since 2003.
“The ultimate goal is to win that last game,” Schaefer told reporters as his team was preparing for the season.
Texas is led by the sophomore guard Rori Harmon, one of the more exciting players in the sport, who averaged 11.4 points, 5.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds, and the sophomore forward Aaliyah Moore (6.0 points).
Schaefer is also very high on the 6-foot-2 junior forward DeYona Gaston, who has battled injuries during her career.
“I said this since the day I signed her, if I could ever get her healthy, I think she could really be special,” he said. “And she’s finally healthy.”
Transfer players Sonya Morris (DePaul) and Taylor Jones (Oregon State) could also play key roles, along with the team’s freshmen.
Texas is one of four Big 12 programs that are ranked, along with No. 8 Iowa State, No. 15 Oklahoma and No. 18 Baylor.
UConn has high hopes even without its star.
The Huskies would have been among the favorites to cut down the nets in Dallas in April had Bueckers not suffered a torn A.C.L. while playing a pickup basketball game in August.
Bueckers, a 5-foot-11 guard from the Minneapolis area, was the national player of the year as a freshman in 2021 and returned late last season from a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear to lead the Huskies on a somewhat surprising run to the national championship game.
Still, UConn is No. 6 in the preseason poll and returns a very talented team. And, oh, by the way, the Huskies have been to 14 consecutive Final Fours under Auriemma.
UConn lost Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook to the W.N.B.A. from last year’s team, but it brings back three preseason all-Big East first-team selections in Caroline Ducharme, Aaliyah Edwards and Azzi Fudd while adding Ayanna Patterson, the Big East preseason freshman of the year who Auriemma said “has skills that no one else on our team has athletically.”
“We have some good players that can compensate for her not being there,” Auriemma added, referring to the absence of Bueckers.
“I like where we are, I do,” Auriemma added. “This is a good group to work with.”
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry and Sue Bird.
With her jaw-dropping abilities on the court, Iowa junior guard Caitlin Clark has invited comparisons to Stephen Curry and Sue Bird and earned admiration from Kevin Durant.
Last year, she led the nation in scoring at 27.0 points per game while also averaging 8.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds. She is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2024 W.N.B.A. draft.
“I think I can almost see the game a step ahead, and that’s kind of what sets me apart,” Clark said in an interview in February.
Iowa is ranked No. 4 nationally and Clark, super-senior Monika Czinano and their teammates want redemption after being upset in the second round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
The coaches in the Big Ten know the threat that Clark poses.
“So electric,” Maryland’s Brenda Frese said. “Obviously, can score the basketball from anywhere as soon as she steps on the court. It’s not by accident.
“She’s made such a difference, obviously at Iowa. In the country, she’s a game changer, just a special player to watch, but not fun to have to scout and coach against,” Frese said. “But truly one of those that you have to appreciate in her time as a once in a lifetime type of player to come through.”
Which surprise team could make a deep run this season?
Last year, Creighton shocked nearly everyone in the women’s game when it advanced to the first Elite Eight in school history by knocking off No. 2 seed Iowa at home in the second round and Iowa State in the regional semifinals.
“I don’t think anybody predicted Creighton,” UConn’s Auriemma said.
Creighton enters this season ranked No. 21 nationally — while its in-state compatriot Nebraska is No. 22.
Which team could break out and make a Creighton-like run in this year’s tournament?
Villanova, another Big East team, might be a program to watch. The Wildcats feature senior forward Maddy Siegrist, the reigning Big East player of the year and a projected top 10 pick in the W.N.B.A. draft. A 6-foot-1 Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native, Siegrist averaged 25.3 points (second nationally behind Clark) and 9.2 rebounds a year ago while shooting 49 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.
She could take an even bigger step this season after competing this summer as part of the USA Basketball women’s 23-and-under 3×3 team.
“She’s more comfortable passing the basketball, just opening the floor up for many other players,” Villanova Coach Denise Dillon said. “And she continues on both ends of the floor to develop.”