Outside the entrance to the locker room at Gampel Pavilion, visitors are greeted by a framed photo of the NCAA Division I women's basketball championship trophy with the word earned written above it and not given inscribed below. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has been preaching this ethos to his team all fall, given that the Huskies have three starters returning and are the prohibitive favorite to repeat as NCAA champions. "In today's media world, people are anointed great because of what they have done or what people think they will do," says Auriemma. "I'm old-fashioned: Once you earn it, then people can talk about how great you are. Last year's team earned it, and this team now has to earn it too."
This year's group will be led by 6' 4" sophomore forward Breanna Stewart, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 Final Four and one of a quartet of Huskies named to the preseason Wooden Award top 30 list. As a freshman, Stewart played inconsistently but hit her stride in the tournament, averaging 20.8 points while shooting 60.0% (9--15) from beyond the arc in five tournament games. A stout defender who blocked 74 shots last season, Stewart will be surrounded by stars such as 6' 5" senior center Stefanie Dolson (13.6 points per game) and senior combo guard Bria Hartley (9.2). Six-foot junior wing Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who averaged a team-leading 17.6 points last season, is out indefinitely with a right elbow injury suffered in the Huskies' 76-57 win over Stanford on Nov. 11. but even without Mosqueada-Lewis, UConn has enough talent to earn a ninth title for Auriemma.
For Duke to advance past the Elite Eight for the first time since 2006, it must commit to being a great defensive team on every possession. "We have to be more blue-collar, and we have to be that every day," says coach Joanne P. McCallie. The Blue Devils, at least offensively, can match UConn across the floor thanks to the return of 5' 11" All-America senior guard Chelsea Gray (12.6 ppg), whose season ended last February when she dislocated her right kneecap. Gray, 6' 1" senior guard Tricia Liston (13.5 ppg) and 6' 3" junior center Elizabeth Williams—who averaged a team-high 15.2 points and is also one of the country's top defenders—are potential All‑Americas and part of a roster with five starters returning. Do they have enough to win the title? "If you don't cut down the nets, you are not the great story," McCallie says. "But I love this team and I believe luck is coming our way."
Louisville has big plans for this season, and there's good reason for that optimism: The team that shocked Brittney Griner and Baylor in the Elite Eight on the way to last season's title game brings back its top four scorers (5' 9" senior guard Shoni Schimmel, 6' 2" junior forward Sara Hammond, 6' 1" senior wing Antonita Slaughter and 5' 10" junior guard Bria Smith), as well as two former starters (senior guard Tia Gibbs and senior forward Asia Taylor) who missed the 2012--13 season because of hip injuries. "I feel like, one to 12, we will be very solid," says Schimmel, who led the Cardinals last year with 14.3 points.
Kentucky's 5' 10" freshman Makayla Epps has great Bluegrass bloodlines: Her father, Anthony, was the starting point guard on Kentucky's 1996 national championship team. The 2013 Miss Kentucky Basketball can play three positions and is part of a deep roster that includes 6' 3" senior forward DeNesha Stallworth, the top returning scorer (12.5 ppg). Coach Matthew Mitchell believes Stallworth can be a top 5 WNBA pick. "We are two deep at each position," says Mitchell.
If you think Notre Dame is going to drop significantly following the graduation of all-everything point guard Skylar Diggins, think again. Four starters are returning, including 5' 11" senior guard Kayla McBride (15.9 ppg) and 5' 10" sophomore guard Jewell Loyd (12.5 ppg), the national freshman of the year in 2012--13. Natalie Achonwa, a 6' 3" senior forward who averaged 13.8 points and 9.4 rebounds, will miss a month with a right knee injury. Replacing Diggins is 5' 7" freshman Lindsay Allen, a pass-first point guard who won't need to score as much as her predecessor did. "We will be different in a lot of ways this year and rely on people around our point guard," says coach Muffet McGraw.
Grind for 9 is Tennessee's motto this season, and there's extra motivation to win the program's ninth title as the Final Four will be held in Nashville, just 180 miles west of Knoxville. The talent is there with 5' 9" senior guard Meighan Simmons, who averaged a team-best 16.8 points last season, 6' 2" junior forward Cierra Burdick, 6' 2" sophomore forward Bashaara Graves and 6' 6" freshman center Mercedes Russell, the nation's top recruit. "We're using Nashville as a motivator," says coach Holly Warlick. "We talk about it daily."
Maryland is healthy again, which is bad news for the rest of the country. Last season the Terps lost three players to season-ending ACL tears, including 6-foot junior shooting guard Laurin Mincy and 5' 7" sophomore point guard Brene Moseley. This year Maryland has 14 players on its roster—including a healthy Mincy and Moseley—and a player of the year candidate in senior Alyssa Thomas, a 6' 2" power forward who is versatile enough to play point guard. "We have depth at every position," says coach Brenda Frese. "There is no question, on paper this is a Final Four team."
Stanford All-America senior forward Chiney Ogwumike is studying international relations. She spent the summer in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja working for the country's minister of petroleum upon the suggestion of her major adviser, Condeleezza Rice, a political science professor at the school. But Ogwumike, who averaged 22.4 points and 12.9 rebounds in '12--13, was able to get out of the office occasionally to work as a counselor at a hoops camp for 300 boys and girls. "It was great to spread the love of basketball," Ogwumike says. There's plenty of love on the Farm for the 6' 4" Ogwumike, the preseason national player of the year favorite and one of four starters returning for the Cardinal.
Oklahoma coach Sheri Coale has called Aaryn Ellenberg "Vegas" since the Sin City native arrived in Norman three years ago, and the 5' 7" senior guard has been aces from the perimeter. Ellenberg (18.7 points) shot 41.4% (115 of 278) from three-point range last season, which ranked 12th in the nation. She is one of four starters returning from last year's Sweet 16 team.
With the departure of star guard Layshia Clarendon, Cal is unlikely to return to the Final Four, but there's enough firepower for a top 10 finish, especially if 6' 2" senior forward Gennifer Brandon (12.3 points and 11.1 rebounds) can return to full health after undergoing surgery in August to repair a stress fracture. (She's expected back in December.) Junior point guard Brittany Boyd (13.0 points), a terror in transition, has All-America potential. "There is more unknown now with us, but I really believe in this team," says Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. "I think we should be in the national conversation."
The Women's Basketball Top 10
5. Notre Dame