With five starters back, defending champ Baylor again team to beat
Baylor Lady Bears (40-0 in 2011-12)With all five starters returning from a 40-0 squad -- 90.4 percent of the scoring and 86.8 percent of individual rebounds are back in Waco -- Baylor is a prohibitive favorite to repeat, a feat accomplished by only four women's basketball programs since 1982. The focal point of the offense remains All-America senior center Brittany Griner, the reigning player of the year and first player in NCAA history to record 2,000 career points and 500 blocks. Last season the 6-foot-8 Griner averaged 23.2 points and 9.5 rebounds and led the nation in blocked shots with 206. If Baylor wins a second straight national title, Griner will be in the conversation as the greatest women's collegiate player of alltime. "When we signed her out of high school, I told people not to miss the opportunity to see Brittney Griner play because you will never see the likes of her again," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "I have said this many times: There has not been one day or one practice that I take her for granted. She is a once-in-a-lifetime player." Along with Griner, the expected No. 1 pick in next April's WNBA draft, Baylor has a number of other future pros on its roster including senior power forward Destiny Williams (10.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) and junior point guard Odyssey Sims (14.9 ppg, 174 assists), the nation's best on-ball defender. Returning starter and senior guard Kimetria Hayden (9.1 ppg) is a gifted scorer and senior guard Jordan Madden is a lockdown defender who tackles her glue role ably. Baylor also has a top recruiting class led by 6-1 guard Alexis Prince, who currently has a stress fracture, and point guard Niya Johnson, who will one day succeed Sims. Mulkey will have to meld a veteran starting core with four freshmen, but the raw talent this squad has will be a sizeable challenge for any team.
Quotable: "You can't hide the fact that we have five starters returning. You can't hide the fact we were 40-0. So you embrace it. We are going to do like we did last year: We will humbly embrace whatever expectations are out there for us. Injuries play a part in all of athletics but if we can stay away for injury and not have any issues, why not us?"
--Mulkey, on the prospect of repeating
Biggest Tests: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 13); vs. Stanford at Honolulu (Nov. 16); at Notre Dame (Dec. 5); at UConn (Feb. 18); at Oklahoma (Feb. 25).
Championship Odds: 1-5
UConn Huskies (33-5 in 2011-12)This is a young, deep group that welcomes one of the most accomplished high school players in history. Coach Geno Auriemma says freshman forward Breanna Stewart -- the consensus national high school player of the year -- has a chance to be as good as anyone who has every played at UConn. He's gone old-school (George Gervin) and new-school (Kevin Durant) when describing the 6-4 phenom. Stewart already has a ton of international experience with USA Basketball and the stage here won't be too big. "She fulfills the exact needs we need to fill that we did not have last year," said Auriemma. "She's a big kid who can score, shoot and rebound." Stefanie Dolson, a 6-5 junior center, is also back and 12 pounds lighter than last year after laying off carbohydrates and working out every day to the "Insanity" workout program. By the end of last season, Dolson was one of the best frontcourt players in the country. Junior point guard Bria Hartley (14 points and 3.7 assists per game), senior glue guard Kelly Farris, and last year's Big East Freshman of the Year, forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (15.0 ppg) will also get starter's minutes.
Quotable: "Stewie is just insane. She can use her length to shoot over people and at the same time, she's quick enough to go by people. She shots the ball incredibly well and she finishes around the basket. She can do a little bit of everything and she's always working hard. I would hate to play against her."
-- Dolson on Breanna Stewart
Biggest Tests: vs. Maryland (Dec. 3); vs. Penn State (Dec. 6); at Stanford (Dec. 29); vs. Duke (Jan. 21); vs. Baylor (Feb. 18); at Notre Dame (March 4).
Championship Odds: 4-1
Duke Blue Devils (27-6 in 2011-12)Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie says sophomore center Elizabeth Williams, the consensus National Freshman of the Year last season who averaged 14 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game, can be as good as any player in the nation. But the question is: Can Williams perform at an All-America level every game? "There is no limit to how good she can be," McCallie said, "but that aggressiveness and competitive fire has to be there every day.If Williams shows up for every game, Duke is a Final Four team. The Blue Devils are loaded offensively, with 88.7 percent of their scoring from a year ago, the third-highest among top 25 teams in the 2011-12 final AP poll. Williams said she worked on her rebounding and free throw shooting (she shot just 60.7 percent from the line) during the summer and she'll get the ball in promising spots thanks to junior point guard Chelsea Gray. The other returning starters are junior shooting guard Tricia Liston (12.0 ppg) and junior Haley Peters (10.8). Both are aggressive, attacking players who will log a lot of minutes. McCallie likes to have multiple point guards on the floor so look for touted 5-8 freshman Alexis Jones to see significant time with Gray in the backcourt. Defensively, Duke should be solid. The Blue Devils allowed just 55.9 points per game last season and McCallie says this group is the most talented team in her 21 years of coaching. But she worries about its youth (no senior starters) and focus. "In terms of talent, this group is right up there," McCallie said. "But we need to compete consistently and not in spurts."
Quotable: "I hope we can grow and be more efficient. We score a lot points, our assists are as high as they have ever been, but I think we can space the floor better and run the floor better. Hopefully, we can score a lot of points and keep people from doing that."
-- McCallie on what she expects out of this year's group
Biggest Tests: vs. Cal (Dec. 2); at St. John?s (Dec. 9); at UConn (Jan. 21); vs. Maryland (Feb. 11); at Maryland (Feb. 24).
Championship Odds: 15-1
Kentucky Wildcats (28-7 in 2011-12)Last year the Wildcats won the SEC and advanced to the Elite Eight. They should take another step forward this season behind senior All-America guard A'dia Mathies, the conference Player of the Year who led UK last season in scoring (15.0 ppg), assists (2.7), steals (2.6) and three-point field goal percentage (.378). "Her physical ability is obviously noticeable but she is one of the smartest players I have ever coached," said coach Matthew Mitchell. "She has the ability to figure what needs to happen long before most of the other people on the court." Fellow guard Bria Goss made the All-SEC freshman team last season and the backcourt adds talented freshman guard Janee Thompson, who helped Chicago's Whitney Young to a 34-0 record and No. 2 national ranking. If former McDonald's All-American guard Jennifer O'Neill, who sat out last season because of a foot injury, gives Kentucky quality minutes, the Wildcats will have one of the deepest backcourts in the nation. Mitchell is high on California transfer DeNesha Stallworth, a 6-3 junior forward who sat out last season after leading Cal with 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore. "She's very skilled for her size and can be a major, major factor in our success," Mitchell said.Kentucky emphasizes pressure defense and its mantra is Forty Minutes of Dread. Last season the Wildcats forced an NCAA-best 939 turnovers, and defense should once again keep them in every game.
Quotable: "I think we are a championship-caliber team as far as our talent. That is what I have told our players. We have the physical capability to get that done. An NCAA championship is something they are capable of doing but there is a big difference between being capable and doing it. I don't think we have ever had a team with this kind of ability so realistically I think we have the ability to make a deep run in the tournament."
-- Mitchell on how far Kentucky can go
Biggest Tests: at Baylor (Nov. 13); at Louisville (Dec. 2); vs. Georgia (Feb. 3); at Texas A&M (Feb. 18); at LSU (Feb. 24).
Championship Odds: 15-1
Maryland Terrapins (31-5 in 2011-12)Maryland coach Brenda Frese says the ceiling for her team -- with three starters back including All-America and ACC Player Of The Year Alyssa Thomas -- is unlimited. "This could be a Final Four team but you have to take it one day at a time," Frese said. "But by far, it stacks up with the very talented teams we have had here."The offense starts with Thomas, who is impossible to stop in a half-court set. Few players in the country combine her power and explosiveness, and she added range on her jumper this summer. The 6-2 junior forward led the ACC in scoring last year with 17.2 points per game and ranked among the best in the ACC in rebounds (8.0).The Terps have depth at every position and can rebound with anyone in the country (last year they were second in rebounding margin at +12.9 per game). Senior forward Tianna Hawkins (9.1 rpg) gets a boost with the arrival 6-3 freshman Malina Howard, the nation's best incoming center. Xavier transfer Katie Rutan gives Maryland its best three-point shooter in years. But the question is whether the Terps can overcome the loss of sophomore point guard Brene Moseley, who suffered a season-ending left ACL injury in October. Junior Laurin Mincy (13.1 ppg), a better fit at the two, will run the show.
Quotable: "We have more depth at every position this year compared to where we were a year ago. When you talk about experience plus depth, we have that. I think we probably have a bit more offensive punch than we did a year ago. We really have a lot of players that can put the ball in the basket."
--Frese on the strengths of her team
Biggest Tests: at Nebraska (Nov. 28; at UConn (Dec. 3); at Delaware (Dec. 20); at Duke (Feb. 11); vs. Duke (Feb. 24)
Championship Odds: 18-1
Louisville Cardinals (23-10 in 2011-12)Finally, Jeff Walz has a healthy team. Or at least a healthier team than last year after season-ending injuries to Monique Reid, a fifth-year senior forward who led Louisville in scoring as a sophomore and junior, and junior guard Tia Gibbs, who started every game for the Cardinal during the 2010-11 season.Despite the setbacks, Louisville grinded out 23 wins and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. "It was a situation where you just had to make adjustments as the year went on," said Walz. "Injuries are a part of the game but unfortunately for us the past few years, we have had season-ending injuries to our players. Hopefully, we can stay away from that this season."The Cardinals are deep and offensively-gifted, especially in the backcourt with All-Big East junior point guard Shoni Schimmel (14.3 ppg, 4.7 apg, and 2.4 steals per game.) and sophomore Bria Smith (9.2 ppg and 4.5 rpg). Gibbs is expected to be back by December and Schimmel's younger sister Jude, will also provide scoring. But the key to a deep postseason run is the older Schimmel, a flashy, up-tempo guard who improved her decision-making (146 assists against 119 turnovers) significantly last season. Backcourt mate Smith is explosive to the basket and worked on her jump shot this offseason. The frontcourt still has injury issues: Senior forward Asia Taylor, who started 20 games last season, is out until December recovering from hip surgery and sophomore forward Shawnta' Dyer is coming off a summer hip injury. Louisville will need solid early minutes from Sara Hammond, a 6-1 sophomore forward, at the start of the season and hope that Gibbs and Reid will be full strength by the tournament. If they are, watch out for the Cardinals.
Quotable: "If we can get everyone healthy, I think a healthy Louisville basketball team is very talented."
-- Walz, on staying healthy this season
Biggest Tests: vs. Texas A&M (Nov. 9); vs. Kentucky (Dec. 2); vs. UConn (Jan. 15); vs. St. John's (Jan. 27); at Notre Dame (Feb. 11)
Championship Odds: 22-1
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (35-4 in 2011-12)So is there life after Brittany Mallory, Natalie Novosel, and Devereaux Peters? "I tell you this is a big hit for us," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw of the departed trio. "We took a big hit. I walk into the gym and say to myself: Where are they?"The good news: All-America point guard Skylar Diggins (15.0 ppg, 4.9 apg), the social media star (her 250,000 Twitter followers are the most among any current college athlete) and reigning Big East Player of the Year, has one more year of eligibility. Her scoring will go up but there's enough offensive talent around her with junior guard Kayla McBride (8.9 ppg), sophomore forward Natalie Achonwa (7.6 ppg in 17.2 minutes last season) and 5-10 freshman guard Jewell Loyd. Notre Dame isn't big and will need quality minutes out of Markisha Wright, a 6-2 sophomore forward, and 6-1 junior forward Ariel Braker.Last season the Irish were second in the nation in scoring (78.9 points a game) and 13th in defense (52.9 points a game allowed). The key to success is whether Notre Dame can get stops without as much size in the frontcourt. The Irish will take some lumps early but this is a quality group that teams would be wise not to underestimate.
Quotable: "We don't have any issues playing the underdog role and I'm kind of excited about it. This year we don't have as big a target. Maybe we'll sneak up on some people. Like Coach said, we might take some lumps early. But we are competitive and we like our chances."
-- Diggins, on those not expecting Notre Dame to advance deep in the postseason
Biggest Tests: vs. Baylor (Dec. 5); at UConn (Jan. 5); at Tennessee (Jan. 28); vs. Louisville (Feb. 11); vs. UConn (March 4)
Championship Odds: 25-1
Stanford Cardinal (35-2)Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the WNBA's Rookie of the Year and last year's Pac-12 Player of the Year, keeps visiting her old team, and it's killing Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. "I tell Nneka: 'You are torturing me.' We really do miss her a lot. She's not just a great player but a great person to coach as well."No player outside of Griner was a tougher matchup last year than Ogwumike, especially in the NCAA tournament. But VanDerveer has plenty of experience replacing All-Americas and likes the current group in Palo Alto. "I believe that you take the cork off of a champagne and someone else will bubble up," VanDerveer said.That would be junior forward Chiney Ogwumike, the younger sister of Nneka. She averaged 15.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game last season and has a deadly mid-range game. This Cardinal team will play pick-and-roll with Ogwumike and count on its talented guards -- speedy sophomore point guard Amber Orrange (1.97-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), junior shooting guard Toni Kokenis (9.5 ppg) and sophomore Jasmine Camp, who is back from a stress fracture that limited her to eight games last season -- to give them perimeter scoring. Stanford is young with forward Joslyn Tinkle as the only senior, so the team will need production out of young forwards Taylor Greenfield and Mikaela Ruef as well as 6-5 freshman Tess Picknell. It's going to be tough early but this team has a bright future.
Quotable:"If our team goes to the Final Four, it will because Chiney is a terrific leader, expanded her game, and brought other people along with her. We need her to have an All-American junior year, but she might even have to have a Player of the Year-type year. We are counting very heavily on her and she knows it and embraces it."
-- VanDerveer on Chiney Ogwumike
Biggest Tests: vs. Baylor in Honolulu (Nov. 16); at South Carolina (Dec. 19); vs. UConn (Dec. 29); at Cal (Jan. 8); vs. Cal (Jan. 13).
Championship Odds: 35-1
Penn State Lady Lions (24-6 in 2011-12)If Penn State advances to the Final Four this season -- the Lady Lions return nine of their top 10 scorers and have one of the nation's best backcourts -- they'll owe an assist to Michelangelo. As part of a 10-day European tour in July, Penn State players and coaches toured the Vatican in Rome where they were regaled with tales of the artist's dedication. "His story inspired me and inspired our team in terms of what quality mean, what giving your best means and the idea of never saying quit," said coach Coquese Washington. Scoring won't be an issue for Penn State (the team averaged 75.7 points per game last season). The frontcourt is athletic, deep and has a potential future star in freshman Candace Agee, a McDonald's All-American. Agee will see plenty of time next to the defensive-minded senior forward Nikki Greene (7.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks) and senior center Mia Nickson (8.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg).Penn State will be heavy favorites in the Big Ten, but in order to compete for a national title, Washington said the Lady Lions must improve defensively, especially on the boards where they finished with a paltry 1.8 rebounding margin last season. "We have to defend better and rebound better if we are going to make a jump," Washington said. "We have to be able to shut people down, limit the boards and limit people's shot attempts. If we get better defensively, I think we are poised to have a pretty good year."
Quotable: "I like what our backcourt brings to the table ?- the speed, the scoring, the passing ability, and they are pretty good defenders are well. I have not seen many players in the country who can make open shots at the rate and consistency that Maggie [Lucas] does and I love the way Alex [Bentley] runs the point for us. She's grown over the past four years. I told her when she first came here she was not a point guard -- she just dribbled the ball and didn't run the team. As a junior and senior she has learned how to manage the game, and imprint her will on the court."
-- Washington, on her backcourt
Biggest Tests: at Texas A&M (Nov. 14); at UConn (Dec. 6); vs. Georgetown (Dec. 9); at Michigan State (Jan. 6), at Nebraska (March 3).
Championship Odds: 45-1
Cal Golden Bears (25-10 in 2011-12)The slogan is written on a blackboard inside Cal's locker room. It appears on the top of coach Lindsay Gottlieb's practice sheet, even on the team's Twitter hashtags: WE ARE READY. Expectations have never been higher at Cal, with nine returning players including sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd and junior shooting guard Layshia Clarendon. The Bears have depth and versatility in both the frontcourt and backcourt and they are super-athletic, forcing the pace on both offense and defense. Cal's best player is Clarendon, an All-Pac 12 selection who is underrated nationally but well known to pro scouts. "I can tell you there are WNBA people who recognize she has one of the best mid-range games around," Gottlieb said. "She's our go-to perimeter scorer and if our team makes that leap into the elite of college basketball, people will recognize here as one of the best guards in the country." Cal finished second in the Pac-12 preseason poll but the team is a real threat to snap Stanford's 12-year conference winning streak, especially if the teams get strong frontcourt play out of 6-2 junior forward Gennifer Brandon who averaged 9.9 rebounds last season, and 6-3 sophomore forward Reshanda Gray, who made the All Pac-12 Freshman team after averaging 10.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. "I certainly don't think we have arrived yet but we are ready to do something," Gottlieb said. The players know what WE ARE READY means. It means we are ready for the next step."
Quotable: "We have not been the best outside shooting team. We can run past you and we've been able to pound you inside, but we need to raise our shooting percentage and the players have really worked hard to at that. We also need to take advantage of our free throws. We were horrendous at the line last year. From a macro perspective, we're dealing with a new level of this expectation. I am acutely aware that we are trying to get them to play at a level that has not happened before and we can't let it become a pressure."
-- Gottleib on her biggest concerns this season
Biggest Tests: at Duke (Dec. 2); vs. Stanford (Jan. 8); at Stanford (Jan. 13); at UCLA (Feb. 15; at USC (Feb. 17).
Championship Odds: 50-1