It's been more than seven months since Notre Dame stunned everyone by knocking off UConn in the Final Four and Mississippi State in the national championship game on back-to-back Arike Ogunbowale buzzer beaters, but the Irish are still the team to beat heading into 2018–19. Here are three storylines we're eager to follow as the season tips off, as well as a preseason top 10.
Notre Dame starts the season on top
Notre Dame is starting this season the way it ended last season, at No. 1. The reigning national champions usurped UConn for the top spot for the first time since 2016, the only other time Muffet McGraw’s team has received the No. 1 spot in the preseason rankings.
The scary part is, this team is only set to get better. Final Four savior and Dancing With the Stars starlet Ogunbowale is back to give Notre Dame’s opponents buckets as part of four returning starters for the Irish, which had to deal with a spate of ACL injuries last season. With Ogunbowale leading the way alongside fellow seniors Marina Mabrey, Jessica Shephard graduate student Brianna Turner—one of four that suffered season-ending knee injuries last season—and Jackie Young, this team certainly looks poised to be a force in both the ACC and the NCAA tournament if it stays healthy.
So what could keep this team from reaching its full potential? Well, Notre Dame hasn’t had to deal with being public enemy No. 1 for quite some time—it’s had UConn to thank for that. As Ogunbowale acknowledged during WBB media day on ESPN, the Fighting Irish will now get every team’s best shot, as such is the curse of being champions. And being in a conference that includes fellow preseason Top 25 teams like Louisville, Duke, NC State, Syracuse and Miami will ensure season is going to be a grind.
We’ll see if the Irish can see it out.
UConn’s redemption tour
It’s rare that the Huskies come into any season without women’s basketball’s biggest target on their back, but that distinction belongs to Notre Dame this year. So what should we think of Geno Auriemma’s squad?
Losing Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams and Azura Stevens to the WNBA hurts, especially considering the fact that Stevens chose to leave with a year of eligibility remaining. But this is UConn we’re talking about, and the Huskies will be determined to come in hot out of the gate after losing in hearbreaking fashion in the Final Four for the second year in a row.
Now we get to see Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield lead Auriemma’s revenge tour? Go ahead and sign us right up for 30-plus games of that.
Championships aren’t reserved for the AAC, ACC and SEC anymore
While the SEC and ACC might be the only conferences with six teams in the Top 25 in this year’s preseason rankings, don’t sleep on the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Three of the teams in the Elite Eight belonged to the Pacific Coast last year and while the conference hasn’t had a champion since Stanford’s 1992 run, this year’s Oregon squad is as good a team as any to end the drought.
Presumptive WNBA No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu is the type of player hoops fanatics dream about. Ionescu is a triple double machine playing in an uptempo system that should see viewers stay up just a bit later to catch of glimpse of her—and the eye-melting court that Oregon plays on.
The Ducks combined with UCLA and Oregon State—the two other Pac-12 teams that lost in the Elite Eight last year—improving could lead to some shakeups in the rankings and, ultimately, the tournament.
While the Big Ten doesn’t have nearly as much to offer as the conference on the west coast, there are still one or two things to watch for in the middle of the country this season. No. 1, 2 and 3 on that list should be what the Lindsay Whalen experiment at Minnesota turns into.
Can the star who won four championships with the Minnesota Lynx take what she learned from coach Cheryl Reeve and bring the Gophers back to the heights that Whalen saw when she was in the Twin Cities? Returning Kenisha Bell and Destiny Pitts isn’t a bad start.
There’s also something brewing to the south of Minnesota, as the nation’s leading scorer, Megan Gustafson, returns to Iowa for her senior season. That combined with other standout programs like Maryland—which landed at No. 9 in the AP preseason poll—and an Indiana team that won the WNIT last year could make things interesting.
All of this is to say, we’re in a bit of unchartered territory here with a reasonably open field to see who can claim the championship. Few saw South Carolina coming in 2016 and anyone who sharpied in Notre Dame to win it all after four ACL injuries last season is either a liar or clairvoyant. Will we see another surprise champion like Oregon this season or will UConn wipe the floor with the competition? Either way, sit back, relax and prepare to stay up late. College basketball is (almost) back!
SI's Women's Preseason Top 10
By Laken Litman
1. Notre Dame: Four starters return from the national title team, as well as 6' 3" Brianna Turner (a 2017 All-America) and 6' 3" Mikayla Vaughn, who are back after ACL injuries. If that weren’t enough, the Irish also add two highly ranked freshman point guards (Katlyn Gilbert and Jordan Nixon).
2. Connecticut: The Huskies lose three of six key players, including forward Azura Stevens, who passed up a fourth year of eligibility to play in the WNBA. But they do have two All-Americas—6' 1" forward Napheesa Collier (16.1 ppg) and 6' 3" forward Katie Lou Samuelson (17.4 ppg)—and freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6’ 4” dunking machine.
3. Baylor: The frontcourt duo of 6' 7" senior Kalani Brown and 6' 4" junior Lauren Cox, who combined to average 35.4 points in 2017–18, is steaming toward a third-straight Big 12 title.
4. Oregon: Point guard Sabrina Ionescu will be a top contender for national player of the year after setting the women’s career triple-double record last season, with 10. The Ducks also have 6' 4" Ruthy Hebard, 6' 2" Erin Boley and 6' 5" Mallory McGwire roaming the blocks.
5. Louisville: Jeff Walz has four starters back from the Final Four run, including the ACC player of the year, 5' 10" senior guard Asia Durr (18.7 ppg).
6. Mississippi State: A double-double machine, 6' 7" senior center Teaira McCowan (18.2 ppg, 13.9 rpg) will have to bear a heavier scoring load after the Bulldogs lost 92.4% of their three-point shooting to graduation. Anriel Howard, a 5' 11" grad transfer from Texas A&M, and a pair of highly rated recruits will have to jell quickly.
7. Stanford: The Cardinal were blown out in the Sweet 16 by Louisville, but they have 12 players back, including Australian 6' 4" senior forward Alanna Smith and 5' 8" sophomore shooting guard Kiana Williams, who hit 72.2% (13 of 18) of her three-point shots in the Pac-12 tournament.
8. South Carolina: Replacing A’ja Wilson, the 2018 WNBA Rookie of the Year, won’t be easy. Dawn Staley will need a big senior season from 6' 3" forward Alexis Jennings (the top returning scorer, with 11.4 ppg) as well as major contributions from 6' 2" junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and 6-foot sophomore LeLe Grissett.
9. Tennessee: The Lady Vols lost their two leading scorers but have 6' 2" swingwoman Rennia Davis (12.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and 6-foot guard Evina Westbrook (8.4 ppg, 4.3 apg), who were part of the nation’s top recruiting class in 2017.
10. Texas: The Longhorns’ title hopes suffered a blow when 6' 3" junior forward Joyner Holmes had right-ankle surgery in mid-October. That means two seniors, 6' 4" forward Jatarie White (10.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and 5' 9" Lashann Higgs (12.8 ppg), will have more responsibility. Having the nation’s No. 2 recruit, 6' 5" center Charli Collier, eases the pain.