Way-Too-Early Women's Top 10: Who's Looking Strong for 2021–22?

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A week after the confetti fell on Stanford, we’re turning the page to 2021–22 and taking an early look at which teams in women’s college basketball are looking strongest for next season. While the WNBA draft deadline has passed ahead of Thursday’s event, there are still some roster decisions to be made this spring (namely transfers and whether some seniors will take advantage of the extra year the NCAA granted all winter sports athletes due to COVID-19). However, here’s where things stand now.

1. UConn

Coach Geno Auriemma hasn’t reached the national title game since 2016, but his program will be in a great position to finally return in 2022. Not only is he not losing any key players, but he will also welcome top recruit Azzi Fudd to play alongside Paige Bueckers in Storrs. UConn will also add two other top 30 recruits.

Bueckers stole much of the spotlight last season, but the contributions of Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards shouldn’t be overlooked. All three averaged double figures in points and served as strong complements to Bueckers’s dominant play. Williams and Nelson-Ododa will enter their senior seasons as the two most experienced players on the roster. Their stable leadership mixed with the remarkable talents of Bueckers and Fudd should make the Huskies the team to beat in 2021–22.

NaLyssa Smith, Zia Cooke and Paige Bueckers

2. South Carolina

The Gamecocks were a putback short of playing for a national championship. While Aliyah Boston’s miss will assuredly haunt her and South Carolina fans, Dawn Staley will return to her entire starting lineup and bring in another top recruiting class featuring three top-five recruits.

Incoming freshmen Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin join an already-talented roster, setting up South Carolina to play for its second national championship in the Staley era.

3. Stanford

The defending champs might lose two starting guards, which makes it difficult to slot them into the top two, given the talent UConn and South Carolina will bring back. However, the Cardinal will still be in prime position to try to defend their title.

Five-star recruit Jana Van Gytenbeek could take on a larger role as the primary point guard after playing just more than eight minutes per game this year. Also, look for forwards Cameron Brink and Francesca Belibi to continue to improve down low. (Brink averaged almost 10 points and seven assists per game to go along with nearly three blocks.)

Coach Tara VanDerveer also adds wing Brooke Demetre and forward Okikiola Iriafen (both top 20 recruits) as well as four-star point guard Jzaniya Harriel. This roster certainly won’t lack talent. It just might not have the same chemistry that UConn and South Carolina will have because of the player turnover.

4. Maryland

Maryland was a juggernaut in one of the deepest Big Ten conferences ever last season. Leading the country scoring nearly 91 points per game, the Terrapins came to San Antonio poised to make a Final Four run. Alas, their loss to Texas in the Sweet 16 came as a major disappointment in College Park, but the good news for the Terps is that all four seniors will take advantage of their extra year of eligibility and return in 2021–22.

In addition, Maryland hopes to get a full season from rising sophomore Angel Reese, the second-rated recruit in the 2020 class. The talented wing played in just 15 of the Terps’ 29 games. Consistent minutes from her in addition to Ashley Owusu, Diamond Miller and the rest of the starting five will make it very difficult to slow down the offense.

Coach Brenda Frese spoke often this season about how impressed she was with her team’s chemistry, given that she’d brought in several transfers and the challenges that came with playing a COVID-19 season. But it rose to the challenge and will be a dominant force again next year.

5. Louisville

The Cardinals lose one of the greatest players in school history with Dana Evans’s leaving for the WNBA draft. However, not all is lost for Coach Jeff Walz’s program. Immediately after Louisville’s season ended with an Elite Eight loss to Stanford, Walz brought in two transfers, Emily Engstler from Syracuse and Chelsie Hall from Vanderbilt. Engstler averaged 10.5 points and 9.1 rebounds for the Orange last season, while Hall averaged 15.4 points across eight games for the Commodores.

In addition to the high-impact transfers, Louisville will welcome guard Payton Verhulst, a top 15 recruit, while also expecting to see more growth from rising sophomores Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran.

Walz has done an admirable job reloading his roster this offseason with experienced players to complement his younger recruits, which should set the Cardinals up for another deep NCAA tournament run in 2022.

6. Baylor

The Bears had their season come to an agonizing end because of a no-call on a DiJonai Carrington shot attempt that could’ve given Baylor a lead in the final seconds against UConn.

Entering 2021–22, the Bears have some holes to fill. Carrington and Didi Richards both declared for the WNBA draft. Moon Ursin was also a senior and has yet to announce whether she’ll return next year. Potentially losing three of their most productive offensive players will hurt.

On the positive side, coach Kim Mulkey will bring in five-star Maryam Dauda to play the post and transfer guard Chrislyn Carr from Texas Tech, who was the 2019 Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Baylor will also get another year from NaLyssa Smith, the Bears’ leading scorer and rebounder last season. All in all, this will be another talented team, but with players moving in and out, there will be more questions for Baylor to answer compared with the teams slotted ahead of it.

7. Oregon

The Ducks upset Georgia in the tournament, only to be stymied by Louisville in the Sweet 16. However, last season was a major victory in Eugene. Coming into the year, Oregon had lost its Big Three (Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally) and had to acclimate nine new players with the COVID-19 restrictions, yet still finished fourth in a Pac-12 that produced five tournament teams.

Looking ahead to 2021–22, Oregon will bring back most of its roster and hope for a full year of health for Te-Hina Paopao, who missed the last month of the season with a right foot injury. Before she went down, the freshman guard flashed her potential, averaging 10.2 points per game and 4.4 assists. Paopao will also have the opportunity to play with five-star guard Taylor Bigby in what could be a dominant backcourt that leads the way for Oregon next season.

8. Michigan

In each of coach Kim Barnes Arico’s first eight seasons in Ann Arbor, she guided the Wolverines to at least 20 wins. While a midseason COVID-19 shutdown prevented another 20-win campaign this year, Michigan advanced to its first Sweet 16 in program history. The Wolverines look to be in prime position to return again next season.

For starters, Naz Hillmon returns, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. And while it looks like Barnes Arico won’t have the steady play of Hailey Brown and Akienreh Johnson anymore, she still has Leigha Brown, who fit into their system perfectly after transferring from Nebraska. It’s also important to note that Michigan made the Sweet 16 without starting point guard Amy Dilk, who didn’t play in the NCAA tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test. She’ll come back as well.

In terms of newcomers, four-star guards Laila Phelia and Ariana Wiggins will look to provide more depth for a team that definitely lacked it at that position last year. Overall, Michigan looks like it’ll be ready to return to the NCAA tourney, and, without having to worry about COVID-19 stoppages, this will be a top 10 program.

9. NC State

NC State became the first No. 1 seed to be taken down in San Antonio, falling to Indiana in the Sweet 16. The good news, though, is that all three of its seniors announced they’ll return for one more season. That sets up a pretty deep roster that will add two more top 70 recruits in Aziaha James and Sophia Hart.

Elissa Cunane will enter her senior season after leading the Wolfpack in scoring and rebounding last year. With her prowess down low and the shooting of Jakia Brown-Turner and Kayla Jones, NC State has the talent to find itself in the top 10 once again.

10. Iowa

Other than Paige Bueckers, no player received more attention this tournament than Caitlin Clark. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year led the country in scoring and will return in 2021–22 with virtually the same group of players around her. Monika Czinano will man the post, and the Hawkeyes will continue to be a powerhouse offense.

The biggest knock on coach Lisa Bluder’s team last year was its defense; adjusted for pace, Iowa ranked in the middle of the pack. If it can defend more effectively and continue to shoot the ball well, Iowa could make an Elite Eight appearance in 2022.

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