By Richard Deitsch
November 22, 2011

Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma is looking forward to this season for the same reason the rest of the country outside of Storrs, Conn. is: "I think the regular season is going to be exciting, as opposed to just getting through the regular season to see who Connecticut is playing in the national championship game," Auriemma says.

Auriemma thinks Baylor, Notre Dame and Tennessee are slightly above the rest of the pack, and that's how we expect the season will play out as well. For now, Baylor is the clear number one after a convincing 94-81 win over Notre Dame Sunday in the preseason WNIT title game. Defending champ Texas A&M is going to be better than expected and Louisville will be a handful come tournament time. Stanford and Duke are young but very talented. "Us winning last year was good for the game and I think even Geno and [Tennessee coach] Pat [Summitt] would say that," says Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. "Chemistry is the most underrated thing a team can have. We all want McDonalds All-Americans but every now and then my Burger All-Staters do good."In honor of Blair's analogy, let's chew on's initial women's power rankings:

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1 Baylor Bears
Baylor Bears (4-0, 34-3 in 2010-11)
A warning for Baylor's opponents: Junior All-America center Brittney Griner gained 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason (along with invaluable experience playing with the U.S. national team). Then there's the experience sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims gained playing in the World University Games in China. Junior redshirt forwards Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams are in the best shape of their lives and junior guards Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden continue to improve yearly. The Lady Bears are deep (they return 88.5 percent of its scoring), talented (four starters are back) and motivated (after losing to Texas A&M in the Dallas Regional finals). Best of all, they are no longer young, with Griner (23.0 points and a nation-best 170 block) ready to emerge as an on-court leader. She had 32 points and 14 rebounds in Baylor's showdown win over Notre Dame last Sunday, and is averaging 22.8 points and 12.3 rebounds over her first four games, including shooting 63 percent from the field. Sims is averaging 20.0 points and nearly four steals a game. "There are not many schools in the country who can say it's a realistic goal for us to win a national championship," says coach Kim Mulkey. "I think it is a realistic goal here and I don't say that every year." Baylor was a championship contender last year as well but were rooked by having to face the Aggies for a fourth time in the same season (Memo to the NCAA: Let's not do that again). They lose gritty guard Melissa Jones and the wisdom of assistant Leon Barmore on the bench but this is a lock Final Four team if everyone stays healthy.

Quotable: "Brittany always wants to do something different. She wants me to let her shoot the trail three at the end of the break. And you know what? She can shoot it as well as anybody. She wants to get in the paint and get more offensive rebounds and just do things that maybe statistically she has not done before. She will always block shots and she will always rebound the ball, but maybe she can be a better offensive rebounder and maybe she can shoot some trail threes. She does not want to be one-dimensional. Whatever people think her weaknesses are, she wants us to tell her so she can work on her game."
-- Mulkey on Griner

Next Up: vs. Yale (Nov. 22), at Tennessee (Nov. 27), Texas Southern (Nov. 30), at Minnesota (Dec. 4)
2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-1, 31-8 in '10-11)
It happens at every practice, every workout, even sometimes when the players are working around campus. Some members of the Notre Dame team will shout out "Fifteen fifty-two." That was the time left in the second half of last year's national championship when Texas A&M started chipping away at Notre Dame's seven-point lead. "It's the driving force for this entire year," says senior guard Natalie Novosel, who led the team in scoring with 15.1 points and was named the Big East's most improved player. The Irish are a deep, experienced team with three senior starters (Novosel, forward Devereaux Peters and guard Brittany Mallory) and nine returning players. Junior guard Skylar Diggins (15.0 points), the preseason Big East Player of the Year, should be even better after a full year of playing point guard. Sophomore guard Kayla McBride has looked really strong early this season (she had 15 points and seven rebounds in a win over Akron on Nov. 11). Depth at the post is a concern, which makes it paramount for the talented Peters to stay out of foul trouble. The loss to Baylor stings, especially given how poorly Notre Dame guarded in stretches, but it gives coach Muffet McGraw something to use with her team over the upcoming months.

Quotable: "I always worry about depth in the post and in the women's game; you have to think about injury. We cannot afford to lose anyone. We have two fifth-year seniors [Peters and Mallory] coming back from ACL injuries and we have a big target on our back: How are we going to handle that? We feel that Skylar will run the team on the floor, but there is the constant media hype. That's something that they [her players] cannot turn off as easy as I can."
-- McGraw

Next Up: vs. USC at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 25), vs. Duke at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 26), vs. Penn (Dec. 2) at Creighton (Dec. 11)
3 Connecticut Huskies
Connecticut Huskies (3-0, 36-2)
How different are things without Maya Moore? "Well, there are a lot more shot clock violations in practice," says Auriemma. "We lost our best rebounder, our best shooter, and our best defender." What UConn does have back is talented youth. Five of UConn's top eight players are freshman or sophomores, including sophomore guard Bria Hartley and 6-foot-5 sophomore center Stefanie Dolson, who has transformed her body in the past year and appears poised for a huge year. "There are not 10 great centers in college basketball," says Auriemma. "Everyone knows there is one in Waco, Texas. But there are not 10 great ones and I think she knows it and I know it, and our team knows it, and she will be one of them." Senior guard Tiffany Hayes, a mercurial talent who ranges from All-America to All-Frustrating, can allay some anxious nights with more consistency. Wing player Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the WBCA national high school Player of the Year, leads a great freshman class. She scored 25 points in an impressive 68-58 win over Stanford on Monday. "Kaleena has a lot of talent and she certainly knows how to make plays and there is no hesitation," Auriemma said. " She doesn't catch and wonder, 'what should I do'." The X-factor is how junior point guard Caroline Doty returns from a torn ACL in her left knee that caused her to missed all of last season. Doty started at the point for UConn's 39-0 national championship-winning squad two years ago. In UConn's first two games, Doty averaged 20 minutes. "It is one more ball-hander shooter and individually who can handle herself in pressurized situation," says Auriemma. "The only thing we don't know about is her health. If somebody told me Caroline will play every game and give us 20-25 minutes every night, automatically, I think we are way better than we are right now."

Quotable: "Maya Moore lost four games in her college career. When you don't have somebody like that around, it's like taking Roy Halladay or Ryan Howard out of the lineup. All of sudden, you are not what you used to be. It doesn't mean you can't become that but right now, we are not what we used to be. I think the other guys are saying, "This is an opportunity for is. The big bully on the block has graduated." --
-- Auriemma

Next Up: vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (Nov. 25), vs. Buffalo (Nov. 26), vs. Dayton (Nov. 27) vs. Towson (Nov. 30), vs. Texas A&M (Dec. 6)
4 Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M Aggies (4-0, 33-5 in '10-11)
The defending champs lost All-America forward Danielle Adams and brilliant point guard Sydney Colson but dismiss them at your own peril. A&M has three returning starters (senior guard Sydney Carter, one of the nation's best perimeter defenders, senior forward Tyra White, who averaged 13.8 points and Adaora Elonu) and a potentially game-changing addition with 6-4 sophomore center Kelsey Bone, a McDonald's All-American out of high school who averaged 14 points and 9.2 rebounds as a freshman at South Carolina before transferring to A&M. (Bone had 15 points and nine rebounds in A&M's win over Louisville on Nov. 15.) If either junior Adrienne Pratcher or freshman Alexia Standish can emerge as the long-term solution at the point, Texas A&M has a shot at another Final Four appearance. The locals are excited about the possibilities: Season-ticket sales have increased by more than 1,000 from last year. "Last year, even though we had Sydney and Danielle, people doubted us," says Carter. "Now that they are gone, I expect people to say, 'They are not going to repeat.'" It is motivation for us because people have not given us the credit for the team we are. We will just keep on proving people wrong for as long we can."

Quotable: "Kelsey can score. She averaged 14 and 10 at South Carolina. But I wasn't real impressed with her field goal percentage. Her free throws were OK. Minutes were OK. But what I want her to realize is we have other players on the floor who can score consistently. She did not have at South Carolina. She had to produce right away. I want her to be selective on shot selection and pound the board and play with no fear."
-- Blair on Bone's impact this season

Next Up: vs. Temple at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 25), vs. Iowa/St.John's at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 26), at Purdue (Dec. 2) at Connecticut (Dec. 4).
5 Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee Volunteers (2-1, 34-3 in '10-11)
The Tennessee players have adopted the slogan TIME FOR NINE this season to win a ninth title for their coach Pat Summitt. The talent is there, with four starters back including senior guard/forward Shekinna Stricken, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, Glory Johnson, another All-SEC selection, senior guard Taber Spani and an emerging star guard in sophomore Meighan Simmons. Two things to watch: Can freshman point guard Ariel Massengale contain the nation's top point guards when Tennessee faces premier competition? And how will the team react to being coached by multiple voices after Summitt revealed to her team in August that she had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease and dementia? Though Tennessee's assistant coaches are more involved in practice, Simmons (13.5 points last year) told in October that Summitt's bite remained sharp. "There are times where she sits down and just watches but Pat Summitt is going to be Pat Summitt," says Simmons. Simmons said Tennessee paid particular attention in the preseason on communication, especially on the defensive end of the court. The Lady Vols looked strong in its first early season test, pummeling Miami 92-76 behind four three-pointers from Spani. But then the Lady Vols lost at Virginia, a sloppy performance in which Virginia scored 27 points off 24 Tennessee turnovers. Tennessee needs to be much better when it hosts Baylor Sunday.

Quotable: "If you ever doubt if Pat Summitt is still coaching, look at how our team responds coming out in the second half. She got on them pretty hard, we all did as a staff about our rebounding effort, our hustle plays that weren't there. So we challenged them. We challenged them for 20 minutes, and I think they responded. We're not going to play a flawless game, but we've got to get all the hustle plays."
-- Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick following Tennessee's win over Miami

Next Up: vs. Baylor (Nov. 27), vs. Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 29), Texas (Dec. 4) vs. DePaul in New York City(Dec. 11)
6 Louisville Cardinals
Louisville Cardinals (3-1, 22-13)
Senior forward Monique Reid has a warning for the opposition. "Our roster is packed," says Reid. "We are a team that is going to be scary. We can run five in and five out and our freshmen are all doing very good." Reid (a team-leading 15.5 points) joins fellow All-Big East preseason selection Shoni Schimmel (15.1 points and 4.9 assists as a freshman) as two of five returning starters. Add to that mix freshman forward Sara Hammond, a McDonald's All-American, and guard Bria Smith, who had 20 in the loss to Texas A&M. Don't look into that result too deeply. The Cardinal played without Reid and fellow starter Tia Gibbs, both of whom were out with injuries, and Schimmel, who missed the first two games because the NCAA found that she played in a non-sanctioned, 3-on-3 tournament in Oregon over the summer. "This is probably the first year I've been here that we actually have really good depth at all five spots," says coach Jeff Walz. "I'm looking for us to press more and put waves of players in." The biggest concern for Walz is a backup to emerge for the talented Schimmel. That could be a role Smith plays. "I am trying to take pressure off of Shoni at times," Walz says. "Everyone will put their best defender on her, so I'm looking to give her a break from bringing the ball up the floor on every possession."

Quotable: "We are going to have to stay healthy, and then we are going to have our point guard play be a little more solid in terms of trying to take care of the basketball. And we are going to have to do a better job of getting our guards to the free throw line. Our leading guard got to the free throw line 48 times all season. That's terrible. When it comes March, you have to be able to get to the free line. I believe Bria Smith will help us there."
-- Walz

Next Up: vs. Austin Peay (Nov. 22), at Florida State (Nov. 25), at Florida A&M (Nov. 26) vs. Murray State (Nov, 29)
7 Stanford Cardinal
Stanford Cardinal (3-1, 33-3 in '10-11)
"Starting out, this will not be a well-oiled machine," says coach Tara VanDerveer. The loss of four-year starters Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen means the Cardinal will be inexperienced outside of the splendid All-America senior forward Nneka Ogwumike, who had 33 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Gonzaga on Nov. 13. She'll be joined on the frontline by her younger sister, and soon to-be All-America, Chiney, a sophomore forward who averaged 11.7 points last season. Freshman forward Taylor Greenfield looks like a big-time player and junior forward Joslyn Tinkle will also see time in the post. Speedy freshman point Amber Orange will eventually be good -- she is one of six incoming players -- but the mix is going to take time. "We need to improve," VanDerveer said after her team's 10-point loss to UConn. "We were there, and then we weren't. We couldn't maintain our scoring, we could never get them down." VanDerveer is high on sophomore guard Toni Kokenis, a deadly three-point shooter."This year's team is really different," says VanDerveer. "Last year's team was Jeannette for 40 minutes, Kayla for 40 minutes, Nneka for 40 minutes and then Chiney for probably 30. We weren't really a deep team in terms of playing a lot of people. This year's team to me, there's Necka, Chiney, and then I have no idea who will be out there."

Quotable: "Jeannette played 40 minutes a game for us and always had the ball in her hands. Whoever our point guard is this season is not going to have that kind of experience. And Kayla played more minutes than any single player in Stanford history. The experience and leadership that we lose is tremendous. And it's the little things, too. We could run a lot of plays last year. This year we are going to have to play a lot of young players and really simplify things."
-- TK

Next Up: at Xavier (Nov. 25), vs. UC Davis (Nov. 30), at Fresno State (Dec. 4) vs. Princeton (Dec. 17).
8 Duke Blue Devils
Duke Blue Devils (3-0, 32-4 in '10-11)
It's going to be leadership by committee for Duke this season following the departure of Jasmine Thomas, Karima Christmas and Krystal Thomas. "Last year we had three dominant seniors that played an awful lot of minutes and had incredible careers," says coach Joanne P. McCallie. "This year we are more true to the fact of leadership by committee. Most of our kids are freshman or sophomores, but I think the unknown is very exciting." Yes, the Blue Devils are callow (two seniors, a junior, five sophomores and four freshmen) but it's an extremely talented group thanks to another top recruiting class. The returning starters are sophomore forward Haley Peters (10.7 points) and sophomore guard Chelsea Gray, an All-ACC performer despite playing most of the year with an injured ankle. McCallie says the Blue Devils will press and run, especially with a ton of offensive talent. The prized recruit is 6-3 post player Elizabeth Williams, who benches 160 pounds. Fellow freshman Amber Henson, the 6-4 sister of North Carolina star John Henson and the Gatorade Florida Player of the Year, will also have an impact. The biggest question for Duke is how well they will defend.

Quotable: "We will be more up-tempo than usual because we have a few more ball-handlers and people to create in the open court. But the productivity has to come from everybody. Then we'll see who becomes special and more consistent with their productivity."
-- McCallie

Next Up: vs. Gardner-Webb at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 25), vs. Notre Dame/Southern California at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 26), vs. Purdue (Dec. 1) vs. Pittsburgh (Dec. 4)
9 Miami Hurricanes
Miami Hurricanes (2-1, 28-5 in '10-11)
The one-time doormat of the ACC has become a monster. Miami returns all five starters -- and all its letterwinners -- from a team that set a school record with 28 wins and shared the ACC regular-season title with Duke. The All-America duo of guard Shenise (Moe-Moe) Johnson, the conference's reigning Player of the Year after averaging 19.6 points, and forward Riquna (Bay-Bay) Williams, should be even better with the addition of Shawnice (Pepper) Wilson, a 6-6 Pitt transfer. Junior forward Morgan Stroman (13.6 points) was a third-team All-ACC selection and sophomore guard Krystal Saunders is a shooter with potential. Meier says that her team has better balance this season, which will help her star players.

Quotable: "The biggest thing Pepper does for us is we are now going to force defenses to make choices. There is now a whole extra dimension to our attack, to our thought process and to our decisions. Pepper is an obvious pass inside and I don't think people realize how hard it's been for our guards to get freed up when there was not an obvious post pass. Last season when our guards would get stuck over-penetrating, or at the end of the shot clock, they did not have an obvious pass. Now they can get now get out of danger because this gives them a greener light to the rim."
-- Meier, on the impact of Wilson.

Next Up: vs. Longwood (Nov. 27), at Michigan State (Dec. 1), vs. Rutgers (Dec. 5), vs. Ole Miss (Dec. 10)
10 Maryland Terrapins
Maryland Terrapins (4-0, 24-8 in '10-11)
The Terps jumped Georgetown for the final spot after a convincing 72-53 home win over the Hoyas on Nov. 13. That was sweet payback after Georgetown knocked out Maryland last March. "This is a new season," says coach Brenda Frese. "It's a new team. With every game and every practice that we get to play, we get to create an identity." A big part of that identity is sophomore forward Alyssa Thomas, the ACC Rookie of the Year last season. Thomas is a highly-skilled 6-2 forward who can play on the wing or in the post. The guard play offers questions but the early results have been good. Sophomore guard Laurin Mincy, who is returning from ACL surgery, played 31 minutes against Georgetown, and freshman guard Brene Moseley had a breakout game against Towson with 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting. The steady presence is senior point guard Anjale Barrett. The biggest question surrounding this team is the fate of 6-4 center Lynetta Kizer. She's been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules.

Quotable: "I think we will be even more up tempo than last year? Due to our size and length we will extend our defense. We want to use our length in creative ways to make it an advantage for us. We are going to pound the glass just like last year."
-- Frese, on her team's style of play

Next Up: vs. USC at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 25), vs. Duke at Freeport, Bahamas (Nov. 26), vs. Penn (Dec. 2) at Creighton (Dec. 11)

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