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NCAAW 2020-21 Season Preview: South Carolina to defend No. 1 spot in face of pandemic

The South Carolina Gamecocks enter the season as the No. 1 team in the nation, followed by the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal and No. 3 UConn Huskies. For those three teams and all others, the wait will soon be over to see which will overcome the obstacles of the pandemic and dazzle us come March, if a NCAA Tournament is to be had.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 SEC Women’s Tournament - Mississippi State vs South Carolina
Aliyah Boston (left) and Zia Cooke form a powerful duo that could lead the Gamecocks to their second national title in three seasons.
Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the end of the 2019-20 NCAAW season, the South Carolina Gamecocks stood at the top as the undisputed No. 1 team in the country.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Ducks finished at No. 2 after an unforgettable senior season for superstar Sabrina Ionescu.

The disappointing part of last season, of course, was the March 12 cancellation of the NCAA Tournament — taken away when the global COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Many teams were left to wonder what could have been. The No. 4 Maryland Terrapins were on a hot streak, for example, and the No. 3 Baylor Lady Bears, No. 5 UConn Huskies, No. 6 Louisville Cardinals and No. 7 Stanford Cardinal all showed flashes of national championship potential.

The battle against the pandemic wages on, but the NCAAW is back — for now, at least — with Wednesday set as the official start date of the 2020-21 season.

Can the Gamecocks defend the No. 1 spot? Will a different national powerhouse rise up? How will COVID-19 impact the season? And which freshmen and transfers will help their new teams the most? All are burning questions, so let’s get into it with a comprehensive preview of the NCAAW season.


What’s new

Uconn Huskies back in Big East

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 05 Womens UConn at SMU
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma (center) and his team are plotting a resurgence.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Huskies went undefeated over their seven years in the AAC and were still able to win NCAA championships in each of their first three years in the conference despite playing against lesser competition for the bulk of the regular season. UConn is now four years removed from its last title and hope reentry into the competitive Big East will help them change that.

Most of the conference is likely to be blown away by UConn, but the DePaul Blue Demons, as will the Marquette Golden Eagles, will be competitive. Either could sneak away with a huge resume-boosting victory.

Graduated stars from across the country

Oregon’s trio of stars — Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard — are now in the WNBA, as are former Baylor Lady Bear Lauren Cox, former Texas A&M Aggie Chennedy Carter and former South Carolina Gamecocks Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris. Former UConn standout Crystal Dangerfield, who became a starter with the Minnesota Lynx, won the 2020 WNBA Rookie of the Year award.

It will be interesting to see how players on powerhouse teams try to fill the voids. In the mid-majors, a couple of stars who wowed in college — former Princeton Tiger Bella Alarie and former Rider Bronc Stella Johnson — won’t be making Cinderella runs in the NCAA Tournament this season, but some newfound stars might.

Now-eligible transfers from last season and this

The Arizona Wildcats and Texas A&M Aggies are the big winners when it comes to players who will be eligible to compete in 2020-21 under NCAA transfer rules. And Oregon, the Ole Miss Rebels and the Kentucky Wildcats made out well at Maryland’s expense, losing Taylor Mikesell, Shakira Austin and Olivia Owens, respectively. Here are some of the top transfers who will be eligible to compete with their new teams for the first time in 2020-21:

  • Shaina Pellington: Oklahoma Sooners to Arizona Wildcats
  • Trinity Baptiste: Virginia Tech Hokies to Arizona Wildcats
  • Bendu Yeaney: Indiana Hoosiers to Arizona Wildcats
  • Destiny Pitts: Minnesota Golden Gophers to Texas A&M Aggies
  • DiJonai Carrington: Stanford Cardinal to Baylor Lady Bears
  • Destiny Slocum: Oregon State Beavers to Arkansas Razorbacks
  • Evina Westbrook: Tennessee Lady Volunteers to UConn Huskies
  • Taylor Mikesell: Maryland Terrapins to Oregon Ducks
  • Destiny Littleton: Texas Longhorns to South Carolina Gamecocks
  • Raina Perez: Cal State Fullerton Titans to NC State Wolfpack
  • Dre’una Edwards: Utah Utes to Kentucky Wildcats
  • Kianna Smith: California Golden Bears to Louisville Cardinals

Coaching changes

At Notre Dame, legendary coach Muffet McGraw retired this past offseason after 33 years and two national championships with the Fighting Irish. One of McGraw’s former players, Niele Ivey, left the Memphis Grizzlies’ coaching staff to return to her alma mater as head coach. Ivey was a part of McGraw’s first national title team in 2001. The Fighting Irish enter the 2020-21 season at No. 22 in the AP poll.

NCAA Womens Basketball: North Carolina at Notre Dame
The hiring of Niele Ivey to take over for the legendary Muffet McGraw has sparked excitement surrounding Notre Dame’s season.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Elsewhere, Vic Schaefer, who helped turn the Mississippi State Bulldogs into a national power with two recent NCAA championship games, left Starkville to take over the Texas Longhorns. Texas did not renew the contract of previous coach Karen Aston and Schaefer now joins a proud program that won a national title in 1986.

Replacing Schaefer at No. 6 Mississippi State is Nikki McCray-Penson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA All-Star. McCray-Penson was most recently served as head coach for the Old Dominion Monarchs for three years and before that was an assistant coach under Dawn Staley when South Carolina won its national title in 2017.

Another ranked team with a new coach is the No. 11 Kentucky Wildcats. Kyra Elzy has stepped in as the interim head coach after Matthew Mitchell retired on Nov. 11. Mitchell had brain surgery in the offseason and said he did not feel he could “give the job what it requires.”

Joanne P. McCallie of the Duke Blue Devils is another head coach who stepped down. McCallie resigned the year before her contract was up so that Duke could move forward without distraction. The reins of the program have landed in the hands of Kara Lawson: an Olympic gold medalist who amassed a 13-year WNBA career.

Scheduling complications

All teams must play in 13 games to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. While surpassing that total seems easy, creating a normal conference or nonconference schedule hasn’t been for any team.

With COVID-19 regulations varying across all 50 states, scheduling can be extremely difficult and many conferences are playing two games in the same location on back-to-back days to limit travel.

A far more significant adjustment has been seen in the New Mexico Lobos, who will leave the state for the entirety of the season in favor of Texas, where regulations will allow them to compete.

And lockdown restrictions regularly changing according to how well the virus is being controlled, more complications could arise during the season. Even the requirement of wearing masks during games is reportedly a possibility in a non-DI conference in Michigan.

Here are the start dates for the six major conferences:

Major host sites

Teams/conferences who won’t be playing this season due to the pandemic

  • Bethune-Cookman Wildcats of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC)
  • Cal State Northridge Matadors of the Big West Conference
  • Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks of the MEAC

The entire Ivy League:

  • Brown Bears
  • Columbia Lions
  • Cornell Big Red
  • Dartmouth Big Green
  • Harvard Crimson
  • Penn Quakers
  • Princeton Tigers
  • Yale Bulldogs

Rankings

1) South Carolina Gamecocks

Reigning national Coach of the Year Dawn Staley returns along with Aliyah Boston, the best sophomore in the country bar none. The 6-foot-5 rebounding and blocking phenom will be joined by speedy guard Zia Cooke, who will give the Gamecocks a lot of scoring. South Carolina will miss the distributing talents of graduated floor general Tyasha Harris, however.

2) Stanford Cardinal

Losing DiJonai Carrington to the Baylor Lady Bears is a big deal, but the Cardinal return their top three scorers in Kiana Williams, Lexie Hull and Haley Jones, the last of whichwhom was the No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit for 2019. Stanford hopes to get great post play from sophomore Ashten Prechtel and freshman Cameron Brink to complement that backcourt trio.

3) UConn Huskies

With Evina Westbrook eligible after transferring from Tennessee, the Huskies are definitely a contender. They also have No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit Paige Bueckers coming in and return two-way center Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the high-scoring Christyn Williams and a sophomore sharpshooter in Anna Makurat.

4) Baylor Lady Bears

Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year NaLyssa Smith, along with Queen Egbo and a hopefully healthy DiDi Richards, are poised to lead the Lady Bears. Richards suffered a spinal cord shock injury in practice on Oct. 24, but is expected to make a full recovery. In addition, Baylor adds promising freshmen — point guard Sarah Andrews and center Hannah Gusters — plus DiJonai Carrington from Stanford.

5) Louisville Cardinals

Last year’s ACC Player of the Year, senior point guard Dana Evans, leads the way for the Cardinals, who lost important pieces in Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook to the WNBA. Returning juniors Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon, as well as California Golden Bears transfer Kianna Smith, will be other scoring options in addition to Evans, who has been improving as a distributor.

6) Mississippi State Bulldogs

New head coach Nikki McCray-Penson will be tasked with continuing the legacy of a program that has been a perennial power in recent years as she takes over for Vic Schaefer (now at Texas). Junior center Jessika Carter will be a points-rebounds double-double threat this year while sophomore forward Rickea Jackson will look to improve upon her 15.1 scoring average.

7) Arizona Wildcats

Arizona has some of the best returning and transfer talent in the nation, highlighted by senior guard and scoring machine Aari McDonald, who could have entered the 2020 WNBA Draft. Cate Reese and Sam Thomas also return to give the Wildcats their top three scorers from last year while Shaina Pellington, Trinity Baptiste and Bendu Yeaney make up an impactful group of transfers.

8) NC State Wolfpack

Wolfpack guard Raina Perez averaged 19.8 points, 4.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game for the Cal State Fullerton Titans last year. In the ACC things will be more difficult, but Perez could be a key piece to the puzzle and a big help to junior center Elissa Cunane, who will compete with Louisville’s Dana Evans for ACC Player of the Year.

9) UCLA Bruins

The Bruins have a true star in senior forward Michaela Onyenwere, who averaged over 18 points and eight rebounds in each of the past two seasons. They lost guard Japreece Dean to graduation, but sophomore Charisma Osborne is ready to step in after averaging 12.2 points per game as a freshman. UCLA may not be as flashy as Arizona or the Oregon Ducks, but they have a real chance to do damage in the Pac-12.

10) Oregon Ducks

Oregon lost a ton with the departures of Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, but they brought in better reinforcements than perhaps any team in the nation. The Ducks have a group of potential 3-point shooting “Splash Sisters” with returning senior Erin Boley, Maryland junior transfer Taylor Mikesell, sophomores Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley, and freshmen Sydney Parrish and Te-Hina Paopao.

Must-watch matchups

No. 8 NC State vs. No. 1 South Carolina

When: Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, SC

How to watch/listen: ESPN2

Reason to watch: This will be a border battle between two Top 10 teams and will feature a post battle between Elissa Cunane and Aliyah Boston.

No. 3 UConn vs. No. 5 Louisville

When: Friday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT

How to watch/listen: ESPN/TUNEIN

Reason to watch: Both teams will want to prove they are contenders for the No. 1 spot. Plus, freshmen guards Paige Bueckers and Hailey Van Lith (Louisville) could go head-to-head.

No. 2 Stanford vs. No. 9 UCLA

When: Monday, Dec. 21, at TBD

Where: Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA

How to watch/listen: TUNEIN

Reason to watch: The Pac-12 has been an exciting conference in recent years and this will be a hugely important test for UCLA.