Three Points: If not UConn, then who? by Clay Kallam
It’s been pretty easy to start these college previews in recent years, as writers just put down UConn as No. 1 and then had to start thinking. But the Huskies lost the top three picks in the WNBA draft, and are no longer an automatic No. 1 – and maybe not even an automatic top five.
So here’s a look at a preseason top 15 that doesn’t have the University of Connecticut in the top spot …
1. Notre Dame (33-2 last year): Don’t expect much dropoff from that 33-2 season, as the only losses last year were to UConn and an upset to Stanford. Muffet McGraw returns three starters, including point guard Lindsay Allen, and adds two elite recruits. McGraw is a wonderful coach, but has labored in the shadows of Auriemma and others – this, however could be the year that she cements her case as one of the top college coaches of this century.
2. Baylor (36-2): Nina Davis doesn’t look like she should be a good college player, much less an All-American, but the other or unorthodox 5-10 “power forward” simply scores points, grabs rebounds, and helps Baylor win. Three other starters return, though Kim Mulkey must replace her starting point guard, and there’s the usual flood of top shelf recruits. In other words, don’t expect a step back from the bears.
3. South Carolina (33-2): Many feel No. 3 is too low for South Carolina, but three-point shooting has become a bigger and bigger part of the game, and that’s exactly what the Gamecocks lack. They also don’t have a steady point guard, as Bianca Cuevas is at the same time extremely talented and extremely erratic. That could drive Dawn Staley crazy during the season, but more important, it will lead to uncertainty in big moments in big games. Still, South Carolina could easily make the Final Four, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they cut down the nets in the last game of the year.
4. Maryland (31-4): Seniors Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones will lead the way for a young team that should simply get better and better as the season goes on. The Terrapins might struggle a little bit early, but come March, Brenda Frese should have the team in high gear. Of course, counting on freshmen (remember the name Destiny Slocum) is like counting on a weather forecast, so you really don’t know – but talent can make up for a lot of things, even lack of experience.
5. Louisville (26-8): It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Louisville began the season 5-5, but finished with a 23-3 run, sparked by Myisha Hines-Allen and Mariya Moore. There are also the usual cream-of- the-crop recruits, plus some other key returners, and you can count on Jeff Walz to get the most out of what he has. Oh, and don’t forget that those three late losses were by a total of 11 points.
6. Connecticut (38-0): It’s not as easy as some think to coach the most talented team in the land – talent usually comes with ego, and a coach’s first job in that situation is to handle those egos. Geno Auriemma, however, doesn’t have a problem with that, but he may have an issue this year because he doesn’t have the most talented team. There’s a real question mark at point guard, and of course the bigger question is how players will adjust to their new roles with Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck no longer in the building. It may take a while, but expect the Huskies to be in the thick of things come March.
7. Ohio State (26-8): The most exciting, and conceivably the most dominant, player in the country is Kelsey Mitchell – who in some ways is reminiscent of James Harden. First, she’s left-handed, but she also dominates the ball, scores almost at will, and is an above-average passer. Mitchell will be the engine that drives the train in Columbus, and Kevin McGuff has added a couple of key transfers and has two other starters returning. Yes, Ohio State lost eight times last year, and they could lose several times this year, but those nights that Mitchell fires on all cylinders, the Buckeyes can beat anyone.
8. Mississippi State (28-8): The best player you’ve never heard of his Victoria Vivians from Mississippi State, and she is a 6-1 scoring machine. The other top six players return for the Bulldogs, though none of them, sadly, handle the ball particularly well. But there’s something to be said for simply outscoring the opposition, and Mississippi State is more than capable of doing that – especially with Vivians filling it up from everywhere on the court.
9. Stanford (27-8): It’s hard to say just how good Stanford will be this year, especially after Lili Thompson left the team for unspecified reasons. That removes a senior point guard from the equation, and will make it tougher for Tara VanDerveer to run an offense that has sometimes sputtered in the past. But Karlie Samuelson can make threes, and there is plenty of quality around her. Is there enough to win the competitive Pac-12? Is there enough to make the Final Four? The Magic Eight Ball (a go-to device for all prognosticators) says “Reply hazy try again.”
10. Syracuse (30-8): Syracuse can defend, but who’s gonna score? As someone once said, there are two great plays: “Hamlet” and “Put the ball in the basket.” Yes, the Orange forced an astounding 907 turnovers last year, but as the season moves along, and as teams get deeper into the tournament, opposing turnovers go down, and the necessity to make jumpers goes up. That will be the question for Syracuse, but given their style and talent, you don’t want to draw the Orange when the tournament begins.
11. UCLA (26-9): It’s going to be hard for Pac-12 teams to get the votes needed for a high ranking because it’s most likely that they’ll spend most of the league season beating each other up. UCLA, like Stanford, like Washington, like Oregon State, like Arizona State, and hey, maybe even like USC, Cal and Oregon, is a very good basketball team. Jordin Canada is an elite point guard, and the Bruins are a junior-dominated team that has both experience and a bright future. But that future might be a year away…
12. South Dakota State (27-7): South Dakota is not generally considered a hotbed for basketball, but coach Aaron Johnston has focused on keeping what talent there is at home, and then molding it into a well-oiled machine. With games against Oklahoma and Louisville, the Jackrabbits have a chance to make their mark on the national scene, though both games are the road. Still, if you’re looking for an underdog to cheer for, South Dakota State is your baby.
13. Florida State (25-8): Coach Sue Semrau has three solid seniors, and two potential superstars (senior Leticia Romero and Shakayla Thomas), and that’s generally enough to make a serious impression on the rankings. This is the year for the Seminoles, and if the seniors rise to the challenge, Florida State could go a long way in the NCAA tournament.
14. Missouri (22-10): Win 22 games and return all five starters, and you’re worthy of mention – especially with sophomore Sophie Cunningham primed to make a jump after a very impressive freshman season. Cunningham is 6-1, and doesn’t do anything particularly well, except everything, and though questions about her athleticism created doubters coming out of high school, her production has turned them into fans.
15. Washington (26-11): Talk about no respect. The Huskies go to the Final Four, return essentially four starters, and can’t even get into the top ten – but that’s what 11 losses will do, plus an unorthodox style that features the wildly unorthodox Chantel Osahor, a post with a deadly flat-flooted three-pointer. Kelsey Plum, though, is right in the tradition of big-time scorers, and after averaging 25.9 ppg last year, look for her to be a WNBA lottery pick in the spring.