Man, just be with us next year, we’re trying to be in this same spot next year.
That’s what South Carolina junior A’ja Wilson had to say Sunday when her team accepted the NCAA women’s basketball national championship trophy, proving that the Gamecocks are the best in the country … At least for this year.
Wilson, who was awarded Most Outstanding Player for her role in the Final Four, wasn’t being arrogant. There’s good reason to think the Gamecocks can have a special season next year and possibly even repeat as national champs. They lose star center Alaina Coates along with some standout juniors, but they’re also bringing in a stellar recruiting class.
Of course, there are other teams with a shot of taking over the top spot next year, too. Now that the season is over and this year’s play is fresh on everyone’s mind, it’s time to make projections and predictions for next year. Here are the top 10 programs, ranked in order of supremacy, with the best chance of taking the trophy at next year’s championship game.
Before last season, the Huskies weren’t ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll—a first for UConn since 2012–2013. Let’s not make the same mistake again. Remember, UConn won 111 games in a row before losing in Friday’s Final Four to Mississippi State. As long as coach Geno Auriemma is in charge, there is no such thing as a “rebuilding” year in Storrs.
After graduation this spring, Connecticut will lose starting point guard Saniya Chong. Chong turned herself into a valuable piece as a senior. The Huskies needed her, as freshman point guard Crystal Dangerfield never found a groove (injuries didn’t help). But before this season, Dangerfield was the third-best prospect in the country, according to Dan Olson, who provides his rankings to ESPN. If she can find consistency with her jump shot and better understand the work ethic it takes to play for Auriemma, she might take a big step up next season.
#uconn #huskies #uconnhuskies #connecticut #tulsa #goldenhurricane #andcounting #americanathleticconference #theamerican #mohegansun #womensbasketball #ncaa #titleIX #basketball #thedayct UConn's Crystal Dangerfield leaps to defends Tulsa's Tatyana Perez as teammates Natalie Butler and Kyla Irwin help in American Athletic Conference women's basketball Tournament quarterfinal round action Saturday, March 4, 2017 at Mohegan Sun Arena. The undefeated Huskies rolled to a 105-57 win to advance to a semi-final matchup with Central Florida Sunday evening. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
[More from Excelle Sports: March Madness: The secret to UConn’s incredible win streak]
The UConn coaching staff knows what it will get from Gabby Williams, who will be a senior, and rising juniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. All three were part of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s 10-player All America team. UConn has the second-best recruiting class in the country, according to Olson—a haul that includes the No. 1 player, 6-foot-1 shooting guard Megan Walker out of Virginia.
Baylor’s average margin of victory last season was actually one point better than UConn’s. The Bears lost four games, including a regional final to Mississippi State that prevented them from reaching the Final Four in their home state. Since winning it all in 2012, Baylor has not returned to the Final Four.
“We have expectations that are higher than an Elite Eight, whether that’s egotistical, fair—it is what it is,” head coach Kim Mulkey told reporters after her team was eliminated. “We have to keep feeding that monster we started 17 years ago.”
Senior starters Alexis Prince, Nina Davis and Alexis Jones won’t get another chance to get there. That’s a lot of production to replace in Waco. Sophomore Kalani Brown, the leading scorer and rebounder, will be back next year, though, along with a talented freshmen class that flashed promise this past season. Joining the mix will be two top-20 recruits, both guards.
— Baylor Lady Bears (@BaylorWBB) April 2, 2017
3. South Carolina
Yes, South Carolina was able to win the NCAA Tournament without Alaina Coates, but the senior center helped the Gamecocks earn a No. 1 seed and will be missed next year. What’s more, starters Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis, both of whom have a year of eligibility remaining, appear to be leaning towards going pro. Newly appointed Team USA head coach Dawn Staley has built a culture of excellence in Columbia and brings in another quality recruiting class, including top-25 prospect Elisia Grissett. As long as Wilson—a first team AP All American—is around, this is a national title contender.
[More from Excelle Sports: REPORT: South Carolina juniors to enter WNBA draft, no agents yet]
4. Notre Dame
When you’re coached by a Hall of Famer and have been a No. 1 seed in six straight NCAA Tournaments, you get the benefit of the doubt. While Notre Dame loses star point guard Lindsay Allen and the recruiting class is uncharacteristically mediocre, it’s fair to think the winning train will keep rolling in South Bend.
Coach Muffet McGraw returns her other starters, including standout forward Brianna Turner. How Turner comes back from her knee injury, however—she tore her ACL in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, when the Irish lost in the regional final to Stanford—is worth watching.
5. Mississippi State
Don’t dismiss the run to the title game as a fluke. This was a team that lost only five games last season, three against South Carolina. But it would be equally unwise to ignore the departures. Head coach Vic Schaefer spent a good chunk of his post-game press conference on Sunday praising his four-player senior class, and rightfully so. The pint-sized star of the tournament, Morgan William, and backcourt mate Victoria Vivians will try to fill their shoes. The state’s lone top-100 recruit, 5-foot-6 Myah Taylor, is headed to Starkville.
[More from Excelle Sports: Why on earth did Mississippi State bench its star Morgan William during the NCAA championship game?]
In Austin, fans hope the future is now. Both Rellah Boothe and Chasity Patterson, the third- and fourth-ranked recruits, looked impressive in the McDonald’s All American game on March 29 and will be counted on to help replace Texas’ two departing starters, Kelsey Lang and Brianna Taylor. According to an ESPN story, Boothe promised to lead Texas to multiple national championships—although she also said before last season that she’d average 45 points per game as a high school senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Flor. and she managed only half that. But the foundations are there, and the Longhorns finished only second to Baylor in the Big 12 and reached the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Stanford.
— EGB Media (@EGBBMedia) March 30, 2017
The Bruins have never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. If one or two of its big-time recruits can make an instant impact, UCLA may end that streak next season. The Bruins finished 13–5 in a loaded Pac-12 this past season and bowed out in the regional semifinal to UConn. The team’s three leading scorers will all return, including star guard Jordin Canada.
8. Ohio State
What could keep Ohio State in the top 10 for much of next season could also hurt its seeding come March: The Big Ten isn’t quite at the level of the other major conferences. The Buckeyes lost just one regular season conference game last year and are bringing everybody back for 2017–2018 except starting forward Shayla Cooper. There should be opportunities to pile up some wins.
If a favorable schedule is one reason the Buckeyes make this list, Kelsey Mitchell is the other. The rising senior is among the favorites for national Player of the Year and could pass Kelsey Plum as the sport’s all-time highest scorer.
— B1G Women's Hoops (@B1Gwbball) March 30, 2017
This season, Oregon’s highly touted recruiting class lived up to its hype and got the Ducks to within one game of the Final Four. For next year, Oregon will return almost everyone, including its six talented freshmen. The Ducks struggled to beat top competition in the Pac-12—they went 8–10 in the regular season—but got over the hump in the Big Dance against Duke and Maryland before falling to UConn. Expect more great feats next year, too.
Like Oregon, Marquette is a young team that finished the season strong. The Golden Eagles’ run happened primarily in the Big East Tournament—they were upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In that championship game against DePaul, 80 of Marquette’s 86 points and 35 of its 37 rebounds came from sophomores. Allazia Blockton is the best of the bunch.
Just missed: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, Oregon State, Tennessee
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn