DALLAS — Two No. 1 seeds were bounced from the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16. No top seeds reached the title game. The 2022-23 season was a wild ride, but don’t take off the seat belt just yet. There’s no time like the present to take an early look at next season.
Magical seasons like we got from the Iowa Hawkeyes and Virginia Tech Hokies this year are impossible to predict. Both were in last year’s Way-Too-Early Top 25, but not in the top four. The LSU Tigers, who beat Iowa 102-85 for the national title Sunday, were nowhere to be found. At this time a year ago, Angel Reese wasn’t even in Baton Rouge. That’s what the transfer portal can do for teams, and just like a year ago, the portal will have plenty to say about how these rankings evolve. More than 350 players are in the portal, and that number will rise significantly in the coming weeks. So many decisions are yet to come.
This coming season is also the last in which players impacted by COVID-19 may opt for an extra year of eligibility, and several programs will benefit from one last season for their veterans.
Only one team from the top five of these rankings a year ago is back at the top now, another sign more balance has arrived in the sport. And it’s a familiar one. Coach Geno Auriemma said recently that next season’s UConn Huskies will be the program’s best chance for a national championship since 2017, when the Huskies were unbeaten until losing in the national semifinals. Full seasons from Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd could go a long way toward UConn raising a trophy for the first time since 2016.
There’s little debate heading into this offseason around the national player of the year. It’s Caitlin Clark‘s award to lose, although Reese and Bueckers, the 2020-21 winner, also are in the mix.
As a fantastic season wraps up, let’s start the conversation for 2023-24 with a Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings.
This ranking comes with a caveat: health. The Huskies are the most talented team in the country if they can avoid the injuries that have plagued the program the past two seasons. Although both have had significant injuries already in their relatively young careers, Bueckers and Fudd would form a backcourt as good as the sport has seen in years. Add forward Aaliyah Edwards, and UConn has three of the nation’s 10 best players. Nika Mühl, who set the school single-season record for assists in 2022-23, will become the third guard. Aubrey Griffin and Caroline Ducharme should slide into more well-defined roles, and 6-foot-2 Ayanna Patterson, 6-5 Jana El Alfy and 6-3 Ice Brady, who missed this past season with an injury, could give the Huskies the kind of frontcourt depth they haven’t had in years.
The defending Pac-12 co-champs should be the only team in this early ranking that returns every starter. Reigning Pac-12 player of the year Alissa Pili should start 2023-24 as a preseason first-team All-American. Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson are rising juniors who combined to average over 27 points per game and have become the backbone of the program’s resurgence under coach Lynne Roberts. Kneepkens and Kennady McQueen are the big 3-point threats, and Australian point guard Issy Palmer, back for her senior season, ties it all together.
The NCAA tournament run made it clear how important Alexis Morris was to the Tigers’ success, but she won’t be back in Baton Rouge. Grad students LaDazhia Williams and Jasmine Carson will also depart. But coach Kim Mulkey and reigning champion Tigers can combine the return of Angel Reese, Flau’jae Johnson and Kateri Poole with the No. 1 recruiting class in the country to make LSU a title contender again. Dynamic guard Mikaylah Williams leads the new crop and could step into Morris’ on-court role. Reese was the perfect player for Mulkey to build around this season, and in 2022-23 Reese only trails Caitlin Clark in the national player of the year race.
Monika Czinano, Iowa’s sure-handed can’t-miss center, is moving on. And although the chemistry of this season’s team likely can’t be duplicated, Clark keeps the Hawkeyes in the national picture despite losing to LSU in Sunday’s national title game. It helps that Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin have elected to stay for their extra years, which should mitigate the losses of Czinano and McKenna Warnock some. Look for 6-2 rising sophomore Hannah Stuelke and 6-5 rising junior Addison O’Grady to play much bigger roles — and for Clark to continue to dazzle on a nightly basis.
Last year at this time, the Hoosiers had to deal with the loss of a group of veterans who had come to define the program. They still got better. Only time will tell whether that’s possible with this spring’s loss of Grace Berger, but the immediate future still looks bright in Bloomington. Mackenzie Holmes grew into one of the nation’s best players. Sara Scalia also elected to return for another season and Chloe Moore-McNeil and Sydney Parrish will be seniors. The breakout star could be Yarden Garzon, who was Indiana’s best 3-point shooter this season and played well in big moments.
Despite being steered by senior Charisma Osborne, the Bruins were the youngest team in the NCAA tournament and reached the Sweet 16. Now it’s time for the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class from a year ago to take over the program. Kiki Rice lived up to her billing coming into Westwood as the team’s second-leading scorer; she should take over the leadership void left by Osborne’s departure. Rice’s classmates Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez should also have expanded roles, and Emily Bessoir has all-conference potential. Expect UCLA to challenge Utah and Stanford for supremacy in a deep Pac-12.
A new era has arrived in Columbia. With Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke headed to the WNBA, coach Dawn Staley turns the team over to Raven Johnson and Kamilla Cardoso. Johnson looks ready to be a team leader and Cardoso could emerge as a dominating force with the extra minutes available with Boston’s departure. Bree Hall, who also was part of the heralded 2021 recruiting class, looks ready for a bigger role alongside her classmate, Johnson, in the backcourt. Staley once again added a big-time class of newcomers, headlined by Milaysia Fulwiley, a point guard from Columbia’s Keenan High School.
Legacy of South Carolina senior class will live forever
SEC Now’s Steffi Sorensen and Alyssa Lang explain why the Final Four loss doesn’t dampen the long-lasting impact made by the Gamecocks’ legendary senior class.
The Big Ten finished this season with three teams ranked in the top 10. It should start 2023-24 that way, too. Jacy Sheldon‘s decision to come back stabilizes the Buckeyes significantly. She will be a leader of a team full of young talent. Cotie McMahon was the Big Ten’s freshman of the year and looks to be one of the game’s next stars. Rikki Harris and Taylor Thierry are also talented scorers and playmakers. Taylor Mikesell‘s shooting and leadership will be missed, but with Sheldon back to lead the press, Ohio State will be a Final Four contender.
By midseason Cameron Brink had surpassed Haley Jones as Stanford’s best player, and the rising senior will be on every national player of the year shortlist. Jones’ departure leaves a scoring, rebounding and ballhandling hole for Stanford. Brink will need a No. 2, and that role could fall to young guards Talana Lepolo and Indya Nivar or wing Brooke Demetre. The 6-7 Lauren Betts should be much improved, and combined with the 6-4 Brink, they could give the Cardinal the best shot-blocking tandem in the country.
A healthy Olivia Miles is paramount to the Fighting Irish’s status as a top-10 team. Since the extent of a season-ending knee injury suffered in the regular-season finale remains unknown, so does her status for the beginning of the season. Miles at 100%, along with Sonia Citron and Maddy Westbeld, would make the Irish the ACC favorite. The further development of Cassandre Prosper and KK Bransford will be key, as will incorporating incoming guard Hannah Hidalgo, the co-MVP of last week’s McDonald’s All-American game.
Some questions remain for the Lady Vols, but the personnel is there to make a run at LSU and South Carolina in the SEC. Rickea Jackson is the centerpiece after electing to stay one more season. After missing most of 2022-23 with blood clots in her lungs, 6-6 center Tamari Key is also giving it another go in Knoxville. With 6-5 Jillian Hollingshead also back, size will again be a strength for Tennessee. Belmont transfer Destinee Wells will be relied on to get them the ball and should provide much-needed backcourt scoring. She averaged career highs with 19.5 points, 4.9 assists and 45.5% 3-point shooting this season with the Bruins.
Lady Vols’ tourney run ends in Sweet 16 vs. Hokies
Despite a valiant comeback effort in the fourth quarter, 4-seed Tennessee fails to overcome 1-seed Virginia Tech, 73-64, ending a magnificent season.
No coach has restocked better over the past few years than Brenda Frese. She has a little more to do heading into next season. Diamond Miller is off to the WNBA, so Shyanne Sellers will now be the No. 1 option. The return of Faith Masonius, Lavender Briggs and Brinae Alexander as graduate students gives Frese a more substantial foundation than she had at this time last year. Riley Nelson, a 6-0 guard and local product, heads a solid recruiting class, and the Terps still have three scholarships available. Expect some more additions from the transfer portal.
Most of the Longhorns’ core is back in Austin. It just needs to stay healthy. Getting a full season from 6-1 rising junior Aaliyah Moore, who was lost after nine games to a knee injury, will be key. Shaylee Gonzales is using her extra year, and with a year playing together, the chemistry with All-American candidate point guard Rori Harmon should improve in the backcourt. The addition of top-15 rated incoming freshman wing Madison Booker should also bolster an offense that struggled at the end of the season. DeYona Gaston (6-foot-2) and Taylor Jones (6-foot-4) combined to average over 21 points and 10 rebounds per game.
No decision by a player to use her COVID-19 year impacted the Top 25 — and the ACC races and national picture — more than Elizabeth Kitley‘s decision to return. The Hokies went from being left out of these rankings to No. 14, and from a middle-of-the-pack ACC team to a contender. She’s the best player in program history and has been the centerpiece of its growth under coach Kenny Brooks. Kitley and Georgia Amoore might be the best post-perimeter duo in the country. Without Kitley’s presence, defenses would be able to key almost exclusively on Amoore. The recent run of success helped Brooks bring in a top-20 recruiting class with four players ranked in the top 100, but Kitley is his best addition.
First it was Shakira Austin. Then came Angel Baker. Already this offseason, coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin has dipped into the transfer portal to add North Carolina’s Kennedy Todd-Williams. Coach Yo spoke at the regionals about embracing the portal or risk falling behind, and she has helped resurrect the program with key player acquisitions. Todd-Williams, the Tar Heels’ second-leading scorer this past season with 13.4 PPG, essentially replaces Baker, who led the Rebels. With Madison Scott, Snudda Collins and Marquesha Davis (another one-time transfer) returning, a solid core remains from the first Sweet 16 team for the Rebels since 2007.
The unexpected decision of Celeste Taylor to use her bonus season is a game-changer for the Blue Devils, especially after the announcement of Shayeann Day-Wilson that she is entering the transfer portal. Taylor is the anchor of the defense and Duke’s best offensive player. If Jadyn Donovan, the No. 3 recruit in this year’s class according to HoopGurlz, can step into Day-Wilson’s spot, the Blue Devils shouldn’t miss a beat. They will remain one of the country’s best defensive teams. With an offensive upgrade, Duke will be right near the top of the ACC again.
For the first time since 2007, the Bears didn’t have a conference regular-season championship, a conference tournament title or a Sweet 16 appearance. With a foundation of Sarah Andrews, Darianna Littlepage-Buggs, Bella Fontleroy and Aijha Blackwell, Baylor is hoping to change that in 2024. Andrews was the team’s leading scorer and all-Big 12 second team and Littlepage-Buggs was the conference’s freshman of the year. Blackwell missed all but eight games this season, but was an All-SEC performer at Missouri before transferring to Baylor. The addition of 6-3 Belmont transfer Madison Bartley, who averaged 14.1 PPG in the MVC, provides needed frontcourt scoring after the graduation of Caitlin Bickle.
If Chance Gray and Grace VanSlooten build on their freshman seasons, the Ducks should be back in the NCAA tournament next season after missing it for the first time since 2016. Both were named to the Pac-12’s All-Freshman team after averaging double figures in points. After her first fully healthy season in Eugene, Te-Hina Paopao will be entering her senior season as the team’s leader after her backcourtmate Endyia Rogers used up her eligibility.
After leading the ACC in scoring, Ta’Niya Latson won nearly every national freshman of the year award. Her late-season injury derailed what had been a promising season and the Seminoles fell in their first games in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Coach Brooke Wyckoff will also welcome back 6-2 Makayla Timpson and guard Sara Bejedi, Florida State’s second- and third-leading scorers to a team that at one point was 9-3 in the ACC.
After the Buffaloes’ first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years, coach JR Payne was rewarded with a five-year contract extension. It also looks like she will have most of her veteran team back for another run. The top four scorers — Quay Miller, Aaronette Vonleh, Frida Formann and Jaylyn Sherrod — are expected to be back next season. This season marked the second time in 27 years Colorado had won as many as 25 games, and the third-place finish in the Pac-12 was the program’s best since joining the conference in 2011.
The continued climb of the Trojans’ program under coach Lindsay Gottlieb hit another level when she landed the country’s top recruit, 6-0 guard Judea Watkins from Sierra Canyon High School in Los Angeles. With her skill set and approach to the game, scouts have tabbed Watkins a sure-fire future pro. She’ll team up with sophomore 6-4 Rayah Marshall, one of the country’s best defenders, to form the backbone of USC’s immediate future. Gottlieb will have to replace three of the Trojans’ top four scorers, including Kadi Sissoko (15.4 PPG) and Destiny Littleton (14.0 PPG).
Lisa Leslie hopes Juju Watkins can turn USC around
Lisa Leslie shares why she chose to play at USC and her hopes that Juju Watkins can turn the program around.
The Cardinals will be built around Hailey Van Lith even more substantially after Morgan Jones, Chrislyn Carr and Mykasa Robinson used up their eligibility. Olivia Cochran played even better in the NCAA tournament, and her taking the next step will be important to Louisville’s ability to duplicate this season’s Elite Eight run. Look for 6-2 Nyla Harris, a five-star recruit who averaged 4.2 PPG in 2022-23, to make a big jump as well.
The Bluejays’ core group of Emma Ronsiek, Morgan Maly, Lauren Jensen, and Molly Mogensen will be seniors. That will make four of the team’s top five scorers who are returning. These are the same players who took Creighton to the Elite Eight in 2022 and were one of the nation’s most accurate 3-point shooting teams this season. With Villanova likely taking a step back, the Bluejays should also be the second-best team in the Big East, chasing UConn.
Losing Todd-Williams and Destiny Adams to the transfer portal hurts, but coach Courtney Banghart still has Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby to build around (they were both first-team All-ACC). Full seasons from 6-4 Teonni Key and 5-8 Kayla McPherson will also help. A big jump from rising sophomore guard Paulina Paris and immediate contributions from 6-3 post Ciera Toomey, the No. 4-rated recruit according to HoopGurlz, would put the Tar Heels right into the ACC title mix.
The elation of winning their first Pac-12 tournament title was muted by the Cougars’ disappointing first-round NCAA tournament loss. That was a third consecutive first-round exit, but this is also a program that had only made one tournament prior to 2021. With nearly every key player expected to return next season, that first tournament win for coach Kamie Ethridge might come soon. Charlisse Leger-Walker will be one of the favorites for Pac-12 Player of the Year and will drive Washington State’s hopes to reach the top half of the conference.