South Carolina tops women's college basketball's Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2020-21

play
Staley details 'key ingredients' Gamecocks possess (1:25)

After winning the SEC championship, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley breaks down the vital pieces necessary for this successful season. (1:25)

By definition, the Way-Too-Early Top 25 is considered premature. These rankings are traditionally an initial look at the future through binoculars, not a microscope.

But that isn't the case this year. This preview of what we might expect in the 2020-21 women's college basketball season feels more like a need than a nicety.

After the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, looking forward to next season is all we have. There is nothing premature about it. The next games can't come soon enough.

So while we are still reluctantly saying goodbye to 2019-20 and wondering what might have been, we also can't wait to look ahead. ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme cast their votes to determine our rankings.

1. South Carolina Gamecocks

The Gamecocks are our unanimous No. 1 for next season. That should feel familiar as South Carolina topped the AP Top 25 since mid-January and ended the shortened season at No. 1 for the first time after running the table in the SEC. Losing seniors Tyasha Harris at point guard and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan at forward will hurt; they combined to average just over 25 points and nine rebounds this season. They also sparked the team's chemistry. But South Carolina returns three starters -- forward Aliyah Boston (12.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG) and guards Zia Cooke (12.1 PPG) and Brea Beal (6.2 PPG) -- who'll be experienced sophomores next season. Destanni Henderson, who was second on the team in assists (93) to Harris, should see more time, as will rising senior LeLe Grissett. Fellow guard Destiny Littleton, a transfer from Texas who sat out this season, will be eligible. The Gamecocks will add another guard in freshman Eniya Russell, a HoopGurlz top-50 prospect. Rising junior Victaria Saxton, a forward, is expected to play a bigger role, too. Just as the Gamecocks were strong contenders for the NCAA title this year, they'll be the same next season. -- Voepel

2. Stanford Cardinal

Injuries stripped the Cardinal of one of their chief strengths this past season: depth. Senior guard DiJonai Carrington and junior forward Maya Dodson missed most of the season, but the knee injury suffered by star freshman Haley Jones in mid-January hurt the most. Dodson (who was back by the end of the season) and a healthy Jones will take some offensive burden off guards Kiana Williams (15.8 PPG, 3.8 APG) and Lexie Hull (13.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG), both of whom were voted All-Pac-12. But Stanford is also set up to have one of the nation's best frontcourts next season; freshmen Ashten Prechtel and Fran Belibi improved as the season progressed and will be joined by 6-foot-4 Cameron Brink, the No. 3 recruit in 2020 according to HoopGurlz. If the Cardinal can stay healthy, Stanford should be a top contender to win the national championship next season. Coach Tara VanDerveer (1,094 career victories) also is sure to pass late Tennessee coaching legend Pat Summitt (1,098) as the top women's coach on the career wins list. -- Creme

3. Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs finished second in the SEC regular season and were the runners-up in the league tournament. They also ranked 11th in the SEC in 3-pointers made (130) but led in overall field goal percentage (47.5). They might look for a little more firepower from long range next season, but the offense will still be predicated on strong post play. Everyone is projected to return except starting guard Jordan Danberry, a grad student. Forward Rickea Jackson was one of the nation's top freshmen and led Mississippi State in scoring at 15.1 PPG. Rising junior forward/center Jessika Carter was the team's second-leading scorer (13.0) and its leading rebounder (8.7). Myah Taylor, who also will be a junior, led the way in assists at 4.6 per game. Madison Hayes, HoopGurlz's No. 7-ranked guard of the Class of 2020, also joins the backcourt. The Bulldogs, once again, are likely to pose the greatest challenge to South Carolina in the SEC. -- Voepel

4. UConn Huskies

Megan Walker's decision to enter the WNBA draft hurts, but adding perhaps the two most influential newcomers in college basketball should get the Huskies back in the discussion for No. 1 sooner rather than later. After a season watching from the bench, her transfer eligibility waiver denied by the NCAA, Evina Westbrook could emerge as UConn's alpha. Last we saw her, Westbrook averaged 14.9 points and 5.3 assists as a Tennessee sophomore. Then add Paige Bueckers, the nation's top recruit. Even without Walker, Bueckers' arrival gives the Huskies the highest-ranked remaining player from three of the past four recruiting classes (Westbrook was second behind Walker in 2017). Two playmaking combo guards as highly rated as Westbrook and Bueckers might be a crowd for some programs, but that's unlikely at UConn. And with Anna Makurat, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams returning, it's business as usual. -- Hays

5. Baylor Lady Bears

The Lady Bears, the defending national champions, had legitimate hopes of winning the NCAA title again this season. Instead, they finished on a sour note: a 57-56 loss at Iowa State in which the winning point came on a free throw after a foul called with one-tenth of a second left. Still, the Lady Bears were Big 12 regular-season champions for the 10th year in a row, and forward Lauren Cox was the league's player of the year and an Associated Press first-team All-American. But Baylor loses her and fellow senior starters Juicy Landrum and Te'a Cooper, both guards, plus reserve center Erin DeGrate. Back are two other starters: rising junior forward NaLyssa Smith, who led Baylor in scoring at 14.3 PPG, and rising senior guard Didi Richards, who was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Also back is rising junior Queen Egbo, who will form a strong post tandem with Smith. Baylor brings in two HoopGurlz top-10 recruits: point guard Sarah Andrews and center Hannah Gusters, each rated No. 2 at her position. Baylor should once again be the team to beat in the Big 12. -- Voepel

6. Louisville Cardinals

Two of the Cardinals' losses came to Florida State, including what turned out to be the season ender in the ACC tournament semifinals. But Louisville won the ACC regular-season title at 16-2. The Cardinals lose three starters in guard Jazmine Jones and forwards Kylee Shook and Bionca Dunham, who were important parts of Louisville's No. 2-rated defense in the ACC. Also gone is redshirt senior guard Yacine Diop, who transferred from Pittsburgh and overcame an ACL injury, and was playing especially well her last couple of weeks. Still, the Cardinals again could be ACC favorites. Rising senior guard Dana Evans, who led the Cardinals in scoring (18.0 PPG), is one of two starters back, along with rising junior Elizabeth Balogun (8.1 PPG). Balogun transferred from Georgia Tech and got a waiver to play this past season. She is the top rebounder (4.6 RPG) returning for the Cardinals. Louisville's recruiting class has one forward and three guards, including Hailey Van Lith, the No. 8 overall player according to HoopGurlz. -- Voepel

7. Arizona Wildcats

The return of Aari McDonald (20.6 PPG) and Cate Reese (13.6 PPG) gives the Wildcats the best one-two scoring duo in the Pac-12 and a chance to continue the rapid evolution of the program ignited by fourth-year head coach Adia Barnes. The Wildcats went from 14-16 in her first season to WNIT champs last year to what was certain to be Arizona's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2005 this season. The expectations for next season: contending for a Pac-12 title and a No. 2 seed. Steady guard Amari Carter is gone but will be replaced by Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington, who scored 13.1 points per game as a sophomore in Norman, Oklahoma. Five-foot-6 McDonald is the catalyst, though. She will be near the top of every All-American and player of the year list. Arizona's success largely rests on her shoulders. -- Creme

8. NC State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack finished second to Louisville in the ACC and then won the league tournament for the first time since 1991. It would have been interesting to see how they would have carried that into the NCAA tournament. They'll lose point guard Aislinn Konig, who led the team in assists with 113 and was ACC tournament MVP. But the Wolfpack bring back their other four starters, led by rising junior center Elissa Cunane, who was tops in scoring (16.4 PPG) and rebounding (9.6). Rising seniors Kayla Jones (10.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG) and Kai Crutchfield (7.5 PPG) and rising sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner (9.4 PPG) also return. Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd were two of the top freshmen in the ACC this past season. NC State will be adding two HoopGurlz top-100 recruits, wing Dontavia Waggoner and point guard Genesis Bryant, and overall should have the depth and talent to compete for the ACC championship. -- Voepel

9. UCLA Bruins

The Bruins were largely built around Michaela Onyenwere this season, and that won't change in 2020-21. What will change is not having the experience and leadership of Japreece Dean to run the team and best ensure Onyenwere (18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) gets her touches. Charisma Osborne (12.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG) had a good freshman season, especially late, and could be the heir at point guard. Another highly regarded recruit from a year ago, Jaden Owens, is also a possibility. Everyone else who saw significant minutes and contributed returns. Improvements from Natalie Chou (30.8%) and Lindsey Corsaro (25.4%) as 3-point shooters, still UCLA's biggest weakness, would go a long way toward making the Bruins the biggest challenger to Stanford in the Pac-12. -- Creme

10. Maryland Terrapins

Departing seniors Kaila Charles, Stephanie Jones and Blair Watson combined to average 33.4 points and 18 rebounds per game this past season. Charles was as identifiable with a team as anyone in the Big Ten. So Maryland's losses were always going to be significant hurdles, even before sophomore forward Shakira Austin further complicated matters by entering the transfer portal. But Maryland has won despite transfer before. The Terrapins had already started to shift the load away from Charles, whose percentage of the team's points fell from 23% as a junior to 17% as a senior. Austin was part of that, but sophomore Taylor Mikesell and freshman Ashley Owusu provide a good foundation. And Angel Reese provides a lot of promise. The 6-3 incoming freshman is the nation's No. 2 recruit, according to HoopGurlz. Barring additions, Diamond Miller and Faith Masonius need to progress as sophomores or depth will be a major concern. -- Hays

11. Oregon Ducks

Kelly Graves is turning the page on the greatest run of his coaching career and Oregon program history. But the core players who are leaving with that legacy -- Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally -- made it possible for him to bring in the group that will soon be arriving in Eugene. With Erin Boley serving as the only returning starter, Graves secured the nation's No. 1 recruiting class according to HoopGurlz. All five incoming freshmen are rated in the top 33, led by guard Sydney Parrish and forward Kylee Watson. They will likely slide into a rotation that will also include guards Taylor Chavez, the Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year, and Jaz Shelley. Sedona Prince, a 6-7 Texas transfer, should also be a nice addition with the loss of Hebard. -- Creme

12. Kentucky Wildcats

The Wildcats were part of a four-way tie for third place in the SEC at 10-6; they fell to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament semifinals. Guard Rhyne Howard averaged 23.4 points -- first in the SEC and second in Division I -- and will enter her junior season as a top candidate for national player of the year. Guard Chasity Patterson was limited to 19 games as she had to sit out the first semester after transferring from Texas; she was the other Wildcats player who averaged in double figures (11.5 PPG). She seems likely to move into a starting role next season. Kentucky loses five seniors, including guards Sabrina Haines and Jaida Roper, who combined to average 17.5 points; Roper also led Kentucky in assists (102). The Wildcats bring in three freshmen, including 6-2 guard Treasure Hunt, the fifth-ranked wing in the Class of 2020 by HoopGurlz. Can Kentucky challenge South Carolina and Mississippi State atop the SEC? That might be a tall order, but the Wildcats do seem likely to have a shot at being in the league's top four. -- Voepel

13. Oregon State Beavers

The Beavers' program has survived the losses of recent greats Jamie Weisner, Ruth Hamblin and Sydney Wiese, so it's likely Oregon State will continue to succeed without Mikayla Pivec. Losing her 14.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG and 4.5 APG will be eased by the fact that leading scorer and point guard Destiny Slocum (14.9 PPG, 4.7 APG) is back for her senior year. Having 6-4 Taylor Jones (12.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG) and sharpshooter Aleah Goodman (44.0% 3-point percentage) back also helps. But the biggest key for the Beavers will ultimately be the healthy return of 6-6 Kennedy Brown, who tore an ACL in early February, and 6-3 forward Taya Corosdale, who missed all but two games with a hamstring injury. -- Creme

14. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State's return to the NCAA tournament will take a year longer than expected, thanks to the cancellation of this year's event, but there shouldn't be any doubt the Buckeyes will be part of the bracket next spring. Ohio State will return essentially the entire roster that awaited its seed this season with a 21-12 record. In fact, with the exception of rising senior Braxtin Miller, Ohio State could return this entire roster in 2021-22, too. So we had best get to know this bunch. At 6-4, Hungarian Dorka Juhasz gives Ohio State the expected interior presence (team-high 13.2 PPG and 9.4 RPG), but she is also an accurate 3-point shooter and a potential Big Ten Player of the Year. The Buckeyes also add a top-20 recruit in point guard Kateri Poole. -- Hays

15. Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern's rise was one of the season's best stories. The Wildcats eventually earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title after being a preseason afterthought. But unusually for such stories, which are often senior inspired, there is reason to think a quality sequel awaits. The Wildcats don't get to run it back without any changes, of course. They lose starters Abi Scheid and Abbie Wolf. Scheid, in particular, will be difficult to replace as one of the nation's best 3-point shooters. But coach Joe McKeown will be able to reconfigure around Lindsey Pulliam, the team's leading scorer and a unanimous first-team all-conference pick, and Veronica Burton, who led the team in assists and was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The incoming class also includes top-50 recruit Anna Morris, a 6-2 forward. -- Hays

16. Iowa State Cyclones

The Cyclones had an unexpected celebratory finish by upsetting Baylor and ending the Lady Bears' 58-game Big 12 regular-season winning streak. Iowa State was looking forward to building on that in the postseason, but it wasn't to be. The Cyclones are slated to bring back four starters, including leading scorer and rebounder Ashley Joens (20.5 PPG, 10.9 RPG), a rising junior guard/forward, and rising senior post player Kristin Scott, who was second in both categories (14.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG). Also back is rising senior guard Rae Johnson, who led Iowa State with 51 3-pointers, always a staple of Cyclones basketball. Iowa State signed the No. 8-ranked recruiting class according to HoopGurlz. It's made up of four guards, including Joens' younger sister, Aubrey, and No. 12 overall prospect Lexi Donarski. The rest of the Big 12 will still chase Baylor, but the Cyclones should be among the league's best. -- Voepel

17. Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers already know they will have Ali Patberg back for a sixth year, the star guard having lost one season to knee injury at Notre Dame, much of another to illness and a third to the transfer that took her south to Bloomington. That alone is just about enough to keep Indiana in these rankings after Patberg earned first-team all-conference honors. But the Hoosiers return another first-team all-conference pick in guard Grace Berger, along with conference honorees Jaelynn Penn (honorable mention all-conference) and Mackenzie Holmes (all-freshman). The lone starter lost is Brenna Wise, but that's a far bigger subtraction than her stats might indicate. The Hoosiers will have to replace the Pitt transfer's substantial leadership qualities. -- Hays

18. Texas A&M Aggies

At this writing, guard Chennedy Carter has yet to declare for the WNBA draft, for which she is eligible as a junior because she turns 22 this calendar year. If Carter -- who averaged 21.3 PPG -- returns, the Aggies will have four starters back, all rising seniors. If she doesn't, guard Kayla Wells (13.1) will be their top returning scorer. Forward N'dea Jones, who averaged a double-double (11.0 points and 11.7 rebounds), is also back. Like Arkansas and Kentucky on this list, the Aggies finished in a four-way tie (along with Tennessee) at 10-6 in the SEC. Their last defeat -- when they lost a 17-point lead against Arkansas in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament -- symbolized a season in which they didn't quite measure up to the team they could have been. Perhaps that will change next season, with or without Carter. Among the Aggies' four recruits is 6-7 post player Kenyal Perry. -- Voepel

19. Arkansas Razorbacks

The Razorbacks have been steadily building since coach Mike Neighbors took over in 2017: 3-13 in the SEC his first season, 6-10 in his second and 10-6 this season, putting them in a four-way tie for third. For the second year in a row, they rallied from a double-digit deficit to upset Texas A&M in the SEC tournament. Arkansas loses second-leading scorer Alexis Tolefree (16.3 PPG) but is set to bring back the rest of its starters, led by leading scorer Chelsea Dungee (16.9). Dungee will be one of three fifth-year seniors who have transferred in, including fellow starter Amber Ramirez (team-best 106 3-pointers) and top reserve A'Tyanna Gaulden. The other two starters back are rising senior Taylah Thomas and rising sophomore Makayla Daniels. So the Razorbacks should be one of the SEC's more experienced teams next season. Arkansas was the top 3-point shooting team in the SEC this season, leading in makes (314), attempts (808) and percentage (38.9). The Razorbacks' three signees include Elauna Eaton, HoopGurlz's No. 9-ranked guard, who is from Arkansas. -- Voepel

20. DePaul Blue Demons

DePaul could return intact and even find additional eligibility for Allie Quigley and Khara Smith and still not retain the label of Big East favorite, thanks to UConn's return to the conference. But reality presents problems even beyond those posed by the Huskies. The Blue Demons must replace leading scorer Chante Stonewall and assists and rebounds leader Kelly Campbell. Then again, they went 28-5 this season after having to replace their leading scorer from the previous season. Doug Bruno always seems to find a good mix. And in the backcourt trio of Deja Church, Lexi Held and Sonya Morris, DePaul certainly has assets. Incoming guard Darrione Rogers is the program's highest-ranked recruit (No. 51) since 2013. If the Blue Demons can find minutes from a sizable pool of largely untested forwards, this ranking might prove too low. -- Hays

21. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The season didn't end the way anyone in the sport wanted it to, but for the Fighting Irish, there wasn't much good about the beginning and the middle, either. After consecutive trips to the national title game, a complete roster rebuild and some untimely injuries resulted in just the second losing season in Muffet McGraw's 33 years at Notre Dame. Turning it completely around probably won't be immediate, but next season should be improved with some health and the arrival of a top-five recruiting class. The top five scorers are back, led by Sam Brunelle (13.9 PPG) and Destinee Walker (14.9 PPG), who was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Since McGraw would prefer to have Anaya Peoples, Katlyn Gilbert and Abby Prohaska all play off the ball, finding a reliable point guard is the big key to the Irish's improvement. -- Creme

22. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Unfortunately for both player and team, Gonzaga already got an extended look at life without second-leading scorer Katie Campbell after the senior's season-ending injury. But the final stretch of this season at least demonstrated that the Bulldogs still have a strong core. Moving to the 2020-21 season also means replacing point guard Jessie Loera, but twin sisters Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong showed a lot of promise playing together and separately as freshmen. And beyond all of that, Gonzaga returns WCC Player of the Year Jill Townsend and the kind of post play from twins Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth that mid-majors rarely enjoy. Incoming freshman McKayla Williams makes it six top-100 recruits on the roster. -- Hays

23. Syracuse Orange

If Tiana Mangakahia is granted another year of eligibility after having breast cancer, the Orange won't just be a top-25 team, they will be the story of the season. Syracuse's career assists leader would be joining four returning starters, including top scorer Kiara Lewis (17.6 PPG) and Emily Engstler, who nearly averaged a double-double (9.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG). Coach Quentin Hillsman's already deep rotation also adds a pair of HoopGurlz top-20 recruits in 6-6 post Kamilla Cardoso and 6-2 guard Priscilla Williams. -- Creme

24. Missouri State Lady Bears

After a Sweet 16 run in 2018-19 and consistent place in the AP Top 25 this season with a new coach, can Missouri State really remain a national presence for a third season in a row? Don't bet against it. Losing leading scorer Alexa Willard is a big blow. The 6-2 sharpshooter was a matchup nightmare for opponents, major and mid-major alike. But Missouri State will otherwise return largely intact. That's no small thing when it includes Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin. Calip was the MVC's top defender this season, and Franklin couldn't have been far behind. -- Hays

25. Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines are another team that got an early look at the future, much as they would have wished otherwise. The team went 9-5 down the stretch without Kayla Robbins, one of its leading scorers and only departing seniors, after she suffered a season-ending injury. The optimism stems from sophomores Naz Hillmon (17.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG) and Amy Dilk (11.6 PPG, 4.5 APG), plus an incoming class headlined by Cameron Williams, a 6-2 forward ranked No. 35 by HoopGurlz. Mix in three freshmen who played regular rotation minutes this season and the talent is there. Michigan's other senior, Akienreh Johnson, will have a fifth year of eligibility next season. -- Hays