Women's college basketball's Way-Too-Early Top 25: UConn reigns while South Carolina looms

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Bueckers emotional after historic AP honor (1:11)

UConn star Paige Bueckers tears up after being named the first freshman to win the AP women's basketball player of the year award. (1:11)

The 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament is in the books. Stanford has been crowned the new national champion, which means it's time to look ahead to next season and the Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings for 2021-22.

The transfer portal and players' decisions to move on to a new school have already had a big impact on the rankings. And this year, with the NCAA allowing seniors to return for an additional year of eligibility, the teams included below are fluid and likely to change as more players make decisions and rosters are reconfigured.

For now, the top teams will look familiar. Three of the Final Four participants are expected to have the bulk of their rotations back -- UConn and South Carolina should both return all five starters -- making them the early favorites for next season.

With Ohio State back in the postseason mix, and because so many of the conference's players have announced they'll return for 2021-22, the Big Ten might be even better than it was this season when four teams reached the Sweet 16. Six Big Ten teams are included in these rankings, and the conference could take over as the best league next season as the SEC and ACC might not be quite as strong.

While the Pac-12 has three teams in the rankings, NCAA runner-up Arizona did not make list.

1. UConn Huskies

How does a Final Four team get any better? That's a loaded question for the Huskies, who have the AP Player of the Year in Paige Bueckers, are adding a generational talent for the second consecutive season and have no seniors. Guard Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the country and one of Bueckers' close friends, has a reputation as an elite shooter and will join the Huskies for 2021-22. Three other top-30 recruits enter the mix on a team that is expected to return Christyn Williams, a former No. 1 overall recruit, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards and Bueckers, the most impactful freshman the game has seen in years.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

The nation's top-rated recruiting class of 2019 has already paid great dividends. Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere have formed the foundation of a program that has gone 58-6 in its two seasons. Now Dawn Staley is bringing in another No. 1 class. Point guard Raven Johnson, guard Saniya Rivers, and forward Sania Feagin are ranked second, third and fourth behind Fudd on the espnW 100 list for 2021. Add Gamecocks starters Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton into the mix and the competition in practice might be more substantial than what South Carolina faces in some games.

3. Stanford Cardinal

Replacing the backcourt of Kiana Williams and Anna Wilson will have its challenges, but the talent at Stanford is still staggering. And after waiting 29 years to win another title, the Cardinal will be looking to make it two in a row. The experience that Cameron Brink and Fran Belibi have gained during this season's postseason run should only make them an even more formidable frontcourt duo. During any given game Lexie Hull, Hannah Jump and Ashten Prechtel have proven they can be game-changers. The point guard issue could be solved with Haley Jones taking on more of playmaking role or Jana Van Gytenbeek, a five-star recruit from a year ago, being ready to take on more minutes.

4. Baylor Lady Bears

DiDi Richards and Moon Ursin were the Lady Bears' heart and soul, and that can't be replaced right away, but coach Kim Mulkey should be able to reload the on-court production. That process has already begun with 2019 Big 12 Freshman of the Year Chrislyn Carr's decision in January to transfer from Texas Tech to Baylor. With Sarah Andrews and Jaden Owens returning, the point guard spot has the depth it hasn't had in recent years. NaLyssa Smith (18.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG) will enter her senior year as one of the three or four best players in the country. Queen Egbo (11.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG) once again joins her in the post for an elite frontcourt combination. The scoring void left by DiJonai Carrington's departure might be Baylor's only question.

5. Maryland Terrapins

Brenda Frese remade her roster last offseason due to transfers and graduations, and turned it into a Sweet 16 run and AP Coach of the Year honors. Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby, who each came to College Park as grad transfers, both announced they're coming back, which boosted the Terps a spot. With Benzan's 3-point shooting and Bibby's versatility, plus point guard Ashley Owusu, wing Diamond Miller and forward Angel Reese, Frese will continue to have a dynamic offense. Despite some great regular seasons, the Terrapins haven't been beyond the Sweet 16 since reaching the Final Four in 2015. How quickly Maryland can get over the disappointment of this year's loss to Texas in the regional semifinals might be the keys to ending that streak.

6. Louisville Cardinals

On the same day Dana Evans declared for the WNBA draft, the Cardinals announced the addition of two transfers who should only enhance their chances to get back to a Final Four. Emily Engstler, a 6-1 guard who nearly averaged a double-double in the ACC this season (10.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG), has left Syracuse to join Louisville, and guard Chelsie Hall comes over from Vanderbilt, where she averaged 10.7 points and 3.3 assists over 34 career games from 2018-21. Guard Hailey Van Lith (11.2 PPG) and 6-3 forward Olivia Cochran (9.9 PPG) are coming off solid freshmen seasons and should replace Evans as the faces of the program. If everyone else returns, coach Jeff Walz could have a rotation as deep as 10 players.

7. Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers weren't as high in these rankings until Ali Patberg's announcement that she will return for one more season in Bloomington. That means the core of Patberg, Grace Berger, Mackenzie Holmes and Aleksa Gulbe that led Indiana to an Elite Eight run and a second-place Big Ten finish -- the most successful season in program history -- will try it again. Patberg, who began her career with two seasons at Notre Dame, will be entering her seventh year in college next fall.

8. NC State Wolfpack

The model will remain the same in Raleigh: Play solid defense, rebound and run the offense through Elissa Cunane (16.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG). The 6-5 center will be on every preseason All-American list and will be one of the top prospects for the 2022 WNBA draft. She'll also be surrounded by familiar faces Jakia Brown-Turner (13.5 PPG), Jada Boyd (11.5 PPG) and point guard Raina Perez, who decided to take the extra year granted by the NCAA.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes started a freshman, three sophomores and a junior this season, and if everyone stays will return 97% of their point production. Caitlin Clark is the star, but coach Lisa Bluder has the pieces around her set up nicely, too, and another top-25 recruiting class on the way. Addison O'Grady might give Bluder another post player to go alongside Monika Czinano, who led the nation in field goal percentage this season. If Iowa can find a rim protector in the transfer portal to solidify the defense, this team might have Final Four potential.

10. Oregon Ducks

This season didn't play out the way the Ducks had envisioned, but they still reached the Sweet 16. Expectations will be high again next season in Eugene. Full, healthy seasons for point guard Te-Hina Paopao, center Sedona Prince and guard Taylor Chavez will be a key. Taylor Mikesell regaining her outside shooting stroke (dipped to 34.8% in 23 games this season after 42.5% in 32 games at Maryland in 2019-20) and Nyara Sabally's continued growth into a dominating inside force would be enough for Oregon to reignite the rivalry with Stanford at the top of the Pac-12.

11. Michigan Wolverines

If momentum exists from year to year, the Wolverines could be ready for big things. Reaching the Sweet 16 and then nearly upsetting Baylor should build confidence heading into 2021-22. Naz Hillmon (23.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG), one of the best post players in the country and the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, wing Leigha Brown (18.2 PPG) and point guard Amy Dilk (7.7 PPG, 4.0 APG) will all be seniors, giving coach Kim Barnes Arico the best, most experienced team she has had in Ann Arbor.

12. Iowa State Cyclones

With three freshman starters and a bunch of injuries, coach Bill Fennelly was still able to produce a 17-11 record and a win in the NCAA tournament. Ashley Joens (24.2 PPG) is one of the country's best players and will be back for her senior year with a chance to become the Cyclones' all-time leading scorer. Kylie Feuerbach, Emily Ryan and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Lexi Donarski are a rookie core that will look to take Iowa State to the next level as sophomores.

13. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes probably would have been a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament had they not self-imposed a one-year postseason ban on themselves for some rules violations. They were the only team in the Big Ten to beat Maryland all year and might have been the second-best team in the conference until a late-season injury to sophomore guard Madison Greene derailed the final month. With guard Braxtin Miller's decision to take the extra year of eligibility, Ohio State will have four of its five starters back. But losing Dorka Juhasz, who recently entered the transfer portal, hurts. She averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game this season.

14. Kentucky Wildcats

Just having Rhyne Howard back for her senior year is enough to get the Wildcats into the top 25. A full year to develop better chemistry and get used to Kyra Elzy as the head coach might be good enough for a top-10 push. Howard (20.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG) will once again be on every preseason national player of the year list, and Elzy, who took over as head coach for Matthew Mitchell just before the 2020-21 season started, now has a full season of experience. The four transfers brought in last year -- Robyn Benton (Auburn), Dre'una Edwards (Utah), Olivia Owens (Maryland) and Jazmine Massengill (Tennessee) -- will have more time to work with Howard and the rest of a talented roster. Kentucky might be South Carolina's primary challenger in the SEC.

15. Oregon State Beavers

This ranking would have been higher had freshman guard Sasha Goforth not elected to transfer to Arkansas. With Aleah Goodman's decision to end her college career, coach Scott Rueck has to replace his backcourt, but that appears to be in good hands. Top-50 recruits Talia von Oelhoffen (11.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 44% from the field), who was already a key contributor the second half of this season as an early entry player, and Greta Kampschroeder hope to be the next wave of great Oregon State guards. The healthy return of 6-6 sophomore forward Kennedy Brown to pair with 6-4 Taylor Jones (12.3 PPG, 8.9 RPG) would be a big boost.

16. West Virginia Mountaineers

The transfer portal has already been good to the Mountaineers. Coach Mike Carey has added Ari Gray, who averaged 13.3 points per game at Xavier last season, and Mississippi State 6-6 center Yemiyah Morris as grad transfers. They will be added to a rotation that should include the return of four starters: Kirsten Deans (13.7 PPG), Esmery Martinez (13.6 PPG, 11.6 RPG), Kari Niblack (9.1 PPG) and Madisen Smith (8.2 PPG).

17. Florida State Seminoles

All five starters and nearly every key reserve are expected back in Tallahassee, but the return of head coach Sue Semrau is the biggest news. The architect of the program took a leave of absence during the 2021 season to care for her mother. Associate head coach Brooke Wyckoff took over and led the Seminoles to their eighth straight NCAA tournament appearance. Semrau's mother's health has improved, so she will be back, along with leading scorers Bianca Jackson (14.1 PPG) and Morgan Jones (12.8 PPG). Florida State also adds 5-4 point guard and Florida Ms. Basketball O'Mariah Gordon.

18. Tennessee Lady Vols

Losing Rennia Davis will be tough to overcome, but coach Kellie Harper can take comfort knowing that Rae Burrell (16.8 PPG), the other half of Tennessee's all-SEC duo, is back. Harper will build around Burrell and 6-5 sophomore center Tamari Key and plan on the continued growth of sophomore guard Jordan Horston and freshman Marta Suarez, as well as the impact of the 15th-ranked recruiting class.

19. South Florida Bulls

It wasn't easy, considering a 31-day COVID-19-related pause midseason, but the Bulls won both the AAC's regular-season and tournament titles and won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in five years. With at least his top three scorers likely to return, coach Jose Fernandez should have South Florida in position for an even better season in 2021-22.

20. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The Yellow Jackets didn't have a winning record in the ACC for the five years before Nell Fortner arrived as head coach. She has done it in both of her seasons in Atlanta. Now that guard Kierra Fletcher and forward Lorela Cubaj have decided to return for a fifth year, all five starters will be back and Georgia Tech can pick up where it left off after its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2012.

21. Michigan State Spartans

Sophomore guard Nia Clouden (18.7 PPG) will appear on some preseason All-American teams next year. Freshman guard Alyza Winston (11.1 PPG) has all-Big Ten potential. The Spartans' backcourt will be one of the best in the conference and gives coach Suzy Merchant a solid foundation of what should be a veteran team.

22. Texas A&M Aggies

Point guard Jordan Nixon, a sophomore who hit a buzzer-beater in overtime to lead Texas A&M to the Sweet 16, emerged as the Aggies' star late in the season, and that should continue into 2021-22. Senior guard Kayla Wells will also return for an extra season in College Station. Alexis Morris and Zaay Green join them in what should be a deep and potent backcourt. How coach Gary Blair replaces N'dea Jones and Ciera Johnson in the frontcourt will determine the Aggies' fate in the SEC.

23. Virginia Tech Hokies

The decision to return by Aisha Sheppard, the third-leading scorer in the ACC at 17.7 points per game, should mean a second straight NCAA tournament appearance for the Hokies. Coach Kenny Brooks is now expected to have all five starters back, including All-ACC center Elizabeth Kitley (18.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG) and point guard Georgia Amoore (11.8 PPG, 4.6 APG).

24. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Getting your first head-coaching job, replacing a legend in Muffet McGraw and then having COVID-19 hit could not have been easy for Niele Ivey. The 10-10 record reflected those struggles, but the future should be better. Oliva Miles joined the Irish as an early entrant and provided a glimpse of star potential at point guard. Forward Maddy Westbeld was the ACC rookie of the year. Junior guard Dara Mabrey, sophomore forward Sam Brunelle and sophomore guard Anaya Peoples should all also be back.

25. South Dakota Coyotes

In Hannah Sjerven and Chloe Lamb, the Coyotes had two of the best players in the Summit League. Now they get them back after the two elected to take the extra year of eligibility. That makes South Dakota the big favorite to win the conference. If coach Dawn Plitzuweit can pick up some quality nonconference games, and the Coyotes get a win or two, they will be hanging around the top 25 all season. Sjerven (17.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and Lamb (15.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG) will also be joined by senior Liv Korngable (14.7 PPG), South Dakota's third-leading scorer this season who also opted to take the extra year.

Also considered: UCLA, BYU, Florida Gulf Coast