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Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Reigning champ Aggies land at No. 4

By Charlie Creme
Special to ESPN.com

Texas A&M's run to a national championship and Notre Dame's appearance in the NCAA title game seem to have opened up a new world in women's college basketball. The 2011-12 could prove to have an even more wide-open feel. Anyone in the top 10 is a threat.

The ACC and Big East should have the greatest group of quality teams, but the Big 12 will have the most epic 1-2 battle at the top with Baylor and Texas A&M.

The coaching carousel has yet to end and players might not all stay put, so consider this a best early attempt at what next season's preseason poll in November could look like. Familiar names remain near the top, but some newer faces continue to push closer to the upper echelon.

1. Baylor: The graduation of Melissa Jones hurts, both in her production and the intangibles of toughness and leadership, but everyone else of consequence is back. Of course, Brittney Griner leads the group, and she will be the heavy Wade Trophy favorite. Griner and Odyssey Sims form the best post-point combo in the country, and Kim Mulkey can surround them with Kimetria Hayden, Jordan Madden, Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope. The scary part for the rest of the country is that all of these Lady Bears should also be back for 2012-13.

2. Tennessee: This is the last shot at NCAA tournament magic for seniors Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson, Alyssia Brewer and Alicia Manning. Without a Final Four run, this could go down as one of the most disappointing recruiting classes in Lady Vols' history. However, after a 2010-11 season of SEC domination, Tennessee should be ready to take that one final step with an appearance in Denver. The addition of Ariel Massengale, the top-rated point guard in this year's incoming freshman class, might allow Meighan Simmons to play off the ball more and thrive even further as a scorer.

3. Notre Dame: Becca Bruszewski finally got credit for her leadership at the Final Four -- but now she has been lost to graduation. That's the only bad news in South Bend. If Brittany Mallory is granted another season of eligibility and decides she wants it, everyone else who contributed to what was nearly Notre Dame's second national championship is back. That list begins with Sklyar Diggins, who officially became a star during the NCAA tournament, both for her exceptional play and her social media savvy and appeal. Devereaux Peters stayed healthy and became Big East defensive player of the year and Natalie Novosel quietly was the Irish's leading scorer.

4. Texas A&M: The Aggies lose arguably their two most important players in Final Four most outstanding player Danielle Adams and unabashed vocal leader and point guard Sydney Colson. However, the three other starters -- clutch-shooting Tyra White, Sydney Carter and Adaora Elonu -- return for their senior seasons, and 6-foot-4 South Carolina transfer Kelsey Bone steps into the middle. Bone gives Gary Blair's club even more of an inside presence than Adams, and if the chemistry with the one-time No. 2 recruit in the country clicks, the Aggies could be right back in the Final Four defending their title.

5. Stanford: The brilliant careers of Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen are over, but the Ogwumike sisters are back and Toni Kokenis should be an able full-time replacement at the point. Pedersen was such the perfect player for the triangle offense with her diverse game and rock-steady presence that it will be interesting to see how the Cardinal function without her. The look that Stanford showed in the national semifinals against Texas A&M -- burying the ball inside -- will likely be what 2011-12 brings more regularly. Incoming freshman Amber Orrange should give Tara VanDerveer a different look at the point.

6. Connecticut: Despite four starters returning, the Huskies might be the most different looking team in the history of the game. No Maya Moore will take some getting used to. However, Bria Hartley, Kelly Faris, Tiffany Hayes and Stefanie Dolson will have another No. 1 rated player to pass to in 6-foot freshman scorer Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. She heads HoopGurlz's No. 2 recruiting class, which Geno Auriemma desperately needed to replenish his numbers-depleted roster. Dolson also gets some much needed help down low in 6-3 Kiah Stokes, and then there's left-handed guard Brianna Banks, the No. 24 overall recruit. The UConn-Notre Dame battles for Big East supremacy might be even better this coming season.

7. Duke: Gone are Jasmine Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas, the core of the past couple of Blue Devils teams. But last year's top-rated recruiting class, led by Chelsea Gray, now has a season of experience and will be joined by 6-3 post players Elizabeth Williams (No. 2 recruit overall) and Amber Henson (No. 20), who highlight another highly regarded class. Generally, Duke will need to play more cohesive offense; specifically, Duke needs to find some shooters in order to take that next step. No team in the country has the wealth of young talent as the Blue Devils.

8. Miami: Every major component that has engineered Miami's huge turnaround is back. Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson and their combined 40 points per game make up what is likely the best backcourt in the game. National Coach of the Year Katie Meier returns as well to guide the program that just two seasons ago produced two ACC wins but in 2010-11 tied for the conference championship.

9. Georgetown: Terri Williams-Flournoy has created a style of play with the Hoyas that just isn't fun to play against. Georgetown's run to the Sweet 16 was another step in the evolution from occasional irritant to established winning program. With all but Monica McNutt returning, the Hoyas will be back in the mix for a top-four Big East finish. Sugar Rodgers has become a household name in the game and still has two seasons left. She'll be an All-American candidate in 2011-12. Williams-Flournoy brought in two speedy freshman guards -- Taylor Brown and Jasmine Jackson -- to continue the fast, pressure style that has worked so well.

10. Florida State: Coach Sue Semrau is staying in Tallahassee and has good reason to. Natasha Howard and Cierra Bravard form a tremendous frontcourt foundation. A third-place ACC finish (23 wins) and a No. 3 seed were overshadowed by a disappointing second-round performance against Georgia. To erase that memory, the Seminoles will have to replace point guard Courtney Ward and perimeter defensive stopper Christian Hunnicutt. Even more will be expected of Alexa Deluzio.

11. Louisville: The NCAA tournament, specifically the second-round upset of No. 2 seed Xavier in Cincinnati, looks like it was the unofficial commencement of the Shoni Schimmel era at Louisville. The most decorated recruit for Jeff Walz is an emerging star at the point with a flare that makes her game as fun as it is prolific. Schimmel has plenty of help with the return of leading scorer Monique Reid, Tia Gibbs and a group of classmates who should be much bigger contributors in 2011-12.

12. Maryland: Youth was served in College Park in 2011. The Terps earned a fourth-place ACC finish and a No. 4 seed without a senior and only three juniors on the roster. Alyssa Thomas was the ACC Rookie of the Year and led the team in scoring. Seniors-to-be Lynetta Kizer in the post and Anjale Barrett at the point still form the backbone of a team that should be right there in a very competitive ACC.

13. Georgia: A disastrous Sweet 16 performance against Texas A&M can be forgotten because the Lady Bulldogs have plenty on which to build. Porsha Phillips and her double-double averages are gone, but everyone else is back. Andy Landers can rely on Jasmine James for a big junior season and if Meredith Mitchell and Anne Marie Armstrong can make sizeable improvements, Georgia should be the team to challenge Tennessee in the SEC.

14. Penn State: Without question this is the Big Ten program on the rise. After winning 25 games, the most for the Lady Lions in seven seasons, and returning four starters, Coquese Washington's efforts have Penn State in line to make a run at the Big Ten championship and not be a surprise in doing so. The centerpiece of the team will once again be the backcourt, where Alex Bentley's penetration and toughness and conference Freshman of the Year Maggie Lucas' shooting range make everything go.

15. Kentucky: Matthew Mitchell will have to figure out how to reconstruct his team after losing Victoria Dunlap, the player most responsible for the Wildcat rise. He has plenty of pieces to use in the process, however. Kentucky's backcourt depth will be hard to top. Amber Smith should be fully recovered with plenty of offseason basketball under her belt after her knee injury. She will join second- and third-leading scorers A'dia Mathies and Keyla Snowden, and Jennifer O'Neil, who really began to come on in the second half of the 2010-11 season. The four-guard rotation will be the key to an offense that did have its struggles, perhaps relying too much on Dunlap, toward the end of the season.

16. Purdue: A season filled with injury and illness still finished up pretty nicely in West Lafayette with 21 wins and a second-round NCAA tournament appearance. Mingo's road from a life-threatening case of bacterial meningitis during the season to All-Big Ten third-team accolades is one of the basketball season's great stories. Courtney Moses made the all-freshman team, but only got significant minutes after starting point guard KK Houser went down with a knee injury. Top scorer Brittany Rayburn is also back to headline an entire roster of returnees. The Big Ten race might be a Penn State-Purdue battle.

17. Rutgers: Slow starts have become all too common for the Scarlet Knights, but this time around there should be nothing new for a team with plenty of experience. As of now, everyone is expected back, and April Sykes and Khadijah Rushdan should rank among some of the top players in the Big East. As always, if Rutgers can get more consistent scoring, a top-four Big East finish and a top-four NCAA seed is for the taking.

18. North Carolina: Gone are four-year mainstays Jessica Breland, Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid, so some things will have to break right for the Tar Heels to have the kind of season to which their fans have grown accustomed. Sylvia Hatchell brings back plenty of size in 6-5 Chay Shegog and 6-6 Waltiea Rolle. This will also be the time for Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and She'la White to shine in more prominent roles. Top incoming freshman Brittany Roundtree might be able to help at the point and has the kind of speed to keep Hatchell's uptempo style in place.

19. DePaul: It would be hard to envision the Blue Demons repeating their outstanding 2011 with Sam Quigley, Deirdre Naughton and Felicia Chester gone. Yet enough returns to keep DePaul very much in the Big East mix. Keisha Hampton will be one of the conference's best players and Anna Martin should be ready to assume more of a leadership role in the backcourt. She might now be paired with ultra-quick freshman point guard Chanise Jenkins.

20. LSU: The talent level in Baton Rouge isn't what it was a few seasons ago, but new coach Nikki Caldwell will bring a new energy to a group of returnees that includes top scorers Adrienne Webb and LaSondra Barrett. Caldwell's UCLA teams always defended well and the Lady Tigers had no trouble stopping teams, making this a good match from that perspective. Her teams at UCLA also lacked shooters, so things at LSU will look all too familiar in that area as well. Expect some improvement on offense and a return to the NCAA tournament.

21. Oklahoma: Sherri Coale has made of habit of losing All-Americans and maintaining a highly competitive program. She has to do it yet again with the departure of Danielle Robinson. The Sooners are hoping incoming freshman Dashawn Harden can take some of the minutes and replace some of Robinson's speed at the point. Whitney Hand and Aaryn Ellenberg still make OU a potentially deadly perimeter shooting club and both will likely play some point as well. A big leap for 6-3 Joanna McFarland would be a big boost to Oklahoma as it tries to chase Baylor and Texas A&M.

22. Michigan State: The Spartans will be taller and younger in 2011-12 with the addition of 6-7 redshirt freshman Madison Williams and true freshman Jasmine Hines. Replacing Kalisha Keane and Brittney Thomas won't be easy. They were leaders with their production and big-game experience. Much of those roles will fall to Lykendra Johnson. She'll have to have a big year if the Spartans are to have any chance at repeating their Big Ten regular-season championship.

23. Texas: Getting center Cokie Reed back from injury will be the first big step to improving on a disappointing 19-14 (7-9 in the Big 12) season. If some lessons in toughness and perseverance were learned against a difficult schedule, then the Longhorns will be much better. Another top-20 recruiting class to go with a good collection of returning guards -- leading scorer Chassidy Fussell, Yvonne Anderson and Ashleigh Fontenette -- also helps.

24. Southern California: One year after declining an invite to the WNIT, the Trojans made it all the way to the title game of the tournament before falling to Toledo. Now, Michael Cooper's team has some momentum, plenty of experience and high-quality new talent to get back to the NCAA tournament. Briana Gilbreath and Ashley Corral anchor an experienced backcourt and will get help from incoming freshman point guard Ariya Crook-Williams. Another top-20 recruit is forward Alexyz Vaioletama, who will join Cassie Harberts up front. Harberts had a solid freshman season with 10 points and six rebounds per game. This should be a season in which the Trojans close the gap between themselves and Stanford just a bit.

25. St. John's: The Red Storm program has come a long way under Kim Barnes-Arico. Taking another leap forward is entirely within reach. If it's ever going to happen, it might need to in 2011-12 as Da'Shena Stevens entersher senior season. Stevens and Shenneika Smith form the one-two punch that has helped get St. John's to consecutive second-round appearances. Point guard Nadirah McKenith might ultimately be the big key. She sets the table for the offense and must have an even better junior season if St. John's is to make that next step.

Five other teams to watch

Texas Tech: A solid rally in the season's last month got the Lady Raiders into the NCAA tournament. Then more good news came when coach Kristy Curry, who flirted with the job opening at LSU, decided to come back to Lubbock with a contract extension and four starters back, led by post Kierra Mallard.

UCLA: Questions about the new coach and how the highly regarded recruiting class shapes up still linger, but there is talent in Westwood led by Jasmine Dixon and incoming freshman Justine Hartman.

Iowa: Jaime Printy and Kamile Wahlin both return as the Hawkeyes' heart and soul. Kachine Alexander's loss will be tough to overcome, though.



Temple: With Shey Peddy and Kristen McCarthy back and Xavier hit by such big personnel and coaching losses, the Owls should be favored in the Atlantic 10 with Dayton and Duquesne not too far behind.

Syracuse: The Orange return Kayla Alexander and Iasia Hemingway, the top two scorers and rebounders. The Big East will be rugged again, but Syracuse should be good enough to emerge and get back to the NCAA tournament.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com.