- Charlie Creme, Women's College Basketball
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The 2012-13 season doesn't tip off for another six months, but it's never too early to take a look at next season's top 25 rankings.
When you go 40-0 and return almost everyone who contributed to a national championship season, it's impossible not to be the big favorite the following year. The Lady Bears will have a target on their back from the opening tip, but they played with one most of 2011-12 and flourished. Records for Brittney Griner will fall as regularly as Baylor opponents. Odyssey Sims should only get better, and she's already at worst the second-best point guard in the country. Griner will still get plenty of help up front from Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope, and a top-20 recruit, 6-foot-2 Alexis Prince of Maitland, Fla., arrives. Getting to the Final Four in coach Kim Mulkey's home state of Louisiana might be the new rallying cry.
Only Tiffany Hayes leaves a team that coach Geno Auriemma felt maybe overachieved a bit to reach the Final Four. The overachieving is over. With the top recruiting class in the country on its way to Storrs, the Huskies will be a big favorite to reclaim their spot atop the Big East and stand as the biggest challenge to Baylor. Stefanie Dolson has gotten better each of her two seasons, and that should continue. Still, the biggest improvements should come from Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes as they move from freshmen to sophomores. Sprinkle in 6-3 forward Breanna Stewart, HoopGurlz's No. 1 overall prospect, and 5-7 Moriah Jefferson (HoopGurlz's No. 2-ranked recruit) and 6-2 Morgan Tuck (No. 15), and the depth problem that has been a weakness for the Huskies the past two seasons will be gone.
The Blue Devils under Joanne P. McCallie have been knocking on the door of a Final Four, but have yet to break through. Next season will be their best shot yet. After Griner and Sims, Elizabeth Williams and Chelsea Gray are the best post-point guard combination in the country. Both will compete for spots on All-American teams. Haley Peters and Tricia Liston made big strides this season and are solid third and fourth options. If Amber Henson, a top-10 recruit from a year ago, can return with a healthy knee, she and Williams will form a front-line tandem that will be create big matchup problems.
The Terrapins certainly will miss program mainstays Lynetta Kizer and Anjale Barrett, but just having back All-American Alyssa Thomas as a junior makes them a threat. Also helping put Maryland in position for another run at the Final Four are second- and third-leading scorers Laurin Mincy and Tianna Hawkins. Brene Moseley should be ready to move into Barrett's spot as the starting point guard and actually will give Maryland more quickness. Katie Rutan, a transfer from Xavier, becomes eligible to give the Terps a deep threat.
The Wildcats will enter the season as a big favorite in the SEC, and it won't even be close. The defending regular-season conference champs lose Keyla Snowden and Amber Smith, but return SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies, SEC freshman of the year Bria Goss, plus guard Kastine Evans and post Samarie Walker. Jennifer O'Neill's return from a foot injury with give coach Matthew Mitchell the point guard to replace Smith.
The post-Nneka Ogwumike era begins at Stanford, and she will be missed dearly. The Cardinal are now completely turned over to her sister, junior-to-be Chiney, who made the 10-member WBCA All-America team in April. Even with Chiney, the loss of Nneka transforms Stanford into a more perimeter-oriented team. Toni Kokenis, Amber Orrange, and the healthy return of Jasmine Camp -- who missed most of this season with a stress fracture in her left foot -- will be vital. The Cardinal's days of multiple talented bigs on the roster are gone for now.
7. Penn State
The growth of Coquese Washington's program should continue in 2013. Guards Maggie Lucas (a 19 points-per-game scorer) and Alex Bentley (14 per game) and post Nikki Greene (who averaged 10 points and eight rebounds) are back. Penn State will be the favorite to repeat as Big Ten champ.
8. Notre Dame
Skylar Diggins and Muffet McGraw will have to get used to life without Devereaux Peters, Natalie Novosel and Brittany Mallory. Natalie Achonwa, who improved substantially during her sophomore season, will be a huge key, because the Irish are otherwise devoid of post players.
The Lady Bulldogs, not Tennessee, likely will challenge Kentucky for SEC supremacy. Jasmine Hassell, Khaalidah Miller, Anne Marie Armstrong and Jasmine James -- each of whom are double-figure scorers -- are back. This will be the season for this group at Georgia to take a next step.
10. St. John's
Kim Barnes-Arico will be at Michigan next season, but she truly built something at St. John's before heading to Ann Arbor. The building blocks that began the program's ascent have matured into upperclassmen. The vitally important Nadirah McKenith returns for her senior season at point guard. She is joined by backcourt running mates Eugeneia McPherson and Shenneika Smith, and Amber Thompson in the frontcourt. Joe Tartamella, associate head coach the past three years, has been named Barnes-Arico's successor.
Given the injuries that the Cardinals suffered through en route to an appearance in the NCAA tournament's second round, 2012 had to be considered a success. A healthier roster should make next season much better. Leading scorer Shoni Schimmel is back, as is Bria Smith, who is coming off a solid freshman year. If Tia Gibbs can return from the shoulder injury that cost her this past season, coach Jeff Walz will have a backcourt to at least rival UConn, Notre Dame and St. John's in the Big East.
A young Sooners team gets a year older and healthier. Once again, Sherri Coales' club will be driven by its backcourt, which is led by Whitney Hand and Aaryn Ellenberg. The improvement of another guard, Sharane Campbell, from her freshman to sophomore season will be a key.
Elena Delle Donne alone makes the Blue Hens the favorite in the CAA. The NCAA tournament did prove that she needs more help. Classmates Lauren Carra, Danielle Parker and Trumae Lucas were solid all season, but they will have to do even more to disprove the notion that this team is all Delle Donne.
14. Georgia Tech
Sydney Wallace's growth will be a key for the Yellow Jackets. MaChelle Joseph will be building around speedy guard Tyaunna Marshall. Replacing post Sasha Goodlett and guard Metra Walthour won't be easy.
All-Pac 12 guard Layshia Clarendon, point guard Brittany Boyd, who made the league's all-freshman team, and everyone else returns for coach Lindsay Gottlieb. The Bears are still the most likely program to threaten Stanford, which won't be as formidable.
The Cornhuskers were better than anticipated in their first year in the Big Ten. With Lindsey Moore, Jordan Hooper and Emily Cady returning, they should be even better in 2012-13.
17. Texas A&M
Coach Gary Blair will have to figure out how to replace program mainstays Sydney Carter, Adaora Elonu and Tyra White, plus his chief assistant and right-hand man Vic Schaefer (Bob Starkey, who spent 22 seasons at LSU, was hired as an assistant in mid-April). Look for Blair to build around posts Kelsey Bone and Karla Gilbert. The backcourt gets a boost from a year of experience for Alexia Standish and the arrivals of freshman Jordan Jones (HoopGurlz's No. 14 overall prospect) and Courtney Williams (No. 9).
The long, successful career of Brittany Rayburn is over, so next year's Boilermakers will be built around the backcourt tandem of KK Houser and Courtney Moses. Sam Ostarello, a 6-2 forward who averaged 8.4 rebounds per game, good for third in the Big Ten, also will be key.
19. Oklahoma State
The WNIT championship was a great ending to an otherwise impossible season for the Cowgirls. The emotion of losing head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna won't go away, but the players and coaches now have the confidence to keep playing successfully. There also wasn't a senior on the roster, so everyone is back to build on the WNIT title and continue the recovery process.
The Commodores return the SEC's leading scorer in Christina Foggie and the conference's assist leader in Jasmine Lister, plus four other players who started at least 15 games. Vandy should have no problem running its NCAA tournament streak to 14.
Don't be mistaken -- these rankings were assembled shortly after the national championship game. The Lady Vols are this low for the first time in years simply because of the uncertainty in the program. Even before Pat Summitt stepped down, the coaching situation at Tennessee was sure to be the biggest story in women's basketball during the offseason. Summitt, assistant Mickie DeMoss and all five starters are gone. Next year's team will be built around the talents of guards Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale.
The Jayhawks' run to the Sweet 16 should serve as a huge confidence builder for a program that hadn't even reached the tournament since 2000. Angel Goodrich will be right behind Diggins and Sims on any list of the top point guards. Chelsea Gardner emerged late in the season out of necessity and should be an able replacement up front for the departed Aishah Sutherland. If Carolyn Davis, the Jayhawks' best player most of the season, comes back from her knee injury suffered late in the year, Kansas will have a chance to go even further than the Sweet 16.
The Longhorns might have needed a fresh start with Gail Goestenkors stepping down, but she didn't leave the cupboard completely bare for new coach and one-time Texas assistant Karen Aston. Chassidy Fussell finished the season playing well. If former McDonald's All-American Tiffany Moore can return from her allergy issues, Cokie Reed's foot problems are finally behind her, and last year's star recruit, Cassie Peoples, is back after a year lost to foot injury, the Longhorns should be back in the mix for chasing second place in the Big 12.
The emergence of Samantha Logic late in the season, coupled with the return of Morgan Johnson in the post, put the Hawkeyes in good position for a sixth straight trip to the NCAA tournament. The big question mark will be the health of Jaime Printy. Iowa's leading scorer suffered a torn left ACL, for the second time, late in the season.
25. Iowa State
The Big 12 looks to be an even better league in 2013, and the Cyclones' improvement is part of that. If point guard Nikki Moody can take her game to the next level, Iowa State should do the same. Top scorers Chelsea Poppens, a 6-2 forward, and 6-3 Hallie Christofferson are back for their senior seasons.
Other teams to watch:
Virginia: Ataira Franklin and nearly every other key member of the Cavaliers are back as they try to return to the NCAA tournament.
Middle Tennessee: The core of Ebony Rowe, Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie are all back for a Blue Raider team that has dominated the Sun Belt the last two seasons.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers return all five starters from the team that beat Notre Dame in the regular season and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. The size that Asya Bussie and Ayana Dunning provide will allow West Virginia to again compete with the Big East's best.
Baylor, Connecticut and Duke top an early look at the preseason top 25 for 2012-13.