The 2020-21 NCAA basketball season is just a few weeks away. Many teams have lost a lot of talented players, but have found ways to reload for what is shaping up to be an exciting year. With that being said, here is a list of some of the top teams to watch, from the National Championship favorites to dangerous mid-majors.
TIER ONE (THE FAVORITES)
SOUTH CAROLINA – Last season saw the first time ever in which the Gamecocks were ranked number one in the AP poll, and that ranking was well deserved. South Carolina went 29-1 during the regular season, including an undefeated SEC run of 16 consecutive wins. What is even more impressive is that despite losing Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris (WNBA top-ten picks), they could be even better this season. Remember, Dawn Staley had the nation’s top recruiting class two seasons ago, and now that they are sophomores, that experience will make them even more dangerous. Expect the combination of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Brea Beal, along with their veterans, to make the Gamecocks the favorites for the National Championship.
STANFORD – The Cardinal were projected to be a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament before the COVID-19 shutdown after posting their 19th consecutive 20-plus win season. Expect them to make the jump to a one-seed, as they returned 88 percent of their scoring and 73 percent of their rebounding. The jump will hinge on the return of Haley Jones, the 2019 number one recruit who suffered a knee injury last season. A top-ten recruiting class on top of the returning depth makes Stanford one of the deepest teams in the nation.
CONNECTICUT – Megan Walker is gone, but it should not be a surprise that Geno Auriemma has a ready-to-go roster that is replenished, deep, and talented. They return two double-digit scorers (Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa), and have the nation’s top recruit Paige Bueckers. Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook rounds out one of the most talented backcourts in the country. Expect the Huskies to not miss a step… once again.
BAYLOR – The still-defending champions will have to replace four seniors, led by All-American Lauran Cox. They have the talent, as DiDi Richards (reigning National Defensive Player of the Year) and NaLyssa Smith return. Richards and Smith are joined by Stanford graduate transfer Dijonai Carrington, as well as a talented freshman class. Big 12 Sixth Woman of the Year Queen Egbo is poised for a breakout season with a bigger role.
MISSISSIPPI STATE – The transition from Vic Schaefer to Nikki McCray-Penson might take a few games, but the Bulldogs will be in the mix for a Final Four trip by the time March rolls around. They have one of the SEC’s best frontcourts, headlined by Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter. Jackson, who averaged 15.1 points per game as a freshman, has the potential to be one of the best players in the country. The addition of a few incoming transfers and five-star recruit Madison Hayes make Mississippi State a legitimate threat to embark on a deep March run.
ARIZONA – It will be difficult to find a better duo in the Pac-12 than Aari McDonald and Cate Reese, who combined for over 34 points per game last season. McDonald, an All-American last season, is poised for an even better season in 2020-21 after electing to return instead of entering the WNBA draft. Having three All-Pac-12 selections, plus Virginia Tech transfer Trinity Baptiste, makes the Wildcats a legitimate challenger to Stanford for the Pac-12 title.
TIER TWO (READY FOR A DEEP RUN)
NORTH CAROLINA STATE – The ACC champions are in position to build off of their 2019-20 campaign in which they finished number eight in the AP Top 25 poll. The Wolfpack have four starters back from that team, and five of their top six scorers. Elissa Cunane is one of the best players in the country, and will lead an experience-filled team that filled out the roster with a top 20 recruiting class. Their ability to rebound the basketball at a highly efficient rate will make them tough to beat.
LOUISVILLE – The battle between the Cardinals and Wolfpack at the top of the ACC will be an entertaining one. Louisville has some intrigue, as they lost three starters off of last year’s regular season champion roster. ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans headlines the group of returning players, and the Cardinals will have the number-seven overall incoming recruit in Hailey Van Lith to step in immediately. If players like Elizabeth Balogun can stake the next step, expect this team to be in the mix.
UCLA – Michaela Onyenwere is an incredible talent, and having a senior of her caliber on the roster will give the Bruins a chance to make a run in March. Onyenwere averaged 18.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest, and there is a good core in place around her for the Bruins to replicate their 26-5 record from a year ago.
OREGON – The Ducks could achieve something remarkable this season. They lost four starters, three of which landed in the top eight picks of the WNBA draft. The 2020-21 season won’t be a rebuild, however, as Oregon assembled the nation’s best recruiting class that has five top-25 recruits. Transfers from Maryland and Texas will round out the roster, making the Ducks able to compete once again despite losing so many key pieces.
TIER THREE (FORMIDABLE CHALLENGERS)
KENTUCKY – Having a candidate for National Player of the Year will certainly boost the stock of the Wildcats, as Rhyne Howard will look to dominate like she did last season, averaging 23.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Chasity Patterson leads a solid group of players around Howard, and a talented incoming class should help replenish their losses during the offseason.
TEXAS A&M – N’dea Jones has the opportunity to step into the lead role after the departure of Chennedy Carter, and she is more than capable of doing that. The first-team All-SEC selection averaged 11 points and a league-leading 11.7 rebounds per game. If some of their transfers can get waivers to play immediately, they will have the depth to compete with anyone.
ARKANSAS – It will be hard to keep up with the pace of play from the Razorbacks this season, due to their backcourt being composed of three talented players. Oregon State transfer Destiny Slocum joins Chelsea Dungee, who averaged 16.9 points, and Amber Ramirez, who shot 44.7 percent from three-point range. Their ability to shoot effectively and consistently will make them very dangerous in March.
IOWA STATE – This one might be a stretch, but the Cyclones are ready for a breakout season after shocking Baylor in early March. Iowa State returns four starters from last year’s team, and will fill out the roster with the seventh-best recruiting class in the country. The best of that incoming class is Lexi Donarski, who is the first McDonald’s All-American in program history. Having their top four scorers back will give them continuity right from the start, something a lot of teams can’t say.
TIER FOUR (INTRIGUING MID-MAJORS)
GONZAGA – Just under 73 percent of their scoring and 87 percent of their rebounding is back for the 2020-21 season, making the Bulldogs one of the more experience-rich mid-majors. WCC Player of the Year Jill Towsend headlines that group of returning players. Some intriguing incoming transfers will give them the depth they need to be in the Top 25.
MISSOURI STATE – The Lady Bears had the nation’s eighth-best RPI last season after accumulating a 26-4 record and the Missouri Valley Conference title. They lost their leading scorer Alexa Willard, but return 75 percent of their point production. If you’re looking for a mid-major surprise in March, keep an eye on Missouri State.
SOUTH DAKOTA – Domination might be an understatement for South Dakota’s 2019-20 season. They posted a 30-2 record, including an undefeated record in Summit League play. They won every single league game (regular season and tournament) by an average upwards of 30 points. It might be a slight step back without Ciara Duffy, their leading scorer, but have two returning double-figure scorers who can fill the void.
(Cover Photo: Sean Rayford/AP Photo)