Which women's college basketball teams and players will make biggest jumps in 2020-21?

Junior guard Taylor Chavez is following in Sabrina Ionescu's footsteps at Oregon -- she has three guards from arguably the nation's best recruiting class nipping at her heels. Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire

A season ago, Northwestern wasn't among the top five teams in either of the Big Ten's preseason polls, but the Wildcats matched Maryland for the best record in the conference.

Louisville's Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook and Syracuse's Kiara Lewis didn't make the ACC's preseason all-conference second team a season ago, but all three ended up on the ACC first team in March.

Preseason predictions often prove woefully incapable of telling the story of a season. Prognostication goes awry. Every season offers teams -- and players -- that exceed expectations.

And it's in that spirit that we attempt to predict what the 2020-21 women's college basketball preseason predictions might miss -- a surprise team and an emerging player from each of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC.


Surprise team: North Carolina Tar Heels

Given NC State's Final Four aspirations with Elissa Cunane and Duke's splashy hire in Kara Lawson, North Carolina arguably begins this season third in Q-rating among Triangle schools. The Tar Heels should enjoy underdog status while it lasts because they are on the move in coach Courtney Banghart's second season. All-ACC post Janelle Bailey is a nice cornerstone, and she's joined by four key additions: transfers Petra Holesinska, Stephanie Watts (returning to where she started after 2019-20 at USC), Ariel Young and top-50 recruit Deja Kelly. New energy helps -- all the more when much of it has previous college experience that should ease any adjustment process.

Emerging player: Elizabeth Dixon, Louisville Cardinals

Dixon did fine in her first season with the Cardinals, but she wasn't as influential as fellow Georgia Tech transfer Elizabeth Balogun. That should change. Louisville had a particularly deep post rotation a season ago. Now Bionca Dunham and WNBA draftee Kylee Shook are gone. Dixon still can't assume minutes, but with a full season to adjust to coach Jeff Walz, the 6-foot-5 forward should be ready. Syracuse's Emily Engstler was the only ACC player who averaged at least eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game a season ago. That's not out of reach for Dixon.

Big 12

Surprise team: Texas Tech Lady Raiders

Texas Tech was, frankly, a mess this offseason, with the school dismissing (after initially standing by) Marlene Stollings in the wake of a USA Today story detailing allegations of a toxic atmosphere in the program. Stollings is suing the school. The public image of the program is in tatters. The roster that new coach Krista Gerlich inherits very much is not. While Brittany Brewer is a substantial loss, the Lady Raiders return the other three double-digit scorers from a season ago -- and add perennial all-conference guard Vivian Gray from Oklahoma State. Even with a limited schedule, matching last season's 18 wins is possible.

Emerging player: Kristin Scott, Iowa State Cyclones

This was a space tailor-made for Baylor's DiDi Richards, who appeared poised to transition from the ultimate complementary asset to a star in her own right before a spinal cord injury. Amid uncertainty as to when Richards will be able to return to the court, we'll turn instead to another player who has battled back issues but is poised for a big season if health allows. Scott was a second-team all-conference selection a season ago despite those injury concerns. But the 6-foot-3 senior forward with 3-point range is half of the only returning pair of teammates who averaged at least 15 points per game in Big 12 competition.

Big East

Surprise team: Butler Bulldogs

We couldn't exactly pick UConn, right? A season ago, Marquette overcame the loss of a lot of star power to greatly exceed expectations in Megan Duffy's first season as coach. Butler didn't need to find a new coach, but Kurt Godlevske does have to replace all-conference forward Kristen Spolyar. That explains Butler's modest standing in the Big East preseason poll. But if former Clemson transfer Jaia Alexander completes a comeback from microfracture surgery and redshirt freshman Tenley Dowell returns from a season-ending ACL tear in last season's opener, Butler could come closer to matching last season's success.

Emerging player: Leilani Correa, St. John's Red Storm

There's good reason that Villanova's Maddy Siegrist, the Big East's reigning rookie of the year, is almost universally praised as a star in the making. There's also good reason why Correa gave Siegrist a run for her money for the conference's top rookie honors. After a surprise loss at Providence imperiled the team's winning Big East record in February, Correa scored 32 points to help beat Seton Hall in the next game. Then she put up 27 points in a Big East tournament win against Creighton, getting the best of Big East player of the year and WNBA draftee Jaylyn Agnew.

Big Ten

Surprise team: Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines were headed for a program-record third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance a season ago, likely with their best seed in coach Kim Barnes Arico's time in Ann Arbor. We all know why that didn't happen, but the canceled postseason makes it all too easy to forget the stories that were emerging beforehand. The good news for the maize and blue is that Michigan should be even better this time around -- maybe even Big Ten championship good. That starts with junior forward Naz Hillmon, but an extra year of eligibility for fifth-year guard Akienreh Johnson might yet prove to be one of the offseason's more underrated developments.

Emerging player: Dorka Juhasz, Ohio State Buckeyes

Due to a pandemic and Ohio State's post-Kelsey Mitchell stumbles the previous year, Juhasz enters her third season still waiting to play her first NCAA tournament game. But that is in no way a reflection on how ready the 6-foot-4 Hungarian's game is for the national spotlight. Juhasz is the Big Ten's returning leader in defensive rebounds. She's not far off that pace in offensive rebounds and blocks. She's a legit presence around the basket. But Juhasz also shot 40% from the 3-point line a season ago. She does all the modern game asks of its bigs.


Surprise team: Utah Utes

The Utes had one of the youngest cores in the Pac-12 a season ago, which showed at times in amassing a 14-17 record. Utah went 0-10 against conference heavyweights Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA. But that means a team that was led in most statistical measures by two freshmen and a sophomore went 6-2 against the rest of the league (and 14-7 overall). Being the best of the rest counts for something when you have time to grow. Now the trio of junior Dru Gylten and sophomores Brynna Maxwell and Lola Pendande, along with most of the rest of last season's rotation, can elbow their way into the upper echelon.

Emerging player: Taylor Chavez, Oregon Ducks

Chavez might be in the most difficult position of any player in the country (or at least tied for the distinction with backcourt mate Jaz Shelley). Not only is she a guard following in the footsteps of Sabrina Ionescu at Oregon, but she has three guards from arguably the best recruiting class in the country nipping at her heels. Still, if coach Kelly Graves is to be believed, that's comfortable territory for a player who he says shares at least Ionescu's intangibles. A top-75 recruit and a quadruple-double threat in high school, Chavez didn't arrive in Eugene with a role player's resume.


Surprise team: Alabama Crimson Tide

There is a case to be made for Texas A&M faring better than some will assume without Chennedy Carter, but it's difficult to describe the Aggies as ever sneaking up on anyone in the SEC. Alabama, on the other hand, hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since Y2K was still a looming concern. That might have changed last season and should change with Jordan Lewis and Jasmine Walker back for another season, especially if former top recruit Destiny Rice emerges in her second season or incoming freshman Myra Gordon deepens the rotation.

Emerging player: Jordan Horston, Tennessee Lady Vols

Among things former standout point guards Kim Mulkey and Dawn Staley have in common? While point guards weren't always the names on the marquee, they were instrumental in Baylor's Mulkey and South Carolina's Staley winning national championships as coaches. That's likely to be the case if Tennessee returns to prominence under Kellie Harper, and Horston gets the first opportunity. She had more turnovers a season ago than Mississippi State and South Carolina's starting point guards combined, but she was also a freshman on a team trying to find options beyond Rennia Davis. With a year of experience, and grad transfer Jordan Walker around to share the load, Horston should be able to remind everyone why she was the No. 2 overall recruit a season ago.