Top 25 women's college basketball preseason rankings for 2021-22: Why UConn opens at No. 1

UConn and Paige Bueckers, left, and South Carolina and Zia Cooke start out 1-2 in our preseason rankings. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most tumultuous offseasons in terms of coaching changes and player movement is behind us. And the start of the 2021-22 women's college basketball season is less than two weeks away.

The coaching carousel and transfers have had a significant impact on these rankings. However, our top three teams from April's Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings, and three of the four teams in the 2021 Final Four, remain on top: UConn, South Carolina and defending champion Stanford. The Huskies and Gamecocks each have all five starters back and added significant talent, which is why they lead the way. Their matchup in Columbia, South Carolina, on Jan. 27 will be the one of the most anticipated games of the season -- and they could meet next month if both teams reach the final of the inaugural women's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

Thanks to an influx of new players, Arizona -- the fourth Final Four participant last spring -- jumped back into the rankings after missing the cut in April, giving the Pac-12 five teams in the top 25.

The Big Ten also has five, and four of those teams landed in our top 10 (and reached the Sweet 16 a year ago), perhaps making the Big Ten the most intriguing conference race in the country.

The ACC led the way with six teams in these rankings. The season opens Nov. 9.

1. UConn Huskies

Geno Auriemma has already talked this preseason about how it's going to be tough getting everyone on his deep roster enough minutes to keep them happy. That's generally a good problem to have, but he has a point. The Huskies are loaded. If the freshmen live up to billing, this might be the deepest team Auriemma has ever had. Paige Bueckers (20.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.8 APG), who won the majority of national player of the year awards last season, won't have to worry about playing time, but even senior guards Christyn Williams (16.3 PPG) and Evina Westbrook (9.4 PPG, 4.3 APG) could get pushed by Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the country and one of the best shooters Auriemma says he has ever seen. Senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa (12.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG) is still the Huskies' best post player. However, 6-foot-3 sophomore Aaliyah Edwards (10.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG) kept getting better last season, and UConn has added 6-5 Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz, a quality interior defender and capable perimeter shooter who averaged 14.6 and 11.1 rebounds per game last season.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

The Gamecocks might be even deeper than the Huskies. Dawn Staley returns everyone from last season's Final Four team, has the nation's best recruiting class and added 6-7 Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso (13.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.7 BPG), the reigning ACC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year. Pairing Cardoso with SEC Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston (13.7 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 2.6 BPG) is an intimidating thought for opposing offenses. Zia Cooke (15.9 PPG), South Carolina's leading scorer, and Destanni Henderson (12.2 PPG, 5.1 APG) make up a dynamic backcourt, but freshmen Raven Johnson and Saniya Rivers each won national high school player of the year awards and will push for time. While 6-4 Laeticia Amihere, 6-1 Brea Beal and 6-2 Victaria Saxton won't easily relinquish their spots, Staley also adds 6-3 freshman Sania Feagin to that mix. The lineup combinations appear endless.

3. Stanford Cardinal

Of the top three teams in these rankings, the Cardinal are the only one to lose a starter. Kiana Williams (14.0 PPG) was Stanford's leading scorer and the heart and soul of the Cardinal's national championship run, but with Haley Jones (13.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Lexie Hull (11.6 PPG) hitting another level last March, and Anna Wilson's decision to return at point guard, Stanford remains in contention to defend the title. The arrival of guard Jordan Hamilton as a grad transfer from Northwestern will also help offset the loss of Williams. Stanford could take on a different look if 6-4 sophomore Cameron Brink (9.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.8 BPG) takes another step forward as an offensive player. The same is true for 6-1 Fran Belibi (7.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and 6-5 Ashten Prechtel (5.8 PPG, 37.1% on 3-pointers).

4. Maryland Terrapins

With 96.1% of the nation's top-scoring offense returning, the Terps are once again the Big Ten favorites and a Final Four contender. Ashley Owusu (17.9 PPG, 5.9 APG) and Diamond Miller (17.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG) form one of the best backcourt tandems in the country. Throw in sharp-shooter Katie Benzan (12.7 PPG, 50.0% on 3-pointers) and Chloe Bibby (13.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG), and Maryland has a collection of guards who can score in every way possible. A full, healthy season from 6-3 sophomore forward Angel Reese (10.0 PPG in 15 games) will make the Terps even more potent. Maryland's top freshman, 6-2 Shyanne Sellers, is the kind of versatile wing that should fit into the Terps' style immediately.

5. NC State Wolfpack

The Wolfpack are another top team loaded with depth. And it's a good thing, especially since they might have to start the season without All-ACC forward Kayla Jones, who is coming back from offseason knee surgery. Her assumed replacement, Jada Boyd, also suffered a hand injury in practice and will possibly miss two months. The good news is that All-American 6-5 center Elissa Cunane (16.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 53.3% from the field) is ready to go, as is second-leading scorer Jakia Brown-Turner (13.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG), a 6-foot wing. The addition of transfers Diamond Johnson, who scored 17.6 points per game as a freshman point guard at Rutgers a year ago, and former top-30 recruit Madison Hayes, who left Mississippi State after one season, will help offset the early injury issues, as does the return of veteran guards Raina Perez and Kai Crutchfield.

6. Louisville Cardinals

Dana Evans has moved on to the WNBA, but there's plenty of talent left at Louisville. Sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith (11.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG) was a top-10 recruit two years ago and now has the freedom to be the star that she showed glimpses of being a season ago. Kianna Smith (11.4 PPG) was even better than expected last season after her transfer from Cal, and coach Jeff Walz welcomes two more impact transfers this season: Emily Engstler nearly averaged a double-double (10.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG) at Syracuse, while Chelsie Hall was a three-year starter at Vanderbilt, where she averaged 15.4 points per game in 2020-21. Olivia Cochran (9.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG), a 6-3 sophomore, could also be ready to burst onto the national radar.

7. Baylor Bears

Replacing Kim Mulkey is a monumental task, but Nicki Collen, as the former coach of the Atlanta Dream, at least has the pedigree. However, until we know how the coaching change will impact the program, it's difficult to rank Baylor higher right now. That talent is there, and that could ultimately supersede Mulkey's departure. NaLyssa Smith (18.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG), a 6-2 senior, is one of the best players in the country. She is flanked by 6-3 senior Queen Egbo (11.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG) up front. The addition of transfers Jordan Lewis from Alabama and Ja'Mee Asberry from Oklahoma State, who each averaged 17 points per game last season, could give Baylor the kind of backcourt scoring punch and outside shooting that even its most successful teams didn't have.

8. Indiana Hoosiers

The Hoosiers don't have the explosive offense of Maryland or the star power of Iowa or Michigan. They just know how to win. Only the Terps put together a better regular season in 2020-21, but Indiana was the only Big Ten team to reach the Elite Eight. The core of Mackenzie Holmes (17.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG), Grace Berger (15.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.6 APG), Ali Patberg (14.0 PPG, 3.7 APG), Aleksa Gulbe (9.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG) and Nicole Cardano-Hillary (8.5 PPG) are all back for one more run, trying to build on the best season in program history.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes

Caitlin Clark garners so much attention from both the media and opposing defenses that it's easy to forget that the Hawkeyes also bring back the other four starters from a Sweet 16 team. Not that Clark (26.6 PPG, 7.1 APG) doesn't deserve all that notoriety; she led the nation in points per game (26.6), total assists (214) and made 3-pointers (116) as a freshman. But the sophomore guard gets huge help from Monika Czinano (19.3 PPG), who led the nation in field goal percentage (66.8), in the post and McKenna Warnock (12.0 PPG) and Gabbie Marshall (9.1 PPG) on the wing. If Iowa is going to challenge for a Big Ten title and a spot in the Final Four, the Hawkeyes will have to improve a defense that ranked last in the country in points allowed per game.

10. Michigan Wolverines

Coming off their first Sweet 16 appearance, the Wolverines could be primed for the best season in program history. Having Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon (23.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 62.3% from field) in the post is a good place to start. Senior Leigha Brown (18.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG) has improved each year, and her transfer from Nebraska before last season was a difference-maker for Michigan in 2020-21. The Wolverines somehow made their NCAA tournament run, which included a near upset of Baylor in the regional semifinals, without point guard Amy Dilk (7.7 PPG, 3.9 APG), but she's healthy and back for her senior season.

11. Oregon Ducks

Despite losing two players to graduation and four to transfers, the Ducks might be even deeper and have a more versatile lineup than they had a year ago. Coach Kelly Graves added five transfers to offset the departures. Guard Endyia Rogers, who averaged 14.8 points and 4.3 assists per game at USC, is expected to be the most impactful. Rogers will allow sophomore point guard Te-Hina Paopao (10.2 PPG, 4.4 APG) to play off the ball more and diversify the Oregon ball-screen offense. Nyara Sabally (12.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG), a 6-5 forward, and 6-7 forward Sedona Prince (10.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG) were the keys to the Ducks' strong finish a year ago and could be even better with more time on the court together.

12. Kentucky Wildcats

Rhyne Howard will again be the center of the Wildcats' attack. She could be the most versatile player in the country (20.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 37.3% on 3-pointers) and is on the short list of national player of the year candidates. Replacing the production of second-leading scorer Chasity Patterson (12.4 PPG) will be a challenge; Kentucky eclipsing last season's fifth-place SEC finish will hinge on the improvements of junior forward Dre'una Edwards (9.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG) and senior guards Jazmine Massengill (5.1 PPG, 3.3 APG) and Robyn Benton (6.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG). Games against Indiana and Louisville in December should indicate if the Wildcats are truly ready to challenge in the SEC.

13. West Virginia Mountaineers

The question for the Mountaineers is whether the additions of transfers Ari Gray, who scored 13.3 points per game at Xavier last season, 6-6 center Yemiyah Morris (Mississippi State) and 6-1 Savannah Samuel (Oregon State) can offset the graduation of WNBA first-round pick Kyrse Gondrezick (19.5 PPG). West Virginia has plenty of production and experience with the return of its four other starters: guards KK Deans (13.7 PPG) and Madisen Smith (8.2 PPG) and forwards Esmery Martinez (13.6 PPG, 11.6 RPG) and Kari Niblack (9.1 PPG).

14. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles bring back all five starters and much of their full rotation, but coach Sue Semrau's return could have the most impact. The job that interim coach Brooke Wyckoff did last season getting Florida State into its eighth consecutive NCAA tournament cannot be understated, but having Semrau, a four-time ACC Coach of the Year, on the sidelines brings more stability. So does the experience of senior guards Bianca Jackson (14.1 PPG, 3.6 APG), Morgan Jones (12.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG), and Kourtney Weber (11.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG). Top-50 recruit and point guard O'Mariah Gordon adds some playmaking to an already versatile perimeter.

15. Iowa State Cyclones

Building around Ashley Joens has proven a recipe for success for Bill Fennelly the last two seasons. The senior's 24.2 points per game last season led the Big 12, and she lifted a team with three freshman starters to the NCAA tournament. Two of those three freshmen are back. Kylie Feuerbach's transfer to Iowa hurts, but having Big 12 Freshman of the Year Lexi Donarski (13.0 PPG, 41.1% on 3-pointers) gives the Cyclones another reliable scorer and shooter. If sophomore guard Emily Ryan (8.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG) gets even better, Iowa State will be a Sweet 16 contender.

16. UCLA Bruins

Last season, Bruins coach Cori Close often didn't have enough players to practice. Thanks to an influx of veteran transfers, and some players who are back after opting out in 2020-21, she might have a hard time getting everyone minutes this season. Jaelynn Penn (Indiana), Gina Conti (Wake Forest), Ilmar'l Thomas (Cincinnati) and Angela Dugalic (Oregon) all transferred to LA and join Charisma Osborne (17.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG), Natalie Chou (9.9 PPG, 38.6% on 3-pointers) and Dominique Onu (who played 16 games after enrolling early and playing her freshman season in what should have been her senior year of high school). Close will have to get this suddenly deep, new roster to jell into a team that can compensate for the graduation of Michaela Onyenwere (19.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG), one of the best players in program history.

17. Texas A&M Aggies

By the end of last season, Jordan Nixon (10.6 PPG, 3.3 APG) looked like the Aggies' best player, and that should carry over into 2021-22. The guard returns for her junior year after scoring in double figures in four of Texas A&M's postseason games in March and averaging 28.0 points per game in the Aggies' two NCAA tournament wins. Nixon's backcourt running mates will be Kayla Wells (11.5 PPG) and Destiny Pitts (7.0 PPG, 46.2% on 3-pointers), the SEC's Sixth Woman of the Year. Texas A&M has lost considerable production in the frontcourt, so how 6-3 freshman Jada Malone performs might go a long way to determining how much the Aggies can challenge South Carolina in the conference.

18. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Coming off a dream season a year ago in which the Yellow Jackets went to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014, reached the Sweet 16 for the second time and had their best ACC finish (third) in program history, Georgia Tech is primed to do it again. All five starters return, including ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Lorela Cubaj (12.5 PPG, 11.5 PPG) and the league's Most Improved Player, Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (team-high 15.0 PPG, 47 3-pointers made). Point guard Kierra Fletcher's production (13.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.7 APG) might be just as important.

19. Tennessee Lady Vols

The steady growth of senior Rae Burrell has coincided with the Lady Vols' improvement. The league's coaches predicted Tennessee to finish third in a recent poll, and it's the Lady Vols' best preseason position in the SEC in five years. Burrell (16.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG) is on most preseason All-American watch lists, and along with 6-6 junior center Tamari Key (8.9 PPG, 2.9 BPG) and junior guard Jordan Horston (8.6 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.9 RPG) heads the core of returnees. The wildcard entry on to the roster is 6-0 grad transfer Alexus Dye, who was the 2021 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year last season at Troy and led the nation in double-doubles.

20. Arizona Wildcats

Aari McDonald leading the Wildcats to the national championship game was one of the best stories of last season. How Arizona replaces its star and the player who helped revitalize the program is one of the most intriguing questions of the 2021-22 season. No one player can replace McDonald's two-way talent, but a trio of transfers -- forward Koi Love (Vanderbilt), guard Taylor Chavez (Oregon) and forward Ariyah Copeland (Alabama) -- will help. Most of McDonald's supporting pieces are also back, led by senior forwards Cate Reese (10.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and Sam Thomas (7.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG).

21. Ohio State Buckeyes

Juhasz's departure for UConn leaves the Buckeyes without an experienced inside scorer, but Kevin McGuff's team is as deep at guard as any squad in the country. Juniors Jacy Sheldon (16.7 PPG, 48.6% from the field) and Madison Greene (13.4 PPG, 4.3 APG) have become the bedrocks of the program, and sophomore Kateri Poole (6.6 PPG) showed improvement toward the end of her freshman season. But senior leader Braxtin Miller's decision (11.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG) to come back for a fifth year, and sharpshooter Taylor Mikesell's transfer from Oregon, are the keys to the Buckeyes being able to contend in a competitive Big Ten.

22. Virginia Tech Hokies

It's great to have all five starters back. It's even better when two of them -- Elizabeth Kitley (18.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG) and Aisha Sheppard (17.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) -- are the top returning scorers in the ACC. The 6-6 Kitley has become one of the most dominant (and somewhat under-the-radar) post players in the country. Sheppard is a two-time first-team All-ACC selection and is the Hokies all-time leading 3-point shooter. The key job for sophomore point guard Georgia Amoore (11.8 PPG, 4.6 APG) will be to get Kitley and Sheppard the ball as often as possible.

23. Oregon State Beavers

Despite the key losses of Aleah Goodman (graduation) and Sasha Goforth (transfer to Arkansas), Scott Rueck has a foundation of players that should compete near the top of the Pac-12. Freshman guard Talia von Oelhoffen (11.3 PPG, 43.4% on 3-pointers), who got her career started last January as an early entrant, looks to be the next in a long line of cornerstone players. Von Oelhoffen will be joined in the backcourt by true freshman and McDonald's All-American Greta Kampschroeder. Taylor Jones (12.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG), a 6-4 sophomore forward who is the Pac-12's leading rebounder as well as a 55.6% shooter, leads a veteran frontcourt that also includes Ellie Mack (6.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG) and Taya Corosdale (5.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG).

24. Missouri State Lady Bears

The Lady Bears are the only non-Power 5 program to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last two NCAA tournaments. With reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Brice Calip (13.3 PPG, 4.1 APG) and forward Jasmine Franklin (11.8 PPG, 9.7 RPG), the league's Defensive Player of the Year, back as seniors, Missouri State will try to become the first mid-major since Gonzaga in 2010-2012 to make it three in a row. The Lady Bears are also the big favorite in the MVC, where they've gone 32-2 in their two seasons under head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton.

25. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Had there been an NCAA tournament in 2020, the Irish would have missed it. Last season, Niele Ivey's first as coach replacing legendary Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame finished 10-10 and did not compete in the tournament for the first time since 1995. That difficult two-year stretch should come to an end in 2021-22. Ivey has a potential future star in point guard Olivia Miles, who was an early enrollee last season and averaged 9.3 PPG in six games. Miles and 6-3 sophomore Maddy Westbeld (15.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG), the ACC Freshman of the Year, might form the best young duo in the ACC. Injuries have been an issue the past two seasons, so keeping the veteran core of Dara Mabrey, Abby Prohaska, Anaya Peoples and Sam Brunelle on the court will also be a key.