7:59 PM ET
Charlie Creme projects the women’s NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN.com.
For the first time in four years, UConn is not the defending champion. The NCAA-record win streak is over, and the rest of the women’s college basketball world was invigorated by a first-time champ. Mississippi State opened a door, and South Carolina stepped through it. However, the Huskies return the best collection of talent in the country and start out on top again as we look ahead to the 2017-18 season.
The landscape might change in the coming months with (more) player transfers, coaching changes and injuries. But for now, here is a look ahead to next season.
The Huskies’ absence from the championship podium might be a short one. With the exception of guard Saniya Chong, the core group is back and likely determined to wipe the bad taste of losing in the national semifinals from its mouth. Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse will be closing out their careers, and first-team All-Americans Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesha Collier will be juniors. If motivation alone doesn’t lift UConn to even higher levels, the addition of 6-foot-6 Azurá Stevens should. The Duke transfer, who likely would have been this season’s preseason ACC player of the year, had she stayed in Durham, North Carolina, becomes eligible. Geno Auriemma also adds 6-foot-2 Kentucky transfer Batouly Camara and the nation’s top recruit, 6-foot-1 Megan Walker from Virginia.
It might seem strange at first to see the Lady Bears without Nina Davis, and Kim Mulkey will be looking for a wing offense after the graduation of Alexis Jones and Alexis Prince. Inside strength, however, will not be a problem. Kalani Brown, who is 6-foot-7, looks like she is ready to be an All-American; 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox could make a huge jump as a sophomore, and 6-foot-4 Beatrice Mompremier is also back. Kristy Wallace gives Mulkey an experienced point guard, and Natalie Chou emerged as more of an outside shooting threat late in the season.
Kelsey Mitchell’s decision to stay in Columbus, Ohio, for her senior season puts the Buckeyes in position to make a Final Four run. However, that got more difficult when freshmen Kiara Lewis (6.7 PPG last season) and Tori McCoy (8.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG), who looked to be the future of the program, announced they were transferring. The depth took a major hit, but Mitchell still has plenty of talented help. A healthy Stephanie Mavunga and even more contribution from Linnae Harper and Asia Doss will make Ohio State, already the fourth-most prolific offense in the country this past season, even more potent. Alexa Hart should return to a more prominent role and help offset the loss from the graduation of Shayla Cooper.
Guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty are back for their senior seasons, which gives Karen Aston one of the most experienced backcourts in the country. Joyner Holmes could be ready to become one of the country’s best players as a sophomore. How well Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau can replace Kelsey Lang in the middle is the key to how good the Longhorns will be in 2017-18.
The Irish should be a much better team in February/March than they will be at the start of the season. Lindsay Allen, the all-time assists leader in the ACC, has graduated, which means Muffet McGraw will have to groom another point guard. Mychal Johnson looks like the heir apparent. The timetable of Brianna Turner’s return from the torn ACL she suffered in the NCAA tournament is the other major question mark. It’s unlikely that the 6-foot-4 All-American will begin the season on the court. In the meantime, the likes of Marina Mabrey, Arike Ogunbawale and Jackie Young should be able to keep the Notre Dame offense churning along. But losing Erin Boley (6.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG in 15.0 MPG last season), whose role increased after Turner’s injury, hurts.
So much for the defending champs being the biggest threat to UConn’s return to the top. Three Gamecocks were selected in the top 10 picks of the WNBA draft, and Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray — both of whom left South Carolina with a year of eligibility remaining — leave a big void for Dawn Staley. Alaina Coates is also gone, which means Staley has to replace three of her top three scorers.