Womens college basketball Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2022-23

    Charlie Creme projects the women’s NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN.com.

In a 2021-22 season when more double-digit seeds won games in the NCAA tournament than ever before and parity became a buzz word again, we still saw a chalky Final Four, with three 1-seeds, plus UConn.

South Carolina, UConn and Stanford all made it to the season’s final weekend in back-to-back years, and will be favorites to do it again in 2023. It’s difficult to pick against them being in Dallas 12 months from now. Just look at the star power they will have returning: The Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston, the Huskies’ Paige Bueckers, and Haley Jones and Cameron Brink of the Cardinal. They, along with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, will be on every 2022-23 preseason All-American team.

The fun is in determining which teams will best challenge them. The transfer portal will have plenty to say about that. With over 900 players currently looking to change programs — 179 of them from Power-5 schools — this way-too-early top-25 list will almost certainly need some revisions when the dust finally settles and rosters are set.

For now, this is how we see next year shaping up. The road to Dallas can’t start soon enough.

1. South Carolina Gamecocks

Having the national Player of the Year in Boston back would be a good enough foundation for most teams, but all of her classmates are also set to return. Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere give the Gamecocks essentially the same cast that won the national championship.

If Raven Johnson returns healthy from a torn ACL, Dawn Staley will also have her at point guard to replace Destanni Henderson. Saniya Rivers and Sania Feagin should improve on their first season in Columbia, and 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso is still a defensive force. In other words, South Carolina is still loaded with talent.

2. UConn Huskies

A full season of Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd paired together in the backcourt should be plenty to offset the graduations of program mainstays Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams. The multiple lineups Geno Auriemma was forced to use this season due to injury should be more of an option than a necessity in 2022-23 with Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhasz, Nika Muhl and Caroline Ducharme also back, plus the addition of two top-five recruits: 6-3 Isuneh Brady and 6-2 Ayanna Patterson.

3. Stanford Cardinal

The early part of this season was bumpy for the Cardinal without Kiana Williams. The same uneasiness could occur next season without heart-and-soul players Lexie and Lacie Hull and Anna Wilson. But much like she did this year in turning to Jones and Brink, Tara VanDerveer should be able to figure it out again.

How more playing time for Kiki Iriafen and Brooke Demetre will impact the rotation will go a long way in determining whether the Cardinal can get to a third straight Final Four. Having the No. 1 recruit in the country, 6-7 Lauren Betts, should also help.

4. Texas Longhorns

After the performance of freshman forward Aaliyah Moore in the NCAA tournament and freshman point guard Rori Harmon all season, the Longhorns seem to have their core figured out. Neither player had even learned to walk the last time Texas made the Final Four (2003), but after consecutive Elite Eight appearances and one of the country’s best defensive coaches in Vic Schaefer, the Longhorns could be ready to take the next step.

5. Maryland Terrapins

Injuries wreaked havoc with the Terps’ season, and even though they never lived up to expectations as a result, they still ended up in the Sweet 16. With Angel Reese, Ashley Owusu, Diamond Miller, Shyanne Sellers and the addition of Florida transfer Lavender Briggs, Maryland has a collection of offensive pieces that is unrivaled. If Brenda Frese can add some more size via the transfer portal, getting back to the top of the Big Ten is likely.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes

The loss to Creighton in the second round of the NCAA tournament was devastating. It could have been more devastating had that been Monika Czinano’s last game. The decision by the nation’s field goal percentage leader to use her extra year of eligibility to once again pair with Clark, the nation’s leader in scoring and assists, is enough to make the Hawkeyes a threat for bigger things than just a Big Ten title.

7. Iowa State Cyclones

The same could be said about Ashley Joens opting to return for one more run with the Cyclones. Without her, Iowa State is a good team with a fantastic backcourt of Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski. With her once again, the Cyclones are right there with Texas as a Big 12 favorite.

8. Tennessee Lady Volunteers

Kellie Harper will have to remake the Lady Vols a bit, but thanks to the transfer portal, she has the talent to do so. Rickea Jackson, who was leading the SEC in scoring at Mississippi State this season before leaving the program in late January, is the latest addition. Point guard Jasmine Powell, formerly of Minnesota, had already decided to head to Knoxville. They join All-SEC honorees Tamari Key and Jordan Horston for a potent lineup.

9. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The transfer portal has already hit the Irish’s depth hard with departures of Sam Brunelle, Anaya Peoples and Abby Prohaska — but the possibility of all five starters returning makes Notre Dame a top-10 team. Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron might be the best freshman tandem in the country, and a year ago Maddy Westbeld was the ACC Rookie of the Year. Dara Mabrey has already decided to return as a super senior, and Maya Dodson has petitioned the NCAA to do the same.

10. Oklahoma Sooners

The Sooners were not expected to be a 25-win team this year. Next season, they will be. That’s because leading scorer Madi Williams and the Big 12’s all-time leading 3-point shooter Taylor Robertson have decided to return. That should give coach Jennie Baranczyk eight top players in her rotation to work with once again. That includes guard Ana Llanusa, who was averaging over 17.3 PPG in the first 10 games of 2021-22 before a knee injury ended her season.

11. North Carolina Tar Heels

Courtney Banghart’s first full recruiting class after getting the job as Tar Heels’ coach will be juniors next year, and may finally be ready to break out. Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams have looked like stars at times, and Alyssa Ustby is one of the ACC’s most versatile players.

If Banghart can replace the leadership that Carlie Littlefield provided, North Carolina could be close to challenging for a conference championship, something the Tar Heels haven’t won since 2008.

12. Arizona Wildcats

Coach Adia Barnes has vowed to hit the transfer portal hard. If she has any success, the Wildcats might be better than they were this season. Cate Reese and Shaina Pellington, the two top scorers, will be back for fifth seasons, and Barnes has already added a top-10 recruiting class, featuring 6-4 Maya Nnaji from Minnesota.

13. Ohio State Buckeyes

In one of the quietest championship seasons the Big Ten has ever seen, the Buckeyes tied Iowa for the regular season title. They should return four of the top five scorers from that team, and much will revolve around the backcourt. Taylor Mikesell’s decision to take her extra season to rejoin All-American candidate Jacy Sheldon, plus a full recovery by Madison Greene — who missed the 2020-21 with a knee injury but averaged 13.4 PPG in 2021-22 — combine to gives Ohio State a trio that is hard to match.

14. Louisville Cardinals

Jeff Walz leaned on transfers heavily to reach the Final Four. With Emily Engstler, Kianna Smith and Chelsie Hall expected to be gone, he may have to do it again. He does have Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran to build around. If All-ACC freshman selection Payton Verhulst makes a big jump, the Cardinals should still have a say in the 2022-23 ACC race.

15. Virginia Tech Hokies

When you have the reigning ACC Player of the Year and an honorable mention all-conference honoree on your team, you should feel good. At least Coach Kenny Brooks should. 6-4 center Elizabeth Kitley will be on a number of preseason first-team All-American lists next year and Georgia Amoore was second in the league in assists. The expected return of Cayla King and Kayana Traylor puts more shooters around Kitley.

16. NC State Wolfpack

Life after Elissa Cunane will seem strange for a while in Raleigh. But Wes Moore has created something bigger at NC State, and the team will still include Jakia Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd and Diamond Johnson. 6-1 senior-to-be Camille Hobby should take over for Cunane in the post, giving the Wolfpack some experience in the middle. Another Elite Eight run might be ambitious, but a top-four finish in the ACC and hosting NCAA tournament games is not.

17. Indiana Hoosiers

Much will be made of how the chemistry Nicole Cardano-Hillary, Ali Patberg, and Aleksa Gulbe helped create will disappear, so it’s easy to forget that the Hoosiers’ two best players — Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes — will be back in Bloomington. Coach Teri Moren does have some work to do to rebuild around Berger and Holmes, but having the two honorable mention All-Americans is a good way to keep the program among the best in the Big Ten.

18. Oregon Ducks

Another big season of change is already upon the Ducks, with Kylee Watson, Maddie Scherr and Sydney Parrish deciding to enter the transfer portal. That leaves one player, Te-Hina Paopao, from the highly-regarded recruiting class of 2020. But she may have been the best of the group, and a fully healthy season from her, backcourt mate Endyia Rogers and post Sedona Prince should be enough for Oregon to make a run at a top-three spot in the Pac-12. Another top recruiting class is also on the way.

19. Utah Utes

Coming off the Utes’ most successful season in 13 years, coach Lynne Roberts has plenty of youth on which to build. Gianna Kneepkens, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Jenna Johnson, the team’s leading scorer in her first year, are the best of the bunch. Sophomore Kennady McQueen was Utah’s best 3-point shooter in 2021-22. If 6-4 Peyton McFarland can recover from a late-season knee injury, then Roberts has the foundation to produce the best stretch the program has ever seen.

20. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Early in the 2021-22 season, sophomore Jaz Shelley was the Cornhuskers’ best player. By season’s end, that distinction had gone to to freshman Alexis Markowski. Senior Sam Haiby was always the glue. All three, plus 11.1 PPG scorer Isabelle Bourne, plan to return, giving coach Amy Williams a chance to have the best team in her seven seasons as Nebraska’s coach.

21. Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks made the NCAA tournament in 2012 and 2013 — and then didn’t return until this year. Next season should be back-to-back trips again. The top four scorers, led by guards Holly Kersgieter and Zakiyah Franklin, from a team that finished fifth in the Big 12 after being picked last, are back for conference Coach of the Year Brandon Schneider.

22. UCLA Bruins

After two years of being decimated by injuries, coach Cori Close is hoping for a sturdy enough roster to get back near the top of the Pac-12 — or even just complete full practices. Much of the hope will be placed on guard Charisma Osborne, 6-4 Angela Dugalic and one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, highlighted by the No. 2 prospect, 5-11 point guard Kiki Rice from Washington, D.C.

23. Princeton Tigers

Even with the loss of Ivy League Player of the Year Abby Myers, the Tigers’ string of four consecutive regular season championships should grow. With a pair of top-50 recruits on the way, coach Carla Berube might have an even better team over the next few years. Local New Jersey prep stars 6-4 Tabitha Amanze and 5-10 Madison St. Rose will join four returning starters on a team that hasn’t lost a league game in two years.

24. Creighton Bluejays

A mostly overlooked aspect of the Bluejays’ surprising run to the 2022 Elite Eight was how young Jim Flanery’s team was. Four sophomores — Emma Ronsiek, Morgan Maly, Lauren Jensen and Molly Mogensen — were the core. Throw in junior Carly Bachelor, and five of the Bluejays’ top six scorers should be back to try to challenge UConn in the Big East.

25. Baylor Bears

Nikki Collen’s biggest challenge in 2021-22 was replacing a legend in Kim Mulkey, and managing her inherited talent. Next season, the chore will be replacing much of that talent. NaLyssa Smith, Jordan Lewis and Queen Egbo accounted for nearly 44% of the point production, and will be gone. If the Bears are to win a 13th straight Big 12 championship, Sarah Andrews, Ja’Mee Asberry and Caitlin Bickle will have to become Baylor’s new stars.

Also considered: South Dakota State, Arkansas, Kansas State, Gonzaga

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