Legendary coach Pat Summitt, she of the steely stare, is retired from Tennessee, which means women’s college basketball won’t be quite the same. But Brittney Griner is back, all 6-8 of her dunking self, which means Baylor is the undisputed pick to repeat as national champion.
The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll for the second season in a row. They never relinquished the spot all last season as they rolled to a 40-0 record and the national title.
All five starters are back from that team, including Griner, who averaged 23.2 points on 61 percent shooting and five blocks per game. She is the unanimous preseason selection for National Player of the Year, and barring injury will surely be the top pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft.
If Baylor can hang on and win back-to-back national titles, it would be the first school other than Connecticut or Tennessee to do that since the Cheryl Miller-led USC team did it in 1983-84.
“It’s a humbling honor, which we’ll embrace but it’s just that — an honor. It doesn’t win basketball games. Our goal every year is to win championships,” coach Kim Mulkey said of the preseason top ranking.
Breathing down Baylor’s neck will be Connecticut, whose coach, Geno Auriemma, led the United States to a gold medal at the London Olympics over the summer. The Huskies have lost in the Final Four the past two seasons, but Auriemma has high hopes this year. He is particularly excited about freshmen Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck. Stewart, 6-4, can do it all and could become the next big star in the women’s game.
Summitt’s retirement and a recent Tennessee slump — four years without a Final Four appearance — suggest that the Vols won’t be in the hunt for a national title this season. They are ranked No. 20 in the preseason poll, the lowest since the first poll in 1976-77. The only other time they were out of the top 10 was in 1984-85.
If Baylor and UConn stay atop the poll, their Feb. 18 showdown will be the must-see game of the regular season.
Best of the rest:
3. Duke: Center Elizabeth Williams and guard Chelsea Grey are back, but Williams is still recovering from a stress fracture in her right leg.
4. Stanford: The Cardinal has made five consecutive Final Fours but hasn’t won the national title since 1992. Leading the way is forward Chiney Ogwumike, whose older sister, Nnemkadi, graduated.
5. Maryland: The Terrapins were expected to battle Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference title, but they suffered a huge loss when point guard Brene Moseley went down with a torn ACL in a scrimmage last week.
6. Kentucky: The men’s team is ranked in the top three in most preseason polls, and the Wildcats women’s team is grabbing headlines, too. They are expected to win the Southeastern Conference.
7. Notre Dame: Skylar Diggins led the Irish to the past two NCAA championship games. Last season, she averaged 16.8 points and 5.7 assists.
8. Penn State: The Nittany Lions haven’t been ranked this high since 2004.
9. Louisville: The Cardinals reached the top 20 last season, drew 10,000-plus fans per game, and made the NCAA Women’s Tournament. But they lost in the second round to Maryland. Monique Reid is back from a knee injury, which should help.
10. Delaware: Elena Delle Donne, the nation’s leading scorer (28.1 ppg.), helped the Blue Hens break into the Top 25 for the first time last season and win their first NCAA Tournament game. This year, they are ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP poll.
•Poised to make noise:
Georgia, Oklahoma, California, St. John’s, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Nebraska, Ohio State, Tennessee.
•Should be dancing come March:
Purdue, Georgia Tech, Miami, Oklahoma State, DePaul, Texas, Kansas, Iowa State, Middle Tennessee, Rutgers, Georgetown.
•Players to watch:
Griner (Baylor), Delle Donne (Delaware), Williams (Duke), Diggins (Notre Dame), Ogwumike (Stanford), Alyssa Thomas (Maryland), Odyssey Sims (Baylor).
•All-name first team:
Sugar Rodgers (Georgetown), Diamond Ford (Texas State), Karisma Penn (Illinois), Minta Spears (Texas Tech), Shacobia Barbee (Georgia).
•All-name second team:
Jessica and Jaclyn Babe (Central Connecticut State), Empress Davenport (Texas), Taylor Hooker (Tulsa), Drew Mingo (Purdue).