Baylor, Maryland and Oregon are clear favorites in their respective conferences. Can Louisville maintain its place among the ACC's elite? Will South Carolina or Texas A&M take home the SEC crown?
A lot of great nonconference games will be played before league play tips off later this season. But espnW's Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel break down the favorites in the Power 5, tackle the burning question facing each conference, predict how the races will shape up and vote for the preseason players of the year in each league.
For the time being, the ACC is more about what it lost than what it has. Notre Dame, completely dominant with a 91-5 conference record and six regular-seasons titles since entering the league in 2014, must replace all five starters who helped the Fighting Irish get to consecutive national championship games. Louisville said goodbye to Asia Durr, one of the top players in program history. The news that Syracuse point guard Tiana Mangakahia won't play this season as she battles breast cancer devastated not only the Orange community but also all of women's basketball. NC State, coming off a historic season, must deal with the graduation of its best player in Kiara Leslie.
The result of all this change is the most wide-open ACC race in nearly a decade. Teams such as Florida State and Miami are in the mix for a championship. As many as five teams could vie for a title that recently has been the domain of only Notre Dame and Louisville.
How will North Carolina and Georgia Tech adjust to new coaches?
Courtney Banghart and Nell Fortner not only have the challenge of a new job but also both take over programs that parted ways with longtime coaches under less-than-ideal circumstances. In 12 years at Princeton, Banghart established a stellar reputation and did plenty of winning (254-103 and eight NCAA tournament appearances), and though she is replacing Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell, she might be arriving at the right time. Hatchell resigned after 33 years in Chapel Hill amid allegations of using racially insensitive remarks and mishandling player injuries. A fresh start will be welcomed by some after the Tar Heels went 33-31 the past two seasons and became a bit of an afterthought in the ACC.
Fortner left her role as an ESPN analyst to head back to the sideline, where she had successful stints with Purdue, Auburn and USA basketball. MaChelle Joseph was let go after 16 years with the Yellow Jackets after the school found mistreatment of players and staff within the program. The fallout cost Georgia Tech two of its best players, as Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon transferred to Louisville, leaving Fortner with little to build around other than senior Francesca Pan. The challenge will be great, and the winning might be slow to come, but Fortner brings a positive approach and energy to a program for which a change in culture seems to be the immediate priority. -- Charlie Creme
espnW's preseason player of the year: Beatrice Mompremier, Miami
A Big 12 team (Baylor) won the 2019 national title. But the league's three other teams in the NCAA tournament -- Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas -- didn't advance past the second round. The Lady Bears have carried the Big 12's banner, but that has put the other programs in the shade. Baylor has won or tied for the past nine Big 12 regular-season titles and nine of the past 11 league tournament championships. With forward Lauren Cox leading three returning starters and point guard Te'a Cooper transferring in, Baylor is not likely to give up its Big 12 crown in 2020. But other programs, especially Texas, will look to fare better in the NCAA tournament. The league is also going back to Kansas City for the Big 12 tournament and will play that a week later (March 12-15) than the other four power conferences have their league tournaments.
Can Oklahoma return to the NCAA tournament?
The Sooners made 19 consecutive appearances before that streak was snapped last season, when they went 8-22 overall and 4-14 in the Big 12. Shaina Pellington, who was Big 12 freshman of the year in 2018, transferred to Arizona after her playing time dwindled during the 2018-19 season. But the Sooners bring back four of their top five scorers, led by junior guard Ana Llanusa (18.3 PPG). Coach Sherri Coale shook up her staff, adding former Penn State coach Coquese Washington and Missouri State assistant Jackie Stiles to the Sooners' bench. -- Mechelle Voepel
espnW's preseason player of the year: Lauren Cox, Baylor
Welcome to the sixth annual installment of "Can anyone catch Maryland?" The Terrapins have owned the Big Ten since joining the conference, and Brenda Frese's team is again the favorite, led by All-American Kaila Charles, Taylor Mikesell and a typically robust recruiting class. Without a Rachel Banham, Kelsey Mitchell or Megan Gustafson around to slow them, it isn't clear that a challenge awaits. Like Iowa, Minnesota lost a special leading scorer in Kenisha Bell but otherwise returns a solid core for Lindsay Whalen's second season. Indiana and Michigan State return their leading scorers (Ali Patberg and Shay Colley, respectively) and most of their starting lineups but have more ground to make up after modest conference showings last season. Michigan walks a middle path, with super sub Naz Hillmon presumably ready to offset some notable losses in the starting lineup.
Are Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue on the mend?
One of Ohio State, Penn State or Purdue won at least a share of the Big Ten title in 15 of 16 seasons immediately preceding Maryland's arrival in the conference. All three of them were often near the top. But neither Purdue nor Penn State has finished in the top three since the Terrapins arrived, and after battling for titles with Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State slipped out of the mix a season ago as well.
Yet there appears to be reason for optimism with all three bellwether programs. Penn State starts fresh with coach Carolyn Kieger, a winner at Marquette. Built around all-league selections Ae'Rianna Harris and Karissa McLaughlin and well-regarded freshman Rickie Woltman, Purdue has the tools to escape mid-table purgatory. With five top-100 recruits, led by Kierstan Bell, Ohio State has a fighting chance this time around. -- Graham Hays
espnW's preseason player of the year: Kaila Charles, Maryland
Although the Pac-12 encompasses seemingly as much square mileage as it's possible for a conference to cover, the stretch that matters most this season is the corridor from the Bay Area through Oregon's Willamette Valley. Sure, Oregon assured its status as the team to beat in all of college basketball once Sabrina Ionescu opted to return for her final season of eligibility, but retaining the Pac-12 title will be almost as difficult for the Ducks as claiming their first national championship. With Stanford (No. 4 in espnW's preseason Top 25) buoyed by its best recruiting class in years and Oregon State (No. 6) still flush with backcourt depth headlined by Destiny Slocum and Mikayla Pivec, the Pac-12 has as many teams in the top six of our preseason rankings as the rest of the nation combined.
Can UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona or anyone else make it a top four?
UCLA will need to reconfigure after losing three of its four leading scorers, but it helps that Michaela Onyenwere is the one who returns. The Bruins will bank on Baylor transfer Natalie Chou and a freshman class ranked in similar territory as the heralded bunch at Stanford.
The story is similar at Arizona State, where the leading returning scorer averaged 7.2 points per game a season ago (not that Charli Turner Thorne's teams are ever too dependent on individual numbers). That could open the door for Arizona, where Aari McDonald is the nation's leading returning scorer and should get some backcourt help from Penn State transfer Amari Carter. -- Graham Hays
espnW's preseason player of the year: Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon
South Carolina and Mississippi State have become the titans of the SEC in recent years, and they're not going away. SEC media picked the Gamecocks, who have a stellar freshman class, to win the league behind senior starters Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. The Bulldogs lost three starters, including center Teaira McCowan, the No. 3 pick in the WNBA draft. But with seven letter-winners back and their much-heralded rookie class, the Bulldogs remain in the thick of things.
Don't count out Texas A&M, which SEC coaches tabbed as their preseason favorite. The Aggies bring back all their starters, led by junior guard Chennedy Carter, who was sixth in the nation in scoring last season (23.3 PPG). Kentucky returns 2019 national freshman of the year Rhyne Howard. Arkansas, trying to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015, is another team to watch. Even though Missouri lost all-time leading scorer Sophie Cunningham, keep an eye on freshman sensation Aijha Blackwell.
How will the Lady Vols do in their first season under coach Kellie Harper?
Of course the big question in the SEC is about Tennessee. Harper, a former Lady Vols point guard who was part of three NCAA championship teams, should have at least a little grace period. Tennessee lost three starters; one of them, Evina Westbrook, transferred to UConn. Replacing her at point guard will be sophomores Zaay Green and Jazmine Massengill, plus Jordan Horston, who's one of four freshmen for Tennessee. Junior guard/forward Rennia Davis (14.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG) is the top scorer/rebounder returning. An NCAA tournament appearance that lasts longer than 2019's first-round exit -- that was the tipping point in former coach Holly Warlick's being let go -- should be considered a success. -- Mechelle Voepel
espnW's preseason player of the year: Chennedy Carter, Texas A&M