October 15, 2021
The Next presents: Top 25 NCAA teams to watch
A look inside the best teams to start the year, the storylines and players to watch
There was a time when college basketball officially started at 12:01 am on October 15 each year. There were special events on campuses for fans to get a glimpse of their teams with contests and free T-shirts. In other gyms, managers were dragging out the ball rack at 11:59 pm waiting for coaches to blow their whistles to get things started. Or you could have been one of the lucky ones to have the official first day be before the sun came up at 6 am on the 15.
It is a different day for every team across the country now, but when the calendar flips to October, you can feel it – we are just weeks away from the start of women’s college basketball. Which teams are the known quantities in 2021-22? Who are the wildcards? Who have questions swirling around their program? Who are the unsung heroes, the key role players, the new faces and the X-factors to success? Are there names you know and ones you don’t? Absolutely, you just may not recognize them all – yet.
This Top 25 will highlight the best teams in the nation to start this season but give you some insight into what makes them go…let’s get started:
- STANFORD: If you want to be the best, you must beat the best, so until someone brings down the reigning national champions, the Cardinal has earned the No. 1 spot. They battled all season long through a grueling COVID year and won a national title with balance, teamwork, and defense. Replacing Kiana Williams out front is a huge task, but Anna Wilson returns for a sixth year to calm the waters. Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones and freshman center Cameron Brink will only be better this year along with a compliment of other veteran returns and newcomers.
The X-factor is 6’ senior guard Lexie Hull, who averaged 11.6 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game last year. Her demeanor and presence on the floor, decision making and willingness to get up and defend is what makes her a key piece to yet another successful campaign on The Farm in 2021-22.
2. CONNECTICUT: The young guns in Storrs got a taste of the Final Four last year and Paige Bueckers was named AP National Player of the Year. You add in the nation’s No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd, along with three other top-30 recruits and youth will be front and center. But there are a host of returners from a 28-2 squad who will be key contributors in the paint and on the perimeter.
Many times, the best compliment players are the ones with the most experience, and redshirt senior Evina Westbrook can be just that. She started all 30 games last year after transferring from Tennessee and really asserted herself late in the season. She had 17 points and 10 assists against Iowa in the NCAA Tournament and finished the season second on the team in assists. With her ability to see the floor and create, along with 3-point range, Westbrook is poised for a huge year for the Huskies.
3. SOUTH CAROLINA: Head coach Dawn Staley masterfully orchestrated a decisive gold medal win for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics in July. She will use that same touch to bring this Gamecock squad together, one that aims to return to the Final Four. It is a stacked roster of veterans with depth at every position – Zia Cooke, Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson, Victaria Saxton and Brea Beal all return and just so happen to be their top five scorers from a season ago.
Every team needs new blood and new faces; Staley and her staff added even more depth and talent with the number one recruiting class in the nation (per ESPN.com). One name to know is 6’1 freshman guard Saniya Rivers, the 2021 National Gatorade & USA Today Player of the Year. Hailing from North Carolina, Rivers is long and lanky, but incredibly skilled with 3-point range and has a game that is versatile enough to make a splash in a hurry in the SEC and on the national stage.
4. MARYLAND: Head coach Brenda Frese returns the core of her starters from a team that went 26-3 last season, took home the Big Ten Tournament championship and made a run to the Sweet 16. The Terrapins reap the benefit of two “super seniors” returning in transfers Kate Benzan and Chloe Bibby, who lead a dynamic group of scorers including guards Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller.
One to watch in College Park is 6’3 sophomore Angel Reese. Can she come into her own and live up to the expectations when she was the No. 2 ranked player in her class coming out of high school? She missed 14 games with a foot injury last season, but when she was healthy, she had an impact, hitting double figures in eight of 15 games. She’s got length, can score inside and out and is a handful for teams on the backboard with her size and bounce off the floor.
5. LOUISVILLE: Jeff Walz is no stranger to managing the shifts in his roster like a chess match. This past spring, the first move was knowing All-American guard Dana Evans was not coming back but making sure to surround returners like redshirt senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Haley Van Lith with talent from the No. 20-ranked 2021 recruiting class.
But the biggest move seems to be the addition of a pair of transfers that will add experience and instant offense for the Cardinals. 6’1 forward Emily Engstler averaged 10.5 points and 9.1 rebounds a game last year at Syracuse while 5’7 guard Chelsie Hall was a 1,000-point scorer during her career at Vanderbilt. Hall is a playmaker with high basketball IQ, and she should be a key contributor from day one.
6. INDIANA: Teri Moren has put her mark on the Indiana program as she heads into her 8th season as head coach. She has installed a system and style of play that sets her team up for success, with every player going hard every possession on both ends of the floor. The nucleus is back from an Elite 8 run and 21-6 record last year, led by first team All-Big Ten guard Grace Berger. Guard Jaelynn Penn transferred to UCLA, but the brightest news was the return of Ali Patberg, the 5’11 guard who will play her seventh year of college basketball. Patberg is a steady presence out front for the Hoosiers who averaged 14 points per game last year and is a career 78% free throw shooter. A note to Big Ten teams – foul her at your own risk.
7. IOWA: How lucky were we to have a season last year and watch the coming out party of All-American freshman Caitlin Clark? The sharpshooter averaged 26.6 points per game on her way to be winning the Dawn Staley Award given to the best all-around guard in the nation. But one player cannot carry the load all by herself if Lisa Bluder’s team wants to improve on their 18-9 record from a season ago. 6’3 senior Monika Czinano led the Big Ten in shooting percentage and was second in the nation last year – she needs to be a big presence inside. Iowa State transfer Kylie Feuerbach, who was a high school AAU teammate of Clark’s, will add depth and experience on the perimeter, having started 24 of 28 games as a freshman a year ago.
8. NC STATE: The Wolfpack’s season ended sooner than expected with a loss to Indiana in the Sweet 16, but the main pieces of their roster are back to try and improve on a 22-3 overall record. 6’5 all-American center Elissa Cunane returns along with three impact “super seniors” – forward Kayla Jones and guards Kai Crutchfield and Raina Perez. The bonus to an already stacked backcourt is Rutgers transfer Diamond Johnson. The 5’5 playmaker was an All-Big 10 Freshman Team selection a year ago. She can score off the dribble and in the open floor with a willingness to get up and defend. Coaches will tell you they always want more depth, and head coach Wes Moore has added another weapon to his roster.
9. MICHIGAN: Kim Barnes-Arico has spent nine years building a contender in Ann Arbor and as she heads into her tenth season with one of her most experienced rosters, she was rewarded with a new contract extension. The Wolverines were 16-6 last year and bulldozed their way to the Sweet 16 led by Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon. But the engine that makes them go is senior Leigha Brown (18.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game). The Nebraska transfer is a hustler, a leader with a nose for the basketball and 3-point range that extends the defense. She will set the tone Michigan from the jump this season.
10. KENTUCKY: The wild ride of the 2020-21 season probably wasn’t what Kyra Elzy envisioned for her first year as head coach of the Wildcats, but when you bring back the core of your roster, getting ready for year two will be exciting. Kentucky will be led by All-American senior Rhyne Howard who fills up a stat sheet as well as anyone and 6’1 redshirt junior Dre’una Edwards who had a solid year after transferring from Utah. But the question is who can be the compliment guards to score when needed, distribute and defend? Chasity Patterson is gone but senior Robyn Benton returns bringing experience and an aggressive game on both ends of the floor.
11. OREGON: The Ducks sit outside this Top 10 list because there are many questions in Eugene to start the season. The nucleus of their inside game returns with Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally, but they lost Erin Boley, a veteran sharpshooter, to graduation and guards Taylor Chavez and Taylor Mikesell to the transfer portal. Oregon finished 15-9 last year and were without All-Pac 12 5’9 guard Te-Hina Paopao for the last five games. She must stay healthy for them to have success. Who are the other guards that can fill the gaps from those that are gone? Some early non-conference match ups will answer many of the questions around this 2021-22 squad.
12. IOWA STATE: A year ago, the Cyclones finished 17-11 and 12-6 in Big 12 play. Versatile forward Kristin Scott has graduated but with a pure talent like All-American Ashley Joens and a roster of returners with experience, the fans in Hilton Coliseum are in for a treat. Head Coach Bill Fennelly has had so many great point guards during his time in Ames, but sophomore Emily Ryan may turn out to be one of the best. The 5’11 sophomore is the quarterback that leads this team – she can score at will if needed with range and the ability to finish in the open floor. But it’s the way she runs the offense and distributes the ball that allows this team to flourish. As a freshman she averaged almost 6 assists per game which was 11th in the nation – she’s ready for more this year.
13. OHIO STATE: During an up and down COVID season, the Buckeyes finished 13-7 last year and were not eligible for the NCAA Tournament due to a self-imposed one-year ban. Aaliyah Patty transferred to Texas A&M, but 3-point shooter Taylor Mikesell comes back to her Ohio roots after one year at Oregon. 5’11 guard Braxtin Miller returns for her “super senior” season and 5’10 guard Jacy Sheldon, the team’s leading scorer, returns as well. In what sets ups up to be a bounce-back year for Kevin McGuff’s squad, they do have a lot to prove.
14. BAYLOR: For the first time in over 20 years, there was a head coaching change at Baylor. With a completely new coaching staff, a new system and only nine players on the roster, there are many unknowns in Waco to start the season. The post game for the Bears is a given – All-American NaLyssa Smith and fellow center Queen Egbo are one of the most dynamic frontcourt duos in the nation. But who runs the show? DiDi Richards, DiJonai Carrington and Moon Ursin (transferred to Tulane) are gone. Two transfers, Jordan Lewis and Ja’Mee Asberry, have come in and returners Jaden Owens and Sarah Andrews are learning a new system. With only nine on the roster, there is no margin for injury, sickness or even foul trouble. Nicki Collen has a lot to prove in year one.
15. TEXAS A&M: Gary Blair has a gift for building teams, reloading, and winning games. The Aggies finished 25-3 last year and 13-1 as the SEC regular season champions. They lost their two top scorers from a year ago but return 1,000-point scorer Kayla Wells for her “super senior” season. A host of new faces, including 6’3 forward Aaliyah Patty from Ohio State, join a group of hard-working veterans looking to defend their SEC title. Keep an eye on 5’8 guard Jordan Nixon, whose 35 points and buzzer-beater against Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament can only give her confidence and catapult her into a big year.
16. WEST VIRGINIA: What’s not to love about a Mike Carey team? Every year, his squad is battle tested and wins games. Coming off a 22-7 record, the Mountaineers are loaded with a core group of returners, including All-Big 12 selection Esmery Martinez (who averaged a double-double last year) and KK Deans (13.7 points per game). They’ve added two talented transfers in Ari Gray (Xavier) and Yemiyah Morris (Mississippi State) as well. But the X-factor is senior Kari Niblack. At 6’1, the forward is undersized at times in the post, but she doesn’t back down – she’s got a nose for the ball on the boards, she works every possession for position and with great hands and touch shot almost 50% from the field. But she has to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor to help her team make a run this year.
17. TENNESSEE: As all teams did last year, the Lady Vols rode the COVID rollercoaster from start to finish, ending the year 17-8 and 9-4 in SEC play. Replacing Rennia Davis are big shoes to fill, but Kelli Harper brings back a talented group along with a highly ranked recruiting class. 6’1 senior Rae Burrell (16.8 points per game) returns along with juniors Tamari Key and Jordan Horston and senior guard Jordan Walker. A new face in Knoxville that can fill it up is Liberty transfer Keyen Green, the 6’1 forward who averaged 13.9 points per game. She shot 59% from the field a year ago – that kind of shooting touch can help Tennessee win 20+ games this season.
18. FLORIDA STATE: Things looked different last year without head coach Sue Semrau roaming the sidelines in Tallahassee. She is back for the 2021-22 season after taking a leave of absence – and she’s not the only one. All five starters return from a team that was 10-9 overall and 9-7 in the ACC, including redshirt senior Bianca Jackson (14.1 points per game) and leading rebounder, senior Morgan Jones. If the Seminoles want to return to a ninth straight NCAA tournament, they will need 3-point shooter Sammie Puisis to be more consistent from deep. The 6’1 junior guard shot just 29% while leading the team in made 3’s – their perimeter attack is critical to making a run.
19. MICHIGAN STATE: The race to the top of the Big 10 continues to get tougher and tougher, but do not be surprised to see Suzy Merchant’s squad right in the mix this year. The Spartans return their top seven scorers from a 15-9 season and this experienced group know their system and their roles. 5’8 guard Nia Clouden (18.7 points per game) had a big year and comes in with big expectations for 2021-22. But for this team to make waves they will need to battle in the paint and on the boards every time out in the Big 10. That starts with size and athleticism in the post and a pair of 6’3 returning forwards, Taiyier Parks and Alisia Smith.
20. MISSOURI STATE: Amaka Agugua-Hamilton is building the program to be reckoned with in the Missouri Valley by putting together back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. With an up-tempo and aggressive style, the Lady Bears finished 23-3 overall and lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Stanford. The reigning MVC Player of the Year, Brice Calip returns for her “super senior” season joining other veterans, a quality recruiting class and two transfers. Setting the tone in the backcourt with Calip is senior Jasmine Franklin, the reigning MVC Defensive Player of the Year. Franklin can also fill a stat sheet averaging 11.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Do not sleep on the Lady Bears
21. OREGON STATE: Even though Scott Rueck’s roster looks quite different than a year ago, a few key pieces remain in what needs to be a bounce back season for the Beavers. Guards Aleah Goodman (WNBA) and Sasha Goforth (transferred to Arkansas) are gone but reloading with two Top-50 ranked guards can help any backcourt. Look for 5’11 Talia von Oelhoffen and 6’ Greta Kampschroeder to have an impact right away. The key will be the health of 6’6 Kennedy Brown in the post, who is back after an ACL injury. With her size and ability to score around the rim and through contact, she and 6’4 Taylor Jones (12.3 points per game last year) can be a match up nightmare for opponents all season.
22. SOUTH FLORIDA: No one in their right mind would have thought a program could withstand a 31-day mid-season COVID shutdown and bounce back, but the South Florida Bulls did just that in 2020-21. They captured the AAC regular and tournament titles and secured a No. 8 seen in the NCAA tournament. Head coach Jose Fernandez recruits players that fit into his system and they earn every win. Leading scorer Elena Tsineke returns (13.6 points per game) as well as 5’8 point guard Elisa Pinzan who averaged almost 6.5 assists per game last year. Look for two transfers from fellow AAC school Memphis to add depth and make an immediate impact – 5’10 point guard Aerial Wilson and 6’4 forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, who led Memphis in scoring, rebounding and blocks a year ago
23. SOUTH DAKOTA: If there is one team in the country that will relish in the COVID eligibility year, it will be South Dakota. Coming off a 19-6 season and back-to-back Summit League tournament titles, Dawn Plitzuweit enters her sixth year with her top three “super senior” scorers back. Guards Olivia Korngable (led the team in assists) and Chloe Lamb along with post Hannah Sjerven (top scorer and rebounder) will lead a pack of veterans and newcomers into early non-conference tests. The 6’2 Sjerven is a tireless working on both ends, but she must stay healthy and out of foul trouble for them to have another successful season.
24. FLORIDA GULF COAST: A winning streak that spanned over five months last season ended with the Eagles losing to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament and finishing 26-3. Head Coach Karl Smesko runs an up-tempo system and brings in high volume scorers and playmakers to execute it. Leading scorer junior Kierstan Bell (24.3 points per game) returns along with a mix of others with experience. Three impact transfers signed in the off-season – Kaela Webb (Detroit Mercy), Karli Seay (LSU) and 3-point shooter Kendall Spray (Clemson). But the spark that fuels this team is 5’3 guard Tishara Morehouse. She not only averaged 17.7 points per game last season but had 103 assists. She can distribute, see the floor in transition and score – a well-rounded guard who runs the show for 40 minutes.
25. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE: Finishing the regular conference season undefeated is hard to do, and even more difficult during a pandemic. The Jackrabbits were 14-0 in the Summit League in 2020-21 and finished the year 21-4. They were led by Summit Player of the Year Myah Selland, who averaged 19.2 points per game. Selland went down late in the season with an injury and the team was never the same. She is back but the question is what is her status, and will she be 100%? This is a deep roster for head coach Aaron Johnston, with talents like 6’ scoring forwards Paiton Burckhard and Tylee Irwin returning. But as Selland goes, so does the winter in chilly Brookings.
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!