Teams and players to watch as 2008-09 unfolds

History suggests this season's national champion probably will emerge from within the ranks of teams ranked in the preseason top 10. And if you're the kind of person who flips to the last page of a book without pausing to enjoy everything that comes before, feel free to pay attention to those teams and those teams alone.

But half the fun of the march toward April comes from the plotlines that unfold elsewhere across the nation, even if most of them will have been wrapped up well before the hoops world gathers in St. Louis.

So from Final Four sleepers to teams shooting for even a single postseason win, here are a handful of teams and players who might prove worthy of your attention.

Major conferences

Oklahoma is getting most of the preseason support for the Big 12 title, but Baylor could get the last laugh. (It says something that our own Mechelle Voepel, who knows the Big 12 as well as anyone, was the lone ESPN.com voice to pick the Lady Bears to win the league.) Some of that will depend on how well guard Jhasmin Player regains her form. Before Player suffered a torn ACL last season, the Lady Bears looked like the league's best postseason bet, and she had 11 assists and no turnovers in two exhibition appearances this fall. But if some kind of backcourt consistency emerges from Player, sophomore Melissa Jones and four intriguing freshmen, coach Kim Mulkey has the kind of athletic frontcourt (including USC transfer Morghan Medlock) she needs to regain top billing. And she didn't even have to wait for Brittney Griner.
Best-case scenario:
Final Four

Renovating the Boilermakers won't take nearly as long as the face-lift that's in the works for Mackey Arena, the team's venerable home on campus. Purdue lost a little luster last season, dropping from 31 wins the season before to the NCAA tournament bubble and an eventual 19-15 record, but some of that was caused by circumstances beyond its control. Without injured starters Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Jodi Howell, adjusting to life without graduated stars Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless didn't go so well (as in a 90-72 loss at North Carolina and an unthinkable 100-50 home loss to Connecticut).

Now Wisdom-Hylton and Howell are back, as is 84 percent of the scoring from a team that closed last season on a 10-5 run. Wisdom-Hylton's return understandably draws attention, but Howell (who hit at a 40 percent clip from behind the arc two seasons ago) could be equally important for a team that was abysmal from long range last season.

Best-case scenario:
Elite Eight

Iowa State:
The Cyclones didn't crack the top 25 in either national poll, but the folks who keep the closest eye on the Big 12 seem to think differently. League coaches voted Iowa State third in the preseason poll and made the Cyclones the only team other than preseason favorite Oklahoma to receive more than one first-place vote. Maybe that's just respect for Bill Fennelly, one of the good eggs of the coaching world and one of the deans of the conference benches, but don't bet the farm on simple flattery.

Iowa State should be better both for getting injured players back and for having survived without them, thanks to a roster that returns largely intact. Toccara Ross returns from an ACL injury and gives the Cyclones a good option on the wing and one of the college game's best rebounders shorter than 6 feet tall. And 6-foot-4 post Nicky Wieben returns to give the post game a scoring option with a soft touch. Add that to a typically potent bunch of shooters and Australian Alison Lacey, one of the best point guards nobody is talking about.

Best-case scenario:
Elite Eight

Wake Forest: It's not easy for a team to win games when it shoots 37.6 percent from the field, but it's a lot easier when your opponents fare even worse. Maybe Wake Forest games weren't the most aesthetically pleasing experiences last season, but it looks as if fifth-year coach Mike Petersen has the program moving in the right direction on defense. The NCAA tournament might still be out of reach, but postseason play isn't out of the question.

The Demon Deacons have won a total of five conference games in the past three seasons, but the defense has improved dramatically over that time (from opponents shooting 43.5 percent three seasons ago to 36.7 percent last season) and five ACC wins this season is not an unreasonable goal. Senior Corinne Groves is a legitimate ACC post, and a full season from point guard Tiffany Roulhac would help improve the team's offense.
Best-case scenario: WNIT, ACC factor

Mid-major conferences

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs fell victim to the fickle finger of conference tournament arithmetic last season, cruising to the regular-season title before ceding the West Coast Conference's automatic NCAA bid to fast-closing San Diego on the Toreros' home court in the tournament final. That didn't diminish the team's accomplishment of winning 25 games, including victories against Marquette, Montana and Washington, but it did dim the available spotlight.

Luckily, the rest of the country essentially gets a second chance to see the show, as four of five starters return this season, along with two key reserves. That list includes WCC Player of the Year Heather Bowman, a 6-2 junior forward who averaged 20.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, as well as superb sophomore point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Best-case scenario:
Sweet 16

Southern Miss:
There are a number of candidates to be this season's UTEP as a Conference USA team to make its way into the top 25, a list that has to include UTEP. East Carolina is another of the league's intriguing teams, led by the backcourt of LaCoya Terry and Jasmine Young. But it's hard to get past the potential Southern Miss has to offer.

The Golden Eagles return all five starters from a team that won 21 games, including redshirt junior Pauline Love (16.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game). Although the team managed just an 8-8 record in conference play, it did produce an impressive field goal percentage differential, shooting 46.5 from the floor while limiting opponents to 38.1 percent shooting. Committing 100 more turnovers than its opponents went a long way toward negating that effort, but senior point guard Andrea Barber (6.1 assists per game, 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio) could bring the up-tempo offense under greater control.
Best-case scenario: Sweet 16

UC Santa Barbara:
A Brown graduate with a master's in philosophy of education from Syracuse, Lindsay Gottlieb isn't going to be outsmarted. And Joanne Boyle's former lieutenant at Cal expertly assessed the sideline real-estate market for her first head-coaching job. Far from being a fixer-upper inherited from retiring mainstay Mark French, UCSB is a mid-major dream job.

Jessica Wilson, last season's leading scorer, graduated, but the Gauchos' new coach has a lot of old talent on hand. That includes Jenna Green, a first team all-conference selection and the team's MVP two years ago. Green, who missed last season with chronic back spasms (the second season-ending injury of her college career), was awarded a sixth year of eligibility over the summer, and she'll be a game-changer if she's able to play at anything close to the level that saw her average 16.6 points and 7.1 rebounds as a junior.
Best-case scenario: NCAA tournament second round

Illinois State: The top four teams in the nation last season in assist-to-turnover ratio: LSU, Connecticut, Illinois State and Stanford. That's not bad company to keep for a program on the rise that returns four starters and three of its top four reserves. The Redbirds also ranked sixth in the nation in scoring average, eighth in field goal percentage, 18th in scoring margin and 32nd in 3-point field goal percentage. They do all the little things right, which adds up to a team capable of some very big things.

Point guard Kristi Cirone has had her case made frequently and vociferously here, but Illinois State is more than the two-time reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. Forwards Ashleen Bracey and Kenyatta Shelton can guard major-conference wings and helped the Redbirds outrebound opponents by nearly six boards a game. Center Nicolle Lewis is a 6-5 post with a soft touch (think Rik Smits) and guard Maggie Krick is a long-range weapon with passing skills.
Best-case scenario: Sweet 16

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.