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Some say 'this year is wide open' -- but is it really?

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College coaches gush over opposing star players' talents (2:30)

Some of the top NCAA women's basketball coaches describe competing against Brianna Turner, Kelsey Mitchell, Diamond DeShields, Kelsey Plum, Makayla Epps and Myisha Hines-Allen in their conferences. (2:30)

So when was the last time a team generally regarded as "unexpected" won the NCAA women's basketball title? That would be 2011, when Texas A&M beat No. 1 seeds Baylor and Stanford, and then fellow No. 2 seed Notre Dame on the way to claiming the championship.

The Aggies had a very good team that year, obviously, and you can hardly call a No. 2 seed a Cinderella. But Texas A&M had never won a title before and wasn't a popular pick to win that year.

Since then, though, Baylor won as a favorite in 2012, and UConn did the same in 2013-16. When those outside of women's basketball inquired about a "dark horse" in that time span, it was hard for any of us who follow the game to really believe there was one. (Although No. 5 seed Louisville made a run for it in 2013, with defending champ Baylor its biggest conquest on the way to losing the title game to UConn.)

But what about this season? We've already examined how projections for the national player of the year award and All-American teams might look one way now and rather different when we get closer to season's end.

"There's so many good teams. ... I think you're going to see that No. 1 [ranking] moving around a little bit, and that's going to be a good thing for the game." Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw

Is it a similar scenario for the teams themselves? As the season gets underway Friday, that sense of possibility is in the air more so than has been the case for a while. Or at least everybody is telling themselves that. We'll have to see if it's actually true.

"This year is wide open, because you look and say, 'Who is going to be No. 1?' " said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, whose team has that distinction in the Associated Press' preseason poll.

"You look at South Carolina, Baylor, Ohio State, Louisville -- there's so many good teams. And obviously, Connecticut, having won four in a row, they're always in the conversation. But I think you're going to see that No. 1 moving around a little bit, and that's going to be a good thing for the game."

UConn coach Geno Auriemma appears to agree with all that.

"This is a much more realistic picture of what it's like in the world of team sports and coaching," Auriemma said of his Huskies being among the teams that have the potential to be champions, not the prohibitive favorites.

"We've lived in a world that very few people get to live in. And they may get to live in it once in their careers. Some people, twice. But never in a row, 1-2-3-4."

Never except for UConn. Yet could the Huskies' national-championship string extend to five? Of course it could. UConn, which has won 75 consecutive games, still has a lot of talent, despite losing players who went first-second-third in the WNBA draft. We've seen UConn rise to the occasion too often to not strongly consider the Huskies as contenders.

Still, the Huskies' four-peat last year didn't prevent several other interesting storylines from getting noticed. Perhaps the most gratifying for the participants was the surge in the Pac-12, which got two teams -- Oregon State and Washington -- into the Final Four and felt that, as a conference, it finally got its due.

"I feel there's a level of responsibility to keep it going," said Cori Close, whose UCLA squad is picked to win the conference this season. "Not only to think about our own growth, but how to continue to think strategically about the growth of the conference."

"We need this next phase with other people stepping up to that standard that UConn has done such a great job setting. ... It's an important year to grow the game." UCLA coach Cori Close

And, by extension, the growth of the game nationally.

"I'm not one of the UConn 'haters' in terms of thinking it was bad for the game that they won so much. I don't think so," Close said. "I think they've set a bar that's gotten people's attention. Like, 'Wow, the women's game is being played at such a high level.'

"But I also think we need this next phase with other people stepping up to that standard that UConn has done such a great job setting. I think there's this optimism this year, and there's going to be drama in the NCAA tournament. It's an important year to grow the game."

That's a phrase that has been used for a long time, and it can seem trite. Plus, the fact is, other than UConn's inevitability, there actually was pretty big drama in the postseason last season, too, with three of the No. 1 seeds -- South Carolina, Notre Dame and Baylor -- all losing before the Final Four.

But this season, there does seem a chance that the final page of the script isn't already written. So as we get started, that's something to whet everyone's appetite for what we're about to see.