NCAA
Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com 8d

Five storylines to watch unfold in 2017-18

Women's College Basketball, Tennessee Lady Vols, Connecticut Huskies, South Carolina Gamecocks, Marquette Golden Eagles

Like a new season of a television series, the start of the 2017-18 women's basketball season has many storylines we're about to see play out. Here are just five of many to keep an eye on.

1. Can Tennessee establish a new (old) identity?

The famed Winston Churchill line about Russia's intentions being a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma likely has been used more than once to describe Tennessee in the past few years.

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick and her players have seemed as perplexed as everyone else over the past few seasons as to why the Lady Vols can appear to be two entirely different teams, sometimes even in the same week.

Last season, for instance, Tennessee was the only team to beat eventual national champion South Carolina on the Gamecocks' home court. But after that Jan. 30 game, the Lady Vols lost three of their next five.

Tennessee then soundly defeated the other eventual participant in the national championship game, Mississipppi State, in front of a huge Bulldog crowd in Starkville in the regular-season finale.

Yet in the next game, their SEC tournament opener, the Lady Vols lost to Alabama for the second time in the season. Tennessee won its NCAA tournament first-round game over Dayton, and then lost to host Louisville in the second round.

There was drama in the offseason, as guard Te'a Cooper, who sat out last season with a knee injury, left Tennessee after a reported altercation with a teammate and transferred to South Carolina. Then guard Diamond DeShields announced she was forgoing her final year of eligibility and would play professionally overseas.

Tennessee's reputation for so long was a tough-as-nails team that was particularly strong in crunch time. Of course, the program has been through so much in the past six years after losing former coach Pat Summitt. But Warlick is determined to try to restore the Lady Vols' famous resolve.

Since Summitt stepped down in 2012, Tennessee has reached the NCAA Elite Eight in 2013, '15 and '16, and the Sweet 16 in 2014. Last year's exit was Tennessee's earliest since a first-round shocker against Ball State in 2009. So the Lady Vols have had postseason success. Just not to the degree Tennessee is used to -- meaning Final Fours -- plus, there have been disappointing regular-season losses that don't sit well with the fan base.

Tennessee has experienced players back, led by center Mercedes Russell and guard/forward Jaime Nared, and a much-discussed freshman class, highlighted by guard Evina Westbrook. But re-establishing the Tennessee "brand name" is a lot to put on their shoulders. There's talent in Knoxville, but how well it comes together is, again, the big unknown.

2. What -- if any -- challenge does UConn face?

When the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx obtained 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles in a trade midway through the 2015 season, coach Cheryl Reeve was ecstatic. But she also cautioned that integrating another great player into an already stellar lineup wasn't as easy as just tossing out the ball and watching them go. Fowles' size and skill set were wonderful to have, but the Lynx had to determine the best way to use her while not subtracting too much from what they already did so well.

Minnesota has won two of the past three WNBA titles, with Fowles being the WNBA Finals MVP both times. So, yeah, they've figured it out. How does that relate to UConn?

The Huskies had three first-team All-Americans last season with Napheesa Collier, Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson. Adding 6-foot-6 Azurá Stevens -- a different type of player than Fowles, but still one who brings length and athleticism on both ends of the court -- is a terrific option to have. But it will take some adjusting from everyone else.

Coach Geno Auriemma sees a parallel to what the Lynx did with Fowles. And he thinks that as they work through it over the course of the season, the Huskies, with Stevens, will be very, very good. Unbeatable, perhaps.

"What are her strengths? Too many to mention. What are her weaknesses? She's too nice a kid," Auriemma said, smiling. "Which, if that's the worst thing I can say about her, means we're OK."

3. How exciting is the new normal in the Pac-12?

There were a lot of years when this league was Stanford and ... well, that was really it for top-level teams. That has changed considerably. But there has been no drop-off at Stanford; the Cardinal have been able to remain at a high level, reaching the Final Four for the 13th time last season.

With better scheduling, coaching changes, recruiting success and energized rivalries, the Pac-12 has become must-see. There's a lot to look forward to with the conference race and some big showdown games.

But two marquee back-to-back games in November for conference favorite UCLA will provide an immediate spotlight for the league. The Bruins host Baylor on Nov. 18 and then UConn on Nov. 21 (ESPNU, 10:30 p.m. ET).

UCLA also will start conference play in late December with a bang, facing Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Oregon in its first four Pac-12 games. We should know quite a bit about the Bruins by the first week of January.

4. Who might emerge outside the Power 5?

If you take UConn out of the equation, there has not been a Women's Final Four participant from outside a so-called "power" conference since 2001 when Missouri State made it out of the Missouri Valley. (That's including the former Big East as a major conference before realignment.)

In short, it has been a long time since a more standard Cinderella team made it to the final weekend. Last season, No. 12 seed Quinnipiac made a run to the Sweet 16 before falling to South Carolina. Dayton advanced to the Elite Eight in 2015, but then ran into the UConn buzzsaw. Gonzaga also made it that far in 2011, but fell to Stanford. And the Cardinal survived Xavier on a buzzer-beater in a 2010 regional final.

One of the challenges that so-called midmajor conferences face is where they get seeded (not always fairly) for the NCAA tournament. They have to make as much noise as possible in nonconference play to help them out in that regard.

Ranked No. 17 in espnW's preseason top 25 poll, Marquette of the Big East is the highest-ranked team among the non-Power 5 other than No. 1 UConn. And the Huskies' fellow American Athletic Conference team, South Florida, is No. 20.

The Golden Eagles have an opportunity for big-impact wins in nonconference play against the likes of Tennessee, Michigan and Notre Dame. The Bulls could do the same against LSU, Oklahoma and Michigan State.

5. Are we underestimating the defending national champions?

South Carolina is No. 2 in the coaches' preseason poll and got seven No. 1 votes. The Gamecocks are No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, where UConn got all 32 first-place votes. But in our espnW poll, South Carolina is No. 7.

We believe it will take a little time for the Gamecocks to establish themselves beyond standout senior A'ja Wilson this season, after losing three starters. Dawn Staley has said she'll be coaching this group somewhat in the mode of her early Gamecock teams, when defense was what they primarily relied on.

But South Carolina might be a better offensive team sooner than Staley expects. If nothing else, the Gamecocks will be different in a lot of ways, with some new faces getting a chance.

You could say the pressure is off the Gamecocks after winning their first national championship. But that doesn't mean they'll be playing contented this season. Not with Staley at the helm. South Carolina has claimed the top rung in the SEC, and the Gamecocks won't surrender that position easily.

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