UConn again top dog as Huskies open as preseason favorite

Three-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut was a unanimous pick to lead off our preseason top 25, as voted by espnW.com's Charlie Creme, Graham Hays, Michelle Smith and Mechelle Voepel, and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. Creme provides the analysis for each team below.

1. Connecticut

2014-15: 38-1; national champion
Points (highest/lowest vote): 125 (1/1)
Notable returners: Breanna Stewart (17.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG); Morgan Tuck (14.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG); Moriah Jefferson (12.4 PPG, 4.9 APG)

Four years ago, Stewart said her goal was to win four national championships at UConn. The time to complete that mission has arrived. The Huskies' past two title runs came in dominant fashion and they are the heavy favorites to fulfill Stewart's quest. That recruiting class of Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck has gone 113-5 (Tuck did miss most of the 40-0 run in 2014) to rank among the best Geno Auriemma has had. Another title would also go a long way in the case for Stewart as the Huskies' best player ever. The Huskies will miss sharp-shooting Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the all-time NCAA leader in 3-pointers made, but in comes the nation's top recruit, Katie Lou Samuelson, as a possible replacement. Kia Nurse should also be better as a sophomore, but the wild card could be 6-foot-5 sophomore transfer Natalie Butler. As a freshman at Georgetown, Butler averaged 13.9 points and 13.4 rebounds, fifth-best in the country. She should help offset the loss of the underrated Kiah Stokes.

2. South Carolina

2014-15: 34-3; lost in the Final Four
Points: 119 (2/3)
Notable returners: Tiffany Mitchell (14.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG); A'ja Wilson (13.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG); Alaina Coates (11.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG)

When Dawn Staley took over at South Carolina, the Gamecocks were an SEC afterthought. Now Colonial Life Arena has more than 10,000 season-ticket holders and, fresh off its first Final Four appearance, the program has expectations. Staley wouldn't have it any other way. The eighth-year coach has three potential All-Americans. Mitchell, a senior, is a two-time SEC Player of the Year and will remain the centerpiece of the offense -- that is unless the 6-5 Wilson goes from good to great in her sophomore season. Wilson and Coates, a junior, are now regular starters for the first time and a high-low post nightmare for opponents. South Carolina is also deep, and the key complementary piece will be Virginia transfer Sarah Imovbioh, the ACC's leading rebounder (10.8) a season ago.

3. Tennessee

2014-15: 30-6; lost in the Elite Eight
Points: 109 (2/9)
Notable returners: Bashaara Graves (10.6 PPG, 7.0 RPG); Jordan Reynolds (7.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG); Andraya Carter (7.2 PPG, 2.1 APG)

Three years ago, they were two of the top three high school recruits in the country. This season, Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields will be collegiate teammates in Knoxville, giving coach Holly Warlick the most talented team she has had in her four seasons in charge of the Lady Vols. Russell (surgery on both feet) and DeShields (transfer from North Carolina and the 2014 national freshman of the year) sat out last season and watched Tennessee fall short of the Final Four for the seventh year in a row. Now they join a solid returning core of Graves, Carter, Reynolds and Jasmine Jones, who also missed most of last season with concussion issues. Road trips to Stanford, Oregon State and Notre Dame outside of the usual SEC grind should have the Lady Vols plenty tournament-ready come March.

4. Notre Dame

2014-15: 36-3; lost in NCAA title game
Points: 106 (3/8)
Notable returners: Brianna Turner (13.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG); Taya Reimer (10.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG); Lindsay Allen (10.4 PPG, 5.3 APG)

Jewell Loyd's decision to leave the Irish with a year of eligibility remaining disappointed and even angered many in South Bend. Yet losing star players and maintaining excellence has become the norm for Notre Dame. Muffet McGraw got her team to the Final Four the season after Skylar Diggins graduated. She did the same after Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa departed. That is why Notre Dame remains one of the favorites to reach Indianapolis on a sixth straight trip to the Final Four. Turner is primed to be the next Irish star. Allen, a junior point guard, and Reimer, a post, took their games to another level during last spring's NCAA tournament and have become leaders. Highly regarded newcomers Marina Mabrey, the New Jersey player of the year, and three-time Wisconsin player of the year Arike Ogunbowale, should make the always efficient Notre Dame offense even deeper.

5. Baylor

2014-15: 33-4; lost in Elite Eight
Points: 105 (4/7)
Notable returners: Nina Davis (21.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG); Khadijiah Cave (9.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG); Niya Johnson (7.3 PPG, 8.9 APG)

Kim Mulkey brought in one of the best and the biggest recruiting classes in the country. Kalani Brown (6-7), Beatrice Mompremier (6-4), and Justis Szczepanski (6-3) should give the Lady Bears more of an inside defensive presence, but they will take a back seat on the offensive end to a much smaller post player. Davis, a 5-11 junior, remains one of the slickest, most resourceful scorers the game has seen in awhile. She and point guard Johnson, the country's leader in assists in 2015, are every bit as consistent as they are efficient. The arrival of former All-ACC point guard Alexis Jones, a Duke transfer, gives Johnson some help and Mulkey some interesting lineup options.

6. Ohio State

2014-15: 24-11; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 98 (5/8)
Notable returners: Kelsey Mitchell (24.9 PPG, 4.2 APG); Ameryst Alston (19.8 PPG, 4.0 APG); Alexa Hart (12.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG)

Last season's early-season struggles should not repeat. The Buckeyes took off once Mitchell and Alston grew accustomed to playing alongside one another. They became the most prolific scoring duo in the country and Kevin McGuff's club became much better in the second half of the season. That momentum should catapult Ohio State into a permanent spot in the top 10. Hart and Shayla Cooper were also double-figure scorers for the fourth-best offense in the country. They were also the club's top two rebounders, and after a minus-3.9 rebounding margin in 2014, that's the area the Buckeyes must improve to threaten the nation's best teams in the biggest moments.

7. Oregon State

2014-15: 27-5; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 91 (3/10)
Notable returners: Jamie Weisner (13.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG); Ruth Hamblin (12.9 PPG, 8.6 RPG); Sydney Wiese (12.7 PPG, 5.6 APG)

After the best season in Oregon State history, the Beavers have a chance to be even better with four of five starters back. Weisner and Wiese are both 40 percent shooters from beyond the 3-point line, which keeps defenders off Hamblin. The 6-6 senior center is the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year who has improved into a quietly dominant inside force for Scott Rueck. The sixth-year coach has given new life to the program with 51 wins in the past two seasons. The downside is that only two of those wins have come in the NCAA tournament. The Beavers were bounced in the second round in both 2014 and 2015. Another Pac-12 title and a deep run in March would solidify the program-changing careers of Weisner and Hamblin.

8. Florida State

2014-15: 32-5; lost in Elite Eight
Points: 90 (6/15)
Notable returners: Adut Bulgak (12.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG); Leticia Romero (11.0 PPG, 5.3 APG); Ivey Slaughter (10.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG)

The Seminoles might have been the most surprising team in the country last season and came within a couple of possessions of reaching the Final Four. The surprise factor will not help Florida State this season, not with four double-figure scorers back and two potential All-Americans in Romero, who will be around for an entire season this year, and Bulgak. While Florida State has as much veteran leadership as anyone in the ACC, rebounding was the key to the Seminoles' rise -- and 93 percent of it, led by Bulgak, returns. Notre Dame was the only thing standing in the way of both an ACC regular-season and tournament title, and the Irish must travel to Tallahassee this season.

9. Louisville

2014-15: 27-7; lost in Sweet 16
Points: 84 (5/13)
Notable returners: Mariya Moore (13.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG); Myisha Hines-Allen (11.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG); Arica Carter (2.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG)

The Cardinals are young -- of the 10-player roster, nine are freshmen or sophomores -- and not particularly deep, but Jeff Walz has no shortage of talent. Sophomores Moore and Hines-Allen formed an outstanding duo a season ago, as the scoring leaders on a team full of veterans. Both were recognized among the best freshmen nationally and this season are joined by five more rookies hoping to do the same. Guard Asia Durr leads Walz's recruiting haul. She is the two-time Georgia Player of the Year and has loads of international experience with Team USA. Taja Cole should assume the point guard duties right away. Bigs Erin DeGrate and Samantha Fuehring, along with guard Brianna Jones, round out the class that should make Louisville's future even brighter.

10. Maryland

2014-15: 34-3; lost in the Final Four
Points: 75 (7/19)
Notable returners: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (13.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG); Brionna Jones (12.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG); Malina Howard (5.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG)

The Terrapins suffered as many losses this offseason as they did during last season. After going unbeaten in their Big Ten debut en route to a second straight Final Four, assistants Tina Langley and Marlin Chinn left for head coaching positions (Rice and Florida International, respectively) and Lexie Brown, an All-Big Ten point guard and the team's second-leading scorer last season, transferred to Duke. Brown's departure leaves a major hole, but Brene Moseley is an experienced replacement at the point. Walker-Kimbrough, an athletic wing, and posts Jones and Howard give the Terps plenty of offensive options. Walker-Kimbrough and Jones also should be among the Big Ten's best players. Incoming freshmen Brianna Fraser (6-3) and Kiah Gillespie (6-2) could be immediate offensive help.

11. Duke

2014-15: 23-11; lost in Sweet 16
Points: 68 (9/19)
Notable returners: Rebecca Greenwell (14.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG); Azura Stevens (14.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG); Oderah Chidom (8.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG)

The Elizabeth Williams' era is over and the next three seasons in Durham might become known as the Azura Stevens' era. The 6-6 sophomore set or tied six Duke freshmen records and seems poised to be a top-15 player in the game. She gets plenty of help on the perimeter from Greenwell, who should be an even better scorer with reduced ballhandling responsibilities. The Blue Devils have been plagued with point guard problems the past two seasons with injuries to Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones, and then Jones' decision to transfer. The arrival of Angela Salvadores, a top-10 recruit from Spain, should change that. She highlights what is considered the nation's top freshmen class. Chidom, a 6-4 forward whose promising season was derailed by a shoulder injury, and 6-4 Amber Henson, who finally had a healthy season, give Joanne P. McCallie veteran size and versatility.

12. Mississippi State

2014-15: 27-7; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 61 (9/25)
Notable returners: Victoria Vivians (14.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG); Morgan William (9.1 PPG, 3.6 APG); Brianna Richardson (8.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG)

The Bulldogs created a bunch of "bests" a season ago: 27 overall wins, 11 SEC victories and a third-place conference finish. And the expectations in Starkville are that Mississippi State will reset those numbers again. Vic Schaefer has quickly remade the program and his young team is poised to make another big jump. Vivians is the offensive catalyst and is just a sophomore, as is Williams, the point guard. Those two lead a deep and athletic roster that got even better with the addition of high school All-American post Teaira McCowan.

13. Stanford

2014-15: 26-10; lost in Sweet 16
Points: 60 (7/17)
Notable returners: Lili Thompson (13.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG); Karlie Samuelson (6.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG); Kaylee Johnson (5.9 PPG, 9.6 RPG)

For the first time since the 1999-2000 season, the Cardinal were not the preseason pick to win the Pac-12. But other streaks -- 28 straight NCAA tournament appearances and 14 consecutive 20-win seasons -- appear safe. Whether Stanford reaches a ninth Sweet 16 in a row might depend on whether Tara VanDerveer finds a suitable replacement for primary ball handler Amber Orrange, made more necessary with last season's switch to a more fast break-oriented offense. It also might depend on Kaylee Johnson and Erica McCall breaking out (and they appear ready to). McCall is coming off a successful summer as a top performer on a gold-medal winning Team USA at the World University Games. Thompson remains the top offensive threat and Samuelson should assume the role of top 3-point threat.

14. Texas

2014-15: 24-11; lost in Sweet 16
Points: 59 (10/21)
Notable returners: Imani Boyette (9.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG); Kelsey Lang (10.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG); Ariel Atkins (9.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG)

Texas might have really challenged Baylor for the Big 12 title a season ago had injuries not derailed a team that was ranked in the top five at one point. Fortunately for Karen Aston, the players that were healthy enough to get the Longhorns to the Sweet 16 return, most notably the post duo of Boyette (née McGee-Stafford) and Lang. Aston used a number of guard combinations with Atkins and Brady Sanders getting the most minutes. Empress Davenport, Celina Rodrigo and Brooke McCarty have more competition in the rotation from highly regarded freshman Lashann Higgs, who could solidify the point guard spot.

15. Arizona State

2014-15: 29-6; lost in Sweet 16
Points: 58 (12/16)
Notable returners: Katie Hempen (12.0 PPG, 2.4 APG); Sophie Brunner (11.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG); Elisha Davis (7.5 PPG, 4.5 APG)

This time last year no one could have thought the Sun Devils would end up one-point short of a 30-win season and an appearance in a regional final. But that was exactly the cost of ASU's near miss against Florida State in the Sweet 16. Arizona State exceeded everyone's expectations by a mile. Now almost all of those same Sun Devils are back, led by the confident and fearless Hempen, a guard, and Brunner in the post. Of course, balanced playing time remains the hallmark of Charli Turner Thorne's ASU teams. Nine players averaged double-figure minutes a season ago and that isn't likely to change.

16. Texas A&M

2014-15: 23-10, lost in NCAA tournament first round
Points: 56 (11/18)
Notable returners: Courtney Williams (14.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG); Courtney Walker (14.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG); Jordan Jones (9.0 PPG, 6.6 APG)

Williams and Walker have often been regarded as Texas A&M's best players in their three seasons in College Station, but Jones showed late last season by not playing that she might be Gary Blair's true MVP. When Jones suffered a knee injury in late February, it effectively ended what had been a promising season. The Aggies stumbled to a 1-4 finish. With Jordan, the two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, back this will be a backcourt-dominant team. Williams and Walker are both slashing wings who do most of their damage inside the 3-point line. The Aggies will also get 5-8 Shlonte Allen back. She missed all but six games with a leg injury, but came to A&M a year ago as the top-rated junior college guard in the country.

17. Kentucky

2014-15: 24-10; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 45 (13/22)
Notable returners: Makayla Epps (14.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG); Janee Thompson (10.1 PPG, 3.0 APG); Alexis Jennings (7.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG)

Kentucky is loaded with talent, but probably have more "ifs" attached to their season than any team in the top 25. The Wildcats will be a top-four NCAA tournament seed ... if Thompson is completely back from an ankle injury that cost her the final 17 games of last season and becomes a full-time point guard ... if Epps becomes more of a leader and learned from her offseason alcohol-related arrest ... if they can quickly recover from Linnae Harper's last-minute decision to transfer ... if Jennings and Alyssa Rice make sizable leaps in production as sophomores ... if Evelyn Akhator, the top-rated junior college recruit in the country, and highly regarded freshman Batouly Camara can make an immediate impact. If Matthew Mitchell's infectious enthusiasm gets his team through a challenging early schedule, expect the Wildcats to be much better come February than they are in November.

18. South Florida

2014-15: 27-8; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 43 (10/20)
Notable returners: Courtney Williams (20.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG); Alisia Jenkins (12.8 PPG, 11.3 RPG); Laura Ferreira (7.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG)

It's hard to imagine improving on a school-record 27 wins and a program-best No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, but those are the expectations for South Florida. This is the season that Jose Fernandez has been building toward since he began roaming the Bulls' sidelines in 2000. That's because it's the senior season for Williams, possibly the best player in program history. The AAC's leading scorer a season ago, Williams anchors a group of five returning starters that also includes the conference's top rebounder in Jenkins, a senior. A neutral site game against Mississippi State just after Christmas will be a good litmus test for South Florida's ability to take an even bigger step.

19. Oklahoma

2014-15: 21-12; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 35 (13/NR)
Notable returners: Gabbi Oritz (8.2 PPG, 3.5 APG); Peyton Little (12.6 PPG, 34.4 3PT%); Kaylon Williams (12.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG)

A lack of consistency was Oklahoma's biggest issue a season ago (the Sooners scored 46 and 111 points in consecutive games in March), but Sherri Coale's team was young and returns most of its firepower. The Sooners will depend heavily on Little's shooting and Ortiz's playmaking in their quest to challenge Baylor in the Big 12. Gioya Carter will also provide offense from the guard spot, but Coale will be looking for a big jump in production from 6-4 sophomore Vionise Pierre-Louis in the post. Oklahoma is a little thin up front; Williams, a fifth-year senior, provides the most experience there.

20. George Washington

2014-15: 29-4; lost in NCAA tournament first round
Points: 31 (17/22)
Notable returners: Jonquel Jones (15.3 PPG, 12.5 RPG); Caira Washington (12.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG); Hannah Schaible (9.2 PPG, 2.2 APG)

The Colonials should again be one of the best rebounding teams in the country because Jones and Washington return. The 6-4 Jones averaged a double-double in 2015 and should be a finalist for every national player of the year award. Kelli Prange, a 6-5 sophomore, gives fourth-year coach Jonathan Tsipis another potentially dominant rebounder. Shannon Cranshaw as the primary deep threat and the return of Lauren Chase, fifth in the Atlantic 10 in assists, are the X factors for defending the conference championship and making a deeper NCAA tournament run.

21. Northwestern

2014-15: 23-8; lost in NCAA tournament first round
Points: 25 (16/NR)
Notable returners: Nia Coffey (15.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG); Maggie Lyon (13.8 PPG, 41.1 3-PT%); Ashley Deary (10.0 PPG, 4.8 APG)

The Wildcats are coming off the program's best season in nearly 20 years and their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997. Joe McKeown, who won his 600th game as a coach last season, returns his top five scorers. Coffey, a junior who finished in the top 10 in the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding, will lead the way, but if the Wildcats are to burst into the Big Ten's top three, McKeown will need major contributions from deep threat Lyon, point guard Deary, and 6-2 senior Lauren Douglas.

22. Florida Gulf Coast

2014-15: 31-3; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 16 (14/NR)
Notable returners: Whitney Knight (14.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG); Kaneisha Atwater (14.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG); Stephanie Haas (9.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG)

Karl Smesko's spread offense has created one of the most consistently prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country. The Eagles were third in 3-pointers made a year ago and return most of their top deep threats. Most prominent is 6-3 senior Knight, the Atlantic Sun player of the year last season and an All-American candidate. FGCU picked up its first NCAA tournament win last season and will be a threat to do at least that again in 2016.

23. Princeton

2014-15: 31-1; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 14 (15/NR)
Notable returners: Michelle Miller (11.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG); Alex Wheatley (10.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG); Annie Tarakchian (10.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG)

A year ago the Tigers went 31-0 before falling to Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The one player Courtney Banghart won't have at her disposal is Blake Dietrick, the unquestioned leader and catalyst in last season's nation-capturing run. However, five seniors who were also major contributors return: Miller and Amanda Berntsen in the backcourt and Wheatley, Tarakchian and Taylor Williams up front. The schedule is even tougher than a season ago, with road games at NCAA tournament teams Seton Hall, Ohio State and Dayton.

No. 24 Chattanooga

2014-15: 29-4; lost in NCAA tournament first round
Points: 12 (18/NR)
Notable returners: Jasmine Joyner (12.0 PPG, 8.2 RPG); Chelsey Shumpert (11.5 PPG, 2.5 APG); Alicia Payne (7.5 PPG, 3.4 APG)

The Lady Mocs grabbed national attention last season with early upsets of Tennessee and Stanford at home. They rode that momentum to an unbeaten Southern Conference record and a third straight NCAA tournament berth. Jim Foster is expected to make that four in row with the return of nearly every key piece. Joyner, a 6-2 junior, led the Lady Mocs in scoring and was fifth in the nation in blocked shots -- and she wasn't even Chattanooga's best defensive player. That honor goes to Payne, the league's defensive player of the year. Sophomore Keiana Gilbert is a rising star, as her 27 points against Tennessee indicated. This season, Chattanooga has more opportunities at program-defining upsets with return visits to the Lady Vols and Stanford and a visit from Connecticut on Nov. 30.

25. Rutgers

2014-15: 23-10; lost in NCAA tournament second round
Points: 9 (23/NR)
Notable returners: Kahleah Copper (16.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG); Tyler Scaife (14.8 PPG, 2.5 APG); Rachel Hollivay (6.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG)

Shooting woes or a lack of interest in even attempting many 3-pointers finally seemed to catch up to the Scarlet Knights down the stretch last season, as they stumbled to a 3-4 finish. Rutgers still managed a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten and picked up its first NCAA tournament victory since 2011. The shooting problems haven't been fixed and C. Vivian Stringer will have to replace the production of Betnijah Laney, who averaged a double-double, but the pieces are in place for an even better season in Piscataway. Copper is one of the best players in the Big Ten and Scaife, with some improved perimeter shooting, could join her. Hollivay, a 6-4 senior who averaged more than two blocks per game, will anchor the always-stingy defense and could get some help from 6-3 freshman Victoria Harris.

Also receiving votes: Arkansas, Cal, DePaul, Green Bay, Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse