Star players ready to take over the coming season

What did last year's run mean to South Carolina? (1:41)

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and guard Tiffany Mitchell discuss how last season ended and how it will impact this season. (1:41)

BRISTOL, Conn. -- When Baylor's Nina Davis got into town Monday night, she called Tennessee's Diamond DeShields. Both were here for what was called "Takeover Tuesday," a visit to ESPN headquarters by some of the top players and coaches in women's college basketball as they prepare for the season.

"Right now, it's a friendly gathering," Davis said, grinning, alluding to the fact it might be quite a bit more tense if she, DeShields, UConn's Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, and South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell are all in the same place at the same time again this season.

Because that would be in Indianapolis for the Final Four next April.

"We all have been to different events together, so we all know each other to some degree on a personal level," Davis said. "To be a part of this, I think it means a lot to all of us."

Davis is a junior but was in the same national recruiting class as DeShields, a redshirt sophomore. They got to be friends this summer while winning gold for the United States at the World University Games in South Korea.

DeShields was limited in playing time there because of injury -- she has had shin splints and patellar tendinitis -- and she is still working on getting 100 percent healthy.

"She's a great player with so much talent," Davis said. "I know she's anxious to get back out on court. We've talked about it a lot. And I know Tennessee's fans are excited to see her."

DeShields, who spent her freshman season at North Carolina and sat out last season as a transfer, said the weight of Tennessee's legacy is something she is eager to carry.

She gets texts from former players, such as Candace Parker, who encourage her and remind her of what kind of tradition she has joined.

"I say this all the time, but it's like a dream come true," DeShields said. "I understand the value of the opportunity to wear Tennessee orange. It's life-changing for me. It's empowering, but it's also humbling, because you know that those who came before you worked so hard to get the program to be where it is. And you want to do nothing less than keep that tradition going."

That sounds very much the same as what Stewart and Jefferson feel toward their roles in the continuing UConn's success story, which has now expanded to 10 national championships. This season, they'll be trying to win their fourth straight NCAA title, which is the goal that both set independently when they chose UConn.

"In high school, I never lost a championship," Jefferson said of growing up in Texas and playing in the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships since eighth grade. "So I think it was always in my mind to do that here at UConn. But now that my last year is actually here, it's kind of surreal."

Jefferson and Stewart have developed a strong chemistry on court in their time together, but neither is very demonstrative. They have a businesslike way to do things, and UConn's past three title runs have reflected the no-nonsense way those two go about it.

Mitchell is much the same, personality-wise, for South Carolina. Coach Dawn Staley is hopeful of getting her senior guard to share a little more of her wit and wisdom with her teammates, saying it's Mitchell's next step in the leadership process.

"She knows I know what's going on. It's just me telling people and helping everybody get on the same page," Mitchell said. "In the past, I only talked when I really needed to. Now, it's about reminding myself to keep making my voice heard."

Mitchell led the Gamecocks to the program's first Final Four in April, where they fell to Notre Dame 66-65 in the semifinals. Mitchell had the ball in her hands for the final play but couldn't get off much of a shot against the Irish's defense.

"It took me a little while to go back and watch the game, just because it hurt watching the clock hit zero," Mitchell said. "But I definitely did go back and watch to see where I can improve, and what we can improve on as a team. The game was decided by one possession, and I think the little details are things we need to pay more attention to this season. It made the difference between us playing one more game or not."

For Stewart, watching video of the last three Final Fours would be a very fun experience in observing her own growth as a player, and her team's ability to bring the goods when it counts the most.

"I think I've learned a lot about my skill set, and it's fair to say I've expanded it," Stewart said of her growth at UConn. "I'm comfortable in all spots on the floor, whether it's in the post doing a hook shot or on the perimeter. Not just shooting but having the ball in my hands."

Stewart, Jefferson and Mitchell all will be first-round picks in the 2016 WNBA draft, and the same for Davis in 2017 and DeShields in 2018 (unless she opts to leave as an academic senior after playing three seasons ... but we're not going to get the Tennessee fans already worrying about that.)

In short, these are players who will play starring roles this college season and then in the WNBA. They are in the spotlight now, and it's where they are going to stay.