The season that the rest of women's basketball has waited for will finally arrive. The reign of Connecticut, at least as the dominant, immovable force in the game, is over. The 2016-17 season looks to be as wide open as any season in more than a decade (even in 2011, when Texas A&M and Notre Dame met for the championship, UConn and Baylor entered the season as big favorites).
Certainly teams can change before next season tips off, with player transfers, coaching changes and injuries. But it's time to start looking ahead.
1. Notre Dame
With Connecticut likely taking a step back, this might finally be Notre Dame's time to climb to the top of the mountain. In forward Brianna Turner and point guard Lindsay Allen, the Irish have arguably the country's two best players at those positions. Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale are versatile scorers who should be even better as sophomores with more minutes. Coach Muffet McGraw also welcomes forward Erin Boley and guard Jackie Young, two top-15 rated freshmen whose games appear perfectly suited to the Irish system.
Jeff Walz brings everyone back from a team that lost just one game in the ACC in 2016 and adds one of the nation's best high school post players in Ciera Johnson from Duncanville, Texas. Myisha Hines-Allen made a huge ascent from her freshman to sophomore seasons when she won the media's vote for ACC player of the year (Notre Dame's Turner was the ACC coaches' pick for player of the year). Asia Durr could be that player in 2017. Mariya Moore remains an all-conference level player.
3. South Carolina
The loss of Tiffany Mitchell -- the heart and soul of the Gamecocks' rise to prominence -- certainly hurts, but Dawn Staley adds a pair of all-conference-caliber transfers from the ACC: Kaela Davis from Georgia Tech and Allisha Gray from North Carolina. They were each top scoring options at their respective schools in 2014-15 and give South Carolina the wing shooting that was a weakness the past two seasons. SEC player of the year A'ja Wilson and Alaina Coates are both back in the post. Bianca Cuevas' play at the point and ability to get the ball to all of these weapons in the right spots will be the key.
Another new era begins in Storrs. Gone are the most accomplished players in UConn history. Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck delivered four national titles and a 151-5 record. This now becomes the team of Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. That core is talented enough to get back to the Final Four, especially because Geno Auriemma is still on the bench. Replacing Jefferson with highly regarded freshman point guard Crystal Dangerfield will the top storyline to watch.
As good as Nina Davis has been in her three years in Waco, she has never been to a Final Four. The Lady Bears have lost in the Elite Eight each season. Breaking through won't be easy with the loss of Niya Johnson, one of the best pure point guards of the last decade, but Baylor returns everyone else of significance. The Lady Bears are already physically imposing with 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown, 6-3 Khadijiah Cave and 6-4 Beatrice Mompremier. And Kim Mulkey has added the No. 1 recruit in the nation, versatile 6-4 Lauren Cox.
Karen Aston's rebuild in Austin could be ready for a Final Four. The backcourt of Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins should be even better; each averaged double-figure scoring in 2016. The Longhorns lose leader and program mainstay Imani Boyette in the post, but return 6-5 Kelsey Lang and bring in versatile big Joyner Holmes, the No. 2 recruit. Lashann Higgs could be a player who takes a big step forward as a sophomore.
Brenda Frese ushers in a six-player recruiting class that rated tops in the country. It is highlighted by dynamic combo guard Destiny Slocum. The Terps have a hole at point guard with the graduation of Brene Moseley, so Slocum could step in there. The six new players will have the luxury of playing with two All-Americans in silky smooth wing Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and 6-3 post Brionna Jones. Kristen Confroy, a 41 percent 3-point shooter, also returns.
8. Ohio State
Kelsey Mitchell loses her high-scoring backcourt running mate with the graduation of Ameryst Alston, but actually gains more help. Duke transfer point guard Sierra Calhoun might let Mitchell play off the ball a bit more, and Stephanie Mavunga, a 6-3 North Carolina transfer, gives the Buckeyes a true post player. Add the return of forwards Alexa Hart and Shayla Cooper, plus another transfer, Linnae Harper from Kentucky, and three top-30 recruits, and the Buckeyes should be able to maintain their status as one of the nation's best offensive teams.
In a season that should feature a number of great points guards, Jordin Canada has a chance to be the best. Her speed and aggressiveness, plus the talents of junior classmate Monique Billings, could make the Bruins the favorite in the Pac-12. A big year from sharpshooter Kari Korver and the further development of sophomore Lajahna Drummer would also be big boost.
With more consistency, senior-to-be Erica McCall could be ready to move into another category among the best players in the country. She will be flanked by classmates and quality perimeter shooters Lili Thompson and Karlie Samuelson, and helped out inside by 6-3 sophomore Kaylee Johnson. Nadia Fingall, a 6-2 incoming freshman, heads up Tara Vanderveer's top-10 recruiting class, which also includes 2-guard DiJonai Carrington, daughter of eight-year NFL veteran Darren, and point guard Anna Wilson, the sister of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
After a rocky 2015-16 regular season, the Lady Vols seemed to get things back on course with a run to the Elite Eight. Other than Bashaara Graves, the core of the club returns. Getting more consistent point guard play from Te'a Cooper and Jordan Reynolds is a must, but being more consistent is something everyone in the program needs to be. Using center Mercedes Russell more on offense and having Diamond DeShields look more like the player she was as a freshman at North Carolina will also be a big boost.
12. Mississippi State
For a second straight year, Vic Schaefer's Bulldogs set a school record for wins (28). They also got a program-best No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament, made the final, and then advanced to the Sweet 16. Even better for the folks in Starkville, nearly everyone returns, most notably the backcourt of Morgan William and top scorer Victoria Vivians.
Matthew Mitchell will have to find another ball hander to replace Janee Thompson and to take some pressure off Makayla Epps, but all the Wildcats will be more experienced. Batouly Camara, a 6-2 freshman,6-2 sophomore Alexis Jennings and 6-3 sophomore Alyssa Rice have another year under their belts. The regionals are in Lexington again in 2017, so Kentucky could have another opportunity it couldn't take advantage of this year: to play virtual home games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
Despite losing leading scorer Kaylon Williams, the Sooners will be a nice balance of size and backcourt experience. Vionise Pierre-Louis (9.4 PPG) returns, as does the entire backcourt of Gabbi Ortiz, Peyton Little and Gioya Carter. Sherri Coale also brings in the tallest player among the top-100 recruits in 6-9 Nancy Mulkey, whose biggest impact in her freshman season will likely be on the defensive end.
15. Florida State
The Seminoles will be loaded in the backcourt. Point guard Leticia Romero will be surrounded by Shakayla Thomas, who emerged as Florida State's top scorer in 2016, Brittany Brown, Ivey Slaughter, top-20 recruit Nicole Ekhomu, and Baylor transfer Imani Wright. The key for Sue Semrau will be filling the production lost with the graduation of Adut Bulgak.
16. Arizona State
Charli Turner Thorne brings in one of her best recruiting classes. All five players are guards, which will help ease the impact of the departures of Elisha Davis, Arnecia Hawkins and Katie Hempen. Those five new Sun Devils, headlined by Jamie Ruden from Minnesota, will have bigs Sophie Brunner, Quinn Dornstauder and Kelsey Moos to get the ball to.
The rise of Amanda Butler's Gators was one of the more surprising stories of the season. Picked to finish 12th in the SEC, they earned a No. 5 NCAA tournament seed -- and the top three scorers on a balanced attack return. The most notable might be sophomore-to-be Eleanna Christinaki, whose energy seemed to be a primary reason for Florida's improvement from 2014-15.
Notre Dame and Louisville look to be the class of the ACC, but the Hurricanes should compete with Florida State for third in the conference with top scorers Adrienne Motley and Jessica Thomas back for their senior seasons. In fact, Miami's top four scorers return as Katie Meier only has to replace one player in the rotation, Michelle Woods, who led the Canes in assists.
The Tigers are coming off their best season in 15 years and the core is back. SEC freshman of the year Sophie Cunningham has a chance to be one of the best players in program history. Most of her scoring help will come from Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter.
The Orange's run to the title game was as impressive as it was unexpected, but now Quentin Hillsman must say goodbye to Brianna Butler, Cornelia Fondren, Maggie Morrison and Taylor Ford, players that were a big part of the foundation for the program's elevation. Brittney Sykes' decision to stay in Syracuse for her final year of eligibility gives the program a huge boost. Top scorer and point guard Alexis Peterson, the catalyst in Syracuse's Final Four run, is also back, as are posts Briana Day and her backup, twin Bria.
Doug Bruno has to replace Megan Podkowa and Chanise Jenkins, but has the rest of the roster returns, including nine players who averaged more than 10 minutes per game. Jessica January is back to run DePaul's offense.
Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor make an outstanding returning duo for Mike Neighbors to build around. The lack of depth didn't hurt the Final Four run, but it will be nice to have Brianna Ruiz back from injury, especially with graduations of Talia Walton and Alexus Atchley.
The turnaround in Bloomington was one of the best stories of the 2015-16 season. The Hoosiers, under Teri Moren, recorded their first 20-win regular season and won their first NCAA tournament game in 33 years. They were in the tournament for the first time in 14 years, and every major contributor is back to go for two straight bids. The most notable returnee is Tyra Buss, who averaged more than 18 points per game and was a first-team All-Big Ten choice.
24. Oregon State
Scott Rueck rebuilt the Beavers' program from rubble with Jamie Weisner, Devin Hunter and Ruth Hamblin -- but now they are gone. To sustain the momentum of back-to-back Pac-12 regular-season championships and this season's Final Four appearance, Rueck will have to get even bigger seasons from Sydney Wiese, Gabriella Hanson, and 6-5 Marie Gulich, the heir apparent to Hamblin, and contributions from the 16th-rated recruiting class.
25. NC State
Double-figure scorers Dominque Wilson, Miah Spencer and Jennifer Mathurin are all back, and Wes Moore corralled three top-100 recruits. The best of the trio is Canadian Aislinn Konig, who could help the Wolfpack's shooting, an area they struggled with at times this season.
Also considered: West Virginia, Auburn, Dayton, Green Bay