Fresh off NCAA title, Irish lead way-too-early top 25 for 2018-19

The 2017-18 season produced a national champion that lost a regular-season game by 33 points, but also suffered more ACL tears than losses. The season also produced the greatest Final Four in the history of the sport, with two overtime games in the semifinals and a championship game decided on a shot with one-tenth of a second left.

Notre Dame's NCAA title was as improbable as a championship can get for a No. 1 seed. Playing with just seven scholarship players, the Irish won a pair of games in Columbus with buzzer-beating heroics by Arike Ogunbowale. She made two game-winning shots two nights apart to beat UConn and Mississippi State.

What Notre Dame can do for an encore will be one of the biggest questions heading into 2018-19. UConn is coming off back-to-back seasons without a championship, something that is hard to swallow in Storrs, Connecticut. Mississippi State has suffered consecutive defeats in the title game, but is coming off the best season in school history.

Louisville, the other Final Four participant, returns the core of its team that shared the ACC regular-season title and won the ACC tournament.

Will any of them get back to the NCAA tournament's final weekend in 2019, or will there be new blood in Tampa. Florida, a year from now?

Here is an early look at how 2018-19's top 25 shapes up.

1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Irish's national championship was a surprise given all the injuries, issues and lack of depth. But if they repeat in 2019, it won't be. If health returns to the roster as anticipated, the Irish are the favorites to win the national championship next season. The frontcourt will be loaded with the recovery of All-American Brianna Turner and Mikayla Vaughn from ACL tears, as well as Jessica Shepard back for her senior year. Arike Ogunbowale, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player with two game-winning shots, and Marina Mabrey will also be seniors, and along with Jackie Young, will form one of the nation's most productive backcourts. Five-star recruit Katlyn Gilbert will give Muffet McGraw a pure point guard again.

2. Oregon Ducks

The Ducks have reached the Elite Eight for two straight years and will be expected to take the next step with everyone back except sharp-shooter Lexi Bando. Sabrina Ionescu will be a top contender for every national player of the year award, and 6-foot-4 post Ruthy Hebard will be in every All-American conversation. Erin Boley, a 6-2 Notre Dame transfer who was the 2016 Gatorade national player of the year, will join Hebard and 6-5 Mallory McGwire up front, while 6-4 wing Satou Sabally could be ready to break out. Get used to seeing Oregon in a lofty spot: Guard Maite Cazorla will be the only regular rotation senior on next season's team.

3. Baylor Lady Bears

An overlooked part of the Lady Bears' 33-2 season was that they were a pretty young team. Kristy Wallace and Dekeiya Cohen were the only seniors on the roster. Frontcourt duo Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox are back to lead the way, and sophomore-to-be Alexis Morris proved to be a more than capable point guard when she took over following an injury to Wallace. Kim Mulkey also seems to have Baylor set up for next season and beyond with a five-player recruiting class ranked as the best in the country. Aquira DeCosta, a 6-2 wing from Sacramento, is the headliner.

4. UConn Huskies

Azurá Stevens' decision to forego her last season of eligibility and jump to the WNBA after just one season in Storrs, Connecticut, changes the complexion of the Huskies. They would have been the preseason No. 1. Reaching a 12th straight Final Four will be even more difficult now. UConn loses three of the six players that saw the bulk of the minutes in 2018 -- Stevens, Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, all of whom are expected to go in the first round of the Thursday's WNBA draft. Crystal Dangerfield and All-Americans Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson return, but major contributions will have to come from players who haven't seen much of the court yet. Megan Walker will have to assume a much bigger role. Coach Geno Auriemma and his staff also added two of the top five recruits in the HoopGurlz espnW 100 rankings in 5-foot-11 shooting guard Christyn Williams and 6-4 post Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The Huskies are 148-3 over the past four seasons. Living up to that will be nearly impossible now.

5. Louisville Cardinals

Picturing the Cardinals without mainstay Myisha Hines-Allen will be tough, but she is the only graduating senior for coach Jeff Walz. He has the luxury of once again building around Asia Durr, who is certain to be a preseason first-team All-American. Durr, Jazmine Jones, Arica Carter and Dana Evans give Walz a deep and experienced backcourt. Big improvements from 6-2 Bionca Dunham and 6-4 Kylee Shook to help Sam Fuehring up front will go a long way to determining if the Cardinals can get back to the Final Four.

6. Stanford Cardinal

With the graduation of Brittany McPhee, the offense will focus on Alanna Smith and Kiana Williams, who could be ready for a breakout as a sophomore. With seven players returning who averaged double-digit minutes, Tara VanDerveer will have plenty of depth and experience. The Hall of Fame coach is also adding another sister combination with incoming freshmen Lexie and Lacie Hull from Washington.

7. Maryland Terrapins

If Blair Watson can return from an ACL tear suffered in January, then Brenda Frese will have her top five scorers returning, plus point guard Channise Lewis. Kaila Charlies, a 6-1 wing, should reach All-America status, Brianna Fraser and Stephanie Jones combine to once again give Maryland a formidable post duo. The Terps will be the favorites in the Big Ten and a contender to reach their first Final Four since 2015.

8. Mississippi State

Vic Schaefer will have to say goodbye to the winningest senior class in program history with the departures of Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer and Morgan William, as well as redshirt senior Roshunda Johnson, but he brings back plenty to take a run at a third straight Final Four. Teaira McCowan, a 6-7 center, will be back as a favorite to win national player of the year, and a pair of five-star recruits -- 6-5 Daphane White and 6-3 Jessika Carter -- arrive to play with and learn from McCowan. Jazzmun Holmes is ready to assume the point guard responsibilities full time and 6-1 Australian Chloe Bibby will take on a bigger role.

9. Tennessee Lady Vols

The Lady Vols will be young but talented. Coach Holly Warlick followed up 2017's top-rated recruiting class with the No. 6 haul this year. Rennia Davis, who is capable of being a big-time scorer, and guards Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook, will be the foundation. Cleaning up this season's turnover problem will be a priority. Perhaps the two guards that headline the incoming freshmen -- Zarielle Green and Jazmine Massengill -- can help in that area.

10. Texas Longhorns

Replacing the backcourt of Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty will be a big challenge for coach Karen Aston, but having Joyner Holmes and Jatari White back in the frontcourt is a good start. Bringing in No. 2 recruit Charli Collier helps, too. How high Lashaan Higgs and Alecia Sutton elevate their games will be a key in Austin.

11. Missouri Tigers

Sophie Cunningham will enter the season on every preseason All-America team. Her all-around talent has been the centerpiece of the Tigers' rise over the past two seasons. Cunningham, versatile 6-4 post Cierra Porter and guard Amber Smith give coach Robin Pingeton a core, but can Missouri get past the NCAA tournament's second round for the first time since 2001?

No. 12 Oregon State Beavers

The Beavers were the most efficient 3-point shooting team in the country and return all of their chief contributors: Kat Tudor, Katie McWilliams, Mikayla Pivec, Taya Corosdale and Aleah Goodman. Coach Scott Rueck also adds Destiny Slocum, who was the 2017 WBCA national freshman of the year during her rookie season at Maryland, to the mix. The centerpiece of this year's Elite Eight team, 6-5 Marie Gulich, is gone, but 6-8 Joanna Grymek could take on a bigger role. Rueck also brought in 6-9 Paraguay native Andrea Aquino, a top-10 recruit and potential program game-changer.

No. 13 Georgia Lady Dogs

Coach Joni Taylor's recruiting efforts started to pay off with a top-16 seed in the NCAA tournament. The core of the Lady Dogs is back in 2018-19, beginning with 6-3 post Caliya Robinson and point guard Taja Cole. Defense has become Georgia's calling card, and that won't change. The addition of 6-3 Maryland transfer Jenna Staiti , a former Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year, will help in that area, giving Taylor another rim protector to go with Robinson.

No. 14 DePaul Blue Demons

Depth was a hallmark of the Blue Demons in 2017-18 and much of it is back next season. Top scorers Mart'e Grays and Ashton Millender return to lead a team that was second in the country in 3-pointers made and sixth in scoring. A better start (DePaul began 3-2 this season) will go a long way to the Blue Demons earning a top-four seed.

No. 15 South Carolina Gamecocks

Having to replace three first-round WNBA draft picks last year was difficult for Dawn Staley. Replacing A'ja Wilson, the consensus national player of the year and the program's best and most important player, this coming season might be harder. Big jumps by 6-2 Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and 6-foot LeLe Grissett will help, as will a big senior season from 6-3 Alexis Jennings. Getting Tennessee transfer Te'a Cooper on the court, and top-10 recruit Destanni Henderson's arrival in Columbia, South Carolina, should help Tyasha Harris at the point guard spot.

No. 16. NC State Wolfpack

In 2016-17, the Wolfpack were a guard-oriented team. The emphasis shifted to the frontcourt this season as Chelsea Nelson emerged as Wes Moore's best player. With Nelson and 6-5 center Akela Maize departing, and Kiara Leslie, Kaila Ealey and Aislinn Konig all back, guards will once again drive NC State, which is hoping to secure a second straight top-four finish in the ACC.

No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes

Megan Gustafson is back for her senior season after leading the country in scoring (25.7 PPG) and field goal percentage (67.1 percent), and finishing fifth in rebounding (12.8 RPG). But three of four other starters also return, including double-digit scorers Kathleen Doyle and Makenzie Meyer. One big question is whether point guard Tania Davis can come back again after having surgeries on both knees in the past two years.

No. 18 Marquette Golden Eagles

If the Golden Eagles are going to take that next step, then 2018-19 is the season. The entire starting lineup is back, and all five will be seniors for the defending Big East regular-season champions. Allazia Blockton is coming off a conference player of the year season, and is joined by classmates Natisha Hiedeman, Amani Wilborn, Erika Davenport and Danielle King. An improvement in outside shooting for all five would go a long way to Marquette reaching its first Sweet 16.

No. 19 South Florida Bulls

Having Kitija Laksa back for her senior season is a good place to start for coach Jose Fernandez and his quest to get the Bulls deeper into that NCAA tournament. Laksa will miss having Maria Jespersen on the other wing, but she might score even more than her 21.1 PPG this season. How sophomore-to-be Alba Prieto does assuming the point guard role from Laia Flores will also be a key for Laksa's scoring and South Florida's success.

No. 20 Duke Blue Devils

The Blue Devils will have a decidedly different look with the graduations of Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell. The focus of the team will shift to the frontcourt, where 6-2 sophomore Leaonna Odom is on the verge of becoming a star. The return of a healthy Haley Gorecki, who missed the final 10 games of the season with a hip injury, would give coach Joanne P. McCallie a solid one-two punch. Health is the key word in Durham, with the Blue Devils also hoping for healthy seasons for guards Mikayla Boykin and Kyra Lambert, who are both returning from knee injuries.

No. 21 UCLA Bruins

Coach Cori Close has to replace so much with the departure of Jordin Canada, Monique Billings and Kelli Hayes, the core of the recruiting class that brought the Bruins back to prominence. But the play of Japreece Dean in the NCAA tournament gave hope that the blow of losing Canada will be softened. Lajahna Drummer and Kennedy Burke, a pair of 6-1 forwards, are two more seniors Close will have to build around.

No. 22 Texas A&M Aggies

The backcourt of Chennedy Carter and Danni Williams is expected back, giving coach Gary Blair the potential for a high-scoring offense. Louisville transfer Ciera Johnson, the top-rated post recruit in 2016, becomes eligible to help replace Khaalia Hillsman. The decision by rebounding extraordinaire Anriel Howard to transfer is a blow that might be overcome if sophomores-to-be N'dea Jones and 6-5 Emer Nichols show improvement.

No. 23 Syracuse Orange

Having the nation's assist leader and the team's top scorer in Tiana Mangakahia back is a good place to start for the Orange, who have lost in the second and first rounds of the NCAA tournament in the two years since reaching the national championship game in 2016. Miranda Drummond and Gabrielle Cooper, the second- and third-leading scorers on the team, also return and will be joined by Ohio State transfer Kiara Lewis and a four-player recruiting class rated as the country's eighth best.

No. 24 Arizona State Sun Devils

Coach Charli Turner Thorne returns the entire roster from a team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, something the program has done four of the past five seasons. The biggest returnee is junior guard Sabrina Haines, who missed all but nine games with a knee injury. Balance and depth, led by forward Kianna Ibis, will once again be a Sun Devils trademark.

No. 25 Central Michigan Chippewas

Three of the top five scorers from a dynamic offense return for coach Sue Guevara. Losing Tinara Moore, who swept the MAC player and defensive player of the year awards, hurts, but with first-team all-conference guard Presley Hudson, plus all-freshman team Micaela Kelly leading the way in the backcourt, Central Michigan should be primed to repeat as league champs. Reyna Frost, who ranked 12th in the country in rebounding as a junior, is also back.

Also considered: California, Miami, Georgia Tech, Minnesota, Nebraska, Florida State