Women's college basketball's Way-Too-Early Top 25: South Carolina still on top, Baylor rising

Aliyah Boston, the consensus 2019-20 freshman of the year, and South Carolina went unbeaten in the SEC last season and have won 26 consecutive games. South Carolina Athletics

If we're going to have a college basketball season, we are going to need rankings.

The NCAA announced that the 2020-21 women's college basketball season will begin Nov. 25. Now, conferences are sorting out what a delayed start and 27-game limit will mean for scheduling and how to move forward with the NCAA's health and safety guidelines.

But if we still don't know everything about how the season will work, we know it's on. And since six months have passed since any games were played, it's worth taking stock of a college basketball landscape that no longer includes names such as Chennedy Carter, Lauren Cox and Sabrina Ionescu (not to mention Muffet McGraw) but still features the likes of Dana Evans, Rhyne Howard, Aari McDonald and Michaela Onyenwere.

We'll do this again before the first game finally tips, but ESPN.com's Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel cast their votes to determine our rankings.

1. South Carolina Gamecocks
Previous ranking: 1

The Gamecocks finished the abruptly ended 2019-20 season as the No. 1 team in the country, and that is where they find themselves heading into the new campaign. That's largely due to the sophomore trio of forward Aliyah Boston (12.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.6 BPG), guard Zia Cooke (12.1 PPG) and wing Brea Beal (6.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG), who lived up to their billing as the nation's top recruiting class two years ago. This season, they will also have to make up for the leadership void left by the graduations of WNBA first-round picks Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris. Guard Destanni Henderson and forward Victaria Saxton, both juniors, and senior forward LeLe Grissett should all help in that area with more minutes. The backcourt also gets a boost from Texas transfer Destiny Littleton and the arrival of top-50 recruit Eniya Russell from Baltimore. -- Creme

2. Stanford Cardinal
Previous ranking: 2

Assuming Haley Jones is fully recovered from the knee injury that cut short her freshman season, the Cardinal start the bidding with a trio of Jones, Lexie Hull and Kiana Williams. That's enough to make a lot of would-be contenders fold their hands. If forwards Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel develop even a little bit -- and it would be stunning if they don't as sophomores -- that's a full house. Besides, we haven't even gotten to Cameron Brink, the second-highest-ranked recruit signed by Stanford since Chiney Ogwumike a decade ago. -- Hays

3. Baylor Lady Bears
Previous ranking: 5

The 2019 NCAA champions lost four seniors, led by Big 12 Player of the Year Lauren Cox, but bring back junior forward NaLyssa Smith (14.3 PPG) and senior guard Didi Richards, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Guard Dijonai Carrington comes in as a graduate transfer from Stanford after missing most of last season with a knee injury, and the top freshmen are point guard Sarah Andrews and center Hannah Gusters. Baylor, which has won or tied for the Big 12 regular-season title the past 10 years in a row, is the conference favorite again. And the Lady Bears enter this season as reigning national champions for the second year in row, since there was no 2020 tournament. -- Voepel

4. UConn Huskies
Previous ranking: 4

The pieces need putting together after Megan Walker and Crystal Dangerfield moved on to the WNBA, but it's fair to say Geno Auriemma has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assembling basketball puzzles. Again, there might be concern on some teams that Paige Bueckers' and Evina Westbrook's skill sets overlap as both debut for the Huskies. At UConn, putting them alongside Christyn Williams in the backcourt sounds intimidating. -- Hays

5. Louisville Cardinals
Previous ranking: 6

The job of replacing three starters is made much easier when one of the returnees is the ACC Player of the Year. Coach Jeff Walz will once again be able to build around senior guard Dana Evans, who averaged 18.0 points and 4.2 assists a season ago, and that might be enough to make the Cardinals the conference favorite. Incoming freshman guard Hailey Van Lith has the potential to take some of the scoring load off Evans, but how much 6-foot-1 Elizabeth Balogun (8.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG) improves could determine how serious Louisville's Final Four aspirations become. -- Creme

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Previous ranking: 3

It might take a few games to adjust to not having Vic Schaefer on the sidelines, but Nikki McCray-Penson should settle in quickly, and she has the kind of talent on hand to have a big first year as Bulldogs coach. If 6-2 forward Rickea Jackson (15.1 PPG, 48.3 FG%) is able to make a big leap in her second season, she is a potential All-American. Jackson and 6-5 junior Jessika Carter (13.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG) will be one of the SEC's top frontcourt tandems, and this season they will get some help from 6-4 Michigan State transfer Sidney Cooks, who averaged 9.5 points per game two years ago. Junior point guard Myah Taylor (4.6 APG) leads the backcourt, but her outside shooting, along with that of sophomores Aliyah Matharu and JaMya Mingo-Young, will have to improve for Mississippi State to challenge South Carolina in the SEC and contend for a Final Four berth. -- Creme

7. NC State Wolfpack
Previous ranking: 8

The momentum the Wolfpack were riding after winning the ACC tournament a season ago would have made them one of the most intriguing teams in the NCAA tournament. Now they will have to carry that same momentum into a new season, and they can do it with most of their key personnel back. Elissa Cunane, a 6-5 center who is the ACC's top rebounder (9.6 RPG) and sixth-leading scorer (16.4 PPG) a season ago, enters her junior year on the short list of national player of the year contenders. Seniors Kayla Jones (10.0 PPG) and Kai Crutchfield (7.5 PPG) and sophomores Jakia Brown-Turner (9.4 PPG) and Jada Boyd (7.5 PPG) make a balanced and versatile group. Brown-Turner has all-conference potential. If freshmen Dontavia Waggoner and Genesis Bryant give coach Wes Moore any production, the Wolfpack will once again be near the top of the ACC. -- Creme

8. Arizona Wildcats
Previous ranking: 7

Arizona secured its place as a contender as soon as Aari McDonald (20.6 PPG) opted to return rather than enter the WNBA draft, and the Wildcats only strengthened their position over the spring and summer. Virginia Tech graduate transfer Trinity Baptiste, the reigning ACC Sixth Player of the Year, joins returnees Cate Reese (13.6 PPG) and Sam Thomas (9.5 PPG) to give the Wildcats one of the most experienced cores in a season of change in the Pac-12. -- Hays

9. UCLA Bruins
Previous ranking: 9

While last year's Pac-12 Player of the Year race was admittedly anticlimactic, it might be the most intriguing individual duel in the country this season. Giving no ground to Arizona's McDonald or any of Stanford's array of standouts, UCLA's Michaela Onyenwere (18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) is about as talented a senior as there is in the country. The key might be Charisma Osborne, the super recruit who was solid in earning freshman all-league honors. If she sharpens her efficiency, the Bruins will have a two-way star pairing that should offset the loss of Japreece Dean. -- Hays

10. Oregon Ducks
Previous ranking: 11

The Ducks move on from Ruthy Hebard, Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally with five top-25 recruits, plus transfers Taylor Mikesell (eligible immediately after arriving from Maryland) and Sedona Prince (who sat out last season after her move from Texas). Nyara Sabally is also still there after missing the past two seasons with injuries. That's a lot of talent and potential, but the pandemic hasn't permitted anything close to a normal offseason or preseason to meld it. -- Hays

11. Kentucky Wildcats
Previous ranking: 12

In a year of uncertainty, Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell has one thing he can count on: having the best player on the floor in nearly every Kentucky game. Junior Rhyne Howard is a leading candidate for national player of the year after finishing second in the country in scoring (23.4 PPG). She also averaged 6.5 rebounds and made over three 3-pointers per game. Most of Howard's offensive help will come from Chasity Patterson, who averaged 11.5 points per game after sitting out the first semester following her transfer from Texas. Kentucky lost five seniors, so Mitchell likely will have to get some production from the No. 14-rated recruiting class, headlined by top-30 recruit Treasure Hunt. Whatever success the Wildcats achieve this season, they could still be a year away from even bigger things. Transfers Robyn Benton (Auburn), Olivia Owens (Maryland) and Jazmine Massengill (Tennessee) all become eligible in 2021-22. -- Creme

12. Maryland Terrapins
Previous ranking: 10

Moving on without players who accounted for 70% of the team's minutes a season ago is a tall enough order. It's even more challenging because Maryland wouldn't have expected to lose transfers Shakira Austin or Taylor Mikesell on top of the seniors. But all is not lost -- hardly. Sophomore Ashley Owusu, last season's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and new arrival Angel Reese, the No. 2 recruit in her class, are a good foundation. Harvard graduate transfer Katie Benzan is no afterthought, either. -- Hays

13. Arkansas Razorbacks
Previous ranking: 19

Coach Mike Neighbors might have the best guard trio in the country with fifth-year seniors Chelsea Dungee (16.9 PPG), Amber Ramirez (44.7 3PT%) and Destiny Slocum, a graduate transfer from Oregon State. They will make Neighbors' up-tempo offense flourish. The Razorbacks were the SEC's top 3-point-shooting team last season and could be even better with the addition of Slocum (15.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 36.8 3PT% at Oregon State), top-50 recruit and Arkansas native Elauna Eaton and more minutes for sophomore Makayla Daniels (9.3 PPG, 44.6 3PT%). -- Creme

14. Texas A&M Aggies
Previous ranking: 18

Replacing the individual offensive talent of Chennedy Carter is impossible. However, Aggies coach Gary Blair might just have the roster to make up for the production. If Division I transfers Destiny Pitts (Minnesota), Zaay Green (Tennessee) and Alexis Morris (Baylor and Rutgers) are all granted immediate eligibility, then the Aggies will be one of the deepest teams in the SEC. Pitts would be the most impactful addition. She was averaging 16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting 45.9% from 3-point range before leaving the Gophers last December midway through her junior season. Pitts, Green and Morris, a star-in-the-making point guard at Baylor three seasons ago, would join former McDonald's All American and Notre Dame transfer Jordan Nixon, plus seniors Kayla Wells (13.1 PPG), Ciera Johnson (12.1 PPG), N'dea Jones (11.0 PPG) and Aaliyah Wilson (6.5 PPG) in an option-rich Aggies offense. -- Creme

15. Oregon State Beavers
Previous ranking: 13

It sure looked from afar like Destiny Slocum was Plan A for moving on after Mikayla Pivec. Then Slocum transferred to Arkansas. So what's Plan B? Still pretty good, as might be expected given coach Scott Rueck's track record. Aleah Goodman was primarily a 3-point shooter (77% of her attempts) and playmaker in a crowded backcourt, but she can do more. Kennedy Brown and Taylor Jones provide the post presence seen on Oregon State's most successful teams. -- Hays

16. Northwestern Wildcats
Previous ranking: 15

Denied the opportunity to win an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1993 after matching Maryland for the best record in the Big Ten, Northwestern starts anew. Well, not really anew, because Lindsey Pulliam (18.8 PPG) is still around to chase Big Ten Player of the Year honors. So are starters Veronica Burton (11.6 PPG, 5.1 APG) and Sydney Wood. And in freshman Anna Morris, the Wildcats have their highest-ranked recruit since Nia Coffey. -- Hays

17. Indiana Hoosiers
Previous ranking: 17

This is the season for Indiana to make a move. In a Big Ten full of turnover, the Hoosiers return four starters. That includes Ali Patberg (15.6 PPG, 5.3 APG), the all-conference guard who was granted a sixth year, and emerging standout Grace Berger (13.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG). Add Jaelynn Penn and transfer Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, George Mason's all-time leading scorer, and the backcourt is loaded. Notre Dame transfer Danielle Patterson is eligible and helps the frontcourt. -- Hays

18. Iowa State Cyclones
Previous ranking: 16

The 18-11 Cyclones had the most exciting finish to the season of any Big 12 team, upsetting Baylor on March 8 and ending the Lady Bears' 58-game conference regular-season winning streak. They bring back four starters, led by junior guard/forward Ashley Joens (team-best 20.5 PPG, 10.9 RPG). The freshmen class consists of four guards, including Joens' younger sister, Aubrey, and another top prospect, Lexi Donarski. Baylor is still the favorite, but the Cyclones should be one of the Big 12's top teams. -- Voepel

19. DePaul Blue Demons
Previous ranking: 20

UConn's return doesn't help DePaul's chances of retaining the Big East title. But replacing Chante Stonewall and Kelly Campbell will have more to do with determining whether the Blue Demons can again challenge for a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament -- as appeared likely a season ago. The backcourt trio of Deja Church (10.8 PPG), Lexi Held (15.4 PPG) and Sonya Morris (15.6 PPG) is a good foundation. Wisconsin graduate transfer Courtney Fredrickson is a 6-2 X factor who could be a sneaky steal of the summer transfer market. -- Hays

20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Previous ranking: 21

A losing record was strange to see a season ago. A season without Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw on the sidelines might be even more strange. Longtime assistant Niele Ivey, who as a player and an assistant coach has been part of all nine Notre Dame Final Four appearances, takes over as the program continues its makeover. Graduate student Destinee Walker (14.5 PPG) and sophomores Sam Brunelle (13.9 PPG) and Kaitlyn Gilbert (13.6 PPG) lead the offense. Sophomores Anaya Peoples (shoulder) and Abby Prohaska (pulmonary embolism) and senior Mikayla Vaughn (knee) all missed significant time last season. The Irish should also get a boost from a top-three recruiting class led by Madeline Westbeld, the younger sister of Kathryn, who was a starter on Notre Dame's 2018 NCAA title team. -- Creme

21. Ohio State Buckeyes
Previous ranking: 14

Ohio State's account needs replenishing with some wins, but it has two valuable assets keeping it squarely in the Top 25. First, Kevin McGuff is a known quantity on the bench. Second, Dorka Juhasz (13.2 PPG, 9.4 RPG) is really good. The 6-4 Hungarian and first-team All-Big Ten forward is the only remaining double-digit scorer after Kierstan Bell's transfer. But freshman Kateri Poole and redshirt freshman Rikki Harris could further bolster the ranks. -- Hays

22. Missouri State Lady Bears
Previous ranking: 24

What explains Missouri State's bump since spring? Well, the Bears didn't lose coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton to any of the many high-profile job openings. That's no small triumph. Replacing Alexa Willard's shooting won't be easy, but a good place to start was keeping Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin as mainstays from the team that went 26-4 a season ago. Abi Jackson's situation is one to watch. The 6-3 Auburn transfer arrived last December and could be a valuable addition if she plays this season. -- Hays

23. Syracuse Orange
Previous ranking: 23

At 16-15, the Orange would not have made the NCAA tournament last spring. That should not be the case in 2021. Coach Quentin Hillsman brought in the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class, according to HoopGurlz, and returns four starters, including leading scorer Kiara Lewis (17.6 PPG, fourth in the ACC). And those aren't even the chief reasons why Syracuse should be back in the postseason. That honor goes to the return of the program's all-time assist leader, Tiana Mangakahia, who missed last season while getting treatment for breast cancer. Mangakahia averaged 16.9 points and 8.4 assists in 2018-2019 and should regain her status as one of the country's top point guards. -- Creme

24. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Previous ranking: 22

The Bulldogs have two Truongs (Kayleigh and Kaylynne) on the perimeter, two Wirths (Jenn and LeeAnne) in the post and reigning WCC Player of the Year Jill Townsend wherever she needs to be. That's a good foundation for a place in the Top 25 and a chance to duplicate last season's 28-3 record. Loyola graduate transfer Abby O'Connor could quietly be one of the best additions in the country, providing much-needed 3-point range to replace Katie Campbell. -- Hays

25. Michigan Wolverines
Previous ranking: 25

Continuity is in short supply in the Big Ten, but the Wolverines return Naz Hillmon (17.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG), Amy Dilk (11.6 PPG, 4.5 APG) and Akienreh Johnson (10.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG), their three double-digit scorers, after losing Kayla Robbins midway through last season. A lot of teams would happily build a season around those three. Cameron Williams is Kim Barnes Arico's biggest recruiting prize since the coach arrived in Ann Arbor, according to some recruiting rankings. -- Hays