Women's college basketball's way-too-early Top 25 -- UConn climbs to No. 3; South Carolina still No. 1

Christyn Williams and UConn, which moves back to the Big East this season, moved up one spot since our Sept. 28 rankings. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Ready or not, the 2020-21 women's college basketball season is almost here and it's time to rank the top 25 teams.

Even as teams across the country continue to sort out scheduling questions, wait for transfer waivers and wonder how many fans will be allowed to watch them play in person, or whether they might end up playing in bubbles, the season's Nov. 25 start date grows ever closer.

There will be games. Somewhere. Against someone. So let's reclaim some normalcy and rank the teams hoping to reach San Antonio next spring. Chennedy Carter, Lauren Cox and Sabrina Ionescu are no longer around. Neither is Muffet McGraw, although Niele Ivey and Kara Lawson are back from NBA stays to replenish the coaching ranks. And players like Aliyah Boston, Dana Evans, Rhyne Howard, Aari McDonald and Michaela Onyenwere are ready to bring college basketball back to the court.

ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme cast their votes to determine our preseason rankings.

1. South Carolina Gamecocks
Previous ranking: 1

Dawn Staley isn't shy about reminding people that South Carolina -- not defending champion Baylor or Oregon and its Wade Trophy winner -- held the No. 1 ranking when the season came to a halt this past spring. Nor are the Gamecocks going to surrender this spot easily, not with reigning national freshman of the year Aliyah Boston around in the post. If classmate Zia Cooke is the star-in-waiting she appears to be, the season still runs through Columbia. -- Hays

2. Stanford Cardinal
Previous ranking: 2

Having too many good players is never a problem, and Stanford might have more of them than any team in the country. If Haley Jones' knee is healthy, she could be a breakout star, and Kiana Williams is one of the nation's best point guards. Add guard Lexie Hull and the expected improvements from the sophomore duo of 6-foot-1 Fran Belibi and 6-5 Ashten Prechtel, plus the arrival of five-star recruits Cameron Brink and Jana Van Gytenbeek, and the lineup combinations seem endless. -- Creme


3. UConn Huskies
Previous ranking: 4

With Megan Walker and Crystal Dangerfield gone to the WNBA, the Huskies make their return to the Big East and will look to junior Christyn Williams for leadership. She's ready to have a big season, as are other returners like fellow junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa and sophomores Anna Makurat and Aubrey Griffin. And everyone is eager to see the next superstar freshman at UConn, Paige Bueckers, plus redshirt junior Evina Westbrook, a transfer from Tennessee. -- Voepel

4. Louisville Cardinals
Previous ranking: 5

Louisville returns the reigning ACC Player of the Year for the third time in the past six seasons. That didn't lead to the Final Four in the first two instances. But Dana Evans could do something that Angel McCoughtry, Shoni Schimmel, Myisha Hines-Allen or Asia Durr couldn't by reaching her second Final Four with the Cardinals. Evans is part of what could be the deepest roster of the Jeff Walz era, even after losing WNBA draftees Jasmine Jones and Kylee Shook. -- Hays

5. Baylor Lady Bears
Previous ranking: 3

How soon senior guard DiDi Richards is able to return from the spinal cord injury she recently suffered in a collision with teammate Moon Ursin might determine Baylor's chances of successfully defending the national championship it won in 2019. There is no shortage of talent with NaLyssa Smith (14.3 PPG), Queen Egbo (10.8 PPG) and Stanford grad transfer DiJonai Carrington, but if Richards is out for an extended period, the Lady Bears will have to rely on freshman point guard Sarah Andrews more than expected. -- Creme

6. NC State Wolfpack
Previous ranking: 7

Last season the Wolfpack, led by five seniors, could have gone on a long NCAA tournament run. Like everyone else, they were denied that chance but did have a March celebration with the program's first ACC tournament title since 1991. NC State has to make up for some loss of leadership. But the team has lots of talent back, led by junior center Elissa Cunane, a national player of the year candidate, seniors Kayla Jones and Kai Crutchfield and sophomores Jada Boyd and Jakia Brown-Turner. -- Voepel

7. Arizona Wildcats
Previous ranking: 8

Arizona last won an NCAA tournament game in 2005, which wasn't all that long after current coach Adia Barnes was still pulling down rebounds in Tucson. The Wildcats should make up for lost time this season. Everything starts with All-American guard Aari McDonald, one of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the country. But Arizona has a championship-caliber cast around her, led by forwards Cate Reese and Sam Thomas and enhanced by transfers Trinity Baptiste and Bendu Yeaney. -- Hays

8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Previous ranking: 6

The coach on the sidelines has changed, but one defining characteristic of the Mississippi State program is staying the same: size. Nikki McCray-Penson, who takes over for Vic Schaefer, will rely heavily on the frontcourt trio of 6-2 sophomore Rickea Jackson (15.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG), 6-5 junior Jessika Carter (13.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG) and 6-4 Michigan State transfer Sidney Cooks. If junior Myah Taylor develops into a top SEC point guard, the Bulldogs have Final Four potential. -- Creme

9. UCLA Bruins
Previous ranking: 9

Senior forward Michaela Onyenwere could be in the running for the Pac-12 and national player of the year awards. And she will be positioning herself to be a high WNBA draft pick; the more the 6-foot Onyenwere hones her guard skills, the better. She leads the way for a UCLA squad that brings back every starter except guard Japreece Dean. Look for a big sophomore season from Charisma Osborne and dependable production from senior Lauryn Miller and redshirt junior Lindsey Corsaro. -- Voepel

10. Oregon Ducks
Previous ranking: 10

Yes, Ruthy Hebard, Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally are gone, but the talent that remains in Eugene might be able to fill two postseason-caliber lineups. What's left for coach Kelly Graves is to figure out how to turn all that depth and potential into a workable rotation. Transfers Taylor Mikesell and Sedona Prince bring immediate experience, while all five freshmen were ranked among the top 22 recruits in the nation. Holdovers Erin Boley, Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley are darn good, too. -- Hays

11. Kentucky Wildcats
Previous ranking: 11

Rhyne Howard (23.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG), the leading candidate for national player of the year, is now surrounded by the kind of talent that could challenge for an SEC title. Maryland transfer Olivia Owens, Utah transfer Dre'una Edwards, who was the 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and highly regarded 6-2 freshman wing Treasure Hunt help replace five seniors who departed. -- Creme

12. Texas A&M Aggies
Previous ranking: 14

Transfers Destiny Pitts (Minnesota), Jordan Nixon (Notre Dame) and Alexis Morris (Rutgers) join a deep Aggies team with returning seniors Kayla Wells, N'Dea Jones, Ciera Johnson and Aaliyah Wilson. Sure, Texas A&M lost big-scoring guard Chennedy Carter, who left for the WNBA after her junior season, and she was the star of the show the past three years in College Station. But no one should underestimate the Aggies: They have multiple threats and a lot of experience. -- Voepel

13. Indiana Hoosiers
Previous ranking: 17

There are lofty expectations for a program with two NCAA tournament appearances since 2003. Living up to those expectations starts with the perseverance of sixth-year guard Ali Patberg and the emergence of sophomore backcourt partner Grace Berger. Notre Dame transfer Danielle Patterson isn't a pure post, but she's a key addition to a frontcourt that has size but is unproven against top-tier opponents. -- Hays

14. Maryland Terrapins
Previous ranking: 12

Graduations and transfers shook up the roster, but Brenda Frese never seems to lack for talent, and the Terps are still the Big Ten favorite. Guard Ashley Owusu (12.0 PPG, 5.4 APG), last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, 6-3 Angel Reese, the favorite to win the award this year, and sophomore Diamond Miller (7.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG) form the young nucleus of what could be another high-scoring Maryland team. -- Creme

15. Arkansas Razorbacks
Previous ranking: 13

Guard Destiny Slocum started at Maryland, then went to Oregon State, and now will finish at Arkansas. That's quite a tour of the country for one player in one college career, but it's also kind of a sign of the times. Chelsea Dungee and Amber Ramirez, two other fifth-year seniors who also previously transferred to Arkansas, will combine with Slocum as a strong guard trio for what should be one of the SEC's top offenses. -- Voepel

16. Oregon State Beavers
Previous ranking: 15

Oregon State knew it would lose Mikayla Pivec. It didn't know it would lose Destiny Slocum, who transferred to Arkansas after two seasons on the court for the Beavers. That hurts the backcourt, although Aleah Goodman could shine with more responsibility. But Scott Rueck's teams have long thrived off good posts, and 6-4 sophomore Taylor Jones could go from one of the best kept secrets in the Power 5 to an All-American. -- Hays

17. Northwestern Wildcats
Previous ranking: 16

The Wildcats' resurrection continues despite missing the chance last spring to play in the program's first NCAA tournament in five years. With Big Ten Player of the Year contender Lindsey Pulliam (18.8 PPG) back, along with last year's starting backcourt -- Veronica Burton, last season's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and Sydney Wood -- Northwestern should again be in the mix for a Big Ten title and a top-four NCAA tournament seed. -- Creme

18. Iowa State Cyclones
Previous ranking: 18

The Cyclones beat Baylor in March in the regular-season finale, ending the Lady Bear's 58-game Big 12 regular-season winning streak and finally creating some intrigue in the conference, however briefly. The Big 12 and NCAA tournaments were canceled soon after. Can Iowa State, led by Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Ashley Joens, pick up where it left off? The Cyclones will do what they usually do: shoot a ton of 3-pointers and try to force games to be played at their preferred pace. -- Voepel

19. DePaul Blue Demons
Previous ranking: 19

Yes, the Big East is going to be considerably more difficult to win for the team that bossed the conference in UConn's absence, but the Blue Demons aren't going to fade away. Three starters return in Deja Church, Lexi Held and Sonya Morris -- a backcourt trio to rival just about anyone. Freshman Darrione Rogers is as highly regarded a recruit as DePaul has signed in quite some time, and while only 5-11, the guard could help fill a rebounding void. -- Hays

20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Previous ranking: 20

It will be strange not seeing Muffet McGraw on the Irish sideline anymore. But first-year Irish coach Niele Ivey will be right at home, returning to South Bend where she spent 12 seasons as a Notre Dame assistant before serving the past year as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies. Coming off the Irish's first losing season since 1992, Ivey has a bit of a rebuild, but grad student Destinee Walker and sophomores Sam Brunelle and Katlyn Gilbert offer a good foundation. Sharp-shooting junior Dara Mabrey (who transferred from Virginia Tech and is the younger sister of former Irish guards Michaela and Marina) and top-25 recruit Maddy Westbeld (younger sister of former forward Kathryn) are the top new additions. -- Creme

21. Missouri State Lady Bears
Previous ranking: 22

Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton led Missouri State to the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title in her first year with the program, and the Lady Bears are picked as league favorites again this season despite graduating their leading scorer. Four starters are back for Missouri State, led by Brice Calip, the 2020 MVC Defensive Player of the Year, and Jasmine Franklin, who was the MVC's top rebounder last season. Abi Jackson, a transfer from Auburn, is expected to be available after the first semester. -- Voepel

22. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Previous ranking: 24

With two sets of twins likely to share the court for long stretches this season, forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and guards Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong, Gonzaga is going to make life difficult for both opponents and announcers. The Truongs should ease the loss of point guard Jessie Loera, Loyola transfer Abby O'Connor is a much-needed 3-point shooter and returnee Jill Townsend might be the best mid-major player in the land. -- Hays

23. Syracuse Orange
Previous ranking: 23

Tiana Mangakahia's return after battling breast cancer is a story the entire country will be following, but it also might coincide with the best Syracuse team under coach Quentin Hillsman since the 30-win, Final Four Orange of 2016. Mangakahia (16.9 PPG, 8.4 APG in 2018-19) can retake her point guard spot, freeing up the versatility of senior Kiara Lewis (17.6 PPG), who was already one of the best players in the ACC. Freshman Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-7 center, could be the conference's biggest impact freshman. -- Creme

24. Michigan Wolverines
Previous ranking: 25

There are a lot of question marks in the Big Ten due to graduation and transfers, but the Wolverines have some pretty good answers. They return four starters: Naz Hillmon, a candidate for league player of the year, Akienreh Johnson, Amy Dilk and Hailey Brown. Plus, Leigha Brown, who was the Big Ten's Sixth Player of the Year last season for Nebraska, was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play this season for Michigan, giving the Wolverines another strong scoring threat. -- Voepel

25. Texas Longhorns
Previous ranking: NR

As the start of the season nears, it's difficult not to have faith that Vic Schaefer will at least put Texas in the Top 25 discussion. He inherits a program that was likely headed to the NCAA tournament a season ago and still features talented 6-5 post Charli Collier (post players and Schaefer were a pretty good mix at Mississippi State). That's a good start, made all the better if Kyra Lambert and Celeste Taylor solidify the backcourt. -- Hays