Women's college basketball 2020-21: Final Four picks, player of the year predictions, biggest storylines

The 2020-21 women's college basketball season opens Wednesday. As a season of uncertainty around COVID-19 cancellations commences, ESPN.com's experts make their Final Four, NCAA champion, player of the year and rookie of the year picks below while tackling some of the season's biggest storylines. Who will become the face of the women's game this season? Which team joined the top-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks as the only unanimous picks to reach the Final Four (wherever it might be played)? There was nothing unanimous about our picks for the national champion.

Jump to Final Four and player of the year predictions

What team/player are you most looking forward to seeing play, whether it's to see a highly touted recruit make her college debut, or a team you might have questions about?

Graham Hays, ESPN.com college basketball writer: The next chapter at Oregon should be fascinating for what it means about the balance of power on the West Coast and throughout college basketball. We will never know if Oregon would have claimed its first championship a season ago. But even if that means the Ducks aren't yet in the same club as Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina, programs that won at least one title and maintained a place in the upper echelon, can they show staying power?

Louisville did it after Angel McCoughtry and then again after Shoni Schimmel. Mississippi State might be in the midst of doing it without Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians (and now Vic Schaefer). Is there life after Ruthy Hebard, Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally for Oregon?

I can't imagine a more interesting assemblage of talent to try and answer that question. Is 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore Sedona Prince literally the centerpiece? Is Maryland transfer Taylor Mikesell the perfect guard for a Kelly Graves offense? Can Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley evolve into feature players? And that's before even getting to a freshman class that is its own high school All-America team. I have no idea how it all fits together, but I admit I'm more interested in watching the Ducks this season than I was watching last season's brilliantly executed but very familiar storylines.

Charlie Creme, ESPN.com bracketologist: My interest around Kentucky has grown ever since Matthew Mitchell's abrupt retirement announcement on Nov. 12. The Wildcats are in more than capable hands. Kyra Elzy has been elevated to interim head coach after serving as a Wildcat assistant for eight seasons over two stints. And experienced assistants such as Niya Butts and Lin Dunn remain on staff. The Wildcats also have the front-runner for national player of the year in Rhyne Howard, and the program probably has its most talented roster in some time.

However, losing the architect of it all and Kentucky's winningest coach has to have some detrimental impact, doesn't it? Yes, Howard's talent is big enough to carry a team, and she now has the help of 2019 Pac-12 freshman of the year in Utah transfer Dre'una Edwards, highly regarded 6-1 freshman Treasure Hunt, and transfers and former five-star recruits Robyn Benton (Auburn) and Olivia Owens (Maryland). This team is good enough to possibly challenge South Carolina in the SEC if everything breaks right and all the pieces fit together.

And that is where intrigue enters into the equation. How easy will it be to make it all work without Mitchell's leadership in a season already wrought with the chaos of COVID-19? Because of Elzy's experience and Howard's ability, will it matter at all? If December games against Indiana and DePaul happen, I will be watching intently to begin to get those answers.

LaChina Robinson, ESPN analyst: I am looking forward to watching Syracuse. The return of Tiana Mangakahia after she beat breast cancer is the story of the year in our sport. Syracuse is laced with McDonald's All Americans, including Emily Engstler, who is on the brink of playing her best basketball, and Kamilla Cardoso, who could be the next coming of Kayla Alexander.

With Mangakahia's vision and passing ability, everyone on her team becomes a bigger scoring threat. The explosive Kiara Lewis was the only Syracuse player who averaged in double figures last season and can now move to the wing to focus on getting buckets. Coach Quentin Hillsman has a deep, talented bench and a Syracuse system that doesn't change no matter the season. That is particularly important this year with a shortened preseason and less time with your team. With the inspiration of Mangakahia, this will be a Final Four season for the Orange.

Mechelle Voepel, ESPN.com women's basketball writer: I'm eager to see Texas and Mississippi State: the team that coach Vic Schaefer has taken over, and the team he left. The Longhorns were a good program under coach Karen Aston, but they couldn't challenge Baylor and they didn't make a trip to the Final Four. Can Schaefer liven up the Big 12? Can Texas-Baylor become an actual rivalry? Can the Longhorns return to the Final Four for the first time since 2003? We can't expect all that to happen this season, but we'll see what path Texas is on.

Nikki McCray-Penson takes over at Mississippi State, and it will be fascinating to see how the rivalry with South Carolina goes now that it has a little different dynamic. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Schaefer were friendly, but Staley and McCray-Penson are close friends. They played on the U.S. national team together, and McCray-Penson is a former assistant to Staley at South Carolina. Last season, the Gamecocks freshmen, led by Aliyah Boston, got a lot of attention, and rightfully so. But Mississippi State forward Rickea Jackson also had an outstanding freshman season in 2019-20, so how will she build on that?

There's no apparent record-breaking star like Sabrina Ionescu on the eve of the 2020-21 campaign. If you could pick one player to become the 'must-watch' player of this season, whom would you pick?

Hays: A player who believed in a coach's vision and helped turn around a program with little recent history of success. Rebounds absurdly well for someone her size. Makes everyone around her better. Rarely leaves the court without providing at least one highlight worth tweeting (usually by way of a crossover or a yoga-worthy finish in the paint, but even by getting engaged when she's feeling really creative). Don't pine for Ionescu. Just watch Arizona's Aari McDonald.

McDonald suffered a season ago from the double whammy of Ionescu's Pac-12 shadow and the pandemic that prevented Arizona from reaching its first NCAA tournament in 15 years. One of those is no longer a shadow, and hopefully circumstances in the world will allow McDonald and the Wildcats the stage they deserve in March. But it would be even better if she was already a household name by then.

Creme: As LaChina mentioned above, Mangakahia and her return to the court after battling breast cancer can't be discussed and written about enough. Before basketball even enters the narrative, her recovery, how inspiring it was to others, and the support she received in upstate New York -- so far from her Australian home -- are enough to celebrate. Also consider she is fun to watch and was one of the nation's best point guards in her previous two full seasons with the Orange. No one had more total assists in 2017-18 and 2018-19 except Ionescu.

Mangakahia makes teammates better with her ability to create and deliver on-time passes. It will be intriguing to see if she is the same player after all she went through. If she is, the next question is how much better does Mangakahia make Syracuse? The Orange were 25-9 two years ago with her but just 16-15 last season without her.

Senior Kiara Lewis is already one of the top guards in the country. How much better can she be with a backcourt running mate whose primary purpose is to get her the ball? How many more open shots will the Orange shooters have? Hillsman brought in an outstanding recruiting class. Those freshmen can only be helped by the presence of Mangakahia's leadership.

Syracuse's season has plenty of promise and it grows exponentially if Mangakahia returns to her near All-American form.

Robinson: Rhyne Howard is COLD. When I watch her, I see flashes of Chamique Holdsclaw, and I never wanted to miss a game when Chamique was lacing up.

At 6-2, every facet of Howard's game is complete AND efficient, shooting 43% from the field and 38% from long range, with 6.5 rebounds per game. Last season, she averaged 23.4 points per game. Her minutes were up, turnovers were down and she terrorized Kentucky opponents, including 37 against Tennessee and 43 against Alabama. If you want to see a future No.1 WNBA draft pick on a cold winter night, get a blanket, curl up by the fire and let Rhyne Howard keep you warm.

Voepel: I'm going to cheat and list two: South Carolina's Boston, who could challenge Howard for SEC and national player of the year, and Baylor junior forward NaLyssa Smith. Both are outstanding athletes who should be in the spotlight this season for their respective teams, and both have the kind of games that are already making you think about how well they will play in the WNBA.

Give us one out-of-the-box, non-pandemic-related storyline -- something you're fascinated by that no one else seems to be talking about -- heading into 2020-21.

Rebecca Lobo, ESPN analyst: Is there really such a thing as a non-pandemic-related storyline in 2020? I'm intrigued by all the smaller pandemic-adjacent storylines.

How do coaches strategically figure out which players to room together on the road to limit the impact of a positive test? How many tweets will be sent by coaches looking for a new opponent when a game has been canceled? How will the added year of eligibility affect recruiting and the transfer portal? What will a single-site NCAA tournament look like if the women go that route? Will I ever get a word in edgewise during studio shows if coach [Andy] Landers is working from home and doesn't have me kicking him under the desk? Lots of very important questions.

Hays: As Rebecca said, non-pandemic storylines is an oxymoron this season.

Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and UConn's Geno Auriemma are on the verge of passing the late Pat Summitt for the most wins in women's college basketball history. Strictly speaking, that's a non-pandemic story. Except even there, it's the all-consuming presence of the pandemic that prevents us from focusing on the milestone (not to mention that with VanDerveer and Auriemma separated by just three wins, pandemic cancellations might yet determine which one gets to 1,099 wins first).

Hopefully we do get around to some perspective on both impending achievements, but I'm especially interested in VanDerveer's part in the story. There was great women's basketball on the West Coast before she got to Stanford, and even she would tell you she's only one part in a greater evolutionary process in the Pac-12. But seeing what the conference has become, I'm struck by Stanford's footprint. The Cardinal set the bar on that side of the country over the past three decades, and so many programs rose to the challenge.

None of this is a knock on Auriemma or UConn as the Huskies rejoin a reconstituted Big East -- the entire country is still trying to clear the bar set by the Huskies and their 11 national titles. But let's not sleep on how much VanDerveer reshaped an entire region.

Robinson: I am excited to see how teams, leagues and student-athletes continue to use their voices around issues of social justice. During the summer, college athletes, coaches and universities all used their platforms to create awareness and push for change around racism and police violence in our country. Putting a dent in systemic racism would take much longer than a season, but the stories, thoughts and experiences of our leaders and role models in sport need to be heard. With a real spotlight on the women's college basketball season, I want to see the momentum continue.

Voepel: Can the Triangle become a triple-threat women's hoops hot spot again? With coach Kara Lawson taking over at Duke, there's a fresh feel to the Blue Devils in general but specifically to their rivalries with North Carolina and NC State. Courtney Banghart enters her second season with the Tar Heels and has recruited very well. Wes Moore is in his eighth season with the Wolfpack, who won the ACC tournament title last season and are No. 8 in preseason rankings. Moore always seems to get the most out of his talent. Duke had stagnated the past few seasons, so it will be fun to see a new spark in Durham and how that impacts the Blue Devils' nearby neighbors.

2020-21 predictions

Which teams reach the Final Four?

Creme: UConn, Louisville, South Carolina, Stanford
Hays: Arizona, UConn, South Carolina, Stanford
Robinson: UConn, Louisville, South Carolina, Syracuse
Voepel: UConn, Louisville, South Carolina, Stanford

Who wins the NCAA title?

Creme: Stanford
Hays: UConn
Robinson: South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina

Who will be the national player of the year?

Creme: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Hays: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Lobo: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Robinson: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Voepel: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Who will be newcomer of the year?

Creme: Paige Bueckers, UConn
Hays: Paige Bueckers, UConn
Lobo: Paige Bueckers, UConn
Robinson: Paige Bueckers, UConn
Voepel: Paige Bueckers, UConn