Defending champion South Carolina is the easy pick for preseason No. 1. And the Gamecocks are again the front-runner in the SEC. But what will conference races look like in every other league around the country?
Will Baylor be able to add to its streak of 12 consecutive regular-season titles in the Big 12 or are Texas or Iowa State ready to return to the mantle? Can anyone challenge Stanford in the Pac-12? Is Iowa ready to win the Big Ten regular-season title outright?
That begs the question: Which is the most competitive conference in the nation?
ESPN's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel break down what to expect across the Power 5 races and predict the winner in all 32 conferences.
Navigate to predicted champions for every conference.
Which is the best conference in the country: the ACC or SEC?
Creme: Each league put nine teams in my preseason Bracketology. They are undeniably the two best conferences in the country, but the nod for absolute best goes to the SEC.
While the ACC has more teams among the top four seeds (five) than the SEC in our preseason bracket projection, the SEC's average seed was 5.8 compared to the ACC's 6.4. That, plus the fact the SEC had two No. 1 seeds (South Carolina and Tennessee) as well as the defending national champion gives it the edge. The ACC might have the most compelling conference race, but the SEC is the better league right now.
Voepel: The title "best," as Charlie said, still tilts toward the SEC, especially considering how strong South Carolina's chances are to repeat. What is great for the ACC is that there are so many intriguing matchups to watch. Notre Dame and Louisville took over the league in women's basketball when they moved into the ACC in 2013 and 2014, respectively. NC State has been the most successful of the longtime ACC teams to push back.
All three are in the mix again, along with another ACC stalwart, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech, which joined the conference in 2004. And can NC State, North Carolina and Duke all make the NCAA field in the same season for the first time since 2014?
Philippou: I'm going with the ACC. Yes, the SEC is home to South Carolina, but the ACC will prove to be way deeper by the time all is said and done. Below, each of us focused on a different team we considered the best in the league, and that's without delving into other strong teams such as North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami -- not to mention Florida State, Georgia Tech and maybe Duke.
Baylor has won 12 consecutive regular-season Big 12 titles. Does the streak end this year?
Voepel: The tide started to turn last season when Baylor lost in the Big 12 tournament for just the second time in the last 11 tournaments. Texas won its first league tournament since 2003, and now the Longhorns hope to add their first regular-season crown since 2004, when they tied with Kansas State. Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma all could contend for the Big 12 title along with Baylor; the Sooners are the last of that group to win that, finishing first in 2009. Iowa State's only Big 12 regular-season title came in 2000, when the Cyclones shared it with Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Getting the second would be quite a feat for Iowa State great Ashley Joens, now in her fifth season.
For Baylor coach Nicki Collen, this season might feel a little more like the Bears are truly her squad in her second year in Waco. NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo are both in the WNBA. But senior guard Aijha Blackwell, a transfer from Missouri, and wing Darianna Littlepage-Buggs were selected as preseason Big 12 newcomer and freshman of the year, respectively, so the Bears will still be very good and might even enjoy not having the target on their backs for a change.
Creme: It will end this season. In fact, I think Baylor will finish fourth in the Big 12. Texas and Iowa State look like better teams and Oklahoma could be as well.
Iowa State was within a game of Baylor during the 2022 regular season and brings back its four top scorers -- Joens, Lexi Donarski, Emily Ryan and Morgan Kane -- and adds two-time NAIA Player of the Year Stephanie Soares. Oklahoma beat Baylor twice last season and could be just as good with Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson back in the fold.
Texas beat the Bears in the conference tournament title game and made it all the way to the Elite Eight for the second straight year. The Longhorns lost some key pieces to graduation and the transfer portal, but the talent Vic Schaefer acquired in the portal might be better. Texas seems on the verge of a national breakthrough.
Philippou: This is the year the Baylor streak is probably broken, but given the talent Collen is bringing into Waco, the Bears won't finish as low as Charlie predicted. In the conference preseason poll, both Texas and Iowa State received four of 10 first-place votes, with Iowa State narrowly edging Texas by one point in the final polling. Iowa State is my pick to win it all, more so because the Cyclones have more returning and proven pieces in Ames than Texas has in Austin. But Schaefer will likely have his new-look team rolling come the postseason.
Tennessee and LSU look to be better than last season, but are they ready to challenge South Carolina?
Philippou: Tennessee has the best chance of challenging South Carolina. Prior to a mid-year stumble of sorts last season, the Lady Vols were looking the most dangerous they have in some time. Though Rae Burrell is gone, Jordan Horston (especially if healthy) and the Lady Vols appear ready to carry the mantle. Watching how Kellie Harper incorporates her big-time transfers -- a group headlined by Rickea Jackson and Jillian Hollingshead -- will also be fascinating.
While Tennessee could be a national power, I'm not sold just yet on how things will work out at LSU with so many new faces. Yes, Kim Mulkey is a Hall of Fame coach, but it's not easy to move on from four starters, and the Tigers' flameout in the postseason (both SEC and NCAA tournaments) was underwhelming.
Creme: Tennessee looks like it could be a serious challenger. The Lady Vols might be South Carolina's equal on the glass -- it shouldn't surprise anyone if these are the two best rebounding teams in the country come season's end -- and the Gamecocks' perimeter shooting is a concern. They were 312th in 3-point rate last year, and Dawn Staley's only reliable shooter a year ago -- Destanni Henderson -- is now in the WNBA.
The Gamecocks still have Aliyah Boston. They still know how to deliver in big games. South Carolina still has to be considered the favorite in the SEC and nationally. But if the Gamecocks falter, their lack of consistent perimeter shooting will be the reason why.
Voepel: Challenge? Perhaps. Finish ahead of? Not likely. The Gamecocks have been carrying the favorite's weight in the SEC for a while now, so that isn't going to impact them. Staley still puts a lot of emphasis on winning the league title, and if anything, having stronger teams around them should only help.
LSU was a guard-oriented team last season and relied a lot on the experience and hunger brought by fifth-year seniors such as Khayla Pointer. LSU this season should look a little more like traditional Mulkey teams with very powerful inside games. We might not know all the specifics of how LSU will look just yet, but the talent is there and it's not going to be wasted.
There seems to be a lot of excitement around this season's Tennessee team, and that's just a good thing for the sport as a whole.
Stanford won the Pac-12 by six games last year. What other team from the conference has Sweet 16 potential?
Voepel: Coach Adia Barnes' Arizona squad has top scorers Cate Reese and Shaina Pellington back as fifth-year seniors. The Wildcats also add key transfers from the Big 12 in forward Esmery Martinez (West Virginia) and guard Lauren Fields (Oklahoma State), who were both all-conference second-team performers last season. By December when Arizona plays Kansas and Baylor, perhaps its two most competitive nonconference games, the Wildcats will show how ready they are for Pac-12 season.
Creme: Arizona is the Pac-12's second-best team. However, Oregon is right behind. If Te-Hina Paopao breaks out to become the star we have seen glimpses of, the Ducks could be the team trying to chase down Stanford. Kelly Graves will also need a big season out of Sedona Prince in the post and some production from another highly regarded recruiting class, but the assembled talent is good enough to get Oregon to its fifth Sweet 16 in the last six tournaments.
Philippou: Voepel and Creme identified the two teams that have the best chance of making respectable NCAA tournament runs, but UCLA -- fresh off a berth to the WNIT semifinals, where the Bruins fell to eventual champion South Dakota State -- should simply be better after recent bad luck with injuries and difficulties getting players in from overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic. Charisma Osborne will be a senior, but lots of attention is on their standout freshmen, including Kiki Rice, Gabriela Jaquez and Londynn Jones. The Bruins' recruiting class earned espnW's No. 1 ranking, so whether that potential will manifest this year or later on, the future looks bright in L.A.
Which is the best team in the ACC?
Voepel: NC State lost four key players, most notably center Elissa Cunane. So this, perhaps, is supposed to be the season the Wolfpack relinquish the top spot in the league. But coach Wes Moore has displayed a strong ability to reload and reshape his teams over the years. Players such as Jakia Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd will need to move into bigger roles, and the transfers, led by Saniya Rivers, have to produce quickly. Moore will relish this challenge.
Creme: The great thing about the ACC is five teams could battle to be the answer here. Notre Dame is my preseason favorite. With Olivia Miles, Dara Mabrey, Maddy Westbeld and Sonia Citron back, the Irish have more stability among their top players than any of the ACC's other contenders, with the possible exception of North Carolina. Miles has first-team All-American potential. If she realizes it this season, Notre Dame will have a point guard good enough to carry a team in critical moments.
Philippou: Is it possible we're sleeping on Louisville of all teams? Yes, the Cardinals lost three starters from last year, but Jeff Walz knows how to bring in transfers and incorporate them smoothly into his system, so it will be intriguing to see how quickly/successfully he'll do that with Chrislyn Carr and Morgan Jones. Plus, the team still has Hailey Van Lith, who could be on the verge of a breakout season. As our colleague Debbie Antonelli put it, in recent years Walz has the best track record in the conference when it comes to consistent winning.
And while I don't know if it will be the best team in the conference, Virginia Tech's potential should have basketball fans salivating, especially as ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley gets to take the court with one of the most dynamic guards in the country in Ashley Owusu.
The Big Ten was packed near the top last season. Which team is considered the front-runner now?
Voepel: Despite its disappointing loss to Creighton at home in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March, Iowa comes into this season with a lot of momentum. Caitlin Clark led Division I in points and assists averages last season, while Monika Czinano was first in field goal percentage. The Hawkeyes won eight in a row, including the Big Ten tournament championship game, before that loss to the Bluejays.
Iowa has had the Big Ten player of the year four of the last five years, and the Hawkeyes are likely to see Clark repeat the honor this season.
Creme: Iowa is my pick, too, but Indiana is intriguing. Iowa having Clark and Czinano back overshadows Indiana also returning its two best players, Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes. The additions of Sara Scalia, the conference's second-most productive 3-point shooter last season at Minnesota, and Sydney Parrish from Oregon, could improve the offense, which is so important in trying to compete with the Hawkeyes. If Teri Moren is able to come close to replicating the chemistry her team had the last two seasons, Indiana has potential to win the Big Ten and reach the Elite Eight.
Philippou: As the Big Ten coaches voted in their preseason poll, Iowa is still the clear frontrunner, especially with Michigan and Maryland potentially having "down" years following the departure of Naz Hillmon from the former and a big personnel shakeup at the latter. But Ohio State (which returns top scorers Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell) and Indiana could be challengers.
Team listed first/alone is the consensus pick in each conference; teams listed in parentheses received one vote as the conference favorite.
* Denotes a unanimous pick from our panel to win the conference race.
ACC: No consensus (Louisville, NC State, Notre Dame)
American: South Florida*
Atlantic 10: UMass*
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast*
Big 12: Iowa State (Texas)
Big East: UConn*
Big Sky: Montana State*
Big Ten: Iowa*
Big West: Hawaii*
Ivy League: Princeton*
Mountain West: UNLV*
Ohio Valley: Tennessee Tech*
Patriot League: Boston U.*
SEC: South Carolina*
SWAC: Jackson State*
Summit League: South Dakota State*
Sun Belt: Troy*
West Coast: Gonzaga*
WAC: Stephen F. Austin*