With the 2016–2017 NCAA women’s basketball season kicking off Friday Nov. 11, the upper echelon of the rankings is more wide open than it has been in years. That means there are no shortage of storylines to follow in this season’s march to crown a college champ on April 2 in Dallas.
1. A whole new world beyond Storrs, Conn.
For the first time in 15 years, UConn isn’t at the top of a preseason poll from the AP. Instead, Notre Dame leads the 2016–2017 rankings, followed by Baylor and UConn in third. Notre Dame received 14 of the first-place votes compared to UConn’s six.
NCAA coaches differ than the AP, though, giving UConn the edge over Notre Dame in their preseason coaching poll. But whether the Huskies are ranked in the No. 1 spot or not, the biggest takeaway is that there’s finally some room at the top for others to play.
The fact that UConn isn’t the universally perceived leader doesn’t come as a surprise for head coach Geno Auriemma. As he told ESPN, in previous seasons the No. 1 ranking was a given. “We knew we were favorites and we knew why,” he said. “But now, anyone that picks us as No. 1, my first question is ‘Why? Give me your rationale.’”
2. Keep an eye on Kelsey Plum. Trust us.
After a giant run in last season’s NCAA tournament, Kelsey Plum returns for her final year at Washington. There had been questions about her continued collegiate play after rumors flew that Plum was going to declare early for the WNBA. But instead, she’s decided that she has records to break in the Pac-12.
Plum brings more to the game than stellar talent—she also likes to have fun, as evinced by a prank she played on Huskies head coach Mike Neighbors before she had committed to another year with his team. As she told the AP:
“I thought I’d mess with him a little bit,” Plum said. “I was like, ‘You know what coach, I just want to say I really appreciate everything you’ve done. It’s been a great three years and I’m just grateful for the opportunity you’ve given me and the future.’ And he was dead silent.
“And then I was like ‘Come on, I’m coming back.’ I think I got him a little bit.”
Skills? Check. Personality? Check. And if you need one last reason to keep an eye on her this season in Washington, Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird is pretty sure she’d lose in a one-on-one pick-up battle with Plum.
3. Is A’Ja Wilson the new face of women’s college ball?
Some already think so. The South Carolina star has been at the top of the game with the Gamecocks, so she knows how the pressure works. But now with Breanna Stewart in the WNBA, it could be her face plastered everywhere in promotions for the NCAA.
Wilson is ready for the leadership role. As she told The State, “I build off of two summers ago, with Team USA, when I was kind of the oldest on that team. I go from listening to people looking at me, asking ‘What do we do?’ That’s when it hit me–you’re not a follower anymore, you’re a leader now.”
So, just like with Stewart, it’s not about her. There’s a tradition of winning to uphold at South Carolina, and it starts with a SEC title. It doesn’t end there. Her own game is just in service of the overall goal.
Oh, and she’s not bad at the social media game either.
4. There are bigger storylines beyond the top teams.
Take the Big Ten for instance. Sure, there’s the question if anyone can challenge Maryland for the title this year. But dig into the rest of the 14 teams in the conference and there’s plenty of drama to follow. Nebraska’s head coach Connie Yuri—the most successful head coach in Huskers history—resigned after allegations of bullying her players. Now, new coach Amy Williams is at the helm and facing a tough non-conference slate of games, including UConn. And in the preseason, the Huskers barely eked out a win against DII Southwest Baptist, 73–71.
Wisconsin is in the same boat. Bobbie Kelsey was fired for last season’s results, but while still on the bench delivered one of the most underrated rants on practice ever given at a press conference.