Published November 07, 2012
Brittney Griner is going into her senior season at Baylor looking for another national championship.
The 6-foot-8 dunking Griner is already a two-time All-American for the Lady Bears, who return every starter from the NCAA's first 40-win team. She is the only NCAA player with 2,000 career points and 500 blocked shots.
Yet, there is still one area where Griner doesn't excel in basketball.
"About the only sport that I know how to play on a video game is golf," said Griner, who took a liking to the links during a P.E. class her sophomore year. "I'm trash at basketball."
Unfortunately for opponents, they will have to go against Griner on the court — not sitting in front of a video screen with game controllers in their hands.
Coach Kim Mulkey's Lady Bears had a clean sweep last season, going undefeated and being the No. 1 team all season.
The first four teams in the preseason poll are traditional powers in women's basketball. Will they be part of the Final Four in New Orleans five months from now?
Connecticut made it back to the Final Four year last season even with Maya Moore playing in the WNBA. The second-ranked Huskies have four returning starters, and get a boost with standout sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis now a starter. There also is a talented freshman trio led by Breanna Stewart expected to contribute immediately while also setting UConn up for plenty of future success.
Coach Geno Auriemma keeps saying his team is "really, really, really good," and he believes UConn can win it all.
Led by junior guard Chelsea Gray and sophomore post Elizabeth Williams, third-ranked Duke returns four starters and its top six scorers from last season's team that won 27 games before losing to Stanford in a regional final. The Blue Devils are still looking for their first Final Four under coach sixth-year coach Joanne P. McCallie.
No. 4 Stanford has been a regular at the Final Four, like UConn making the last five. But coach Tara Van Derveer and the Cardinal are still looking for their first national championship since 1992.
The Cardinal still have one Ogwumike — 6-3 junior forward Chiney, a preseason All-American after the graduation of All-America older sister Nnemkadi. But Chiney is surrounded by six players coming off their freshman seasons.
Before getting to the Big Easy, here are a few things to look this season:
Can Baylor go undefeated again? Another 40-win season is out of reach for the Lady Bears. The only way they could play 40 games is with an extra game in the Big 12 tournament, and for that to happen they'd have to lose a bunch of Big 12 games and finish in the bottom four of the Big 12 standings. That's not going to happen with Griner, preseason All-America guard Odyssey Sims, seven other returning letter winners and an impressive five-player freshman class.
Third-time charm for Skylar Diggins? This is the senior season for Diggins, the All-America point guard who grew up in South Bend and has led Notre Dame to consecutive national runner-up finishes. The seventh-ranked Irish will depend heavily on Diggins and backcourt mate Kayla McBride after three other starters graduated.
Blue Hens soar? Led by Elena Delle Donne, the nation's leading scorer (28.1 ppg) and a unanimous preseason All-American, Delaware won 31 games and before losing in the NCAA second round. The Blue Hens return all five starters (four seniors). Before they likely dominate the Colonial Athletic Association again, they have big non-conference tests against No. 5 Maryland and at No. 14 St. John's.
Over the Summitt? For the first time since 1973-74, Tennessee opens a season without Pat Summitt as its head coach. There's still a familiar face with Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt and was an assistant coach for 27 years. The Lady Vols are No. 20, their lowest ranking since 1985, with only two seniors and one junior. Summitt, who won 1,098 games and eight national titles in 38 seasons, is head coach emeritus. She was diagnosed before last season with early-onset dementia and stepped down in April.
Changing rules? An elbow isn't always a foul and a spin move doesn't always warrant a travel. Those are among points of emphasis this season for women's basketball referees. Incidental contact with the elbow, even above the shoulders, isn't necessarily a foul. Ball handers can lift their pivot foot to pass and shoot, and it's not a travel if they complete the move before the foot hits the floor again.
Players are always coming and going. Here are some of the newcomers who could have immediate impacts for some of the top schools:
Malina Howard, Maryland. A 6-foot-3 post player who is a really strong rebounder on both the offensive and defensive ends. Will make an immediate impact for the Terps. Said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, "I started recruiting Malina when she was in ninth grade. Four years later, it took Malina about five seconds to be on our campus and make her presence felt as an incredibly special person. She's a perfectionist at everything she does."
Alexis Prince, Baylor. A 6-1 guard/forward who combines size with athleticism. She has a fluid style of play that makes her a strong contributor on both offense and defense. "Alexis will be the biggest perimeter player that I have coached at Baylor," coach Kim Mulkey said. "Alexis has lateral quickness on the defensive end that is deceptive. You don't' really know how quick she is until you have her on that floor."
Jewell Loyd, Notre Dame. A 5-10 guard who can hit the 3 as well as create shots for others. Loyd will benefit from playing with Skylar Diggins this season and is the next talented guard to play for coach Muffet McGraw. "I expect her to contribute in a big way immediately," McGraw said. "I think she will be a candidate for rookie of the year in the Big East."
Breanna Stewart, Connecticut. A 6-4 versatile player who can score from anywhere on the court. She has the skills of a guard but the body of a forward. Stewart gained a lot of experience on the international scene this summer playing for USA basketball. Said coach Geno Auriemma. "She's really confident, knows it and plays like it. She's been good at every level and there's nothing that's going to shake that."
Once conference plays gets started nationwide, in most cases in the first few days of January, there will be plenty of standout games.
No. 3 Duke and No. 5 Maryland get to play at least twice in the ACC. No. 12 Oklahoma gets a couple of chances against Baylor in the Big 12, and as Sooners senior guard Whitney Hand said, "The more familiar with them you are, the less that jersey beats you."
Connecticut and Notre Dame play in a Big East opener Jan. 5, then again in the regular-season finale two months later — the same for Notre Dame vs. Connecticut. Pac-12 teams Stanford and California play consecutive games against each other in a six-day span in January.
There will be some big nonconference matchups long before the NCAA tournament, including a couple to open the season:
Friday — No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 19 Ohio State on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C.
Friday — No. 9 Louisville vs. SEC newcomer No. 15 Texas A&M, the 2011 national champ.
Nov. 13 — No. 6 Kentucky at No. 1 Baylor. Quick early test for SEC favorite Wildcats, with their highest ranking ever.
Nov. 16 — Rematch of last year's NCAA semifinal game when No. 1 Baylor plays No. 4 Stanford in Hawaii. The Lady Bears won 59-47 in Denver.
Nov. 18 — No. 2 Connecticut at Texas A&M, which won its national title without having to face UConn, which lost to Notre Dame in a national semifinal game that season.
Dec. 2 — Instate battle to rival the men's matchup: Kentucky at Louisville.
Dec. 3 — No. 5 Maryland at Connecticut. These two teams didn't meet for years, and now play consecutive seasons in support of the Jimmy V fund.
Dec. 5 — Rematch of last season's NCAA title game, Baylor at No. 7 Notre Dame, which lost 80-61 at Denver.
Dec. 6 — No. 8 Penn State at Connecticut. The Huskies' second game against preseason Top 10 team in four days.
Dec 9 — No. 3 Duke and No. 14 St. John's. A rematch providing chance for the Red Storm to make up for 74-47 loss in the NCAA round of 16 last March.
Dec. 20 — Maryland at No. 11 Delaware. The only regular season loss for Delaware last year was at Maryland's tournament. Will Delle Donne be healthy enough to carry the Blue Hens to the upset in front of their raucous fans.
Dec. 29 — Connecticut at Stanford. A post-Christmas Final Four preview of teams that were on opposite sides of the bracket last season?
Feb. 18 — Baylor at Connecticut. A mid-February matchup of undefeated teams?
BY THE NUMBERS
5_Consecutive appearances in the Final Four for Connecticut and Stanford, who will be trying to make it six in a row this season.
5_Number of teams from Big East and SEC ranked in preseason Top 25.
7_Career dunks by Baylor's Brittney Griner, tied for the women's record with Tennessee's Candace Parker (2004-08).
20_Consecutive seasons UConn has been in the preseason top 10, starting at No. 2 this season.
39_Most possible wins this season for Baylor.
40_Consecutive games won by Baylor going into this season after the NCAA's first 40-win season.
74_Teams with new coaches this season.
79_Consecutive home games won by Stanford at Maples Pavilion going into this season.
900_Career wins reachable this season by Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer (885) and North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell (879). Pat Summitt and Jody Conradt are the only women's coaches with at least 900 wins.
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this report.