The 2021-22 women's basketball season tips off Tuesday, bringing with it a plethora of storylines and questions ahead of the 40th champion in NCAA tournament history to be named in April.
Stanford is the reigning national champion, but it is South Carolina atop the Associated Press Top 25 preseason rankings. And powerhouse Connecticut could put an end to its oh-so-long title drought with another heralded No. 1 recruit, Azzi Fudd, joining reigning national player of the year in sophomore Paige Bueckers. Both are players to watch this season, with Bueckers leading the AP preseason All-America team as the only unanimous selection.
The schedule starts with a bang on opening night with No. 1 South Carolina, the reigning SEC champion, traveling to play No. 5 N.C. State, the reigning ACC title winner. That game is at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN, which will air more than 330 games across all channels — including its first on ABC this December.
But before any of that, here are some of the storylines we're watching as the season unfolds.
Will the stretch of championship parity continue?
There has been a different national champion each of the past five NCAA women’s basketball tournaments played, marking the first time in the tournament’s 40-year history that’s happened. There has never been a stretch of six different schools ending up on top. Could we see a first?
Connecticut (11) and Tennessee (eight) have won about half of the time, so it’s rare to see a stretch of champions that doesn’t include at least one of them winning duplicates. The last time there were five consecutive years of different champions was from 1992-95 when Stanford, Texas Tech, North Carolina and Connecticut won between the Lady Vols' titles.
The current streak dates to UConn’s 2016 title that preludes South Carolina (’17), Notre Dame (’18), Baylor (’19) and Stanford (’21). That's the first first four-year stretch without UConn or Tennessee since the first five champions in the tournament’s history (1982-86).
The opponents have also been notably different. Syracuse reached its first title game in 2016, losing to its hometown hero Breanna Stewart as she and the Huskies finished off four titles in four seasons. Mississippi State reached its first title game in 2017 and returned in ’18. Notre Dame returned in 2019 and Arizona reached its first last season, losing by one point to Stanford.
It’s steadily becoming a deep race for a national title year in and year out.
South Carolina, UConn scarier than last season
All 11 players are back, headlined by All-American and Lisa Leslie Center of the Year Aliyah Boston. Plus, head coach Dawn Staley added the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the nation, pulling in the Nos. 2-4 recruits, and bringing in transfer Kamilla Cardoso, the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year from Syracuse. Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 center, was named co-Defensive Player of the Year last spring by league head coaches.
That’s a lot of talent and a deep bench, making South Carolina a daunting entry on the schedule. The Gamecocks have six SEC tournament titles in the past seven seasons and one national title (2017). They’ll have their first test immediately with the season opener.
The Huskies, who lost to Arizona in the Final Four, have also become more dangerous with the arrival of heralded freshman and No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd. Sophomore Paige Bueckers was left to do most of the scoring her freshman season, but now can rely more on finding Fudd in the offense.
Christyn Williams returned for her senior season and 6-foot-3 sophomore forward Aaliyah Edwards is one of the best in the country. She was named co-Sixth Player of the Year by the Big East. UConn also benefited from the transfer portal, adding 6-foot-5 Ohio State graduate Dorka Juhász.
The Huskies play an easier schedule in the Big East than South Carolina does in the SEC. Head coach Geno Auriemma has No. 6 Louisville, No. 10 Oregon, No. 1 South Carolina and No. 15 Tennessee on the nonconference schedule.
South Carolina and UConn could get an earlier meeting at the first Battle 4 Atlantis tournament the weekend before Thanksgiving. South Carolina, Buffalo, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Florida, Minnesota and Syracuse will all compete.
Can the Big 10 break through to a title?
The Big 10 is arguably the deepest conference in the sport with a record seven teams competing in the 2021 NCAA tournament. Ohio State, if not for a postseason ban, could have made it eight. Few of those teams are likely to see a drop-off in success this year.
It's the first time in conference history there are four top-15 teams and five top-10 teams in the Associated Press preseason poll. The group: No. 4 Maryland, No. 8 Indiana, No. 9 Iowa, No. 11 Michigan and No. 17 Ohio State.
Yet, the conference has only crowned a champion once with Purdue in 1999. The last team to reach the title game representing the Big Ten was Michigan State in 2005.
Maryland is the only other team in the conference to have won a championship, but did so in 2006 as a member of the ACC. Rutgers played in the 2007 national title game as a Big East member.
Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland made the Sweet 16 last year. Maryland, a No. 1 seed with the nation's most prolific offense, suffered the largest upset of all to No. 6 Texas. Indiana went the furthest, losing to Arizona in the regional final.
Each is led by some of the game's biggest stars, some of whom are Yahoo Sports' players to watch. Nearly every Big Ten game is a must-view experience and expect a few who end up on top to go far in March.
What gender equity changes will we see out of the weight room controversy?
Hosting the men's and women's tournaments in a semi-bubble put on bare display what those involved in the women's game have known for a long time: there’s a huge gender disparity between tournaments. But this moment feels different and how schools, conferences and the NCAA react to it is important in determining if we'll actually see any change. And to be blunt, what they do matters, not what they say.
The biggest concerns are at the NCAA level, and we likely won’t see anything on that until closer to March with the NCAA tournament. But individual schools and conferences can’t be overlooked. How will they promote their women’s teams on a local level? Will they promote them more on their main accounts, give more storytelling to them, create larger events around them? This also applies to sponsors and endorsements for both individual players and entire programs.
For example, the Big Ten attempted to draw more media coverage of its women’s basketball teams with joint media days. Commissioner Kevin Warren told Yahoo Sports he is in the process of hiring a vice president of women’s basketball to focus solely on the sport and said he’ll be heavily involved. What improvements will come of that new hire in the Big Ten and how will other conferences follow?
Coaching changes, now and later
It’s the first time in two decades we’ll see Kim Mulkey and her poppy pant suits on a sideline that isn’t Baylor. But it may be a while before we see her back in the deeper rounds of the NCAA tournament as head coach of LSU. Or even the deeper rounds of her conference tournament.
No. 1-ranked South Carolina is the favorite in the SEC, and it’s a deeper field of talent throughout the conference. Texas A&M, which is also about to undergo a coaching change, was picked to finish second by a vote of SEC coaches. They chose the Tigers to finish eighth of 14 teams a year after finishing 9-13 overall and 6-8 in the conference.
College basketball fans will have an eye on how veteran coach Mulkey builds the program back up — and how she handles the culture while doing it. It will take a few years for her to recruit the players she wants, and there will surely be top recruits wanting to join her soon in Louisiana.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who ranks fourth among active coaches in wins, announced it will be his final season. The 76-year-old Hall of Famer has 838 victories, ranking 12th all-time, and led the Aggies to five conference titles, including the 2021 SEC regular-season title over South Carolina. Texas A&M won the 2011 national championship and he is nine wins from being the school’s winningest basketball coach in history.
Meanwhile, back in Waco, former Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen took charge of a team that is ranked seventh in the preseason poll. NaLyssa Smith was named to the AP preseason All-America team and senior 6-foot-3 center Queen Egbo joined her on the All-Big 12 team. Jordan Lewis, a graduate transfer Mulkey announced in April, was an honorable mention and named the Preseason Newcomer of the Year.
There are big shoes to fill for Collen as the Bears have won 12 straight conference titles. They are again favored by conference coaches to win it all with Iowa State and Texas directly behind them tied at second. But this isn't just any hire for Baylor. Recruits will likely be drawn to her program since she knows what it takes to get to the WNBA and has experience coaching in that realm.
Notre Dame in the post-Muffet McGraw era
Notre Dame missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years last March following a 10-10 overall record and 8-7 mark in the ACC. It was the first season under head coach and alumna Niele Ivey. The streak would have come to an end the year prior, under legendary coach Muffet McGraw, but the tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fighting Irish are in somewhat of a rebuild phase. The last time the team wasn’t invited to a postseason tournament — they were out of the WNIT, as well — was in 1993, a time before current college players were born.
The big thing in Notre Dame’s favor for 2021-22 is health, an advantage it hasn’t been afforded in years. After the 2019 national title game appearance (a loss to Baylor), all five starters entered the WNBA draft. Combined with injury, only 5.6% of the team’s scoring came back and that continued to dwindle. It continued throughout the past two seasons.
Ivey comes in with the benefit of extended in-person offseason workouts and exhibitions she didn’t last season. They return the ACC coaches’ pick for Rookie of the Year, Maddy Westbeld, who was the only freshman in the nation to average at least 15 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game. They bring back a fully healthy Sam Brunelle, the 2019 No. 1 recruit, and add freshman Sonia Citron, ranked No. 16 in her class by ESPN HoopGurlz.