NEW YORK — As soon as Sabrina Ionescu announced she was returning for her senior season at Oregon, the women’s college basketball landscape changed.
The Oregon Ducks became the favorite to win the championship after falling in the Final Four last season to Baylor — the eventual title winners.
Ionescu has been one of the most electrifying players in college hoops the past few seasons, shattering the triple-double record. She’s the projected No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft next spring. The All-America guard has a lot of help at the Pac-12 school, including star forward Ruthy Hebard.
Don’t count Oregon head coach Kelly Graves among those who already have handed the title to the Ducks, who earned the first AP Top 25 No. 1 ranking in school history last week.
Graves said that a few times a week someone would text him or tell him at the local Costco that they’ll see the Ducks in New Orleans, the site of this season’s Final Four. Graves has the same response to all of them: “I hope we’re there. You can buy yours we have to earn ours.”
The Ducks may have a tough time winning their own conference as the Pac-12 is once again one of the best in the country, with Stanford and Oregon State the main two challengers.
Even with the Ducks the favorite, this might be the first time in a while that there aren’t four clear-cut choices to reach the Final Four. Perennial contender UConn will have to find replacements for graduated stars Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier.
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The Huskies have made the Final Four a record 12 consecutive years. Coach Geno Auriemma sees this season more open than the past decade or so when his team has dominated.
“We were accused for a number of years of it being the same teams all the time,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “We were on the verge of becoming college football. So, it’s good that there’s new faces up there. Now, did a lot of those faces show up because the people that were already there backed up or because they got really, really good. I think it was a combination of the two. But that’s usually what has to happen. So, the fact that you can’t just sit here right now and go, ‘Here’s the Final Four,’ I think that’s a good thing. I think it helps keep interest around the country. I think it reminds everybody that hey, this is not given, it’s not entitled. You have to earn it.”
Baylor was the one cutting down the nets last season and Kim Mulkey’s crew will need to find replacements for Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson to repeat. Mulkey’s entering her 20th season coaching the Lady Bears and has one of the top players in college basketball in Lauren Cox.
Here are a few other things to watch this season:
FINDING REPLACEMENTS: Notre Dame lost over 10,000 points to the WNBA as the starting five was drafted last spring. Coach Muffet McGraw may have a tough time getting back to the Final Four for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons.
RIVALRY RENEWED: Tennessee and UConn haven’t faced each other since 2007 when the Lady Vols beat the Huskies for the third straight time. The series ended after that matchup before getting renewed this season. The teams will play in Connecticut this year and Tennessee next season. Portions of the proceeds from both games will benefit the Pat Summitt Foundation and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and the second game will also see some of its proceeds go toward the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
While the game will clearly have a lot of hype surrounding it, some of the potential drama was removed when the NCAA ruled on Friday that Lady Vols transfer Evina Westbrook won’t be eligible to play for UConn this season. The Huskies are appealing the decision.