The 2020-21 NCAA women’s basketball season is underway and its already clear this is going to be a season like no other. With the COVID-19 pandemic changing everything about how teams schedule and play, there is plenty of uncertainty, but there is also an abundance of excitement.
Some of the nation’s top players return, while an extremely talented group of newcomers look to take the country by storm.
Let’s not forget: Baylor is still the reigning national champion. Will the Bears get back to the Final Four? Will Dawn Staley and South Carolina get back to the top of the mountain by winning its second national championship? Will anyone spoil South Carolina’s, UConn’s, Stanford’s and Baylor’s Final Four party?
There is no doubt in my mind that the NCAA Women’s Tournament is headed in the same direction as the men’s tournament and the tournament will be held in a small geographical location. While that hasn’t been confirmed at this point, it seems highly likely that we are headed there. That could change a lot about how the women’s tournament plays out. Depending on the location, many teams will lose the luxury of having home games in the first two rounds and playing closer to home in the regionals.
While we wait to see what happens with the location of the tournament, starting today we get our first glance at who might get to the final weekend. Here are my predictions:
South Carolina: If there is a lock for the Final Four this season, it is the Gamecocks. They are talented, deep, have a good balance of youth and experience and have one of the best coaches in the country in Dawn Staley. They have the best center in the country in Aliyah Boston and arguably a top-three point guard in Zia Cooke. The Gamecocks will be challenged throughout the regular season in a much stronger SEC, and will be looking forward to an opportunity that they didn’t get last year in the NCAA Tournament.
UConn: The Huskies haven’t won a national championship since 2016. For Geno Auriemma and the UConn faithful, that probably seems like forever. Following defeats at the buzzer in their 2017 and 2018 Final Four appearances and another national semifinal loss in 2019, Auriemma enters the 2020-21 season with high hopes and a terrific freshman in Paige Bueckers. Pay attention to that name. You will hear a lot about Bueckers for the next four years. It starts now.
Arizona: I love this Wildcats team. The Pac-12 is loaded again this year, so it’s quite possible that they could end up with a No. 2 or even No. 3 seed in the tournament. I believe Arizona is going to win the Pac-12 and likely land a No. 1 seed. Aari McDonald is an absolute star. Not only can she light it up on the offensive end, but she can really lock in and defend. This team will go as she goes, but coach Adia Barnes also returns some terrific players in Cate Reese and Sam Thomas, while bringing instrong transfers in Trinity Baptiste and Bendu Yeaney. Freshman Lauren Ware will likely take some time to adjust to the college game, particularly in the Pac-12, but come March, she will be a tremendous addition on the inside to a strong, deep, and talented all-around team. While I don’t have them winning the title, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.
Oregon: Two Pac-12 teams in the Final Four? Sure, they lost Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally — three of the top eight picks in the 2020 WNBA Draft — but this team is deep and talented. The question is: how quickly can their terrific group of freshmen adjust to the college game. Returnees Jaz Shelley, Erin Boley and Taylor Chavez can flat out shoot and the Ducks add inside presence Sedona Prince, who sat out last season, as well as sharp-shooting guard Taylor Mikesell. Earlier, I said to remember the name: Paige Bueckers. I’ll give you one more: Te-Hina Paopao. Do. Not. Sleep. On. This. Kid. She is going to take the Pac-12 and the country by storm.
UConn over South Carolina: The Huskies match-up well with the Gamecocks. Olivia Nelson-Ododa can be a defensive force in the middle and work to contain Boston, which many teams will fail to do this season. The Bueckers-Cooke matchup will be box-office worthy. It will likely come down to the role players in a tight game. Both teams are great and will be in this position many times in the coming years. UConn’s Chrystin Williams could be the difference.
Final Four sleeper
Arkansas: We just saw the Razorbacks knock off Baylor this weekend and Arkansas is experienced and can really score. The question still remains: can it play enough defense to make a long run in March? If it does, this is a Final Four team.
Top-10 team who could win it all
NC State: The Wolfpack are another team that is very experienced and talented. Wes Moore got a huge road win over South Carolina last week to move to No. 3 in the CBS Sports. They are balanced offensively, good inside and out and defend. They will be a really tough out come March.
National player of the year
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina: Boston is the best post player in the country and can be dominant on both ends of the floor. Boston’s ability to score both inside and out, rebound and block shots will help guide a loaded Gamecocks team.
National coach of the year
Adia Barnes, Arizona: Barnes led the Wildcats to a 24-7 record last season and return a strong nucleus led by player of the year candidate Aari McDonald. Arizona just continues to improve and I have the Cats winning a loaded Pac-12 this year.