During the women's Final Four in Indianapolis, silver-haired, silver-tongued coach Gary Blair preached that his team belonged among the superpowers. Texas A&M then proved him right with an upset of top-seeded Stanford in the semis and a win over No. 2 seed Notre Dame in the April 5 final. While 3.8 million viewers watched the highly entertaining championship game—an 8% increase over last year's audience—the superpowers will be back. Here is an early look at SI's Top 5 for 2011--12.
The prohibitive player of the year favorite, 6'8" center Brittney Griner averaged 23.0 points as a sophomore and finished with an NCAA-best 170 blocks. She'll get the ball from the 2010--11 freshman of the year, 5'9" Odyssey Sims, who ran the point brilliantly after starter Kelli Griffin quit the team a week before the season. Seniors Destiny Williams, a 6'1" forward, and Kimetria Hayden, a 6-foot guard, will supply additional firepower for a team that has eight of its top nine scorers back.
2. NOTRE DAME
Point guard Skylar Diggins was the breakout star of the Final Four—her smooth moves and good looks inspired Twitter shout-outs from rapper Lil Wayne and singer Chris Brown. The rising junior is one of four Irish starters returning, including leading scorer Natalie Novosel (15.1 points per game), a 5'11" guard. "We can't get complacent," said coach Muffet McGraw. "We know how hard we worked to get here."
Two weeks after the Lady Vols' lackluster Elite Eight loss to Notre Dame, coach Pat Summitt said, "I'm still not over it." She might take some consolation in the arrival of top-rated point guard Ariel Massengale of Bolingbrook (Ill.) High, who will allow 5'9" sophomore guard Meighan Simmons to move to the wing, where she can score at will. Summitt also has senior swingman Shekinna Stricklen, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, and senior Glory Johnson (12.0 points, 9.7 rebounds).
Four-time All-America Maya Moore and her 22.8 points per game are gone, but the Huskies remain a title threat; the nation's top recruit—6-foot wing player Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.)—joins four returning starters (guards Bria Hartley and Tiffany Hayes, forward Kelly Farris and center Stefanie Dolson). The x-factor is senior Caroline Doty, the starting point guard on UConn's undefeated 2009--10 team, who missed last season after tearing the ACL in her left knee for the second time.
Sophomore guard Shoni Schimmel ranked third in the Big East with 4.9 assists and first in flashy plays. Four starters will be back for the Cardinals, who will add 6'2" forward Sara Hammond, the 2010--11 Kentucky Miss Basketball, and Cierra Robertson-Warren, a 6'4" North Carolina transfer.
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Don't count out the defending champs. Texas A&M loses point guard Sydney Colson (6.1 assists per game) and post Danielle Adams (a team-high 22.3 points), but it has three starters returning to College Station, including clutch-shooting 6-foot forward Tyra White and 5'6" guard Sydney Carter, the nation's best perimeter defender. Coach Gary Blair is high on Kelsey Bone, a 6'4" post who sat out last season after transferring from South Carolina, where she led the SEC in rebounding as a freshman in 2009--10. And the Aggies' freshman class will include 6'7" center Rachel Mitchell, a top 50 recruit, and Alexia Standish, who replaces Colson at the point. Says Blair, "We could be as good, if not better, because of our depth."
SKY'S THE LIMIT Diggins will lead Notre Dame's charge to a second straight national championship game.