For two weeks in early fall, as the leader of a USA Basketball tour that originated in Naples, passed through Prague and took a day trip to the tiny Italian village of Montella for his uncle Antonio's homemade provolone, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had a close-up view of college basketball's biggest phenomenon: Baylor's 6'8" junior center, Brittney Griner. It was Griner's first international competition, and Auriemma found himself mesmerized by her burgeoning talent. "What did the statue of David look like before it became the statue of David? It looked like a giant piece of marble," Auriemma says. "Right now there's just a couple of little cutouts here and there with Brittney. But the finished product down the road is going to be so unbelievable, you cannot even imagine it."
The current product is the centerpiece of SI's preseason No. 1 team. The Bears have 88.5% of their scoring back from last year's 34--3 squad, including Griner (23.0 points, along with 7.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks, second best in the nation), sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims (13.1 points), junior forward Destiny Williams (8.7) and junior guard Jordan Madden (8.3). Departing guard Melissa Jones will be missed, but this is a loaded squad that relishes the lofty expectations. "A national championship is a realistic goal," says coach Kim Mulkey, "and I don't say that every year."
2 NOTRE DAME
It happens at every practice and every workout: A player will shout, "15:52," reminding her teammates how much time remained in last year's national title game when the Irish held a seven-point lead over Texas A&M. Notre Dame's advantage began to evaporate after that, and the Aggies won 76--70. "It's the driving force for this entire year," says senior guard Natalie Novosel, who led the team in scoring with 15.1 points per game. Notre Dame has experience: three senior starters (Novosel, forward Devereaux Peters and guard Brittany Mallory) return, as well as junior point guard Skylar Diggins (15.0 points) and seven reserves. Depth at the post is a concern, which makes it paramount for the athletic Peters to not get into foul trouble.
Time for 9. That's the slogan the Lady Vols have adopted this season, reflecting their goal to win a ninth title for 59-year-old coach Pat Summitt, who announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Though Tennessee's assistant coaches are more involved in practice, sophomore guard Meighan Simmons (the top returning scorer, with 13.5 points per game last season) notes that her famed coach's eye is as sharp and critical as ever. "Pat Summitt is going to be Pat Summitt," Simmons says. "She is going to yell if she doesn't like something." Four starters are back, including the SEC preseason player of the year, 6'2" guard-forward Shekinna Stricklen, but the biggest impact could come from 5'6" freshman Ariel Massengale. After winning three straight state titles at Bolingbrook (Ill.) High, she gives the Lady Vols something they have not had in years: a championship-caliber point guard.
How different are things in Storrs without three-time national player of the year Maya Moore? "Well, there are a lot more shot-clock violations in practice," says coach Geno Auriemma. Five of UConn's top eight players are underclassmen, including sophomore guard Bria Hartley and 6'5" sophomore center Stefanie Dolson, both preseason Wooden Award candidates. Senior guard Tiffany Hayes must be more consistent: She averaged 13.7 points and 2.4 turnovers and ranged from All-America to All-Frustrating. The x factor is how quickly junior point guard Caroline Doty returns to form after tearing her left ACL in August 2010 for the third time in four years.
Monique Reid's 21st birthday last March 26 was memorable—for all the wrong reasons. Not only were her No. 7--seeded Cardinals upset by No. 11--seeded Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, but the 6'1" forward also injured her groin during warmups and was limited to one basket in five frustrating minutes in the 76--69 loss. Now healthy, the senior Wade Trophy candidate (a team-high 15.5 points per game last season) is one of five starters back, along with 5'9" sophomore point guard Shoni Schimmel (15.1 points and 4.9 assists). Promises Reid, "We're going to be scary."
6 TEXAS A&M
Coach Gary Blair wants to make one thing clear: "We were not Cinderella last year," he says. The defending champs could be the belles of the Big Dance again thanks to a trio of returning senior starters (5'6" guard Sydney Carter, 6-foot guard Tyra White and 6'1" forward Adaora Elonu) and the debut of 6'4" junior center Kelsey Bone, who averaged 14.0 points and 9.2 rebounds as a freshman at South Carolina in 2009--10 before transferring to College Station.
Did Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer party with Dennis Rodman when both were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in August? Sort of. "We had a family breakfast the following morning, and Dennis made a cameo," says VanDerveer, who has a career record of 674--147 in 25 years in Palo Alto. "But I don't think he had gone to bed yet." Don't sleep on this team even though the roster is full of underclassmen. The Ogwumike sisters—6'2" senior Nneka (17.5 points per game) and 6'3" sophomore Chiney (11.7)—are the top returning scorers. Speedy freshman point guard Amber Orrange (her mother, Elexa, was a U.S. triple jumper at the 1996 Olympics) is the most decorated of the six incoming players.
In one of the best rebuilding jobs in women's college basketball, reigning national coach of the year Katie Meier has taken the Hurricanes from worst to first in the ACC over the last six seasons. The team is ranked in the Top 10 for the first time since 1992,and has all five starters back, including its All-America senior guard duo of 5'11" Shenise (Moe-Moe) Johnson, the 2010--11 ACC player of the year, and 5'7" Riquna (Bay-Bay) Williams. The pair combined to average 41.4 points last season, and they'll be even better with the addition of Shawnice (Pepper) Wilson, a 6'6" Pitt transfer who has the power to transform the Hurricanes by giving them the interior presence the team lacked last season.
"The unknown is exciting," says coach Joanne P. McCallie. The Blue Devils, who have won the ACC regular-season title in two of the last four seasons, may be callow (five sophomores and four freshmen), but they are surely talented—McCallie signed a top five recruiting class for the second straight year. Point guard Chelsea Gray (8.7 ppg, 2.5 apg) and guard-forward Haley Peters (6.3 ppg), both sophomores, are emerging stars, and the terrific incoming group includes Elizabeth Williams, a rugged 6'3" center, and Amber Henson, a 6'4" forward who is the younger sister of North Carolina star forward John Henson.
Last March the Hoyas grumbled when President Barack Obama picked Princeton to upset them in the NCAA's opening round. "One thing that we don't lack is confidence," says eighth-year coach Terri Williams-Flournoy. The players also proved better prognosticators than the commander in chief: Georgetown advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing a tight game to UConn. The Hoyas will be an even tougher out this season, with seven seniors returning from a 24--11 squad. The focal point is sensational 5'11" junior guard Sugar Rodgers, whose 18.7 points trailed only Maya Moore's 22.8 among Big East players last season.
SWAT TEAM Griner (42) showed her skills at both ends of the floor in a win over the Vols last December, scoring 21 points and blocking nine shots.