Following Baylor's 80--61 win over Notre Dame in the April 3 title game, All-America junior center Brittney Griner was asked in the boisterous Bears locker room if she had a special celebration planned when she returned to Waco. "I want to go bungee jumping," the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player said, laughing, "but I don't know how Coach is going to feel about that." Kim Mulkey is unlikely to let that happen, since her team—which will have all five starters and six of its top seven scorers back—is the clear favorite to repeat as NCAA champion in 2012--13. Here's SI's pre-preseason Top 5.
The 6'8" Griner averaged 23.2 points and 9.5 rebounds, but Mulkey says there's room for improvement. "If she could crash the offensive boards more than she does, I think that's an area of her game that really could be scary." Griner's primary distributor will again be point guard Odyssey Sims (14.9 ppg, 4.4 apg), an emerging star and the nation's best on-ball defender.
A defense-first group (the Huskies held teams to a nation-best 30.3 field goal percentage) has four starters returning, including glue guard Kelly Farris, clutch-shooting point guard Bria Hartley and guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who last season led UConn in scoring (15.0 points) coming off the bench as a freshman. They'll be joined by 6'3" forward Breanna Stewart (Cicero--North Syracuse High), the nation's top recruit, whose basketball IQ is reminiscent of four-time All-America Maya Moore.
The Blue Devils' top six scorers are back from the team that reached the Elite Eight. Center Elizabeth Williams (14.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg as a freshman last season) is the nation's best center after Griner, and point guard Chelsea Gray (12.5 ppg, 6.1 apg, 4.9 rpg, 2.8 spg) does just about everything.
After the Cardinals lost two starters (guard Tia Gibbs and forward Monique Reid) to season-ending injuries, point guard Shoni Schimmel and guard Bria Smith—who started 33 games as a freshman in '11--12—helped Louisville advance to the second round. Gibbs is expected back from a torn labrum, and if Reid gains a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA—she suffered an osteochondral injury to her left knee—this team has the potential to make a giant leap.
All-America forward Alyssa Thomas (17.2 points, 8.0 rebounds as a sophomore) and three other starters from the Terrapins squad that reached the Elite Eight will be joined by incoming 6'3" forward Malina Howard, the top-rated post player in the country, who averaged 19.1 points for Twinsburg (Ohio) High. Says Thomas, "We're going to do good things next season."
U.S. Olympic women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma makes no apologies for Team USA, which is husky with former Auriemma players (Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi). "What those players have done since they left Connecticut has been nothing short of remarkable," says Auriemma, who could say that about his entire squad. All 11 players selected to the team have won either an Olympic gold medal (for some, multiple gold medals) or a world championship medal. The last of the 12 roster spots is expected to be filled in early May, and the smart money is on a game-changing collegian from Baylor. "Everybody knows I'm a big fan of Brittney Griner," Auriemma says. "Do I think a 6'8" kid could help us be even better? Yeah, I think so."
BILL FRAKES (GRINER)
RATED BG The Final Four stage belonged to Griner, but surrounded by four other starters who will be back next season, she was no one-woman wrecking crew.
DAVID SHERMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MOORE)