After praising Baylor for becoming the first college basketball team to win 40 games in a season, President Obama turned his attention to the tallest member of the Bears' traveling party at the White House on July 18. "I have to say that there have been times in the past where I've shot around a little bit with the visiting team," Obama said, nodding toward Brittney Griner, Baylor's incomparable 6'8" senior center, "but this time I don't think I can get my shot off."
When asked a couple of months later about the President's comments, Griner confirmed that no one gets a free pass in her lane, including the leader of the free world. "Well, I'm glad he knows I would block his shot, because I would," says Griner, the first NCAA basketball player—male or female—to reach 2,000 career points and 500 blocked shots. "Now, I'd say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. President' afterward, but I'd have to block it. It's just my competitive nature."
Don't expect any letup from Baylor this season. The Lady Bears return all five starters from last year's undefeated team, including Griner (23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game), 5'9" junior point guard Odyssey Sims (14.9 ppg) and 6'1" senior forward Destiny Williams (10.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg). "You can't hide the fact that we have five starters returning," says coach Kim Mulkey. "You can't hide the fact we were 40--0, so we embrace it."
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma says freshman forward Breanna Stewart—the national high school player of the year—has a chance to be as good as anyone who has ever played for the Huskies. He's gone both old school (George Gervin) and new school (Kevin Durant) to describe the 6' 4" Stewart, who can score from anywhere on the court. She'll be part of a deep, championship-caliber core that includes 5' 7" junior point guard Bria Hartley (14.0 ppg, 3.7 apg), 6' 5" junior center Stefanie Dolson (10.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 6-foot sophomore wing Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, last season's Big East freshman of the year (15.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg).
Duke returns 88.7% of its scoring from a season ago, including a great inside-outside duo in 6'3" sophomore All-America center Elizabeth Williams (14.0 ppg and 3.5 bpg) and 5'11" junior point guard Chelsea Gray (an ACC-best 6.1 apg). Coach Joanne P. McCallie says this group is the most talented in her 21 years of coaching, but she worries about its focus. "We need to compete consistently, and not in spurts," says McCallie.
Forty Minutes of Dread. That's the defensive identity (along with a catchy marketing campaign) of Kentucky, which forced an NCAA-best 939 turnovers last year thanks to its suffocating half-court pressure. But the Wildcats can score, too, led by 5' 9" senior guard A'dia Mathies (15.0 ppg), the reigning SEC player of the year. Kentucky is athletic and deep, with eight of its top 10 scorers back and with impact transfer DeNesha Stallworth, a 6' 3" center who led Cal in scoring (13.3 points) in 2010--11. Says coach Matthew Mitchell, "We've never had a team with this kind of ability."
Maryland 6'2" junior forward Alyssa Thomas (17.2 ppg, 46.2 FG%) is nearly impossible to stop in the low block in a half-court set, and here's worse news for the rest of the ACC: Thomas spent the summer adding range on her jump shot. The ACC player of the year is one of four starters back, but the Terps must overcome the loss of sophomore point guard Brene Moseley, who suffered a season-ending left ACL injury on Oct. 21. Junior Laurin Mincy (13.1 points), a better fit at the two, will have to run the show.
Despite losing 6'1" senior forward Monique Reid and 5'9" junior guard Tia Gibbs to season-ending injuries early last season, Louisville still won 23 games and made the NCAA tournament. Both players were granted medical hardship waivers and are back this season, adding depth to a Cardinals team that can score with anyone. Flashy junior point guard Shoni Schimmel (14.3 points) makes Louisville go.
Why is Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw feeling lonely? "I walk into the gym and say to myself, Where are they?" She's talking about Natalie Novosel, Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory, the trio that combined for 32.7 points per game and helped the Irish get to consecutive national title games before graduating last spring. But don't sleep on the Irish, especially with 5'9" senior point guard Skylar Diggins (16.8 ppg, 5.7 apg), the reigning Big East player of the year, who is returning for her final season.
Stanford's best player is still an Ogwumike, but this year's team will be led by 6'2" junior forward Chiney, the younger sister of Nneka, the All-America forward who graduated last season. The younger Ogwumike (15.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg) will start on a perimeter-oriented team with only one senior (6'3" forward Joslyn Tinkle). Says coach Tara VanDerveer, "If our team goes to the Final Four, it will be because Chiney is a terrific leader, expanded her game and brought other people along with her."
Scoring won't be an issue for Penn State—the Nittany Lions have nine of their top 10 scorers back, including the high-octane backcourt of 5'9" junior guard Maggie Lucas (19.5 ppg) and 5'7" senior point guard Alex Bentley (14.1 ppg). "We are going to play fast and run the court," says coach Coquese Washington, "so our post players just have to run and join the party to get opportunities in transition. We have a lot of options because we have the depth and experience in the frontcourt."
After Cal was knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Notre Dame last March, McGraw sought out Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb to tell her she thought Cal would be a Top 10 team in 2012--13. The talent is there. The Bears have 11 returning players, including 5'9" sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd and senior shooting guard Layshia Clarendon (a team-best 12.8 ppg). With a nod to knocking off Stanford in the Pac-12 and going deep in the tournament, Cal's slogan this season is WE ARE READY. Those words appear on a blackboard in Cal's locker room. Says Gottlieb, "This program is ready for the next step."
Women's Top 10
7. Notre Dame
9. Penn State
SENIOR MOMENT She swept every major award and won an NCAA title last season, so what's left for Griner (near left) to do? She needs just 64 blocks to break the NCAA record, held by Louella Tomlinson of St. Mary's.