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Tip-off is less than a week away and the 2021-2022 women's college basketball season is poised to bring another year of excitement and gripping story lines. The preseason poll for women's college hoops is here and at No. 1, Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks - who had a 26-5 record last season - seek to dominate the SEC with their new talent picked up in the offseason and head back to the NCAA tournament with returning talent from their Final Four squad.
Several questions loom over the season: Will the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (31-2) become back-to-back national champions? Will the No. 3 UConn Huskies' young team prevail on both ends of the court? Why do coaches around the nation position the No. 4 North Carolina State Wolfpack and No. 5 Maryland Terrapins to be more dominate than Adia Barnes' Final Four team in Arizona?
Here's a look at what each team in the preseason USA TODAY Sports Women's College Basketball Coaches Poll brings to the table:
1. South Carolina
Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks return key pieces of their Final Four squad: Destanni Henderson, Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Victaria Saxton. The Gamecocks also stacked talent during the offseason with the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in the nation, including point guard Raven Johnson.
With the return of point-forward Haley Jones (13.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.9 apg) and shot-blocking sensation Cameron Brink (2.8 bpg), the Cardinal should contend for a second straight title. Defensive stopper and sharpshooter Anna Wilson (45.2% 3FG) is back, too.
AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers (20 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.8 apg) and Christyn Williams (16.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) will combine with Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 recruit in the country, as Geno Auriemma’s young team enters its second straight season with no seniors but a vast amount of talent.
4. N.C. State
Senior center Elissa Cunane (16.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg), one of the top prospects for the 2022 WNBA draft, is back and head coach Wes Moore has surrounded her with the essentials: G Raina Perez (9.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.7 apg), F Jada Boyd (11.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and F Jakia Brown-Turner (13.5 ppg, 5 rpg).
Star guard Ashley Owusu (17.9 ppg, 5.9 apg), F/G Chloe Bibby (13.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg), G Katie Benzan (12.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) and F Angel Reese (10 ppg, 6 rpg) are back to help head coach Brenda Frese try to repeat a Sweet 16 run and reach the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
Although Louisville lost Dana Evans to the WNBA, head coach Jeff Walz and the Cardinals snagged two transfers in the offseason who will keep their rotation deep on the journey to return to the Final Four: G Chelsie Hall (15.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.8 apg) from Vanderbilt and F Emily Engstler (10.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg) from Syracuse.
The stars who led the Hoosiers to an Elite Eight run – the best in program history – are back: guard Ali Patberg (14 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.7 apg), forward Aleksa Gulbe (9.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg), guard Grace Berger (15.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.6 apg) and forward Mackenzie Holmes (17.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3 bpg).
With former head coach Kim Mulkey out and Nicki Collen in, Baylor’s rebuilding may take some time, but the Bears return 2021 Wade Trophy winner F NaLyssa Smith (18 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and C Queen Egbo (11.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and welcome Texas Tech transfer Chrislyn Carr (9.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.6 apg).
A healthy Te-hina Paopao (10.2 ppg, 39.5% 3FG) is good news for the Ducks. Nyara Sabally (12.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), last season’s leading scorer, is also back. Oregon is likely to separate itself with the mid-post play of 6-foot-7 Sedona Prince (10.4 ppg), and four transfers give the Ducks depth.
After reaching the Sweet 16 and almost upsetting Baylor, the Wolverines are ready to reach new heights. Michigan returns All-American F Naz Hillmon (23.9 ppg, 11.4 rpg) and G Leigha Brown (18.2. ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.1 apg).
Sophomore guard Caitlin Clark (26.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 7.1 apg), a sensation during her freshman season, is back for head coach Lisa Bluder along with F/C Monika Czinano (19.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and G/F McKenna Warnock (11.8 ppg, 8 rpg). The Hawkeyes add prize recruit F/C Addison O’Grady.
The Lady Vols and head coach Kellie Harper return six players with starting experience, including guard Rae Burrell (16.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 40.2% 3FG). Graduate transfer Alexus Dye (16.6 ppg, 12.6 rpg), the 2021 Sun Belt Player of the Year out of Troy, joins the team.
Expected to be top contenders in the SEC, there is excitement around head coach Kyra Elzy, who replaced Matthew Mitchell at the start of last season. The Wildcats return All-American guard Rhyne Howard (20.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.8 apg) and add multiple transfers to deepen their rotation.
Six-foot-four playmaker Izzy Anstey is finally in town from Australia and should stuff the stat sheet from the jump. Guard and second-leading scorer Charisma Osborne (17 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.8 apg) is back as is guard Natalie Chou (9.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg).
Transfer Taylor Chavez (2020 Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year at Oregon) is a threat from outside, and forward Sam Thomas (2.6 spg) does the dirty work defensively for the Wildcats, who lost to Stanford in last season's title game. Cate Reese (10.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) should average a double-double.
16. Iowa State
Star guard Ashley Joens (24.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.6 apg) is back for her senior year with the Cyclones and is poised to be one of the best players this season. Alongside Joens will be a sophomore unit which includes Lexi Donarski (13 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2 apg), the Big 12 freshman of the year.
17. Texas A&M
The Aggies return three significant contributors: guards Jordan Nixon (10.6 ppg, 3.3 apg), Kayla Wells (11.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Destiny Pitts (7 ppg, 2.2 rpg), while adding transfer F Aaliyah Patty (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) from Ohio State.
18. Oregon State
The return of Taylor Jones (12.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg) plus a healthy Kennedy Brown will make the Beavers tough inside. Guard Talia van Oelhoffen (11.3 ppg, 43.4% 3FG), an early enrollee last season, is expected to make a big jump.
Head Coach Joni Taylor will use a handful of new players to build around starters Jenna Staiti (14.6 ppg), Que Morrison (11.6 ppg) and Jordan Isaacs (3.7 ppg): Jillian Hollingshead, Alina Sendar, Reigan Richardson and Kimora Jenkins. After losing in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament to Oregon, the Bulldogs have many options across the court.
20. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets return all five starters, including G Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (15 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg), G Kierra Fletcher (13 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.7 apg) and F Lorela Cubaj (12.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.8 apg).
Returning for a second year, head coach Vic Shaefer hopes to advance to the Elite Eight again with senior guards Audrey Warren (10.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Joanne Allen-Taylor (12.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg). Without starter Charli Collier (19.0 ppg) who is now with the Dallas Wings, the Longhorns have a highly sought-after incoming freshmen class including top recruits Aaliyah Moore and Rori Harmon.
22. South Florida
The Bulls look to build off their AAC regular-season title and the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance as guards Elena Tsinkeke (13.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg), Sydni Harvey (11.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg), and Elisa Pinzan (10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.5 apg) return.
23. West Virginia
Head coach Mike Carey has taken advantage of the transfer portal to add Yemiyah Morris from Mississippi State and A’riana Gray from Xavier. He also returns guard KK Deans (13.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.9 apg) and forward Esmery Martinez (13.6 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.8 apg) among others.
24. Florida State
Seminoles head coach Sue Semrau is back after taking a one-season leave of absence and so is nearly the entire roster. Florida State’s big addition is versatile junior and Auburn transfer Erin Howard (7.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 34.4% 3FG).
25. Ohio State
The Buckeyes return three guards who each averaged double digits in scoring last season: Jacy Sheldon (16.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.6 apg), Madison Greene (13.4 ppg 3.5 rpg, 4.3 apg) and Braxtin Miller (11.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg). Guard Taylor Mikesell transfers from Oregon, where she averaged 9.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg and 1.8 apg.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball: Preseason Top 25 women's team outlooks