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Michelle Smith | NCAA.com | November 3, 2019

Women's basketball: 5 big questions heading into the 2019-20 season

Women's basketball: Oregon's Kelly Graves discusses his top-ranked Ducks and upcoming season

For those who have been counting the hours since they left the Women’s Final Four in Tampa last spring, the best time of year has arrived, the start of a new college women’s basketball season.

The 2019-20 season will be marked, as many seasons are, by elite players leading elite teams, and all manner of motivations that can propel programs into the madness come March.

Let’s ask the big questions heading into another big season. Five of them, as a matter of fact.

1. Is this Oregon’s title to lose? 

The Ducks reached the Final Four for the first time in program history last year, and after a disappointing loss to Baylor in the national semifinals, star guard Sabrina Ionescu decided that she needed to return for her final year of eligibility to complete some “unfinished business.”

Oregon returns four of their five starters to the floor for a new season in which they are considered favorites to win a championship. Ionescu will be joined in the backcourt by senior guard Minyon Moore, a graduate transfer from USC who established herself as one of the most explosive guards in the Pac-12 during her time in L.A.

TOP 25: Oregon women's basketball is No. 1 in AP preseason poll 

Four-year standout Ruthy Hebard anchors the frontcourt and Satou Sabally is one of the most versatile wing players in the country. Three-point shooter Erin Boley is the fourth-returning starter. In addition, Oregon brings in a top-flight recruiting class and the sting of last year’s experience to carry them through to April.

2. Are the Baylor Bears well-positioned for a repeat? 

The Bears won their first championship since 2012 last spring in Tampa. Three starters return this season from that team, including senior post Lauren Cox, one of the top players in the country whose 2019-20 season looked to be in jeopardy after a knee injury in the national championship game.

But Cox has recovered well and is ready to rejoin backcourt leaders Juicy Landrum and Nylyssa Smith on the floor and a pair of graduate transfers in Te’a Cooper (South Carolina) and Erin DeGrate (Texas Tech).

The loss of Kalani Brown inside and the spark provided by Chloe Jackson later in the season will be difficult to replace, and the Bears will be wearing a huge target as title defenders. But with Cox on the floor and players with championship experience, the Bears deserve to be dreaming about a trip to New Orleans.

3. Will Connecticut miss a Final Four for the first time in 13 years? 

Do the departures of Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson also usher out a run of 12 straight trips to the Final Four for the Huskies? Or is the nucleus of guards Crystal Dangerfield and Christyn Williams and forward Meghan Walker enough to keep Geno Auriemma’s team in the title conversation?

Dangerfield is the leading returning scorer for UConn at 13.5 points a game and will carry a lot of the offensive load. Walker averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game and Williams had a stellar freshman season in which she averaged 11.7 points a game and shot 50 percent from the floor.

DON'T MISS: 6 potential Naismith Player of the Year candidates for women's basketball

The biggest question mark heading into the season is the status of transfer Evina Westbrook from Tennessee. Westbrook, coming off off-season knee surgery, would provide depth at guard and another scoring option after leading the Lady Vols’ in scoring last season.

Six-foot-five sophomore center Olivia Nelson-Ododa will also figure prominently into the Huskies’ fortunes and will likely be Connecticut’s go-to option down low.

Connecticut hasn’t won a title in four years. It will be intriguing to see if they can put some new pieces in place to put themselves in position again this season.

4. Which freshman will make the biggest impact? 

Some of the game’s newest faces have the potential to make very big impacts for their teams.

Stanford boasts two of the biggest names in the debut class, including No. 1 recruit Haley Jones and social media dunking sensation Fran Belibi.

Rutgers will make the debut of Maori Davenport, one of the top recruits in the country who was denied the opportunity to play for much of her senior season in an eligibility dispute with high school athletics officials in her home state of Alabama. It received national attention, including support from Kobe Bryant and Billie Jean King, for her battle to get back on the floor.

REWIND: Relive Baylor's 2019 national championship run

South Carolina boasts the top recruiting class in the country, signing five prospects, including four of the top 13 players in the nation. It’s a group that includes, 6-foot-4 post Aliyah Boston, guard Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, a 6-3 post from Canada and guard Brea Beal.

Notre Dame’s Samantha Brunelle, a 6-foot-2 forward, already finds herself on the watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award, which goes to the nation’s top small forward at the end of the season. Brunelle is one of 20 players on the preseason list.

5. How long is the list of teams that could realistically make it to New Orleans? 

At first glance, it feels like a wide-open season, but many of the nation’s top programs are in something of a rebuild mode this season, including Louisville, Mississippi State and Notre Dame.

The national powers are positioned out west this season, with Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State returning veteran teams and mixing with new young talent to look formidable from the start. All three teams should start the season in the top 10 rankings.

ALL-AMERICA: Sabrina Ionescu, Lauren Cox headline AP women’s preseason All-America team

Maryland, which has made two Final Fours and three Elite Eights since winning its only title 13 years ago, is back with Kaila Charles and seniors Stephanie Jones and Blair Watson to go with youngsters Taylor Mikesell and Shakira Austin, two of the best freshmen in the Big Ten last year.

And the Terps add one of the nation’s top prospects in Ashley Owusu, the No. 2-ranked point guard in the class. Maryland has failed to reach the Elite Eight four years running and will be mighty motivated to get back to the final weekend of the season.

Texas A&M will feature one of the best guards in the country in junior Chennedy Carter and will push favored South Carolina in the SEC, while the Big 12 race will challenge Baylor with the likes of Texas and West Virginia. It’s tough at this point, to see another team breaking into this top group of New Orleans contenders.

But with a whole season to play, and a lot of storylines to develop, it’s going to be great fun to watch and quite possibly, be proven wrong.

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