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College women's basketball teams, players to watch for 2011-12

5 teams to watch

1. Baylor: The pressure is on for coach Kim Mulkey and the Baylor Bears. The preseason No. 1, they have arguably the nation's best player in Griner. Final Four expectations have surrounded this team since her arrival, but this season the pressure is on her surrounding cast — Big 12 freshman of the year Odyssey Sims, Big 12 newcomer of the year Destiny Williams and junior guard Jordan Madden — to step up around her.

2. Connecticut: Maya Moore may be gone, but Geno Auriemma is not. And make no mistake, UConn is not dead. They open the season ranked No. 4 in the nation after being preseason No. 1 the past three years.

3. Notre Dame: After its stellar showing in last year's title game, Notre Dame begins the season at No. 2, its highest preseason ranking. The Irish return four starters, including Diggins, G Natalie Novosel and senior F Devereaux Peters. But its schedule is daunting: Notre Dame could face up to 12 of the Top 24 teams in the preseason polls (two depend on tournament outcomes). Muffet McGraw begins her 25th season as the Irish coach.

4. Tennessee: The Vols begin the season ranked No. 3, but the nation is watching to see how they respond to the news that legendary coach Pat Summitt has dementia. The team insists it will rally around Summitt, who begins her 38th season at UT. She is fighting the disease by working brain teasers and puzzles, among other things, and is adamant she'll be the same relentless coach and fierce competitor she has always been.

5. Texas A&M: The Aggies stunned the women's basketball world last season by winning their first NCAA Championship — in their first trip to the Final Four. The challenge for coach Gary Blair is that he returns just three starters from that 33-5 team. But Blair may have an ace in the hole: He signed the No. 3 ranked recruiting class in the nation, which includes Big 12 preseason newcomer of the year, 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone.

St. Petersburg Times staff writer Antonya English previews the season.

5 players to watch

1. Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame

The 5-foot-9, left-handed pure shooter is quickly becoming the new face of women's basketball, taking over where UConn's Maya Moore left off. She led the Fighting Irish to the NCAA championship game for the first time since 2001. She averaged 15 points and 4.8 assists last season.

2. Brittney Griner, Baylor

The 6-foot-8 junior center has been a phenom since she arrived on the Baylor campus, but she has yet to lead her team to the Final Four. Griner became only the eighth player in history to be a unanimous AP preseason All-America selection, and expectations for her — and preseason No. 1 Baylor — continue to rise.

3. Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Stanford

The senior led Stanford to the Final Four for the fourth straight season. She averaged 17.5 points and shot 59 percent from the field.

4. Shenise Johnson, Miami

The senior was a first-team All-ACC selection and helped lead the Hurricanes to a share of the ACC title last season — with a league-high three 30-point games. She concluded the regular season as the only player in the ACC to rank in the top 10 in scoring (second, 19.6 ppg), rebounding (eighth, 7.8) and assists (ninth, 3.7). She is the first Miami player to earn preseason All-America honors.

5. Shekinna Stricklen, Tennessee

Although she doesn't necessarily command the national media attention previous UT stars have, Stricklen has quietly gone about her business as one of the most versatile players in the nation. Last season's SEC player of the year, she started games at the point, on the wing and in the post, averaging 12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

College women's basketball teams, players to watch for 2011-12 11/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 5:20pm]
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