Five Storylines to Watch This Season

Questions to keep an eye on when the 2020-21 season kicks off

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The NCAA basketball season is really happening, and it gets underway in just 13 days! The pandemic-induced adjustments to schedules and routines may be the biggest story this year, but here are five storylines to watch for on the court.

Will Kelly Graves prove that he’s elite?

There are good coaches, there are great coaches, and then there are elite coaches. You know the type — the coaches who seem to always have their teams in the national conversation no matter who is on the roster or who they lose from the prior year. Geno Auriemma, Tara VanDerveer, Kim Mulkey, Dawn Staley. These are the coaches whose teams are going to be in the preseason rankings regardless of whether they return the whole roster or are starting five freshmen.

If Kelly Graves isn’t in that tier already, this year will be his chance to prove that he belongs. Entering his seventh season at the helm for the Ducks, Graves has never lost more talent than he did this past offseason. Gone are four starters, including the top two picks in the 2020 WNBA draft in Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally and the No. 8 overall pick in Ruthy Hebard. That’s the type of production that hardly any coach can replace. But Graves may be able to pull it off.

The Ducks bring in the nation’s top recruiting class with five freshmen ranked inside the top 22 of ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings (no other program has more than two). They also add Maryland transfer Taylor Mikesell, who is immediately eligible to play, and 6-foot-7 Texas transfer Sedona Prince, who will make her college debut after missing her freshman season with an injury and sitting out last season due to NCAA rules. Joining them will be reigning Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year Taylor Chavez, lone returning starter Erin Boley, and Sabally’s younger sister Nyara, who missed her first two seasons with injuries but is ready to return to the court this season.

Bottom line? The old adage about great teams reloading, not rebuilding, may be the best way to sum up Oregon’s offseason. The lack of practice time due to COVID-19 restrictions presents an added challenge as Graves tries to fit his new puzzle pieces together, but he still has a roster capable of making a Final Four. If he does, he’ll leave no doubt about his status as a top-tier college basketball coach.

Will Destiny Slocum thrive in Arkansas’ up-tempo offense?

Early in her junior year of high school, then-top-10 recruit Destiny Slocum verbally committed to play for Washington and head coach Mike Neighbors. That didn’t end up happening, but after a long and winding journey that passed through Maryland and Oregon State, Slocum will finally play for Neighbors at Arkansas this season.

On paper, it’s a match made in heaven. Slocum is a dynamic threat with the ball in her hands, and her resume speaks for itself: 2017 WBCA National Freshman of the Year, two-time All-Pac-12, 2019 Honorable Mention AP All-American. She led the Beavers in scoring and assists in each of her two seasons in Corvallis, and in arguably the best league in the nation she finished in the top five in assist percentage and top 10 in three-point percentage in both years as well. For a team built on running and shooting threes, the sharpshooting grad transfer will fit right in.

Slocum could have entered the WNBA draft last spring, but instead she’ll spend one year learning from a WNBA player first. In September, Neighbors added Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum to his staff. Plum, who played for Neighbors at Washington, broke countless records during her college career, including the NCAA all-time scoring record (3,527). The chance to play under one of the greatest scoring guards in college basketball history will surely benefit Slocum as she seeks to close her career with a bang.

Even scarier for Arkansas’ opponents this year? The Razorbacks bring back another prolific scoring guard in redshirt senior Chelsea Dungee, who has scored more points than any other player in the SEC over the last two seasons. The combination of experience and play-making ability will make Dungee and Slocum one of the most lethal backcourts in the country.

Will Niele Ivey lead Notre Dame back to Final Four contention?

To put it mildly, last season was a rough one in South Bend. Rough enough that Muffet McGraw decided to call it a career after the emotional toll of the 13-18 campaign. In April, Notre Dame brought back Niele Ivey to replace her, and thus began a new era of Fighting Irish basketball. McGraw had long viewed Ivey as a good candidate to take over for her. Ivey capped off a storied playing career by leading Notre Dame to its first national title in 2001, and after a brief stint in the WNBA, she returned to her alma mater as an assistant coach in 2007.

Ivey remained an assistant to McGraw until 2019, when the NBA came calling and she departed for the Memphis Grizzlies. After one season in Memphis, Ivey is back at Notre Dame, and the task of returning the team to perennial contender status will rest on her shoulders.

Despite the difficulties of taking over at a top-tier program coming off of a disappointing season, Ivey will have plenty of talent to work with. Last year’s pair of top-20 recruits, Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples, are both expected to be back after dealing with injuries late last season or during the offseason. They’ll be joined by four top-50 freshmen as well as transfer Dara Mabrey, who is immediately eligible to play and will become the third Mabrey sister to suit up for the Irish. Mikayla Vaughn won’t be ready to start the season, but Ivey hopes that she’ll be able to return from her ACL injury before Christmas.

The stories to follow will be how Ivey handles the pressure of replacing a legend and how quickly she will get her young team to gel after taking over during an offseason with so many pandemic limitations. Will this season’s Notre Dame be a fixture in the rankings again? Or will Ivey need a few years to get the program back on track?

Will Paige Bueckers live up to the hype in UConn’s return to the Big East?

It’s nothing new for Geno Auriemma to land the nation’s No. 1 recruit — he’s done so in four of the last six seasons and added next year’s No. 1 on Wednesday. But it’s not every year that the No. 1 recruit is as hyped as Paige Bueckers. The 2019-20 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year may just be the most exciting prospect to join the Huskies since Breanna Stewart in 2012.

After seven seasons in the AAC without a conference loss, UConn is heading back to the Big East for the first time since Stewart was with the team. The move comes on the heels of what could arguably be described as two down years for the Huskies. They appeared to be on their way to their second consecutive No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season before its cancellation. Nearly any other program would be ecstatic about a No. 2 seed, but for a team that had previously earned a dozen straight No. 1s, back-to-back years without one almost feels like the sky is falling.

Enter Bueckers. The smooth and lengthy freshman should immediately take over for Crystal Dangerfield at point guard. Her handles and passing are flashy — just check the highlight reels — but her defensive impact may be just as big. She averaged over five steals per game during her senior year of high school while leading her team to a 30-0 record.

The floor general will have no shortage of options to pass to. There’s Christyn Williams, UConn’s last No. 1 recruit. There’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who has already competed alongside WNBA All-Stars. There’s Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook, who’s ready to play following her mandatory sit-out year. And then there’s Aubrey Griffin and her helium hops and bubble-gum defense — primed to make a big leap in her sophomore season. Will the presence of Bueckers put this team over the top for its first No. 1 seed since 2017? At the very least she’ll be as fun to watch as any freshman in college basketball.

Will Haley Jones and Cameron Brink bring Stanford its first conference title in seven years?

It’s not hard to remember a time when everyone in the Pac-12 was playing for second. Stanford won 14 straight regular-season conference championships from 2001 to 2014, capped off by a seven-year run in which the Cardinal posted an absolutely silly 122-4 conference record. Then, in 2014, Chiney Ogwumike graduated and followed her sister Nneka to the WNBA. Tara VanDerveer’s squad hasn’t won the league since.

According to ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings, Stanford was the only team to land a top-five recruit in each of the past two seasons. Last year’s No. 1, Haley Jones, will team up with this year’s No. 3, Cameron Brink, to form one of the most dangerous young combos in the country — and perhaps the most talented since Chiney and Nneka. Jones got off to a slow start last season, failing to score more than 11 points in any of her first six games. But she flipped a switch after Christmas, averaging 13.7 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting in her next seven. On January 19, however, her freshman campaign was cut short by a knee injury in her 18th game.

With a full season from Jones and the addition of 6-foot-4 gazelle Brink to an already loaded roster, this may be the year that Stanford reclaims the conference throne. A top-10 team last season by any measure, the Cardinal return almost every rotation player. Only Nadia Fingall is gone among the 12 players who played at least 100 minutes in 2019-20. Back are the Hull twins, Lacie and Lexie, last year’s leading scorer and assister in Kiana Williams, a rising star on the glass in reigning Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year Ashten Prechtel, and dunking sensation Fran Belibi. Stanford will be appointment television any time they take the court.

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