South Carolina ended the 2019-20 season as the No. 1 women's basketball team in the country and is starting out our early look at 2020-21 in the same spot: The Gamecocks are the top overall seed in the first bracketology projection for next season. The returning talent of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal and Destanni Henderson is the top reason behind their No. 1 status, but stability -- especially in an era where it's a rare currency -- also is important.
The Gamecocks of today are exactly the team we thought they would be at this point in the offseason. The same can't be said for many teams across the country. The transfer portal gets bigger every season and the number of players who have changed teams, even among top programs, has altered the landscape for 2020-21 on a weekly basis.
Bracketology projections for next season began as soon as the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. In a little more than six weeks, they have already undergone myriad changes thanks to evolving rosters and some major coaching turnovers.
With the NCAA yet to rule on a potential change to its transfer rules, which could make some players immediately eligible rather than sitting out a season, much of this could be subject to change. But this is how the bracket looks today and what has impacted it the most over the past month and a half.
Which team was hit hardest by transfers?
Despite substantial personnel losses to graduation, Maryland still had a talented core coming out of this past season and initially was projected as a No. 1 seed heading into 2020-21. That all changed when rising juniors Shakira Austin and Taylor Mikesell elected to leave the program. That means that coach Brenda Frese has to replace all five starters -- and the Terps are now a No. 4 seed, and No. 13 overall, in this projection, the biggest fall for any team.
Maryland has added some transfers of its own. Harvard's Katie Benzan, the Ivy League's all-time leader in 3-pointers, should help offset the loss of Mikesell, and Mimi Collins is eligible after leaving Tennessee in May 2019. If Mississippi State transfer Chloe Bibby also is immediately eligible, Frese will have restocked some of the lost talent, but not enough to contend for a No. 1 seed right now.
With rising sophomores Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, and incoming 6-3 freshman wing Angel Reese, the No. 2 recruit in ESPN HoopGurlz's 2020 rankings, Maryland still looks like the favorite in the Big Ten. That could be due in part because the Terrapins weren't the only team in the league hurt by transfers. Ohio State reached the Big Ten title game with a youth-filled roster. However, since the start of last season four players have departed. The biggest blow came last month when Kierstan Bell, who was the only three-time winner of Ohio's Ms. Basketball and averaged 10.9 PPG as a freshman, elected to leave Columbus (she has since landed at Florida Gulf Coast). Bell was expected to be a cornerstone of a team initially placed at No. 10 overall. The Buckeyes now project at No. 20, the second-most substantial drop of any team in the field.
How did coaching changes impact seeding?
It's pretty rare when one offseason produces two coaching changes the magnitude of Vic Schaefer moving from Mississippi State to Texas and Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw retiring. Those moves obviously impact those programs, but perhaps not as much as the star power of the names involved might suggest.
Schaefer's arrival in Austin didn't change the Longhorns' status. In time it might, but in bracketology, Texas' early projection under Karen Aston was a No. 8 seed, and that's where the Longhorns remain.
The impact comes in Starkville. The first draft of next year's field had the Bulldogs as a No. 1 seed, along with South Carolina, Stanford and Maryland. Now two of those have changed. Much of Mississippi State's talent will remain the same under coach Nikki McCray-Penson, so the drop isn't too precipitous. But after losing the architect of this incarnation of the program, the Bulldogs now are a No. 2 seed and seem like less of a challenge to the Gamecocks in the SEC.
Notre Dame's transition from McGraw to Niele Ivey possibly was the smoothest in the history of replacing a legend. After 33 years and two national championships at Notre Dame, McGraw retired last week relatively quietly -- save for the shock factor -- and within minutes her long-time assistant and former point guard was the new head coach. Ivey wasn't around during the Irish's struggles last season -- she was in her first season as an assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies -- but given the youth on the roster, most of players likely became familiar with their new head coach during the recruiting process. That would include this year's top-five recruiting class. The expectation in South Bend is that there won't be any player defections.
A big improvement from this season's 13-18 record already was expected, but losing McGraw curbs expectations a bit. A week ago, the Irish were a No. 6 seed; now they are a No. 7. If the replacement wasn't Ivey and the roster didn't look as steady, the drop would have been worse -- and it will be if some players decide to leave. But it appears the Irish are in good hands given that within two days of being hired Ivey secured the No. 2 recruit in the 2021 class in New Jersey's Olivia Miles.
Which single player changes things the most?
Destiny Slocum is considered the top player to enter the transfer portal since the end of the season.
Slocum surprised many when she decided to leave Oregon State for a move back east (she was the national freshman of the year after playing the 2016-17 season at Maryland), landing at Arkansas as a graduate transfer. She was Oregon State's leading scorer and was expected to headline the 2020-21 Beavers following the graduation of Mikayla Pivec. They had expectations of competing for a top two or three spot in the Pac-12 and a top-four NCAA tournament seed. That might not be the case anymore.
Her decision to go from Oregon State to the Razorbacks essentially caused a flip of positions for the two programs. The Beavers no longer are projected within the top 16 and currently are a No. 5 seed. Arkansas, which was No. 22 overall before Slocum's move, is now No. 16 overall and a No. 4 seed. Getting to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament games would be another huge boost for a program on the rise since Mike Neighbors took over three seasons ago. Pairing Slocum with Chelsea Dungee and Amber Ramirez in his high-charged offense makes Neighbors' club one of the most intriguing heading into the new season.
And Slocum's well-traveled career has in one way come full circle. As a high school junior, she initially committed to Washington, which was then coached by Neighbors, before changing that decision to Maryland. Now she is hoping to help Arkansas achieve the program's highest seed since the Razorbacks were a No. 3 in 1991.
Which teams are helped the most by the changes?
Arkansas is on the list and Kentucky could be as well if those transfer rules are relaxed and Jazmine Massengill (Tennessee) and Robyn Benton (Auburn) become immediately eligible.
But despite losing Megan Walker a year sooner than expected to the WNBA and Crystal Dangerfield to graduation, UConn looks like the team that gets the most upside. Even though the Huskies haven't gained any transfers, they move up as others fall back.
Before the upheaval at Maryland and Mississippi State, UConn was projected as a No. 2 seed, just as it likely would have been had the 2020 NCAA tournament been played. The Huskies now are back on the No. 1 line (No. 3 overall) and seeded in comfortable territory in the Albany Regional.
HoopGurlz's second-ranked recruiting class, led by No. 1 overall prospect Paige Bueckers, helps offset the personnel losses and coach Geno Auriemma still has Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aubrey Griffin. Plus, Evina Westbrook will be eligible after sitting out this past season.
Baylor also makes the leap from a No. 2 to a No. 1 seed. Losing Lauren Cox, Te'a Cooper and Juicy Landrum doesn't feel as daunting as compared to the losses suffered by the Terrapins and Bulldogs.