LSU, UConn, UCLA headline Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2023-24

LSU faces many challenges in quest to go back-to-back (2:17)

On "The Paul Finebaum Show," Carolyn Peck explains why the talented Gamecocks and a gritty Tennessee will be stiff competition for the reigning national champs. (2:17)

When LSU cut down the nets last April in Dallas, the Tigers became the lowest seed since Tennessee in 1997 to win as a No. 3. LSU should have no such worries being seeded that low this year.

The defending champions had already elevated to the top of our last Way-Too-Early Top 25 after landing Hailey Van Lith, the top target in the transfer portal. That was before DePaul's Aneesah Morrow chose Baton Rouge as her landing spot. With Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese, the nation's fifth-leading scorer and second-best rebounder last season, just waiting for those reinforcements to join her for another run, LSU is the easy choice to stay No. 1.

However, that doesn't mean there aren't challengers. UConn was riddled with injuries last season, but a return to good health could mean the Huskies returning to the Final Four after seeing their streak of 14 straight appearances in the national semifinals snapped last March. Paige Bueckers missed all of last season and half of the 2021-22 campaign with knee injuries. A full season of Bueckers and Azzi Fudd on the court together could be special.

Ohio State and UCLA each added one major player in the transfer portal which make them contenders to reach Cleveland in April as well.

And, of course, any team with Caitlin Clark must be considered, and Iowa is still very much a threat to get back to the Final Four.

This season fans will have one eye on what LSU is doing and the other on Clark. Despite all the talent in Baton Rouge, this has all the look of being one of the most wide-open seasons in some time.

Practice has just begun, so it's a good time to check in and see where everyone stacks up less than six weeks before the season tips.

Watch some highlights LSU fans are getting with Aneesah Morrow

As Aneesah Morrow transfers to LSU, check out some of the best plays from her college basketball career so far.

1. LSU Tigers

Adding Van Lith gave the Tigers a replacement for Alex Morris, who was so important to the title run. Van Lith isn't the defender Morris was, but she will handle the ball, play hard all the time and, most importantly, make big shots. When Morrow -- who averaged 23.5 points and 13.0 rebounds the last two seasons at DePaul -- later decided on LSU, it became an embarrassment of riches. In Reese and Morrow, the Tigers have two of the best rebounders and interiors scorers in the game. Mulkey now has three potential All-Americans and Reese is a top contender for national player of the year. Throw in SEC Freshman of the Year Flau'jae Johnson and guard Mikayla Williams, the No. 2 recruit in the country, plus 6-foot-2 Sa'Myah Smith and point guard Kateri Poole, who each spent time in the starting lineup a year ago, and the talent at LSU is staggering. As a result, no team will receive more scrutiny and examination than the Tigers, an environment in which Mulkey seems to embrace and thrive. Previous rank: 1

2. UConn Huskies

If LSU's trio isn't the best in country, that title goes to UConn's Bueckers, Fudd and Aaliyah Edwards. Bueckers was the 2020-21 national player of the year. Fudd is one of the game's best shooters. Edwards became a force last season, carrying the Huskies at times. Unfortunately, the conversation around Bueckers and Fudd must also include their injuries. Bueckers missed all of 2022-23 with an ACL tear and has played in just 17 of UConn's last 73 games. Fudd has missed 36 games over the past two seasons. When healthy they are three of the country's 10 best players. Throw in Aubrey Griffin and Caroline Ducharme, each of whom has also had health issues in the last two years, plus Nika Muhl, who set the single-season program record for assists last year, and the talent is undeniable. Health will again be a conversation surrounding the Huskies all season. Previous rank: 2

The best of Lauren Betts in her lone season at Stanford

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3. UCLA Bruins

The Bruins last won the Pac-12 tournament in 2006. They last won the regular season-championship in 1999. UCLA has never been to the NCAA Final Four. All of that could change this season. The offseason good news began with Charisma Osborne's decision to bypass the WNBA draft and return to school for her bonus year. Then the No. 1 recruit from 2022, 6-foot-7 Lauren Betts, left conference rival Stanford for Westwood. Kiki Rice was rated right behind Betts and lived up to that ranking as UCLA's second leading scorer (11.6 PPG) last season behind Osborne (15.6 PPG). Emily Bessoir made great strides as a 6-4 sophomore and was the Bruins' most accurate 3-point shooter (35.7%). If Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez make similar jumps in their second seasons, UCLA will have more scoring options than ever under coach Cori Close. Previous rank: 4

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

A devastating full-court press fueled the Buckeyes' 28 victories and Elite Eight appearance, and that was without Jacy Sheldon for much of the season and with Celeste Taylor still at Duke. Now Sheldon, who averaged 3.5 steals in the 13 games she played, and Taylor, the ACC's defensive player of the year, are healthy and teammates. The Ohio State press should be even better. The Buckeyes don't have a replacement for the shooting of Taylor Mikesell, but Cotie McMahon, who was the Big Ten freshman of the year, was often the best player on the floor regardless of class. A potential All-American for the next three years, McMahon is a perfect fit for Ohio State's up-tempo style. That holds true for Taylor Thierry and Rikki Harris; the Buckeyes will need their contributions if Ohio State is to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1993. Previous rank: 6

5. Utah Utes

No team in the NCAA tournament played LSU as tightly as the Utes, who were two free throws and a possession away from knocking the Tigers out in the Sweet 16. With all five starters back for the defending Pac-12 co-champions, they will have another legitimate opportunity to reach the Final Four. Pac-12 player of the year Alissa Pili (20.7 PPG) can be a dominant inside force and also shot 42.6% from 3-point range. Gianna Kneepkens and Jenna Johnson, a pair of sophomores who combined to average over 27 points per game, have become the backbone of the program's resurgence under Lynne Roberts. Only Kneepkens made more 3-pointers for the Utes than Kennady McQueen. Australian point guard Isabel Palmer, back for her senior season, is the glue, and 5-10 guard Matyson Wilke, who averaged 11.8 points per game as a freshman at Wisconsin, is an intriguing addition. Previous rank: 5

The highlights from Caitlin Clark's historic 2022-23 campaign

Relive some of the top highlights from Caitlin Clark's 2022-23 season with the Iowa Hawkeyes.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes

From the moment the Hawkeyes take the court at Kinnick Stadium for their first exhibition against DePaul on Oct. 15th, until the final whistle blows for Iowa in March or April, all eyes will be on Clark's every move. Last year was its own thrill ride to a Big Ten tournament title and the national championship game -- and anything remains possible for the Hawkeyes with Clark leading the way. The return of Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin give Clark some familiar running mates. Their experience helps mitigate the losses of Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock, but the development of 6-2 sophomore Hannah Stuelke (6.5 PPG) from Big Ten sixth player of the year to double-digit scorer is the key to Iowa's ultimate success beyond Clark's greatness. Previous rank: 3

7. Virginia Tech Hokies

Last season's Final Four run was the best in school history and the pieces are in place to do it again. Once Elizabeth Kitley decided not to enter the WNBA draft, things began to fall into place. Point guard Georgia Amoore was already going to be back, but now the best point-post combo in the country is back for one more run. That then led to 3-point specialist Cayla King electing to return for a fifth year. Then transfers to fill key holes committed. Rose Micheaux (Minnesota) should step into Taylor Soule's role of hus`tling power forward and Matilda Ekh (Michigan State) is the shooter the Hokies had lost in Kayana Traylor. Amoore, third in the ACC in both assists and 3-point accuracy, remains the first perimeter option, but with King, Ekh and Carys Baker, the headliner from a top-20 recruiting class, she might not have to play the 36.8 minutes per game she put in a year ago. Previous rank: 9

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

It says plenty about a program when it can lose five players to the WNBA draft and remain in the top 10. The Gamecocks aren't expected to be the juggernaut they have been the last four years, but an SEC championship and Final Four appearance aren't out of the question. Kamilla Cardoso takes over in the middle for Aliyah Boston, and with more playing time the 6-foot-7 post player should put up big numbers. She ranked third in the country in win shares per 40 minutes last season, but only played 18.8 per game. Dawn Staley's backcourt solidified when Oregon transfer Te-Hina Paopao moved to Columbia. She can play either guard spot and should pair well with Raven Johnson. Staley once again added a big-time class of newcomers, headlined by local point guard Milaysia Fulwiley and 6-2 Chloe Kitts from Oviedo, Florida. Previous rank: 8

No. 9 Tennessee Lady Vols

The Lady Vols haven't been able to get their guard play quite right the last few years and turnovers have plagued them. That should change this season. Belmont transfer Destinee Wells and Jewel Spear from Wake Forest give Kellie Harper a new backcourt. Wells averaged career highs with 19.5 points, 4.9 assists and 45.5% 3-point shooting in the OVC last year, and Spears has been one of the ACC's best scorers for three seasons. In Knoxville, Spears will be able to pick her spots more judiciously because of Rickea Jackson's decision to stay one more season. Jackson's 19.2 points per game ranked third in the SEC. After missing most of this past season with blood clots in her lungs, 6-6 center Tamari Key is also giving it another go. With 6-5 Jillian Hollingshead back, size will again be a strength for Tennessee, which was eighth in the nation in rebound rate. Previous rank: 12

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10. Indiana Hoosiers

What Teri Moren has built in Bloomington should be good enough to withstand the loss of Grace Berger, but it won't be easy. It helps to have Mackenzie Holmes, one of the most efficient post players the Big Ten has ever seen, back for a fifth year. The 6-3 Holmes, the Hoosiers' first-ever first-team All-American, has made at least 60% of her shots every season of her career. Senior Chloe Moore-McNeil will likely inherit much of Berger's ball-handling duties and had a better-than 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Sara Scalia and Sydney Parrish are also versatile enough to play anywhere on the perimeter. Yarden Garzon led the Big Ten with 45.8% 3-point shooting and could be a breakout offensive player as a sophomore. Sharnecce Currie-Jelks, who averaged 15.2 PPG and was the OVC freshman of the year at UT Martin, will need to supply much-needed depth if the Hoosiers are going to repeat at Big Ten champs. Previous rank: 7

No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

If Olivia Miles is fully recovered from the knee injury that forced her to miss the entire postseason, the Irish are Final Four contenders. If she's not, Notre Dame could struggle early against a schedule that begins with South Carolina in Paris and includes Illinois and Tennessee before the end of November. Sonia Citron (14.7 PPG), who was Notre Dame's leading scorer last season, and Maddy Westbeld (11.2 PPG) are talented and versatile players but are better positioned as the No. 2 and 3 options. Miles with the ball in her hands makes this team go. Getting even more out of 6-4 Kylee Watson and sophomore guard KK Bransford will be even more vital if Miles isn't 100%. Without Miles, freshman Hannah Hidalgo would be thrust into point guard duties right away, but she was a top-five recruit. Previous rank: 10

No. 12 Ole Miss Rebels

With Madison Scott, Snudda Collins and Marquesha Davis, coach Yolett McPhee- McCuin already had a solid foundation. Finding a replacement for leading scorer Angel Baker was the biggest task. Coach Yo found three. Kennedy Todd-Williams was North Carolina's second-leading scorer (13.4 PPG). KK Deans led Florida in scoring last season (14.1 PPG) and West Virginia (14.5 PPG) in 2022. Kharyssa Richardson started 27 games for Auburn, although she will likely come off the bench for the Rebels. After reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years, Ole Miss seems primed for more with this kind of depth. Previous rank: 11

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No. 13 Maryland Terrapins

From Crystal Langhorne to Kristi Toliver to Alyssa Thomas to Diamond Miller, all of Brenda Frese's best Maryland teams have had a star. If the Terps are to compete for a Big Ten title, Shyanne Sellers will be the next one. With Miller and Abby Meyers gone, Sellers (13.9 PPG) and her outstanding all-around game becomes Maryland's No. 1 option. But she has help. The return of Lavender Briggs and Brinae Alexander, plus the addition of Jakia Brown-Turner from NC State -- all as graduate students -- give the Terps three wing scorers who can shoot from deep. Another fifth-year senior, Faith Masonius, supplies the grit. What Frese decides to do at point guard -- it could be Sellers -- will be an important element to Maryland's season. Previous rank: 17

No. 14 Baylor Bears

Despite coming off their least accomplished season since 2007, the momentum is pointing in the right direction in Waco. Darianna Littlepage-Buggs was the unanimous choice for Big 12 freshman of the year and has star potential. Leading scorer Sarah Andrews (14.7 PPG) is back, as is 6-0 sophomore Bella Fontleroy, who scored in double figures 15 times a year ago. The return of a healthy Aijha Blackwell, who missed all but eight games last season with a leg injury, and Dre'Una Edwards, who sat out last year after transferring from Kentucky, will be a huge boost for the Bears. Depth was a problem at times, but Nicki Collen addressed it by bringing in three veterans in guards Yaya Felder (Ohio) and Denae Fritz (Iowa State) and forward Madison Bartley (Belmont). Previous rank: 13

No. 15 Louisville Cardinals

For the third consecutive year Jeff Walz jumped heavily into the transfer portal to remake his team. The first two rebuilds resulted in a Final Four and Elite Eight, so don't bet against this new Cardinals team also finding success. Cal transfer Jayda Curry will assume the role Van Lith held as the top offensive option in the backcourt. Her résumé includes a Pac-12 freshman of the year award and conference scoring title two years ago. Kiki Jefferson, Walz's other big acquisition from the portal, flourished in a four-year career at James Madison and could help provide the inside-outside threat last year's team lacked. Sydney Taylor (UMass) and Nina Rickards (Florida) join Curry in the backcourt and are each coming off career-best seasons. Previous rank: 14

No. 16 Stanford Cardinal

With personnel losses to graduation and the transfer portal, the Cardinal are facing their lowest preseason ranking since prior to the 2015-16 season (which ended in a Sweet 16 loss to Washington). Cameron Brink was in junior high then. Now she's one of the three or four best players in the country. With Haley Jones gone, Brink (15.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 3.5 BPG last season) will be the sole focal point of everything Stanford does. The return of sharpshooter Hannah Jump for her extra year will help, but the key to the Cardinal season might be further development from sophomore point guard Talana Lepolo (4.8 PPG) and junior forwards Kiki Iriafen (6.7 PPG) and Brooek Demetre (32 3-pointers). Previous rank: 16

No. 17 North Carolina Tar Heels

Coach Courtney Banghart demands defense. The Tar Heels ranked fourth in the ACC in opponent field goal percentage and second in steals. Thanks to Banghart's work in the transfer portal, they might be even better this year. She added Big 12 defensive player of the year Lexi Donarski from Iowa State and Boston College's Maria Gakdeng, the ACC's third-leading shot blocker. The offense should be just fine, too, with the return of first-team All-ACC selections Deja Kelly (16.5 PPG) and Alyssa Ustby (13.2 PPG) for their senior seasons. The addition of two top-30 recruits -- 6-3 post Ciera Toomey and point guard Reniya Kelly -- and completely healthy seasons from 6-4 Teoni Key and 5-8 Kayla McPherson, who missed a combined 25 games, will make North Carolina a contender for a top-three finish in the ACC. Previous rank: 19

No. 18 USC Trojans

The last time the Trojans were ranked in the preseason poll was preceding 2011-12 season. That 11-year absence should end thanks to Lindsay Gottlieb's efforts to elevate the program in just two seasons. It helps that she convinced one of the most the most highly regarded recruits in recent memory in 6-0 guard JuJu Watkins to stay home to play in Los Angeles. Most scouts see Watkins as a future WNBA star. Gottlieb, a Brown graduate, also pulled from her Ivy League roots for three grad transfers: Kayla Padilla (Penn), Kaitlyn Davis (Columbia) and Mackenzie Forbes (Harvard). Padilla was a three-time all-Ivy league guard and averaged 17.5 points per game a season ago. USC's top returning scorer, Rayah Marshall (12.7 PPG), is also one of the country's best defenders, with 3.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. Previous rank: 18

No. 19 Texas Longhorns

Like UConn, which the Longhorns play on Dec 3, health was a big problem last season. Star guard Rori Harmon missed the first six games. Aaliyah Moore, who was averaging 11.8 PPG over the first nine games, missed the rest of the season. Taylor Jones, a 6-4 post, missed nine games. Maintaining a regular rotation was difficult for coach Vic Schaefer, but much of the core is returning. Harmon was still first-team All-Big 12 and the league's defensive player of the year. Another year playing with leading scorer Shaylee Gonzales (12.7 PPG) might make them the best backcourt in the conference. The addition of top-15 rated freshman wing Madison Booker should also bolster an offense that only scored over 70 points three times in the season's final month. Jones and 6-2 DeYonta Gaston combined to average over 21 points and 10 rebounds per game and will benefit from the return of the 6-1 Moore. Previous rank: 20

No. 20 Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles were one of the surprise stories of 2022-23. Picked to finish ninth in the ACC, Florida State ended up fourth and a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. Much of that success was on the shoulders of Ta'Niya Latson, who averaged an ACC-best 21.3 points per game and won nearly every national freshman of the year award. Her late-February injury derailed the Seminoles' postseason run, but with three of the next four top scorers -- 6-2 Makayla Timpson and veteran guards Sam Bejedi and O'Mariah Gordon -- also returning, Florida State should be back in the NCAA tournament for the 11th consecutive year. The addition of grad transfer Alexis Tucker, a 14.9 PPG scorer at UC Santa Barbara, should take some of the scoring load off Latson. Previous rank: 15

No. 21 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Sam Purcell's dive into the transfer portal last off season resulted in a seven-game improvement for Mississippi State and a near upset of Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament. This season he might have done even better. In Lauren Park-Lane (Seton Hall), Darrione Rogers (DePaul) and Erynn Barnum (Arkansas), Purcell landed a trio that averaged a combined 52.6 points per game and were each named all-conference last season. With all that offense around her, 6-5 fifth-year senior Jessika Carter might be even more dominant in the post. This should be the best Bulldogs team since they went 27-6 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Previous rank: NR

No. 22 Colorado Buffaloes

After enjoying the program's best season in 20 years, Colorado veterans Quay Miller and Jaylyn Sherrod decided to run it back. Both elected to stay for their bonus year to play another season in Boulder with Frida Forman and Aaronette Vonleh. Those four all averaged double-figure scoring and got the Buffs to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. Then coach JR Payne added Michigan transfer Maddie Nolan, a career 35.8% 3-point shooter, positioning Colorado to be even better. Previous rank: 21

No. 23 Creighton Bluejays

Four of the Bluejays' top five scorers are back, and now Emma Ronsiek, Morgan Maly, Lauren Jensen and Molly Mogensen are seniors. As sophomores this core got Creighton to the Elite Eight and have now started a combined 209 games together. That experience running coach Jim Flanery's spread offense helped make the Bluejays the fourth-most prolific 3-point shooting team in the country last year. They nearly knocked off UConn in Storrs last February and should be the Huskies' top competition in the Big East. Previous rank: 22

No. 24 Kansas State Wildcats

Even though last season ended in the WNIT, the Wildcats were good enough in the regular season to beat Big Ten champion Iowa and Big 12 tournament winner Iowa State. And that was without 6-6 center Ayoka Lee, who missed last season with a knee injury. A healthy Lee can be a dominating force inside as her 22.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in 2021-22 would suggest. Pair Lee with Gabby Gregory (18.5 PPG), whose career enjoyed a rebirth in Manhattan last season, and Kansas State has a potent inside-outside tandem. Juniors Serena Sundell, Jaeylyn Glenn and Brylee Glenn give Jeff Mittie a deep and experienced backcourt that should help the Wildcats return to the NCAA tournament. Previous rank: 24

No. 25 Washington State Cougars

Winning the Pac-12 tournament last March was the greatest moment in program history, and with nearly every key contributor set to return, the Cougars might be primed for more. The most important is Charlisse Leger-Walker, who has been the centerpiece of the Cougars' turnaround under Kamie Ethridge. She's as valuable as any player in the country. Nothing illustrates that more than Washington State's 23-7 record with Leger-Walker and 0-4 mark in the games she missed. Having 6-3 Bella Murekatete, one of the most agile post players in the Pac-12, back for a fifth year helps tremendously, and Idaho transfer 6-1 Beyonce Bea, sixth in the country at 22.8 PPG last year, will be the best scorer Leger-Walker has played with in Pullman. Previous rank: 23

Dropped Out: Nebraska

Also considered: Nebraska, Illinois, Texas A&M