by Clay Kallam

We try to avoid the obvious, and last year we just had a feeling Baylor wouldn’t repeat. UConn, of course, won it all, just as we predicted, but once again, we refuse to follow the herd. Eventually we know we’ll get picked off by a lion, or a Husky, but an influx of talented freshmen and five legit title contenders will make for a most interesting season.

1. Notre Dame kayla mcbride slam magazine

Key Players: Natalie Achonwa, Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride

The Skinny: Skylar Diggins got a lot of media love (if not lust), but she’s the only significant piece missing from last year’s 35-2 team—and coach Muffet McGraw has another slew of talented freshmen coming in. In short, Irish haters are in for another long season.

2. Connecticut

Key Players: Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Breanna Stewart

The Skinny: It’s just too easy to pick UConn. Everyone but Kelly Faris is back from the national champs, which is why so many people are sure Connecticut will get another title. But it says here the Huskies are too thin up front to repeat.

3.Tennessee

Key Players: Bashaara Graves, Ariel Massengale, Meighan Simmons

The Skinny: Tennessee lost eight games last year, but the Volunteers have the same trio of key players back, and are one more year removed from the emotional Pat Summitt fallout. They also have a great freshman class, plus point guard Andraya Carter, who missed last year with injury.

4. Duke

Key Players: Chelsea Gray, Haley Peters, Elizabeth Williams

The Skinny: The Blue Devils lose no one of importance from a 33-3 team, and this could be the year that coach Joanne McCallie breaks through at the Final Four, but elite point guard Chelsea Gray needs to completely recover from her torn ACL sooner rather than later.

5. Maryland

Key Players: Laurin Mincy, Brene Moseley, Alyssa Thomas

The Skinny: Maryland loses just one key player from a very good team—but in addition, the Terps return two major talents from injury. If Moseley and Mincy are close to 100 percent, Maryland can be as good as anyone, assuming of course the injury bug doesn’t bite again.

6. Kentucky

Key Players: Bria Goss, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker

The Skinny: Just like Notre Dame, Kentucky lost its marquee player (A’dia Mathies) and no one else. And just like Notre Dame, the Wildcats have a great freshman class. The problem? Somebody has to make a jump shot.

7. Louisville

Key Players: Sara Hammond, Shoni Schimmel, Bria Smith

The Skinny: Last year’s Cinderella will be this year’s leading lady, as the Cardinals return pretty much the whole roster and are clearly one of the big dogs in the women’s game. The keys, though, will be Shoni Schimmel discovering consistency and sophomore Sara Hammond stepping into a starring role.

8. Penn State

Key Players: Candice Agee, Maggie Lucas, Dara Taylor

The Skinny: Do you believe in freshmen? If so, the Nittany Lions are the team to watch, as they need their talented youngsters to play well enough to allow vets Agee and Taylor to take major steps forward. It also doesn’t hurt that Penn State plays in the relatively weak Big Ten.

9. Dayton

Key Players: Amber Deane, Andrea Hoover, Ally Malott

The Skinny: If you want to take a flyer on a mid-major that might crack the top 10, Dayton is your best bet. The Flyers were 28-3 last year and if Jim Jabir can find a point guard, a similar record is not only possible, but likely.

10. Stanford

Key Players: Sara James, Chiney Ogwumike, Amber Orrange

The Skinny: What would a pre-season top 10 be without Stanford, the pride of the West Coast? This year, though, it’s a precarious ranking because the Cardinal don’t have much to go with Ogwumike, who’s the presumptive top pick in next spring’s WNBA draft.