We begin our conference preview series with a look at the mid-major teams that are ranked or receiving votes.
No. 23 South Dakota State (Summit League)
Players to watch (preseason All-Summit League list): Myah Selland (First Team), Paiton Burckhard (First), Paige Meyer (First), Tori Nelson (Second)
The Jackrabbits split with South Dakota last regular season, finishing 17-1 in conference play and tied for first in the Summit League with the Coyotes. They then lost 56-45 to their in-state rival in the conference tournament championship game, causing them to miss out on the Big Dance. where they’ve been 10 of the last 14 years. Only one of those trips was an at-large bid; perhaps this year they will have a shot at another at-large bid if they don’t get in automatically. Their schedule includes No. 21 Creighton, Mississippi State, UCLA, Washington State (receiving votes), Kansas State (receiving votes) and No. 1 South Carolina.
While they didn’t make the tourney, the Jackrabbits won the WNIT in 2022.
Selland is the preseason Summit League Player of the Year; she won the award at season’s end in 2021. The four players to watch were the team’s four leading scorers last year.
No. 24 Princeton (Ivy League)
Players to watch: Julia Cunningham, Ellie Mitchell, Kaitlyn Chen, Grace Stone
The Tigers upset the SEC Tournament champion Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year to make the second round for the second time in program history. Princeton hopes to get to its first Sweet Sixteen this year. It will be trying to do so without reigning Ivy League Player of the Year and All-America honorable mention Abby Meyers, a Princeton graduate who will be playing at Maryland for 2022-23. Meyers led the Tigers with 17.9 points per game last year and also averaged 5.8 rebounds. However, the team does return its next four scorers, who are the players to watch. Cunningham was second behind Meyers with 13.4 points per game, while Mitchell led in rebounds with 10.4 and Chen led in assists with 3.2.
RV (14 points) Belmont (MVC)
Players to watch (preseason All-MVC list): Destinee Wells (First Team), Tuti Jones, Madison Bartley, Sydni Harvey
Belmont has now been the second round of the NCAA Tournament two years in a row and to the tournament six of the last seven years. These are exciting times for the Bruins, who return their big star in Wells for at least two more seasons (and a third if she uses her COVID year at Belmont). Wells led the team in scoring as a freshman (17.8 points per game) and sophomore (16.7) and is averaging 19.8 points through four NCAA Tournament games. What a weapon to have when it comes to making a run in March. The Bruins also return their second-leading scorer in Bartley and their third-leading scorer in Jones, the latter of whom added 3.1 assists and 2.8 steals per game. Harvey, who was a key contributor the past four years at South Florida, rounds out Belmont’s players to watch.
RV (9 points) South Dakota (Summit League)
Players to watch (preseason All-Summit League list): Grace Larkins (Second Team)
The Coyotes are fresh off their first-ever Sweet Sixteen run, which featured comfortable victories over No. 7 seed Ole Miss and No. 2 seed Baylor and a loss by just three points to No. 3 seed Michigan. However, the unforgettable faces who led them on that brilliant run, Chloe Lamb and Hannah Sjerven, have graduated, and in fact all four of the Coyotes’ top scorers are no longer with the team. Fifth-leading scorer Grace Larkins was the Coyotes’ lone representative on the preseason All-Summit League teams. So South Dakota is receiving votes, but is expected to be behind its rival Jackrabbits in the Summit League pecking order.
RV (4 points) BYU (WCC)
Players to watch (preseason All-WCC list): Laurin Gustin (First Team)
BYU had a really exciting year in 2021 when they upset Rutgers in the first round of the Big Dance and nearly defeated eventual runner-up Arizona in the second round. That was with Shaylee Gonzales as their leading scorer on the season and with clutch threes coming from Paisley Harding and Tegan Graham in the tourney. Gustin was the other key player on that team and all four returned to make the Cougars a first-round favorite in 2022. However, they ran into Maddy Siegrist and suffered the disappointment of not even going as far as they did in 2021. Now, with Gonzales transferring to Texas, Gustin is the only player remaining from that core. BYU is in a similar position to South Dakota. The Cougars have lost a lot, but are still receiving votes and are the top WCC team on this list, which means they’ve got a shot at an automatic bid.
RV (3 points) Gonzaga (WCC)
Players to watch (preseason All-WCC list): Brynna Maxwell, Kayleigh Truong (First Team), Kaylynne Truong (First), Yvonne Ejim (First)
BYU may have one more voting point from the national media, but the Bulldogs will have a great shot at getting the WCC’s automatic bid too, seeing as they received nine of ten first-place votes in the WCC preseason coaches poll. The Portland Pilots received the other, while BYU finished third in the poll. Gonzaga has good reason to be considered the favorite in the conference with the Truong twins returning as well as Ejim. They account for three of the Bulldogs’ top four scorers from last year. Only graduated forward Melody Kempton is not returning from that group. Plus, the Bulldogs now have Utah transfer Brynna Maxwell, who is on the watch list for national mid-major Player of the Year.
RV (3 points) South Florida (AAC)
Players to watch (preseason All-AAC list): Elena Tsineke (First Team), Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (First)
The core of Elena Tsineke, Bethy Mununga, Elisa Pinzan and Sydni Harvey has been broken up. Harvey, as mentioned, is now at Belmont, while Pinzan is now at Maryland and Mununga has graduated. Tsineke, the team’s leading scorer for three years running, is the only one remaining. She is joined by Mendjiadeu, who came over from Memphis last year, and a top Hoop Gurlz recruit from 2020 who had some success at Syracuse in Priscilla Williams. Can Tsineke lead the Bulls back to an 8/9 game in March, like they were a part of in 2021 and 2022 with the Mununga/Pinzan/Harvey core? It will be a tall task because, while she has been the leading scorer, what Mununga brought to the glass and what Pinzan brought in terms of distributing were invaluable.
RV (2 points) UCF (AAC)
Players to watch (preseason All-AAC list): Rachel Ranke
The Knights won the AAC outright last year and made it to the second round for the first time in program history. But with leading scorer Diamond Battles now at Georgia and all of the Top 5 scorers not with the team, UCF will be much different. Reinforcements come in the form of former Kansas State Wildcat Rachel Ranke (nine points per game in the Big 12 last year) and former Georgia Southern Eagle Mya Burns (11.7 points per game last year). Destiny Thomas, who led the Knights in rebounding last year with 7.9 boards per game, is the top returner.