After record season, women's college basketball returns with stars Reese and Clark set for encore

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Coming off a record year in terms of popularity and buzz, women’s college basketball is back with even more intrigue.

Defending champion LSU has reloaded behind Angel Reese for a run at back-to-back national titles while Iowa’s Caitlin Clark returns with the NCAA scoring record in her reach.

Both stars hope to end the season cutting down the nets in Cleveland, site of the Final Four. When the two teams met last season for the NCAA championship, nearly 10 million people tuned in and set a viewership record for the sport.

No. 1 LSU returns a solid group led by Reese from last season and added stars Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow through the transfer portal, making the Tigers the favorite to repeat as champions. That hasn't been done since UConn won four straight championships from 2013-16. Five different schools have won the title in the past six NCAA tournaments.

Reese's popularity has soared since the Tigers' run last year. She already was one of the top-earning athletes in the sport and has since signed a sponsorship deal with Reebok. Despite her increased fame, the senior forward has one goal in mind.

“What got me to where I am right now is LSU and winning a championship,” she said. “We all want it again.”

The Tigers have challenging non-conference games against No. 20 Colorado and No. 8 Virginia Tech, which reached its first Final Four last season.

Clark, last season's AP player of the year, is 810 points away behind Kelsey Plum's NCAA career record 3,527 points. Iowa's star scored 1,055 points last season.

Coach Lisa Bluder might need more out of the two-time unanimous AP preseason All-American with the graduation of Monika Czinano. Clark has already helped the Hawkeyes sell 13,000 season tickets and her deep 3-point shots make for must-see TV.

Women's basketball also gets a jolt with the return of UConn guard Paige Bueckers, who missed last season after tearing an ACL.

The No. 2 Huskies have been snake-bitten by injuries over the past two seasons and finally appear to be healthy. They saw their 14-year run of making the Final Four end last season. Coach Geno Auriemma would like to see them end their national championship drought.

The season gets underway on Nov. 6, highlighted by No. 6 South Carolina playing No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris.

END OF AN ERA

The Pac-12 will basically be disbanded next year with teams bolting for the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC.

The conference has been one of the strongest in women's basketball over the past decade with Oregon, Oregon State, Cal and UCLA all taking turns up top with perennial power Stanford. The conference leaders would like nothing more than to go out on top with another NCAA championship.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve built in the Pac 12,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “The number of obviously great teams, great players, tournament success. I don’t know that there’s any other league that has had as many teams go to the NCAA Tournament and be successful going to the Final Four, winning national championships."

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

Clark, Bueckers, Reese and a few other top players could potentially come back for one more season because of the extra year all players were granted during the Covid pandemic. All three would go high in the WNBA draft if they declared for it. The trio has each said they are going to enjoy the season ahead and decide later what they'll do.

STAYING CLOSE TO HOME

A lot of the top freshmen this season decided to stay close to home. USC got the consensus top newcomer with Juju Watkins, who is from the area. Mikaylah Williams, who went to school about four hours away from LSU, joined the Tigers and has a shot to make an impact even with a loaded roster. Dawn Staley found guard Milaysia Fulwiley right down the street in Columbia, South Carolina.

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball