Women’s basketball field open: UConn not quite so mighty

Connecticut's Gabby Williams, left, Katie Lou Samuelson, center, and Saniya Chong, right, sit together during the UConn men's and women's NCAA basketball teams' First Night event, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut's Gabby Williams, left, Katie Lou Samuelson, center, and Saniya Chong, right, sit together during the UConn men's and women's NCAA basketball teams' First Night event, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

It wouldn’t be all that big a surprise if women’s college basketball coaches across the country had UConn’s graduation date circled on their calendars last spring.

They were happy to see the Huskies’ mighty trio, led by Breanna Stewart, head to the WNBA after winning four consecutive national championships and their last 75 straight games.

Now for the first time in a while, it appears the road to the title — that will be played in Dallas this year — is more wide open.

“I think it will be an exciting year,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “This was the year nobody lost a lot of talent except for Connecticut. So I think that really evens things out.”

Unlike the past decade or so where there was a limited number of teams that realistically had a chance for the title, this season there appears to be a lot more, including last season’s surprise Final Four participant Washington.

“I definitely think we opened a lot of eyes with the run we had last year and that’s a great thing for the sport,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “I’ve had coaches tell me that we gave them hope they could do something similar.”

Washington, Syracuse and Oregon State all made unexpected runs to the Final Four, marking the first time since 1994 three newcomers reached the national semifinals. Even though Geno Auriemma has to replace three starters, no one is counting the 11-time champions.

“They are still going to be really good,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “He’s still got a lot of McDonald’s All-Americans on that team.”

A few other things to watch leading to Friday’s start of the women’s college basketball season:

TRANSFER EFFECT: Diamond DeShields says she talks a lot to her former North Carolina classmates Stephanie Mavunga and Allisha Gray. All three were part of the Tar Heels’ unbelievable freshmen class a few years back. All have now transferred.

“We laugh about it sometimes, everybody left,” DeShields said. “It seems everywhere there is a red-shirt from our class.”

In fact, six of the top eight players from that 2013 high school senior class have changed schools. Ohio State and South Carolina have been the biggest beneficiaries, each adding top players to already strong programs.

DeShields couldn’t put a finger on whether there was a common reason for all the transfers.

“I’m not sure, everyone’s story is different,” she said. “I think the big thing is they weren’t comfortable where they were at. I think it helped that they saw me do well at Tennessee so they knew it could work.”

NEW NCAA FORMAT: The NCAA Tournament format has changed, with the Final Four going back to a Friday-Sunday configuration. It’s the first time since 2002 the championship game will be played on a Sunday. The NCAA also said this month it will reveal the top 16 teams in order three times during January and February. Last season the top 10 teams were announced.

“This definitely will help create more of a buzz and give some teams the chance to prepare for hosting first and second round games if they know they are potentially in the mix,” said Terry Gawlik, chair of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Sport Committee and senior associate athletic director at Wisconsin.

NEW FACES: There are 56 new head coaches this season in Division I women’s basketball. Stephanie White left the Indiana Fever to join Vanderbilt. Jen Rizzotti left Hartford for George Washington and Jim Crowley came to Providence after a successful stint at St. Bonaventure.

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