When the American Athletic Conference's women's basketball season begins on New Year's Eve, it will officially tip off its battle for second place.
Connecticut, which won four consecutive national championships and 111 games in a row before losing in the NCAA tournament semifinals in overtime last season, again is the overwhelming favorite.
Tulane (8-5) will play Sunday at South Florida (10-3), perennially the AAC's second-best team. The Bulls again were picked to finish as runners-up.
“They're a top 25 team,” said Lisa Stockton, who is in her 24th season as Tulane's head coach. “They're one of the best offensive teams in the country by far. They've got some very experienced international players who kind of run the show.”
Always tough Temple (8-4) is expected to finish third, with Central Florida (7-5) — which had a 14-game turnaround last season from the previous one — tabbed for fourth. Southern Methodist University (6-6) was picked to finish fifth and Tulane sixth.
“Obviously, we lost two senior starters from last season, and there's a lot of unknown for us,” Stockton said. “The point guard position was unknown, but Kayla Manuirirangi has stepped up and done a really nice job.
“The league is pretty competitive, but I like the way we played heading into Christmas. If we continue that, we can do well.”
UConn (10-0) will again contend for the national championship now that Azurá Stevens, a transfer from Duke, is eligible to play after sitting out last season.
However, Notre Dame, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, also is a top team with the help of Jessica Shepard, a power forward who transferred from Nebraska without having to sit out. Notre Dame was given a waiver because it had seven scholarship players healthy.
Approximately 400 women's players transferred to other schools before this season alone. Some coaches are in favor of a rule that permits players to transfer once without having to sit out. Stockton is not in favor of it.
“You talk about 400 transfers; there are about 345 (women's) programs,” Stockton said. “Most of those players had to sit out. At least they had to really think through that decision.
“You really don't want a situation where people can talk to your players, and they can leave and go help another program right away.”
Reportedly, some of the issues with the high number of transfers is connected to social media and AAU coaches who have a big influence over players' decisions, as well as parents.
“It's generational to try and find something else,” Stockton said.
Stockton said she thinks an answer is to cut women's basketball scholarships from 15 to 13. That, she said, would prevent coaches in the Power 5 conferences from stockpiling talent, similar to how the cutdown to 85 scholarships in NCAA football made the field more level for mid-major schools.
“Most men's coaches who were around when (the NCAA) made the 13 scholarship rule believe that really made a lot of parity in men's basketball,” Stockton said. “That's because a player who might be someone's 14th player might be someone else's fifth player. I think for us, in women's basketball, parity would make it more exciting.
“I definitely believe every level would improve — midmajors, NAIA, NCAA Division II, Division III. (Tulane's ) scholarships are $72,000 per year. If we don't have those extra two scholarships, then those players are going to go somewhere else. I'd love to see that, but I don't know if there's enough support for it.”
Under Stockton, transferring has not been an issue for her program. There have been one each in each of the past two seasons — one because of medical reasons and who is not playing. The other player, guard Taylor Emery, left after her freshman year because she said she didn't like Tulane's offense and preferred more of an up-and-down, fast-break style.
Stockton said she believes the stability of her coaching staff is one reason the Green Wave has not had many transfers.
“There has not been a lot of transition,” she said. “People who pick this university pick it for the academics and this whole experience. Part of it is our players feel they're treated fairly when they have an opportunity, if they want it.
“But if they make that rule change, I don't know if any of us will be immune to losing players after a short amount of time.”