Led by South Carolina, women's hoops tips off Friday

South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson holds up the NCAA championship trophy on April 2 as she celebrates with teammates after their 67-55 win over Mississippi State in the final of the NCAA women's Final Four college basketball tournament in Dallas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson holds up the NCAA championship trophy on April 2 as she celebrates with teammates after their 67-55 win over Mississippi State in the final of the NCAA women's Final Four college basketball tournament in Dallas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

New York — It's been five years since a team other than UConn started the season as defending champions. Coach Dawn Staley and her South Carolina Gamecocks have that honor this year.

After a thrilling Final Four that ended with the Gamecocks winning their first national championship, women's college basketball is ready to get started Friday.

South Carolina is among the teams looking to travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the Final Four next April. UConn, Stanford, Ohio State and Louisville will make the trip there this weekend to play a tipoff tournament at the site of the upcoming NCAA championship.

South Carolina returns only two starters this season, although one is star A'ja Wilson.

"I think when we first started practice we had a certain level of confidence and swagger," Staley said. "But that team that won last year and the team that we have this year are very different. I made sure they were aware of that very quickly."

Mississippi State ended the Huskies' 111-game winning streak on a last-second shot in overtime of the NCAA semifinal game. With the longest winning streak in NCAA history behind them, UConn will aim for a fifth national championship in the past six seasons. The top-ranked Huskies return a talented group led by three preseason AP All-Americans.

Some things to watch this season in women's basketball:

Milestone watch

Three coaches have a shot at joining the 1,000-win club this year with UConn's Geno Auriemma (991), North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell (990) and Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer (977) all within reach of that mark. Only Pat Summitt and Tara VanDerveer have reached a thousand victories in women's basketball.

"I honestly had no idea I was that close, but that is incredible company to be a part of," Auriemma said last summer. "The fact that there are three of us within reach of that mark just goes to show we've all been in the game for a while."

Transfer epidemic

Once again a plethora of players switched schools this season, including stellar freshman Destiny Slocumb, who left Maryland to head to Oregon State. Notre Dame added Jessica Shephard from Nebraska, who was surprisingly granted immediate eligibility last week.

South Carolina will try to get Te'a Cooper eligible at semester break. She sat out last season at Tennessee with a knee injury then switched to the Gamecocks this summer.

Fresh faces

There are a bunch of talented newcomers this season, starting with Tennessee's highly regarded freshmen group. Rennia Davis and Evina Westbrook lead the Lady Vols.

"They are very talented young women and I think they came in here as highly touted freshmen," Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. "Some think they have a lot of pressure, but they don't see it as pressure."

FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2017, file photo, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley answers questions during the Southeastern Conference women's NCAA college basketball media day in Nashville, Tenn. After a thrilling Final Four in April that ended with the Gamecocks winning their first national championship, women's college basketball is ready to get started Friday.  (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 19, 2017, file photo, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley answers questions during the Southeastern Conference women's NCAA college basketball media day in Nashville, Tenn. After a thrilling Final Four in April that ended with the Gamecocks winning their first national championship, women's college basketball is ready to get started Friday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
FILE - In this March 31, 2017, file photo, Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma directs his players during an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in the semifinals of the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament in Dallas. The Huskies saw their 111-game winning streak end on a last-second overtime loss to Mississippi State. They are hungry and with the longest winning streak in NCAA history behind them, ready to try and win a fifth national championship in the past six seasons.  (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
FILE - In this March 31, 2017, file photo, Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma directs his players during an NCAA college basketball game against Mississippi State in the semifinals of the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament in Dallas. The Huskies saw their 111-game winning streak end on a last-second overtime loss to Mississippi State. They are hungry and with the longest winning streak in NCAA history behind them, ready to try and win a fifth national championship in the past six seasons. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

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