Lady Vols among traditional powers returning to prominence

AP file photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper has the Lady Vols off to a 16-1 start, including 5-0 in the SEC, in her third season in charge at her alma mater.

Kellie Harper is working to return the University of Tennessee women's basketball program back to being a title contender, and she has the Lady Volunteers closer to their traditionally elite status.

Harper has company at other big-name programs, too.

The Lady Vols are ranked fifth in Harper's third season in charge at her alma mater. Tennessee is among a group of AP Top 25 teams returning to prominence after recent coaching changes.

Teams such as No. 12 LSU, No. 15 Georgia Tech, No. 16 Duke, No. 20 Notre Dame, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 23 Oklahoma are thriving and primed to make a postseason impact under coaches hired since 2019.

"You don't just push a button and win games," Harper said after Thursday's win at Vanderbilt as the Lady Vols improved to 16-1 overall and 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference. "There's a lot that goes into it, a lot on the court, off the court, you have the right personnel. You've got to have the right system. There's a lot of basketball left to be played, so we're looking at it as that's a lot of opportunities for growth for us."

Tennessee is the SEC's only team without a league loss, a status it will put on the line when No. 19 Kentucky (8-4, 1-1) visits at 3 p.m. Sunday for a matchup that will be televised by ESPN. It also tips off "We Back Pat" week as the SEC celebrates the late Pat Summitt, the women's basketball pioneer who coached the Lady Vols to eight national championships - three of them with Harper as a point guard.

As Harper noted, there's still about two months left until Selection Sunday. Yet the Lady Vols and some of the other teams returning to prominence have put themselves in contention to host during the early rounds of the NCAA tournament.

"The teams we're talking about are actually a part of the conversation on the national scene now," said Debbie Antonelli, a college basketball analyst for multiple outlets, including ESPN. "None of those teams were talked about three years ago.

"Tennessee wasn't in the mix to go to the Final Four. North Carolina, Duke, they weren't in the mix to go to the Final Four. Oklahoma wasn't discussed as a top-16 team that could host the first and second round. And that's the big key in the women's game, that's a huge piece of it."

photo AP photo by Derick Hingle / LSU women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey reacts to a play in the second half of an SEC game against South Carolina on Thursday in Baton Rouge, La.

So far, the Lady Vols are best positioned for that home-court advantage, along with LSU (16-2, 4-1 SEC). LSU lured three-time national champion and Hall of Famer Kim Mulkey from Baylor last spring to spark the program; the Tigers haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 2014.

At Georgia Tech, third-year coach Nell Fortner took the Yellow Jackets (13-3, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) to the Sweet 16 last year in the program's first NCAA trip since 2014. The former Auburn coach has also provided stability after the school fired longtime coach MaChelle Joseph, while Courtney Banghart took over at North Carolina around the same time after a tumultuous period that resulted in the resignation of Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell.

For Banghart, who left Princeton after 12 years, the formula started with diving into recruiting, then sprinkling in graduate transfers to boost the roster. Her first recruiting class was ranked No. 11 by ESPN and headlined by five-star prospect Deja Kelly, now a sophomore and the team's top scorer at 17.6 points. Her next class checked in at No. 3, behind only South Carolina and Connecticut.

As a result, the Tar Heels (14-1, 4-1 ACC) are in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2015-16 preseason poll. They'll take on Notre Dame on Sunday.

"There's so many different styles," Banghart said. "It's like the NBA. There's multiple ways to build a team. One is through the draft, and one is through the trade wires. And that's sort of how it is in college; one is through your recruiting and one is through your transfer process. You're irresponsible not to monitor both."

A few miles away at rival Duke, second-year coach Kara Lawson has taken a different approach. The Blue Devils - who called off their season after four games in Lawson's debut year amid the COVID-19 pandemic - restocked with seven transfers from power conferences, with Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech) and Celeste Taylor (Texas) regular starters in a balanced offense.

Duke (11-3, 2-2 ACC) is ranked this year for the first time since the 2018-19 preseason poll.

"I've felt since the beginning of the year ... we were a team that would continue to grow, but have a chance to have a higher level of growth than maybe some other teams because we'd gain that continuity as the season goes along," said Lawson, a former Lady Vols star. "We're gaining it on the fly."

photo Roanoke Times photo by Matt Gentry via AP / Duke women's basketball coach Kara Lawson gives instructions to her team during a Dec. 30 game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg Va.

At Notre Dame, second-year coach Niele Ivey has the Fighting Irish (12-3, 3-1 ACC) rolling again after it posted a losing record in Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw's final season followed by a 10-10 season in Ivey's debut leading her alma mater.

Ivey credited the arrival of backcourt help in McDonald's All American Sonia Citron and fellow freshman Olivia Miles, who leads the country in assists at 7.8 per game. The team also added Stanford graduate transfer Maya Dodson to improved returnees.

"They understand the legacy and they understand this program," Ivey said. "So our goal this summer was to continue working to get back that Notre Dame that everybody knows and play at a high level."

And at Oklahoma, the Sooners (14-2, 3-1 Big 12) are ranked for the first time since early in the 2017-18 season in their first year under Jennie Baranczyk, who left Drake to take over after Sherri Coale retired.

Oklahoma was 32-52 through the past three seasons but is coming off its first win against Baylor since 2015.

"I love the balance that we have. I love the believe that we have. I love that we just kept playing," Baranczyk said after the Sooners beat the Bears. "When we focus on ourselves and just play like that and share the ball, it's really fun. The scoreboard then takes care of itself when we do that."