By Dough Feinberg
AP Basketball Writer
Brittney Griner and Baylor are starting the season where they hope to end it — at No. 1.
The Lady Bears are ranked at the top for the first time in the preseason women’s basketball poll by The Associated Press. Baylor started last year at No. 2 before ascending to No. 1 in early January for the first time in school history. The Lady Bears finished with a No. 3 ranking.
“Certainly we’d rather it was the last ranking, but it’s great recognition for our program and Baylor University,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “Regardless of where you’re ranked at the beginning of the season it’s a positive for your university. We’ll embrace it in such a way and understand that it doesn’t win basketball games.”
Baylor received 33 of 40 first-place votes Saturday from a national media panel. The Lady Bears became the first Big 12 school to be ranked No. 1 to start the season since Texas in 1985 and 1986.
Notre Dame drew six first-place votes and was second, with Tennessee, Connecticut and Stanford rounding out the first five. The No. 2 ranking is the Irish’s best since the final poll of 2001 when they also were ranked second.
The Lady Bears could meet the Irish in the Preseason WNIT final in mid-November. They also play the Lady Vols and Huskies before the New Year. With the 6-foot-8 Griner, Mulkey is ready.
“If you have a team capable of playing them, go play them,” Mulkey said. “This schedule’s extremely tough — the toughest since I’ve been at Baylor.”
Notre Dame returns four starters, including sensational guard Skylar Diggins, from last season’s squad that lost to Texas A&M in the national championship game.
“I think there are a few teams that could win it this year,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said.
Tennessee retains most of the team that swept the SEC last season for the conference title. The Lady Vols fell to Notre Dame in the NCAA regional finals last season, missing a Final Four trip for the third year in a row.
They’ve never gone four seasons without playing in the national semifinals, but coach Pat Summitt has said her players have seemed even more determined to win a title since she revealed she’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia.
UConn has dominated the poll the last few years, holding the No. 1 ranking for a record 51 consecutive weeks. It returns four starters from last season’s Final Four squad and has an especially talented freshman class.
Texas A&M is sixth, receiving the other first place vote.
“We don’t mind being where we’re at,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said.
Miami, which was picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time, was seventh. It’s the best ranking for the Hurricanes since they finished the 1992 poll at No. 6.
“That’s a really big honor,” Miami coach Katie Meier said. “It’s a moment for us. We’re going to have fun with it. You’re a fool if you don’t take a moment to step away and enjoy it.”
Duke, Louisville, and Georgetown round out the first 10. It’s the highest ranking ever for the Hoyas.
“It’s exciting to be ranked in the top 10 because it shows that all of the work we have put in has paid off and that our program has finally gained the respect we deserve,” Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “However, we have a very tough nonconference schedule and obviously the Big East is incredibly difficult so we have a long way to go to live up to this ranking.”
Maryland was 11th, followed by Penn State, Georgia, Florida State and Oklahoma. The last time the Nittany Lions were ranked this high was in the final poll of 2004 when they were fifth.
Rutgers was 16th followed by Purdue, Kentucky, DePaul and North Carolina.
LSU, UCLA, Southern California, Texas, and St. John’s round out the poll. It’s the first time USC has been ranked since 2006. The Women of Troy return four starters from last season’s team that finished fourth in the conference.
“It’s obviously great for our program to be ranked among the Top 25 teams in the country,” USC coach Michael Cooper said. “I think the rankings are reflecting what we’ve done in the past two years. I’m proud and happy, but this is just the first of many steps for the Women of Troy.”
USC is one of eight teams in the poll not ranked at the end of last season. The others are Penn State, Georgia, Rutgers, Purdue, LSU, Texas, and St. John’s.
The Big East has seven teams in the Top 25 with the ACC next at five. The SEC and Big 12 have four, the Pac-12 three and Big Ten two. It’s the first time there was no team outside the BCS conferences in the Top 25.