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Wednesday, April 7, 2004
Future looks bright for Orange Nation

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- OK, Tennessee's had its problems facing UConn: six consecutive losses overall, three straight years of losing at the Final Four and 0-4 in championship games.

But let it be said that Tennessee's mascot, Smokey, takes a back seat to nobody. Smokey's orange "Big Easy decadent dog on the town" suit and hat at the Final Four were spectacular.

All Jonathan, the Big White UConn Dog, could muster was a couple of strands of Mardi Gras beads. Smokey had that pup whipped. But Smokey smokes the competition every year.

Remember when he jumped on the red stuffed bulldog at the 1996 title game vs. Georgia and busted it? Little styrofoam balls were all over the place. The NCAA folks, humorless bunch that they are, didn't appreciate Smokey's hilarity as much as the rest of us did. Heck, he didn't mean to actually break the red dog. It was a signal of doom for Georgia, though, wasn't it?

Then there was the apex of Smokey's genius, when he used the mop thing in 2000 to mock Shea Ralph's ponytail. Chaplin would have applauded.

Unfortunately for Tennessee, Smokey coming out on top in the mascot bracket every year is not all that Rocky Top is looking for. However, it is a mistake to put this year's team in some "not-quite-good-enough" file for Tennessee.

In fact, Tennessee had a terrific year. Consider what was lost with Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson graduating and Loree Moore being out from late January on with a knee injury.

Coach Pat Summitt talked after the loss Tuesday about how important it was for her team to realize this was a success story. And then, of course, she was asked about next year.

Excited? Well, who wouldn't be. The infusion of talent into Knoxville next season might be even bigger that what UConn had when Sue Bird's class started in 1998.

Huskies coach Geno Auriemma referred to Tennessee as having signed "the first 15 players on the All-America team" for next season. He went on to say that while it was UConn's time now, it might well be Tennessee's time in the next few years.

"That's the nature of this game," Auriemma said. "When they won three in a row, it was their time. And it changed for them. And it's going to change for us."

Maybe. But a lot of folks might be wondering, "Uh, does anybody besides UConn or Tennessee have a chance of getting a 'time' in the near future?"

Summitt said of her rookies next year, "On paper, they look great. But we have a lot of work to do to get them ready to step in and play the kind of schedule that we play."

Once that group goes through a season with Summitt, how good are they going to be for next NCAA Tournament? Could we have yet another UConn-Tennessee title game in 2005?

Well ... you've got a year to prepare, Jonathan. Because you know Smokey will be on his game.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.