Utah women are class of MWC

Updated: October 17, 2003, 1:29 PM ET

DENVER -- How loaded is Utah, the clearcut preseason favorite to win the Mountain West women's basketball title?

The Utes' only real concern last season was depth in the post, and coach Elaine Elliott believes she has solved it for 2003-04.

"We survived last year with only two players that were considered `bigs," Elliott said. "We had no flexibility if we got in foul trouble or if we had an injury. We've added a couple of kids who give us more depth in the post area."

The Utes return all five starters from last year's team, which went 24-7 overall and 12-2 in the conference, captured the MWC regular-season title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

That includes sophomores Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn and senior Carley Marshall. Smith, a 6-1 forward, was the MWC's player and newcomer of the year last season after averaging 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds. Thorburn, a guard, averaged 14.6 and 5.8, and Marshall, a 6-2 forward/center, averaged 9.8 and 6.1.

Even with that scoring potential, Utah emphasizes defense. The Utes set a conference record for scoring defense last season, allowing just 51.0 points per game.

"When you've got kids back who have already been successful and you have reason to believe you can get even better, that's a nice feeling," Elliott said.

And not a very nice feeling for the rest of the MWC.

BYU and New Mexico likely will be the Utes' main challengers.

The Cougars (19-12, 8-6) lost leading scorer Erin Thorn, a 3-point specialist who averaged 18.8 points. But 6-2 forward Danielle Cheesman (11.2, 5.4) is back, along with point guard Kestlee Nelson. Coach Jeff Judkins also is counting on sophomore forward Ambrosia Anderson and 6-3 transfer Mariam Sy.

"We lost a very good player in Erin Thorn," he said. "She's tough to replace. But we have a lot of balance this year. We have players who can do a lot of different things for us. We have a good inside game and a good outside game.

"I got to play a lot of players at the end of last year and that's when we were playing our best basketball. Hopefully, we can maintain that."

New Mexico (24-9, 9-5) captured its first MWC tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, but the Lobos lost center Jordan Adams and her 16.0 scoring average, along with forward Chelsea Grear. Both turned pro.

Two starters return -- guard Mandi Moore and forward Lindsey Arndt.

"We're going to have to depend on freshmen," coach Don Flanagan said. He also is counting on a big contribution from 6-3 center Jenny Shetters, a transfer from Cal State-Northridge who was voted the league's top newcomer in a preseason poll.

Colorado State (21-13, 8-6) has only one returning starter -- guard Jasai Ferrucho -- but 6-3 forward Joy Jenkins, 6-3 center Lindsay Thomas and guard Vanessa Espinoza have experience.

"I think those four will be the key to our team," coach Chris Denker said. "We're going to be very young. We have nine freshmen and sophomores. The five freshmen who came in represent the 24th-ranked recruiting class in the country. But they replace five seniors who meant a lot to our program."

The Rams lost double-digit scorers Ashley Augspurger and Shannon Strecker.

UNLV (17-12, 8-6) lost leading scorer Constance Jinks (20.2), but second-leading scorer Sherry McCracklin returns after averaging 11.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Guards InFini Robinson and Sheena Moore are other key returnees, and coach Regina Miller will be counting on several transfers as well.

"Instead of one or two great players, we have a solid team," Miller said. "That's going to help us compete better for the conference championship."

Jim Tomey begins his second season at San Diego State (9-18, 3-11), which has three returning starters, including Ashlee Dunlap and Nicolette McCartny -- two of the league's top shot blockers.

McCartny is the lone senior on the roster, which also lists only two juniors.

"We're hoping to compensate for all that youthfulness with basketball smarts," Tomey said. "I expect us to be a team that doesn't make a lot of mistakes."

Wyoming (18-12, 7-7) is coming off its most victories since the 1989-90 season, but the Cowboys lost two of their top three scorers in Carrie Bacon and Ann McColl. Guard Ashley Elliott, who averaged 11.3 points, returns, along with point guard Brenda Pickup.

"The downside is that seven seniors graduated, and probably 85 to 90 percent of the points went with them," new coach Joe Legerski said. "So we're looking at a year that we're starting over."

Air Force (7-21, 1-13) posted its most wins since joining the Division I ranks in 1996. Three starters return, led by forward Shawna Neff (12.8). Also back is senior guard Amoy Jackson, who led the Falcons in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore but missed her junior year due to an academy suspension.

"We're much stronger on the perimeter than we've been in the past," coach Ardie McInelly said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index