Connecticut comes out on top in early look at 2009
The 2008-09 season might be seven months away, but here's a look at how the preseason top 25 shapes up.
PRE-, PRE-, PRESEASON TOP 25 RANK CREME SAYS
Right up until the national semifinals, the Huskies were the best team in the country, and the most important pieces are back for another run. Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore form the best trio of returning players in the country. Plus, Geno Auriemma gets Kalana Greene back from a knee injury and adds Elena Delle Donne, perhaps the most dynamic offensive player in the incoming freshman class. With Moore leading the way, it will be hard to imagine UConn straying too far from the top spot the next three years.
Losing Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper will certainly give the team a different look, but coach Brenda Frese has two potential first-team All-Americans in Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman. The rising seniors have helped lift the program to this lofty level, and they no doubt have a renewed hunger two seasons removed from the 2006 national championship.
The Sooners' swoon at the end of the season wasn't hard to see coming. The guards were just too inconsistent and Courtney Paris seemed to run out of gas. If coach Sherri Coale can turn an opening-round Big 12 tournament loss and a second-round NCAA tournament exit into a learning experience, Oklahoma should be a huge threat. All of the talent that had the Sooners in the top 10 for most of 2008 returns. The healthy return of junior-to-be Nyeshia Stevenson and the growth of guard Danielle Robinson in her sophomore season will be key.
The "essence" of the Scarlet Knights is gone now that guards Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon have taken their games to the WNBA. But a strong core remains for coach C. Vivian Stringer, not to mention one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. This really can become Epiphanny Prince's team now -- if she's up to the leadership responsibility and can become an even bigger scorer. McDonald's All-Americans Jasmine Dixon, Chelsey Lee, Brooklyn Pope and April Sykes should also give Stringer the depth she wasn't afforded this season.
The Maples Pavilion floor will look strange for the first few weeks of next season without Candice Wiggins on it. It will take some time for the Cardinal to adjust to life after their four-time All-American, but everyone else is back. Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, JJ Hones, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, Jillian Harmon and Jeanette Pohlen return with the experience of this season's title-game appearance and plenty of hunger after the loss to Tennessee. Just as Wiggins replaced Nicole Powell as the Stanford superstar, Gatorade High School Player of the Year Nneka Ogwumike joins the club and could be the next great Cardinal.
The 2008 season wasn't an entirely smooth transition, but it was hardly a bad season in Durham. Now, the Blue Devils and coach Joanne P. McCallie have that adjustment period behind them. The graduation of Wanisha Smith is a big loss, but plenty of quality depth returns. If Abby Waner rediscovers her comfort level, Duke can do better than 25-10.
The swan song for Devanei Hampton, Ashley Walker and Alexis Gray-Lawson has arrived. Will 2009 be the season the Bears climb over Stanford to claim the Pac-10 title? The opportunity is there. Cal was close this season, but lost to the Cardinal three times, wilted down the stretch and failed to reach the Sweet 16. A similar result would be crushing for these seniors-to-be, and that should be motivation enough.
In many ways, it's back to the drawing board for the Lady Vols. The entire starting lineup from this season's national championship team departs and no program, even Tennessee, just replaces Candace Parker. However, the coach remains the same. And while Pat Summitt will tell you players win and lose games, she isn't the all-time winningest coach in college basketbal history by accident. This team will be young and won't be big-game tested, but Summitt has amassed what most believe is the country's best recruiting class led by Amber Gray.
9. North Carolina
The Tar Heels should be more perimeter-oriented as coach Sylvia Hatchell relies more on the trio of Jessica Breland, Rashanda McCants and Cetera DeGraffenreid now that LaToya Pringle and Erlana Larkins have graduated. McCants could be one of 2009's breakout players. Don't expect another unbeaten ACC season, though. The Tar Heels won't even be expected to win the league, but they will still be pretty good.
Angel McCoughtry is back and should make a serious run at national player of the year. She will miss graduating point guard Patrika Barlow but frontcourt partner Candyce Bingham and 14 points a game return. The Cardinals might not be good enough to challenge UConn, but they could emerge as the next-best team in a strong Big East.
The Aggies return three starters, including top scorers Takia Starks and Danielle Gant. The memory of this season's slow start should also play well for coach Gary Blair when it comes to early preparation. Making the Elite Eight was great, but it also won't be hard to remind his stars how close the Aggies' season was to slipping away.
The Cavaliers suffered the distinction of losing what might have been the game of the NCAA tournament, when Old Dominion knocked them out with a deep 3-pointer late in overtime. The good news is nearly the entire roster returns, led by Lyndra Littles and Monica Wright. The Cavs could break into the ACC's top three.
13. Oklahoma State
As if Andrea Riley didn't take on enough responsibility for the Cowgirls' success this season, she might have to do even more in 2009 with the graduation of Maria Cordero and Danielle Green. This could be a key year for the entire program, trying to build on the past two seasons. If Riley finds a balance between scorer, leader and playmaker, the Cowgirls will challenge for a Big 12 title -- and she will contend for national player of the year.
14. Arizona State
Jill Noe's inspirational presence will be missing in 2009, but just about everything else is back. The Sun Devils did not have the season they would have liked, but have that experience on which to build, plus the healthy return of Danielle Orsillo is expected. She appeared to be emerging in the 2007 NCAA tournament and then opened this past season with 21 points against North Carolina before going down with a knee injury. Add her shooting to the mix of Dymond Simon, Briann January and Lauren Lacey, and ASU should improve.
The first year of the Gail Goestenkors era is in the books, and getting a tournament bid made it a successful one. Youth and the learning curve should no longer be issues. The roster remains stable, and if Erika Arriaran can return from the knee injury that has kept her off the court, the Longhorns will have the outside shooter who was missing this season.
The young guards will be a year older, the SEC might not be as strong at the top and, most importantly, senior Christina Wirth and her great shooting touch and all-around game return.
The Irish will miss the scoring of Charel Allen and the playmaking of Tulyah Gaines, but Ashley Barlow could emerge as a star. The key for Notre Dame will be the healthy return of Devereaux Peters. The freshman was starting to become a force inside for Muffet McGraw's club before an injury to her left knee in mid-February. Peters will be a key to watch for in South Bend, Ind.
The bad news includes the continuing struggles for the Buckeyes in the NCAA tournament and now the loss of mainstay Marscilla Packer. The good news: three more years of Jantel Lavender, the Big Ten Player of the Year, and the return of every other key piece of the rotation.
The Lady Bears have a strong nucleus with Rachel Allison, Jessica Morrow and Jhasmin Player back. But they will have to play for the first time in four years without Angela Tisdale, the lifeblood of the program throughout her career. Player's knee injury and rehab will be something to watch. If Player isn't fully recovered, coach Kim Mulkey will have two holes in the backcourt.
Things probably won't be much different in the MAAC. The Red Foxes have dominated for five seasons (they were upset in the league tournament by Canisius in 2004 after winning the regular-season title), and with top scorers Rachele Fitz and Julianne Viani back, they should win the league again. Marist also has NCAA tournament wins in each of the past two years. The Red Foxes might not repeat this season's 32-3 record, but should be back in March.
21. Florida State
The Seminoles' performance in the NCAA tournament might have shown that they are ready to make a move and put a difficult 2007-08 regular season behind them. Tanae Davis-Cain, Mara Freshour and Jacinta Monroe, the top three scorers for FSU, return.
22. Michigan State
Inconsistency plagued the Spartans until they found some rhythm by reaching the WNIT title game. That could be the confidence a young team needs. If Allyssa DeHaan takes her game to that next level, Michigan State could win the Big Ten.
DeWanna Bonner is the best returning player in the SEC. That alone should be enough to get the Lady Tigers past the 20 games they won in 2008. More consistent play in the backcourt could put Auburn in position for a run at a spot in the conference's top three.
With George Washington losing its all-Atlantic 10 backcourt, this could be the time for the Musketeers to supplant the Colonials atop the conference. Coach Kevin McGuff graduates no one from this season's NCAA tournament team. Most importantly, 6-foot-5 Amber Harris returns and should be ready to break out as one of the nation's top players.
A disappointing regular season became a more satisfying postseason after the Golden Eagles' run to the WNIT championship. Krystal Ellis should get some preseason all-Big East mention and Marquette should be back in the NCAA tournament.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.
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