Hype hung on Huskies in early poll
New seasons always bring new predictions. And while it's no surprise to see each of last season's Final Four participants ranked in the top five, some might be shocked to see such high expectations bestowed upon Auburn and Illinois. The SEC and Big 12 seem headed for a strong year; Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia each made the top 10, and Texas and Kansas State were ranked among the top four teams. A look at the preseason ponderings (with last season's record in parentheses):
PRESEASON TOP 25 1. Connecticut Huskies (37-1)
There is no better go-to player in the world right now than Diana Taurasi, one of the top 10 players in the history of the game who led this team and lifted her teammates to last season's NCAA title. And while the youngsters fed off Taurasi's confidence in 2002-03, they've already gone from role/bench players to impact players. Jessica Moore, Barb Turner and Ann Strother came into their own toward the end of last season. Add Ashley Battle, Maria Conlon and master motivator Geno Auriemma to the mix, and the Huskies are gunning to become just the second team in women's history to win three consecutive national championships.
2. Duke Blue Devils (35-2)
Alana Beard is one of the best players the women's game has ever seen, and along with fellow seniors Iciss Tillis and Vicki Krapohl, she has one final shot at winning it all. With fantastic coach Gail Goestenkors leading the way, this group has reached the Final Four for two straight seasons. The only thing missing from their résumés is an NCAA title. This is a very talented team that should be even better than last year, as Lindsey Harding is more experienced, Mistie Bass looks to be more physical and Monique Currie comes back from an ACL injury suffered a year ago.
3. Texas Longhorns (29-6)
The top four scorers -- including a trio of Wade Trophy candidates in Stacy Stephens, Heather Schreiber and Jamie Carey -- from last season' s Final Four team are back. This is a really good halfcourt team with great balance, but everything goes through Stephens, who averaged 14.4 points last season and really opens up the wings if she does her job inside. Carey, the former Stanford player who is in her second season at Texas, was an integral part of last season's success. She showed she can score, run the team and distribute the ball. Kala Bowers, Nina Norman (remember that big shot she hit against Tennessee last season as a freshman?) and Tiffany Jackson, one of the top high school prospects who chose Texas over Tennessee, will keep the Longhorns heavy favorites.
4. Kansas State Wildcats (29-5)
With the best center in the country in Nicole Ohlde and three of the nation's most talented juniors (Kendra Wecker, Megan Mahoney, Laurie Koehn), the Wildcats have plenty of talent. But after impressive regular-season runs, Kansas State suffered a couple of disappointing finishes in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons (losing to ODU in 2002 and then at home to Notre Dame in the second round last March). Everybody thought this was a Final Four team a year ago, and it should have been. Kansas State has plenty to prove this season and must step it up.
5. Tennessee Lady Vols (33-5)
For the first time in a long time, the Lady Vols lack a true superstar, and as a result, have been ranked as low as ninth by at least one publication. But even though Tennessee graduated its top two scorers from last season, don't underestimate Pat Summitt. The key will be how quickly Shyra Ely, Shanna Zolman and Loree Moore go from supplementary players to impact players, which requires a much different mindset. Zolman might be one of the best shooters Tennessee has ever had, so the Lady Vols will look to get her more shots, which might be one reason Tennessee will reinstate the triangle offense (though it will continue to run the motion offense at times as well). As usual, the Lady Vols will rely on their staples -- defense and rebounding (they were No. 1 in the country with a plus-12 rebounding margin last season). It's time for Ashley Robinson to step up, too, and for her and Ely to be intimidating forces in the middle.
6. Auburn Tigers (23-11)
Auburn made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA championship game from 1988-1990. But this team has had a few down times in recent years and had been left out of the spotlight -- until now. The Tigers had a great run last spring, and beat both Baylor and Creighton on their way to winning the WNIT. Joe Ciampi, one of the game's all-time best coaches, has done a really good job with this team, which returns all five starters and a loaded, deep bench that was bolstered by JC transfer Tanesheia Thompson. Auburn's strength is inside, with 6-2 center Tia Miller, 6-foot forward Le'Coe Willingham and 6-5 center Marita Payne, who ranked fifth in the SEC in blocks last season as a freshman.
7. Penn State Lady Lions (26-9)
Kelly Mazzante gets a lot of credit for the Lady Lions' success, and deservedly so. But she is surrounded by talent. Jess Strom is a tough point guard who can score and pass (6.3 assists per game last season), and refuses to let her opponent rest defensively. And then there's Tanisha Wright, a great 2-3. Nowadays, coaches love recruiting players who can multi-task, and Wright fits the bill. She's the sort of player who can get you 16 points, five rebounds and four assists. When she and senior forward Jessica Brungo play well, it opens things up and takes the pressure off of Mazzante, who is one of the top five players in the country.
8. Georgia Lady Bulldogs (21-10)
The Lady Bulldogs have one of the nation's best inside games in Kara Braxton and Christi Thomas, who are both former SEC freshmen of the year and combined for 31.7 points and 15.3 rebounds last season. Braxton is one of the top four or five posts in the country, but she played in just 21 of the team's 31 games after getting suspended for disciplinary reasons. Her presence is very important to Georgia, which also has an incredible backcourt in sophomores Sherill Baker and Alexis Kendrick. The Lady Dogs are always very talented, and coach Andy Landers -- one of the best recruiters -- simply knows how to win.
9. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (27-5)
The highest-ranked team from the West coast isn't Stanford. Instead, it's Mark French and the Gauchos, who return four starters. They get cheated of the national spotlight because they don't play on television very often, which is a shame because this is an excellent program and French is a good coach who gets the most out of his kids. UCSB is tough inside with 6-8 Lindsay Taylor and Kristen Mann, who grabbed 7.5 rebounds last year and should be even better after a summer of USA Basketball. The Gauchos should continue to dominate the Big West -- and make waves in the Preseason WNIT. Look for former Tennessee guard April McDivitt to make an impact. This tremendous shooter knows what it's like to be the best, and will likely be able to share some of that knowledge with her new teammates. Brandy Richardson, though, makes this team go. She's the heart and soul of the Gauchos and her defense and rebounding ability are vital.
10. Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters (31-3)
No matter who leaves or graduates from Ruston, La., the Lady Techsters always come with the goods. Kurt Budke has done an excellent job, but he also has stayed true to Leon Barmore's coaching philosophy -- good fundamentals, rebound, run and push tempo. La. Tech loves to disrupt its opponents' defense and be aggressive on the boards. Trina Frierson, Erica Smith-Taylor and Amber Obaze will be the nucleus this season. Smith-Taylor, who led the team in steals and hit 42 3-pointers last season, and Obaze form a solid backcourt.
11. Purdue Boilermakers (29-6)
Kristy Curry is a fundamental, no-nonsense coach who, along with her impressive staff, has done a great job in a short time at Purdue. Though 5-10 forward Shereka Wright is the star of this team, the Boilers' team strength is on the perimeter, where Beth Jones and Erika Valek are threats. Valek, who has been impressive before and after that ACL tear her freshman year, is one of the best point guards in the nation. Purdue returns four of its top five scorers from last season's 29-6 squad, and has a group of four capable seniors (Wright, Valek, Jones and forward Lindsey Hicks) running the show. The key for Purdue, however, is in the paint. The Boilers must get some solid play inside.
12. North Carolina Tar Heels (28-6)
Last summer, Sylvia Hatchell was already incredibly excited about this team, and for good reason. Senior Candace Sutton, a 6-6 center, is ripe for the breakout year we've all been waiting for, and will be a big target down low who can finish. Junior Leah Metcalf -- who has put her years of playing alongside Coretta Brown and Nikki Teasley to good use -- has developed into a very solid guard. Nikita Bell, a big junior, has quick feet and is a great defender who can score. La'Tangela Atkinson, UNC's third returning starter, had a super freshman year, leading the team in rebounds (8.7) and adding 9.7 points per game. Expect 5-6 guard Ivory Latta, a freshman from South Carolina, to be impressive in her rookie campaign. Hatchell and the Tar Heels won it all 10 years ago, and are ready for another deep run.
13. Stanford Cardinal (27-5)
For the past couple years, the Cardinal were thought to be making their way back to the elite level. And while Stanford has been the best team in the Pac-10, injuries and some heartbreaking losses -- to Colorado in the Sweet 16 in 2002 and then to Minnesota in the second round of last season's NCAA Tournament -- have slowed that trip back to the top of the national scene. With five starters back for Stanford, however, this could be a great season. Nicole Powell, who will be one of the top three picks in next year's WNBA draft, is very versatile but best-suited at the 3 or 4 where she can use her strength and quickness and power by people. This is a team of really good shooters, with four players sinking at least 32 3-pointers (Sebnem Kimyaciouglu led the way with 70 shots). Stanford is a really open, offensive-minded team, and expect the Cardinal to turn it up a notch defensively like last season, when they allowed just 59 points per game and boasted a plus-eight rebounding margin. Stanford just needs to get pushed a little more in the Pac-10.
14. Minnesota Golden Gophers (25-6)
Pam Borton had a great first season, and the second could be even better. Lindsay Whalen leads the Golden Gophers and is one of the top players in the country. Another great multi-tasker, Whalen led her team in scoring (22.6 points per game) and assists, and can get her shot off on anyone, anytime. Whalen has plenty of talent around her, though, and both Janel McCarville -- who ran the floor really well in that second-round win over Stanford in the Big Dance last March -- and Shannon Schonrock have factored into Minnesota's success. The Golden Gophers led the Big Ten in scoring last season (77.8 average).
15. LSU Lady Tigers (30-4)
The Lady Tigers were one win short of reaching the Final Four last season, but they lost a lot inside (DeTrina White, Aiysha Smith and Ke-Ke Tardy) and might struggle to reach that caliber in 2003-04. Still, sophomore Seimone Augustus, a tremendous competitor who is very mentally tough, is arguably the best player in the SEC. Augustus lived up to the hype last season and the pressure is on again. LSU's backcourt must come up big, too. Temeka Johnson is tough, a great passer and one of the top point guards in the country. Doneeka Hodges -- whose twin, Roneeka, surprised everyone during the offseason when she announced she would transfer to Florida State -- is the best 3-point shooter in LSU history. The X-factor is how quickly Duke transfer Crystal White and sophomore center Treynell Clavelle adapt in the paint. Though LSU is ranked behind SEC counterparts Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia, keep in mind that the Lady Tigers have split their last four games (including a win in the SEC title game) with the Lady Vols, who always seem to bring the best out of Johnson.
16. Arizona Wildcats (22-9)
A year ago, Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini said, "Wait until you see Shawntinice Polk; you're going to love her." Bonvicini was right. Polk, a 6-5 sophomore center, is a big, strong hard worker with good footwork, and although a lot of opposing defenses were set up to stop her last season, Polk still averaged a double-double (17.4 points, 10.8 rebounds) and blocked 2.7 shots per game. Polk also is a very good passer and can run the floor effectively. Guard Dee-Dee Wheeler is pretty important to the mix as well, and she's going to need to continue to score after posting a 16.2 average last season. Good teams need three scoring threats, and senior guard Aimee Grzyb, a good 3-point shooter who dished out 105 assists last season, adds a 10.5 scoring average. Arizona wants to run, run, run.
17. Illinois Fighting Illini (17-12)
A couple years have passed since the Illini garnered much national attention. They've had some down years after getting hurt by some key transfers. But with the fiercely competitive Teresa Grentz at the helm and five seniors on the roster, Illinois has a good shot at getting back into the NCAA Tournament mix and might be the biggest surprise in the country. The Illini boast a couple of exceptional wings in junior Angelina Williams and senior Aminata Yanni, who both scored in double figures last season. Williams is very good at putting the ball on the floor and attacking the basket, and she can also hit the outside jumper. Fifth-year senior Cindy Dallas led the Illini in rebounding and was second in scoring last season, and is a tough, proven scorer inside. Illinois ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring and ninth in scoring defense in 2003.
18. Texas Tech Lady Raiders (29-6)
When Plenette Pierson was suspended two years ago, Jia Perkins got an early introduction to what it would take to be the Lady Raiders' leader. Now that Pierson has graduated to the WNBA, Perkins should have no problem stepping up her game to an even higher level for her senior season. Sophomore point guard Erin Grant, junior center Cisti Greenwalt and senior guard Natalie Ritchie also are all very talented. Greenwalt has been very impressive at Tech. She's big, can run and likes to get in the middle and mix it up. Expect Perkins to improve on her 1-for-19 performance from 3-point land last season.
19. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (21-8)
C. Vivian Stringer -- who should be held in the same regard as Bill Parcells and Dick Vermeil -- is one of the best and brightest coaches in the country. Junior Cappie Pondexter is one of the nation's best point guards. And together, they should be able to guide the Scarlet Knights to a second-place finish in a very competitive Big East. Pondexter averaged 18.3 points per game last season, which ranked second in the league, and added 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Former Purdue player Shalicia Hurns, who averaged seven points and 7.1 boards last season, could be a big factor, and Chelsea Newton should add to her 10.8 scoring and 4.9 rebounding averages from a year ago.
20. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (21-11)
After graduating three starters from its 2001 national championship team and then being hampered by injuries the past two seasons, the Irish hope to return to the elite level. They have a chance if Jacqueline Batteast and Courtney LaVere can step to the plate. Batteast led Notre Dame in scoring (13.9) and rebounding (8.3) last season, but struggled down the stretch, sinking just 6 of 43 shots for 13 points in three NCAA Tournament games. The Irish are trying to develop their backcourt, and senior guard Le'Tania Severe has been a really exciting, push tempo guard. And although Notre Dame lost Alicia Ratay, one of the country's best shooters, returning its four other starters is a big plus.
21. George Washington Colonials (25-6)
Joe McKeown has always been one of the best coaches in the game, and as a result, the Colonials have been making waves the past couple of seasons. Reigning Atlantic 10 player of the year Cathy Joens averaged 17.2 points last season, shooting 43.3 percent (94-for-217) from beyond the arc to set a single-season school record with 94 3-pointers. Senior Ugo Oha averaged 15.6 points and blocked 93 shots last season. She was the A-10 tournament's most outstanding player after tallying 26 points, eight boards and a final-record eight blocks in the conference championship.
22. Oklahoma Sooners (19-13)
The Sooners had probably one of their worst moments in program history last year on Nov. 26 when two players -- including Caton Hill, a starter from the previous year's Final Four team -- each suffered a torn ACL on the same day. Still, OU forged on for a 19-13 record and NCAA invitation. The silver lining, however, was that several young players, especially Beky Preston, got a lot of valuable experience and playing time. And now, OU returns 78 percent of its scoring and 69 percent of its rebounding from 2002-03. Hill's return provides an immediate boost; she's one of the top power forwards in the game, loves to attack the basket and is a hard-nosed veteran with 29 career double-doubles. Senior Maria Villarroel (15 points per game last season), junior Dionnah Jackson (11.8) and Chelsi Welch, who averaged 12.1 points last year as the Big 12's co-freshman of the year, also return and anchor a solid backcourt. Villarroel, who ranked 14th in the nation in field-goal percentage (57.6), had an outstanding summer of international competition, averaging 23 points for the Venezuelan national team.
23. Colorado Buffaloes (24-8)
The Buffs had a terrific season in 2002-03, and as has become the norm for Ceal Barry, were one of the finest defensive teams you'll ever see with man-to-man principles. That defense will be back again this season to disrupt other teams, get in the passing lanes and on the glass and build on ball pressure. Colorado had a very exciting run last season in the regionals, and with its top two scorers back, should be able to build on that momentum. The key for Colorado is whether the Buffs can keep the score low and close; their defense is so good that it gives them the opportunity to win every game if it's a tight margin down the stretch.
24. Vanderbilt Commodores (22-10)
The Commodores are young and will miss Chantelle Anderson and Ashley McElhiney, but there's still a lot of talent. And although Vandy might have underachieved on the court last season (22-10; second-round loss in NCAA Tournament), coach Melanie Balcomb and the 'Dores overachieved in recruiting, signing one of the largest classes (seven outstanding players) in the history of the SEC. One of three remaining starters, Jenni Benningfield is one of the best all-around players in the conference. She's very hard to defend and does a great job scoring (fifth in the league and fourth in field-goal percentage) and rebounding (sixth in the SEC). Junior Abi Ramsey took her game to another level last season, though she still needs to improve her rebounding. Senior Hillary Hager can play either wing; she averaged 7.7 points and 5.0 boards last season. Though the freshmen class is loaded and watching these rookies develop will be fun, pay particular attention to 5-10 freshman guard Katie Antony, who averaged 30.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 4.1 steals per game as a high school senior in Louisiana.
25. TCU Horned Frogs (20-14)
The Horned Frogs have been on the rise in recent years, reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three years. Jeff Mittie is a terrific coach and Sandora Irvin is a marvelous athlete who can score, run the floor, rebound (led C-USA with 9.7 last season) and block shots (ranked first in league play with 3.9 blocks per game), though she needs to be able to take better shots. Tiffany Evans and Ebony Shaw can be dangerous from outside; both hit 33 3-pointers last season.
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