- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Before practices for the 2006-07 officially open this weekend, here's a quick look at how the Top 25 rankings are shaping up a month before games tip off:
1. Maryland: The defending national champion returns everyone -- and gets even better with the addition of Tennessee transfer Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood.
2. Oklahoma: Like the Terps, the Sooners didn't lose any key players from last season's Sweet 16 squad. Courtney Paris took the nation by storm as a freshman, and with twin Ashley and 6-foot-3 freshman Abi Olajuwon (yes, she's the daughter of Hakeen) beside her, nobody is as big or strong inside as OU.
3. Stanford: The Cardinal are always a great shooting team (47 percent from the field last season) and always well-coached. And with Candice Wiggins and Brooke Smith leading the way, Stanford remains a contender.
4. North Carolina: Despite losing two starters, the defending ACC tournament champion Tar Heels will be all right because of their amazing depth and talent on both ends. And hopefully, point guard Ivory Latta is healthy after knee surgery last April to repair a torn lateral meniscus in her left knee.
5. Ohio State: The two-time defending Big Ten champions will continue to revolve around senior center Jessica Davenport, whose inside presence and defense make her an All-American and national player of the year candidate.
6. Duke: It's point guard Lindsey Harding's turn to run the Blue Devils. But she'll do it without Monique Currie, who will be missed.
7. Tennessee: The Lady Vols are still young (just two seniors) but so talented and deep. Candace Parker is the best player in the college game after picking up invaluable experience with the U.S. women at the World Championship. She not only got extra minutes as Team USA competed without Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith, Parker shined, leading the U.S. women in scoring three times and finishing the nine-game tournament ranking third for the United States in scoring (12.7 ppg), second in rebounding (6.1 rpg) and first in blocks (14, a new American record in the event).
8. Georgia: The Lady Bulldogs are always quick and always talented -- and will continue to revolve around Tasha Humphrey, who was recently suspended for the season's first six games, meaning she'll miss key nonconference matchups vs. Rutgers and Stanford.
9. Purdue: The Boilers have a new coach in Sharon Versyp, but expect Katie Gearlds to put the team on her shoulders. The senior is poised to have a breakout season.
10. Connecticut: Of course the Huskies will miss Ann Strother and Barb Turner. But that young backcourt gained a lot of experience last season. And now, it's time for junior Charde Houston to step up and be a consistent star.
11. Kentucky: Yes, the Wildcats got our attention by becoming just the fourth unranked team in women's NCAA history to knock off the nation's No. 1 (66-63 over Tennessee on Jan. 26). But they proved it wasn't an aberration by winning the most games (22) in 16 years, earning their first NCAA bid in seven years and reaching the second round of the tournament. And they return all five starters.
12. California: Coach Joanne Boyle is back for her second season in Berkeley after leading the Bears to their first winning record in 13 seasons (18-12) and the program's first NCAA Tournament bid since 1993.
13. Texas A&M: Last season, the Aggies returned to the national polls for the first time in 10 years. They should be a permanent fixture in the rankings this season, with all five starters back from a 23-9 squad.
14. Washington: Another squad with all five starters returning, but in Seattle, first-team All-Pac-10 performer Cameo Hicks is the one to watch.
15: Southern California: The Women of Troy garner high expectations, but must overcome an injury to guard Camille LeNoir (out until mid-January with a hip injury) and season-long absences to Brynn Cameron (officially, she is out for "personal reasons," but The Associated Press reported that Cameron is expecting a baby this fall with former Trojan and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart) and freshman Jacki Gemelos (will redshirt while recovering from a knee injury).
16. Arizona State: The Sun Devils get four starters back, including Emily Westerberg and Jill Noe, from last season's team that tied the single-season school record for wins (25), set a school mark for Pac-10 wins (14), tied the program's highest ranking (ninth) and went 15-0 at home.
17. Michigan State: The Spartans graduated their top two scorers (who combined for 44 percent of MSU's offense last season), but will continue to be an up-tempo fun team to watch. A solid recruiting year and the return of Victoria Lucas-Perry, Rene Haynes and Laura Hall help keep the Spartans in the hunt. And that defense always gets after you and presents a very difficult zone to read.
18. Vanderbilt: In her fifth season, Melanie Balcomb's program is finally full of players she recruited. The Commodores are methodical but smart in the half court.
19. LSU: Yes, the Lady Tigers return Sylvia Fowles, one of the nation's best players. But they must also overcome losing the past two WNBA rookies of the year in all-everything Seimone Augustus and Temeka Johnson.
20. Rutgers: They don't have any seniors, but with juniors Matee Ajavon (who will miss at least the beginning of the season as she recovers from a left tibial stress fracture) and Essence Carson, sophomore Kia Vaughn and freshman Epiphanny Prince, the Scarlet Knights remain one of the elite. Rutgers certainly will miss Cappie Pondexter, but they are very good in the middle and got a second future Hall of Fame coach in adding Marianne Stanley to the staff.
21. TCU: Jeff Mittie's team spreads the floor well, is always balanced and plays with a kind of European flair.
22. George Washington: Coach Joe McKeown returns four starters from last season's 23-9 team and has led the Colonials to 13 NCAA Tournament appearances in 16 seasons.
23. Old Dominion: The Lady Monarchs are solid in the backcourt and very athletic. This is a talented group Wendy Larry has been building toward for a very long time.
24. Bowling Green: Last season, the Falcons made waves in the MAC, setting school and league records with 28 victories, including a perfect 16-0 mark in regular-season play. They should be even better this season with four double-digit scorers back.
25. Louisville: Two words: Jazz Covington.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
13dBonnie D. Ford