We'd like to touch a few bases this week, which brings some very intriguing non-conference matchups. But first, a look back at the Pac-10's recent double dose of "arrrggghhhhh!''
Pac-10 teams USC and Stanford had chances on consecutive weeks to knock off Connecticut and Tennessee. It didn't happen either time, though, which obviously left Pac-10 fans frustrated.
It's the time of the year when conference members haven't started clubbing each other over the head yet, so fans can spread their affection league-wide if they're so inclined. And Pac-10 followers really wanted to get the boost that toppling either superpower would have provided.
But USC lost to visiting UConn 72-69 on Dec. 7. It was a game that just falls into the "coulda'' file for the underdog; there are some of those every year. It also showed, again, that great programs are such in part because they almost always play the last few minutes better than their opponents.
That trait is standard for Tennessee, too, and was displayed this past Sunday. Stanford nearly had Tennessee pinned to the mat before the Orange Crush wriggled out and got a reversal. Tennessee won 70-66 in overtime, and the Stanford faithful have to be wondering, "How many possible ways are there to painfully lose to Tennessee?'' (Ask Vanderbilt or Virginia fans.)
Stanford now has lost seven years in a row to Tennessee. At this point in the series, one flippantly might reference Martina Hingis' reply a few years back when asked about her supposed tennis rivalry with Anna Kournikova.
"Where's the rivalry?'' Hingis said with her jack-o-lantern grin. "I always win.''
With Stanford-Tennessee, you have observers who will talk about coaching moves or strategy or the confidence factor. But both coaches are outstanding, both teams are filled with high-achieving, high-expectation type kids.
The difference, I think, is that when it really came down to crunch time at Maples Pavilion, Tennessee had more people capable of making big plays and winning one-on-one matchups. That has been the story for quite a while now when these two programs meet.
The Cardinal players all jumped aboard the Nicole Powell lifeboat, and it was just asking too much for it to stay afloat.
Stanford's problems, though, are the kind many teams -- including all the others in the Pac-10 -- wouldn't mind having. Still, it's tough for the Stanford program because it knows what the view from the very top looks like.
But playing the best teams is the way to go, even if that does cause the Cardinal and its fans grief. On Sunday, Stanford travels to one of the hardest places in America for visitors to win.
Since United Spirit Arena opened for the 1999-2000 season, no non-conference foe has beaten Texas Tech at home. The last non-league opponent to win during the regular season in Lubbock (at the old Municipal Coliseum) was ... Stanford in January 1998. Then that March, visiting Notre Dame beat Texas Tech in the NCAA Tournament second round.
Big 12 schools also have struggled in Lubbock; in the four seasons in United Spirit Arena, Tech is 59-5 at home in league play.
In other words, it's another very stern test for Stanford; Texas Tech is 9-0 going into Friday's game at Washington.
On Wednesday, DePaul took Tennessee to overtime but couldn't close the deal, either. One more for the "coulda'' file.
After three decades of Pat Summitt, everybody should get the drift by now what Tennessee's schedule is all about. Next up is a trip to Oklahoma, where the Sooners might get a full house Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
One of the many things to admire about Tennessee is that Summitt has managed to maintain her program's longtime non-league series -- Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Texas -- and keep incorporating key matchups as they've developed: Stanford, UConn, Duke and Oklahoma, for examples.
The other game of what's billed as the Big 12/SEC Challenge is a day earlier, on Saturday. That's Georgia at Texas (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Texas' lone loss was at Penn State; Georgia's only stumble was at Stanford. It will be interesting to see how Texas does against Georgia's interior duo of 6-foot-6 Kara Braxton and 6-5 Christi Thomas.
Louisiana Tech visits Penn State on Sunday, and the word is that Penn State coach Rene Portland still will be on the sidelines despite the broken leg she suffered falling on the ice Thursday. Memo to the visitors from Louisiana: Be careful. That packed, glazed stuff is the worst.
Since opening so well in a victory over Kansas State and then getting blown out at Duke, Purdue hasn't been quite clicking -- even though the Boilers haven't lost any subsequent games. Some of this is probably just the usual difficulties when you're incorporating freshmen into important roles.
The Boilers pulled out a 58-57 victory over UCLA on Dec. 13. That was preceded by a three-point win at Houston. On Friday, they look to avenge one of last season's defeats as they host UCSB, a team that has had some offensive woes so far. The Gauchos have been held to fewer than 50 points in losses at Texas Tech and Florida; they scored 70 at Cincinnati this week but lost by one point in overtime.
Readers sent 102 e-mails in regard to the recent "Setting the Record Straight'' column. The vast majority, including those from Connecticut fans, were very positive.
Most of the UConn followers I heard from said they do not want the great success and atmosphere of the Huskies' program to be taken out of context from the history of women's basketball. They don't want it perceived or described as some kind of "bizarre oasis'' for women's hoops, but rather an inspiring example of what the sport can be with the right administration, coaching staff, fan support and media coverage.
One last thing from that Sports Illustrated story ... it strongly suggested that it was because of a sexist vote that the WBCA picked Duke's Gail Goestenkors as coach of the year last season instead of UConn's Geno Auriemma.
Two things: First, the voting was done before the Final Four, so it's not as if Auriemma was denied the award AFTER winning another championship as the story indicated.
Second, the story did not mention that Auriemma had won the award the year before when his NCAA title team went 39-0. That same season, 2001-2002, Goestenkors' team had made it to the Final Four despite having only eight players.
It might be that some WBCA voters had the misguided voting philosophy of "rewarding'' Goestenkors a year late.
If you look at the history of the WBCA coach of the year award, you can see that is something that has happened before. The honor went to C. Vivian Stringer (then at Iowa) in 1993 -- that season she'd suffered a horrible personal tragedy in losing her husband to a heart attack -- but it was Texas Tech's Marsha Sharp who won the NCAA title. So guess who
got the award the next year? Sharp, whose team had another very good season but did not make the Final Four.
In fact, from 1983-98, the only season a coach won the WBCA award and the national title in the same year was Jody Conradt at Texas in 1986. Since 1998, both the title and the award have lined up every year but last season. (That includes Auriemma in 2000; he also won it in 1997 when UConn lost its only game of the season in the regional final to eventual national champion Tennessee. Summitt and Auriemma each have won the WBCA award three times.)
Now ... should Goestenkors have won it last year? No. It should have gone to Auriemma or Conradt. But just because the vote was wrong doesn't mean that there was an anti-anybody conspiracy behind it.
Duke's game Saturday at Northwestern State in Louisiana isn't expected to be of much note for its competitive value, but is noteworthy as Blue Devils senior star Alana Beard's homecoming. A Shreveport, La., native, Beard was very homesick and a rather withdrawn early on at Duke. She goes back to Louisiana three years later with an altered, more
self-confident and outgoing personality.
Of course, Beard wants to make another return to the Bayou State this season -- in the spring for the Final Four in New Orleans.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at email@example.com.