- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Now we'll watch the race begin in earnest for everyone jockeying for the, um, top underdog spot in women's college basketball. Practice officially starts Friday. And who really wants to be No. 1? Isn't it easier to be one of the teams outside the top perch, poised to strike?
At least in the first poll, the penthouse residents are probably still going to be the UConn Huskies, winners -- had you somehow not heard -- of 78 games in a row. Now, usually, coach Geno Auriemma doesn't shy from his team wearing the "yellow jersey" all the time. Typically, he relishes it.
But for crying out loud, I wouldn't blame him if he were to say, "Are you kidding? Give me a break, will ya? We won two national championships in a row. During that time we lost, count 'em, zero games. But now I have lost my program's all-time top scorer and rebounder. And two other starters. And I have five freshmen, who currently are the dumbest players on the planet. And you still want me to be No. 1?"
What Auriemma really did say during his program's media day this week was the most logical thing ever: that he's confident UConn will lose at least once this season. And, let's face it, the Huskies should lose. Tina Charles and Kalana Greene have moved on to the WNBA, while Caroline Doty has to go through rehab again with an ACL injury.
Still, Auriemma -- gee, he sure had a relaxing, laid-back, nothin'-going-on offseason, huh? -- didn't step away from the expectation of winning the NCAA title once again. Because he understands that's just the automatic burden. He could have an entire team consisting of 5-foot-tall slowpokes wearing ankle weights, and he'd still figure it was his job to win the national championship. Just like it was his "job" to lead Team USA to a gold medal at the world championship recently in the Czech Republic. Busy, busy, busy.
And since he actually has Maya Moore and Tiffany Hayes still in UConn uniforms, there is plenty to build around. Suffice to say the incoming rookies -- Bria Hartley, Samarie Walker, Michala Johnson, Lauren Engeln and Stefanie Dolson -- are high-pedigree types. But freshmen, even the best of them, can't completely escape being freshmen.
Which is what Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said a lot last season with a young team, including rookie sensation Brittney Griner, that still made it to the national semifinals.
We will see very soon how that more-matured Bears squad -- which is the overwhelming favorite to win the Big 12 -- fares in another matchup with UConn. The Huskies won 70-50 at the Final Four and will have the home-court advantage in the Nov. 16 game at Hartford's XL Center. But Baylor has depth, experience, size, quickness -- and a coach who particularly relishes challenges.
Meanwhile, at Stanford, the national runner-up two of the past three seasons, Jayne Appel and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude finished their eligibility. And, unfortunately, JJ Hones was removed from the team during the spring for conduct unbecoming with a golf cart. That disciplinary action, graduation and injuries have once again left Stanford -- this seems to have become a familiar refrain with the Cardinal -- thin at guard.
So 6-foot-4 handywoman Kayla Pedersen will be working out not only at all five positions on the floor, but also at a special, secret "sixth" spot known only to coach Tara VanDerveer. You know, they can create such things at Stanford. OK, we're just making that sixth stuff up but Pedersen really is once again going to do a little of everything for the Cardinal.
Fellow senior Jeanette Pohlen, whose race downcourt for the winning basket against Xavier last season put Stanford in its third consecutive Final Four, will have plenty of passing options. Including the rest of the Pac-10's worst nightmare: Ogwumike Squared.
As if junior All-American Nneka Ogwumike wasn't enough to deal with, younger sister Chiney has moved to the Farm, too. Good luck, defenders, you'll need it.
Now, lest anyone think that Tennessee is somehow going to be forgotten, perish the thought. How would that even be possible? Pat Summitt's program rebounded pretty well last year from the nightmare-for-Tennessee 2008-09 season.
Still, a Sweet 16 loss to Baylor was short of Tennessee's standard goal. And now, in guard Angie Bjorklund's senior season, she hopes to again scale the peak she reached with Candace Parker and company in '08.
The team that Baylor took out in the Elite Eight last year -- Duke -- should be back with a vengeance, too. Bookending the Blue Devils' roster are three battle-tested seniors -- Jasmine Thomas, Krystal Thomas and Karima Christmas -- and five freshmen who were ranked as the top recruiting class in the country: Chloe Wells, Chelsea Gray, Richa Jackson, Tricia Liston and Haley Peters.
These are the teams -- UConn, Baylor, Stanford, Tennessee and Duke -- many people will have in their preseason top five, although Xavier with Amber Harris certainly will get some nods, too.
Near that level are probably the likes of Ohio State, Texas A&M and -- after making the 2010 NCAA tournament field by the skin of their teeth -- the North Carolina Tar Heels. Kentucky got in rare air with an Elite Eight appearance, and the Wildcats are eager to prove that was no aberration.
This is just a quick rundown of the fairly obvious as practice officially starts; there are so many things we'll be getting to as we near the season's tipoff next month. It isn't all going to be about UConn. But until the Huskies lose -- like Auriemma swears they will -- they're still standing at the front of the line.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
As practice officially opens Friday, one thing is certain: Until UConn loses -- like Geno Auriemma swears it will -- they Huskies are still standing at the front of the pack.