- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Late last season, Tasha Butts and LaToya Davis took over Tennessee. Now, both players, along with Ashley Robinson, are gone, and that's a lot of talent and leadership to lose.
However, the Lady Vols have the luxury of perhaps the best freshman class in the history of the game, and whether Candace Parker winds up playing, the infusion of talent from these rookies -- even though three are already hobbled with injuries -- could go a long way in helping Tennessee recapture the glory it became accustomed to in the mid- to late-1990s.
Shyra Ely (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg), a Kodak All-American a year ago, is one of the better post players in the country, and she'll get some help from big, banging post Tye'sha Fluker, as well as Dominique Redding and Sidney Spencer.
On the perimeter, point guard Loree Moore (2.8 apg) looks to come back after suffering a torn ACL on Jan. 24, 2004. And Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson are proven threats with the 3-ball. Expect Zolman (12.3 ppg, 42.6 percent from 3-point range, 95.7 percent accuracy at the foul line) to be an even bigger impact player this season.
Tennessee went 14-0 in the SEC last year, winning an unprecedented seventh straight regular-season conference title. The Lady Vols look to extend their own record to eight this season.
Contenders: LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt
LSU had a banner year in 2003-04, and should be even better this season. For starters, nobody's as smooth as junior Seimone Augustus (19.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg), the frontrunner for preseason national player of the year honors. She can truly do it all, whether it's creating her own shot, running the floor or rebounding. Yes, she needs to improve her range (she hit just 9 of 24 3-pointers last season but shot 52.8 percent from the field and 90.1 percent at the foul line), but Augustus has lived up to all the hype she got coming out of high school.
Temeka Johnson (12.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 8.3 apg), one of the nation's top point guards, ran through people last year, and despite being 5 feet 3, is a savvy floor leader who can do anything. Her intensity and toughness are unmatched, and not many attack as aggressively as Johnson.
Still, coach Pokey Chatman is the person who might have benefited most from LSU's first Final Four appearance. Chatman did a wonderful job last season as interim coach while Sue Gunter battled medical issues. Now in her first official season as head coach, expect Chatman to be even better this year after gaining such incredible experience in 2004.
Freshman Sylvia Fowles might be the key for LSU, which has a solid perimeter but needs to step up its inside game. The 6-5 center from Miami already has had a good effect, tallying 20 points and 10 rebounds in just 27 minutes in LSU's 78-70 exhibition win over Everyone's Internet on Nov. 2.
Pair her with Crystal White inside and the Lady Tigers could be on their way to another deep run in the spring.
Georgia always seems to be a team to watch in the SEC. And as usual, the Lady Dogs are an exceptional team with a talented backcourt. Sherill Baker (11.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.4 apg) is one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation, ranking second in the conference in steals (104) last season. Alexis Kendrick (9.2 ppg) is very good at distributing the ball (4.4 apg) -- and taking care of it, too (2.5 turnovers per game).
Sophomore Janese Hardrick started in 18 games last season, and made the winning shot as Georgia beat Tennessee in the SEC tournament. The Lady Dogs, in fact, were the only SEC team to beat the Lady Vols last season, and that says a lot about Georgia's potential, especially since another underclassmen, sophomore guard Cori Chambers, also gained a lot of experience in 2003-04.
Graduating post Christi Thomas might hurt, but Georgia does have good depth inside. Sophomore Rebecca Rowsey returns, and had earned a starting spot late last season. Freshman forward Tasha Humphrey gives Georgia the option to go inside or outside and she should make an immediate impact. Freshman forward Milan Johnson and juco transfer Desire Bostice, who was the No. 9 sophomore center prospect in the nation last year at Howard (Texas) JC, should also be able contribute.
And of course, you know Georgia will be well prepared. Andy Landers, who has always been a tremendous recruiter, has won 77 percent of his games.
Vanderbilt played well throughout 2003-04, but perhaps nobody was hotter than the Commodores in the final month of the regular season. Melanie Balcomb and Vanderbilt won 10 straight games -- including at LSU, at Auburn, and victories over LSU and Georgia in the SEC tournament -- before being eliminated by Stanford in the Sweet 16.
Vanderbilt looks to be in great shape this season, returning three starters, 10 letterwinners overall and 63 percent of its offense. Carla Thomas (10.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg) leads the way, and was one of the conference's best freshmen last year en route to earning SEC tournament MVP honors. She ranked 12th in the conference in scoring and also was third in field-goal and free-throw percentage.
Senior guard Abi Ramsey (12.6 ppg) is a huge X-factor. Last year, she missed the first 10 games of the season as she served a suspension, but finished the season strong, averaging 12.6 points, shooting 44 percent from the field and knocking down 67 3-pointers, which ranked second in the conference even though she played in just 25 games.
Sophomore point guard Dee Davis gives another boost to the 'Dores' backcourt. Her 4.7 assists per game ranked sixth in the conference, and Davis -- who came back strong from an injury -- plays a great, aggressive style.
Simply put, Vanderbilt has a great inside-outside combination. The Commodores were young last season but found a way to win. They tasted victory, and don't be surprised if they track it down again.
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.
17dBonnie D. Ford