- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Losing Stacy Stephens (11.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg) is tough, but Tiffany Jackson demonstrated last year as a rookie that she can step up and dominate the paint, too. Her development was fun to watch, and the 2004 ESPN.com Freshman of the Year has become a legitimate All-American, leading the Longhorns in scoring last season (13.0 points) and ranking second with 7.5 rebounds -- and that was in just 16 starts (28.4 mpg).
Of course, Jackson is one of just four returning starters on a loaded roster. Point guard Jamie Carey (10.7 ppg, 2.8 apg) -- back again -- is brilliant in directing traffic and nailed 66 3-pointers last season. Nina Norman (9.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.1 apg), an effective slasher and another clutch player, is the perfect complement in the backcourt.
Then there's Heather Schreiber (12.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Kala Bowers (6.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg), who give Texas great versatility at both ends of the court. And don't forget Annissa Hastings, who missed all of last season after suffering an Achilles' tendon injury but has had a hand in the Longhorns' success in the past.
Texas has many weapons, great balance and a bright future ahead this season.
Contenders: Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas State
Baylor's 6-foot-2 senior post Steffanie Blackmon and 6-1 junior forward Sophia Young are one of the best duos in the game. They combined for 32.3 points, 15.5 rebounds, 130 steals and 63 blocks last season, with both shooting at least 50 percent from the field (Young's accuracy hit 55 percent). Then, despite playing without the injured Blackmon, the Lady Bears advanced to their first Sweet 16 before losing to Tennessee in the most controversial ending to a game in all of last season. Tasha Butts nailed two free throws to lift the Lady Vols past Baylor 71-69 after a questionable call with 0.2 seconds left.
But Baylor truly has something special in Blackmon and Young, who are reminiscent of DeLisha Milton and Murriel Page back in their heyday in Florida -- undersized but very talented posts who can step out, face the basket and run the floor.
Returner Emily Niemann also gives Baylor a boost. The 6-1 sophomore averaged 10.1 points, shooting 44 percent from downtown to nail 75 3-pointers last season.
More than anything, though, Baylor benefits from having coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson on its side. She handled everything really well last year, and has prepared this team to play a nice inside-outside game. The Lady Bears -- who no doubt are out for a bit of redemption -- will shoot from outside, run the floor and get after their opponents defensively.
Marsha Sharp and Texas Tech have taught us never to count out the Lady Raiders. When they lost Plenette Pierson, they managed just fine. When they lost Jia Perkins last season, they found a way to survive.
Sophomore forward Alesha Robertson (12.4 ppg, 40 3-pointers) really stepped up last season, proving she can shoot and create separation to get off the shot. Junior point guard Erin Grant (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 6.5 apg, 40 percent from the field) continues to get better every year, though she needs to improve her shooting, particularly from 3-point range (she sank 10 treys on 31 percent accuracy).
Perhaps the biggest question mark is Cisti Greenwalt (7.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.2 bpg), who became Tech's career leader in blocked shots (195) despite missing the final seven games of the season after suffering a broken ankle on Feb. 17.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the last of her ailments. In June, a melanoma spot was discovered on the back of the 6-5 senior. Greenwalt then underwent preventative chemotherapy in July. Then in August, Greenwalt suffered bruises to both of her lungs after a rollover car accident. According to team sources, Greenwalt is healthy and, as the team's lone senior, ready for the season to start.
Tech's biggest strengths should include its underclassmen as Sharp brought in another tremendous recruiting class. Sophomore Patrice Edwards, a 6-6 center from Trinidad & Tobago, already was named the Big 12's preseason co-newcomer of the year after averaging 12.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks at Frank Phillips College (Borger, Texas). Freshmen Judith Smith and Erin Myrick helped the West Coast All-Stars snag a national AAU championship, and are the first California natives to suit up for the Lady Raiders. And freshman Darrice Griffin should have an impact in her rookie season as well.
Tech has won 195 of its last 211 home games.
Plenty of questions face Kansas State, which graduated Nicole Ohlde (19.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg in conference play). Still, the Wildcats have a lot of firepower and can shoot the lights out from beyond the arc.
Kendra Wecker (16.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 49 percent from field, 42 percent from 3-point range) has an incredibly diverse game and is one of the top players in the nation. She has a solid supporting cast in players such as long-range specialist Laurie Koehn, who sank 100 3-pointers last season with 44 percent accuracy from downtown.
Kansas State plays a really nice system and distributes the ball very well.
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