- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Three months ago as we were gearing up for 2004-05 to begin, ESPN.com experts predicted Connecticut, Tennessee and Texas would be there when the season ended.
The Huskies, Lady Vols and Longhorns have been some of the game's most dominant teams in recent years. And though each graduated some key players, high expectations had each regarded as a frontrunner to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis.
That still might happen, but at this point, their combined 15 losses have led to a lot of head-scratching. In mid-January, none of the three were even ranked among the top seven teams in the nation. And as it turns out, UConn, Tennessee and Texas miss those departed seniors more than we expected and continue to struggle to fill the void.
A look at the key ingredient that's missing among these three traditional powers this season, and how it has affected their games:
Everyone knew life after Diana Taurasi -- one of the best players in the history of women's college basketball who helped lead the Huskies to three consecutive NCAA titles -- could be tough. And it has been.
Taurasi was a tremendous leader, the consummate floor general. And though he has tried to hand over the reins to Mel Thomas, Ashley Valley, Nicole Wolff and Ketia Swanier, coach Geno Auriemma hasn't found a consistent point guard. Thomas and Swanier might be UConn's answer in the future, but it's tough to have a freshman running your team. They don't have enough possessions on their résumé yet, and you have to play through their mistakes, hoping they make more good decisions than bad. That, of course, is why finding a veteran who can handle the responsibility of playing point guard is more preferred. But Auriemma hasn't had success in that regard, either.
That's not to say that players such as Ann Strother and freshman Charde Houston aren't playing incredibly well this season. Strother, however, is a quiet leader, not someone who can really be the buffer between the bench and floor or serve as an extension of Auriemma on the court.
Still, a lack of leadership isn't the only consequence when a team struggles to establish its point guard. For the past six years, UConn was the best passing team in the nation. The Huskies, who are averaging two fewer assists this season, always seemed one pass ahead, and opponents quickly learned it's impossible to defend when you can't catch up to the ball.
Now, the Huskies are hardly passing with the same proficiency, and as a result, they're not getting the easy looks they're used to (think Shea Ralph or Sue Bird on the back-door cut) and shots are more often contested. UConn's field-goal percentage has dipped slightly, from 49.2 percent in 2003-04 to 46.6 percent this season.
The Huskies' 3-point shooting has suffered even more, dipping to 31.6 percent after the team shot nearly 39 percent a year ago. Strother was one of three Huskies to sink at least 58 3-pointers last season, but she's the only UConn player this season with more than 10 treys (she has 53).
Last season, of course, opposing defenses had three outside threats to guard, and were forced to cheat toward Taurasi and Maria Conlon -- which gave Strother a little extra room. Now, foes are pushing up on Strother and playing her straight up on the perimeter. That, unfortunately, only makes Strother miss Taurasi -- and her ability to penetrate, draw the defense and then kick the ball out -- even more. Now, Strother not only has a hand in her face on just about every shot, she's not getting set up as well as last season.
And the snowball effect doesn't stop there. When the perimeter's not open, that forces UConn to put the ball inside more, which limits the Huskies' versatility. Also, because UConn's guards aren't as productive offensively as in the past, the opposing guard can dig down on the post, clog the lane a bit more and look to at least change the timing of shots coming from UConn's interior players.
The bottom line? UConn hasn't lost five games in a season since 1998-99, but it remains one of the best teams in the nation. It's just likely that the Huskies' weakness might be exposed as a glaring problem because so many of UConn's foes -- particularly in the Big East against teams such as Rutgers, Notre Dame and Boston College -- have great guard play this season. UConn's biggest weakness is now its opponents' greatest strength.
Like UConn, the Lady Vols have been hindered by inconsistency at the point and a lack of leadership. And no one realized just how much Tennessee would miss Ashley Robinson's defensive presence and Tasha Butts' tenaciousness or ability to match up with guards or forwards.
However, injury and illness -- not graduation -- have had the biggest impact in Knoxville. Specifically, Loree Moore has struggled with various ailments for a year. She missed the final 17 games of last season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee on Jan. 24, 2004. Then, six games into this season, Moore missed a month (six games) after having a tonsillectomy in early December. And though she didn't miss any games, Moore had to undergo surgery after suffering a broken nose on Jan. 31.
Moore has been missed. She improved her game on many levels between her sophomore and junior seasons, focusing on offense, attacking, her pull-up jump shot and finishing to the rim. She has also always been a great perimeter defender, but she has not been able to produce the same quality of play yet this season that we saw during most of 2003-04.
Moore has played in 15 of Tennessee's 21 games this season. More notably, however, is that she has started just 11, and until recently struggled to win back her starting spot at point guard. Alexis Hornbuckle did an admirable job filling in at times, and the freshman is very talented. But again, Hornbuckle isn't the senior leader at the point that the Lady Vols need.
Moore's absence, as well as injuries to several other Tennessee players (the entire squad was only finally able to practice together for the first time on Jan. 3), has made chemistry the Lady Vols' biggest problem. And by looking at Tennessee's season box score -- eight players are averaging at least 18 minutes -- it's clear coach Pat Summitt hasn't found a core she wants to -- or can -- stick with.
Of course, it also hurts that Tennessee's top three returning players are all averaging fewer points this season than in 2003-04, which is unacceptable. Every year, stars need to get better and continue to produce better numbers. Currently, Shyra Ely is down to 13.3 points per game this season after averaging 14.5 a year ago; Shanna Zolman, who scored 12.3 last year, nets 11.3 an outing now; and Moore's scoring average has dipped from 7.9 to 4.4 points per game.
The bottom line: With the recruiting class Tennessee brought in, the Lady Vols should be disappointed in how they've played thus far. Although you should never bet against Summitt, and everything might bear out in March and April, Tennessee just hasn't played up to the level everyone expected.
Of the three teams, Texas has been the biggest disappointment. On paper, the Longhorns suffered the fewest losses to graduation and seemed to have every base covered coming into the season.
Instead, we've seen how much Texas misses Stacy Stephens. Always a consistent low-block presence, Stephens was a low-maintenance type of player you could count on to pull on her knee pads every game and get on the block and dominate. Stephens commanded attention, which opened up things for her teammates and got them a few more open looks. As a result, some of the Longhorns might have even surpassed expectations and played better than expected when they were younger.
Now, however, those same players are finding themselves in more 1-on-1 situations and having to create their own shots. It is coming down to whether they can take somebody off the dribble or penetrate and pass, whether Texas' bigs this season can create an impact down low and help get the perimeter open looks.
At times, everything goes right for the Longhorns. But they've also suffered through some long scoring droughts and have been very inconsistent in the half court. Their shot selection is off, the players don't always seem to know their roles and Texas just seems to have a very hard time scoring. And though it might seem negligible, the 'Horns are averaging three fewer points than last season.
The bottom line? Texas has many great players. But one of them, Heather Schreiber, is drawing a lot more attention this season now that Stephens is gone, and it has taken a toll on her shooting. Schreiber shot 46.8 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from 3-point range last season, but is hitting 39.1 and 30.9 percent, respectively, in 2004-05.
Schreiber and Texas' guards, Jamie Carey and Nina Norman, must step up and get this talented team back on track.
Rebounding is also a key. In a loss to Baylor on Jan. 8, for example, the Lady Bears outrebounded the 'Horns and scored 23 second-chance points. Texas is averaging almost three fewer rebounds than last season.
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.