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Race wide open for 2005-06 season

4/12/2005

Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie made it clear before the championship game with Baylor that she wasn't waiting for a final verdict on her team. The season already had been confirmed an enormous success weeks beforehand.

So the loss to Baylor, while obviously disappointing, was something neither she nor her team should dwell on. Michigan State lost to the best team in the tournament on a night when that team played very well. Certainly, there are things the Spartans know they could have done better ... but that didn't cost them a victory. No other team this season would have won against that Baylor performance, either.

One of the most impressive parts of Michigan State's climb this season is that the Spartans didn't act like newcomers to the No. 1 seed party. Sure, they struggled in the second-round victory over Southern California. But in the tournament, it doesn't matter how you win, only that you do win.

Each game, the Spartans expected to play well. They didn't allow themselves to get beaten by somebody else's name or tradition, or by the unfamiliarity of being on a progressively bigger stage.

That's partly why, in three consecutive rounds, they defeated teams (Vanderbilt, Stanford, Tennessee) that had a far greater history of NCAA Tournament success than Michigan State did.

Meanwhile, Baylor knew from its Sweet 16 disappointment in 2004 against Tennessee that it definitely could play with anyone this season.

It was a terrific Final Four, even if the championship-game score, 84-62, ended up not close. Having two newcomers in the final was terrific. From a media standpoint, it provided lots of fresh and interesting story lines to follow: two similarly gifted and driven head coaches, two groups of players who excelled at teamwork.

So ... is it too soon to look ahead to next year for those two teams and everybody else? Well, sure it is. But that's not going to stop us.

Baylor and Michigan State lose the same big ingredients from their starting lineups: a point guard (Chelsea Whitaker, Kristin Haynie) and a post player (Steffanie Blackmon, Kelli Roehrig).

What will the year after be like for both? They'll still be very good teams. Baylor returns national player of the year candidate Sophia Young and a lot of depth at guard, including starter Chameka Scott. Michigan State also brings back its leading scorer and rebounder, Liz Shimek, and good guard play, led by Lindsay Bowen and Victoria Lucas-Perry.

Here are the other Final Four first-timers in the past decade: LSU, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Rutgers, Penn State, Duke, Arkansas, North Carolina State and Notre Dame.

LSU and Minnesota both went for the first time last season. LSU got back this season, falling in the national semifinals again, and Minnesota lost in the Sweet 16. Baylor beat both of them. In both cases, good follow-up years. Yes, I know people will say LSU should have won the national championship or at least made the final, but I don't think losing to this Baylor team is something to feel bad about.

Oklahoma made the Final Four in 2002 but hasn't advanced past the second round the past three years. Injuries have had a lot to do with that, along with lack of depth in the post. However, the Sooners have signed two of the top incoming freshmen, Courtney and Ashley Paris, to solve that problem. Oklahoma does have a huge hole to fill, though, with Dionnah Jackson gone.

Rutgers and Penn State went to the Final Four in 2000. Rutgers got back to the Elite Eight this year. Since 2000, Penn State has made one Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s and has lost twice in the first round, including this year to Liberty. After that defeat, coach Rene Portland told three players they would no longer be on the team, and that's an ongoing mess at Penn State.

Notre Dame first went in 1997; returned in 2001, when it won the national championship; and has made the Sweet 16 twice since. Duke made its first Final Four in 1999 and has gotten there twice since then, also advancing to the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight twice.

One of the biggest benefits of making the Final Four, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale has said many times, is the exposure it gets your program and how that helps recruiting. Of the aforementioned teams, Duke has cashed in the most on that particular jackpot, although that hasn't translated yet into a national title for the Blue Devils.

With Monique Currie back and freshmen such as Abby Waner coming in next year, Duke will have all the tools to win the NCAA championship. Perhaps even more than during the Alana Beard years because next season Duke should be a team that can score from anywhere: inside, outside and slashing to the hoop.

Neither Arkansas nor North Carolina State, who both made the 1998 Final Four, has come close to repeating that. The furthest either has gone since was the Wolfpack's Sweet 16 appearance in 2001.

So Baylor and Michigan State now begin the "what's next?" stage after appearing on the big stage for the first time. With these two coaches and the commitment behind the programs, I sense you'll see both teams remain very competitive.

As for the other two Final Four participants, need we even say that Tennessee will be right back in the hunt for a title again next year? If all the injuries heal and Pat Summitt can finally put on the floor the kind of team she has recruited, that could be quite a juggernaut.

LSU loses playmaker Temeka Johnson, but with Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles back, that's two major pillars to build around. LSU could make a third Final Four appearance in a row.

Injuries, how players develop over the summer, how quickly freshmen acclimate themselves, chemistry issues ... all of those things will play out and might alter what we expect to see next season.

But I feel pretty safe in saying that, like this year, there could be several legitimate NCAA title contenders.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.com.