- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Filling out preseason predictions this year was a little depressing. Try as I might, it proved nearly impossible to forecast many earth-shattering surprises (although given the almost certain guarantee of being incorrect anyway, perhaps caution should have been thrown to the wind and a team other than Tennessee should have been picked to win the SEC).
Maryland's title last season confirmed its addition to the litany of elite programs that routinely dominate the rankings, but picking old-guard power Stanford to unseat the Terrapins isn't exactly the kind of thing that gets the blood flowing in anticipation of another season.
Thankfully, like any good vacation, the most enjoyable sights and sounds of this season might lurk far beyond the tried and true tourist destinations in Storrs, Knoxville, Palo Alto, Durham and elsewhere. Once you get beyond the heavyweights, you find an increasing number of very good programs with the potential to be even more.
Is this the year one or two of them end up making noise in the NCAA Tournament, or even reaching the Final Four in Cleveland? Only time will tell. But it sure seems like the clock is ticking down.
With that in mind, here are three programs in various states of upward mobility that might be worth watching:
In part because of the success she helped create as Pat Summitt's top assistant at Tennessee, Mickie DeMoss doesn't have the luxury of a slow growth process at Kentucky. Women's basketball is increasingly bigger business in the SEC, where the history of programs like Tennessee and Georgia gives the game a strong foothold in the athletic picture, and Kentucky has long been a basketball hotbed without a strong women's program.
So while the pressure on DeMoss to build a consistent SEC contender might pale in comparison to the pressure on Tubby Smith to bring another national championship to Lexington, people will most certainly notice if the Wildcats take a step back after going 22-9 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament last season.
Lucky for her, DeMoss has a roster of returning players with the potential to solidify the program as an SEC contender and a national dark horse.
The Wildcats are built around a share-the-wealth philosophy, with only 2.3 points per game separating the team's top four scorers, who are all returning. But all that balance doesn't mean the Wildcats are without a player in the spotlight, because they'll likely go as far as sophomore guard Carly Ormerod leads them.
In any system where success relies on getting the ball to the open player, as opposed to the best player, the point guard's role is naturally magnified. Ormerod didn't wilt under that pressure as a freshman, leading the team in minutes and assists while also providing its most consistent threat from behind the arc, shooting 41.5 percent. When Angela Phillips left the program following the 2004-05 season, DeMoss was left without much choice but to hand Ormerod all the minutes she could handle, and the result was a freshman who looked like a leader on the court by the end of the season.
And there is plenty of talent to lead in Lexington.
Jennifer Humphrey, who might have the most WNBA potential on the team, is a 6-foot-3 rebounder with the size to keep defenses honest, along with 6-6 junior center Sarah Elliott (11.2 points per game on 54 percent shooting last season). Elliott's scoring held steady between her freshman and sophomore seasons, but cutting her fouls while increasing her minutes and assists suggests she's refining her skills and could be on the verge of a breakout season.
Leading scorer Samantha Mahoney (11.9 points per game in earning All-SEC second-team honors) also returns, as well as outside threat Jenny Pfeiffer to provide plenty of options on the wing.
Not that the Wildcats are without flaws. After all, for all their promise, they lost by 27 against LSU in the SEC tournament, went 3-5 against ranked teams and couldn't get past Michigan State in a hard-fought second-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Elliott's touch inside and Ormerod's long-range accuracy not withstanding, this wasn't a great shooting team. Of the eight players who averaged double-digit minutes, only three shot better than 40 percent from the field. But like those Tennessee teams DeMoss was a part of, Kentucky makes sure it cleans up its own mess on the offensive glass and limits good looks on defense.
All things considered, it's hard to argue with Kentucky as a program on the rise. Losing top recruit Arnika Brown, Kentucky's Miss Basketball in 2006 who transferred before classes began this year, was a blow, but DeMoss has already signed Tennessee prep star Victoria Dunlap, rated 18th in the nation by Scout.com, for next season. Attendance is on the rise, ranking in the top 20 in the nation during each of DeMoss' three seasons, and the Wildcats are also learning to win away from home (6-3 last season).
But nothing would say more about the future of this program than the current roster claiming an SEC title. And that's not beyond the realm of imagination.
Teams can win the Pac-10 and still find themselves flying beneath the radar in women's college basketball, so it's no surprise that USC, a team which finished last season 19-12 and bowed out of the NCAA Tournament with a 24-point loss to Duke in the second round, isn't garnering a lot of attention in preseason polls.
The Trojans will play in a new home this season following the completion of the Galen Center, and the new digs are fitting for a team on the move. Losing just one senior, albeit an important one in team leader Meghan Gnekow, gives coach Mark Trakh a solid foundation to build on. And several highly touted freshmen could help Trakh put the finishing touches on turning a fixer-upper program into the kind of prime SoCal real estate it was when Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie ran the floor.
Forget about the Hollywood drama of Brynn Cameron (who will miss this season) and Matt Leinart, or injuries to senior point guard Camille LeNoir (out until at least January with a hip injury) and freshman standout Jacki Gemelos (redshirting after a knee injury); this team is still entirely capable of generating headlines of its own on the court.
Starting with Shay Murphy.
There is little doubt that Murphy is the closest thing this team has to a player capable of living up to the legacy of Miller, Leslie, Tina Thompson and other greats. She was a sophomore role player in 2004-05 when the Trojans made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years, and will expect to finish her career with a third consecutive appearance in the field. Perhaps she isn't solely responsible for the program's resurgence under Trakh, but she's the most visible reminder of it.
In a conference littered with undersized wing players who can hit the boards, Murphy ranks among the best, leading the Trojans at 7.3 rebounds per game last season. She also led the team in points (17.6), steals (2.4) and 3-pointers (2.2) per game.
Losing LeNoir and Cameron deprives the team of some outside shooting to support Murphy, but senior Jamie Hagiya should help ease the loss in moving from the team's top reserve to one of its key starters.
And then there are the freshmen Trakh landed in a banner recruiting class. It's a group that should keep USC in the postseason mix for years, even if more is expected of them than originally thought in order for this year to be included. Even without Gemelos, the women of Troy will get contributions from 6-2 guard Hailey Dunham (who it appears will spell Hagiya at point), 6-2 guard Aarika Hughes and 6-1 wing Morghan Medlock, a McDonald's All-American.
There is always a danger to chemistry with highly touted newcomers, especially when they join a team loaded with veterans. But after suffering through an injury-plagued season last time out and losing LeNoir and Cameron before this season even began, it's tough to believe Murphy, Chloé Kerr, Hagiya and others won't be eager to help the new arrivals join the fray.
Kentucky and USC represent two unique examples of the increased parity in the women's game, with Kentucky emerging from the middle of the pack in a major conference and USC returning to full strength after some lean years. Getting rid of the dead weight in power conferences is the next logical step as the women's game evolves and grows; it's the road to a No. 6 or No. 7 seed winning the title.
But it never hurts to jump the learning curve, and Wisconsin-Green Bay could be on the verge of establishing itself as the very model of a modern mid-major, the likes of which will eventually provide more Cinderella stories in March.
The Phoenix have won or shared the regular-season Horizon League crown in each of the last nine seasons. They appeared in the NCAA Tournament four straight years before missing out last March after losing in the conference tournament. In returning a core trio of seniors in guards Amanda Popp and Natalie Berglin and forward Nicole Soulis, this year's team has the potential to not only return to the NCAA Tournament but make history with the program's first Sweet 16 appearance.
All three senior starters are the kind of local products that mid-majors must be able to develop in building a national profile. All were reserves or part-time starters until last season, when they combined to average 43.4 points per game, or 61 percent of the team's total. And all are versatile players on the court, contributing in a number of areas.
Popp shot 51.5 percent from the floor, including 44 percent from behind the arc (48-for-109) but also averaged 3.9 rebounds and had more assists than turnovers. Berglin, at point guard, posted a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio while leading the team in 3-pointers and steals and averaged 3.4 rebounds per game. Soulis played the role of post well, leading the team with 18.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, but she also shot 36 percent from behind the arc (24-of-66).
Obviously, stats are always relative to the level of competition, and the Horizon League isn't the ACC, but that's impressive balance regardless of who you're playing.
And competition will always be an issue for teams in leagues that still lag well behind major conferences. Tests are few and far between, making them almost unreasonably important when they occur. Last season, UW-Green Bay dropped road games at Iowa and DePaul by big margins, although the Phoenix did win at Arizona and took Iowa State to overtime in Ames before losing in the WNIT. But the Phoenix have done what they can with the schedule this season, opening on the road against Kansas State and playing DePaul, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin before entering conference play.
Berglin, Popp and Soulis were the product of a recruiting process during the 2002-03 season, when the Phoenix posted a 28-4 record and beat Washington to claim the program's first NCAA Tournament win. Now they have a chance, and the skill, to take the program one step beyond that performance, inspiring a whole new group of girls in the upper Midwest to sign on for four years with coach Kevin Borseth.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.