UConn better, but so is everybody else
When it comes to women's basketball, there's Connecticut and then there's everybody else.
The Huskies keep winning no matter who comes and goes. And this season, no one is gone.
UConn returns with all of its players after winning its second straight national championship and third in four years, headed by national player of the year Diana Taurasi. If Connecticut makes it three straight, coach Geno Auriemma's program would match a feat achieved only by Tennessee.
But -- and here's what could make this new season so interesting -- many of the teams that looked like threats to UConn's title hopes a year ago also return most of their top players.
"If you look at last year's top 20, probably 18 think they're better this year,'' Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "That's remarkable. That just doesn't happen.''
Put Goestenkors' team at the top of that list. Duke returns four starters from a Final Four team, including All-American Alana Beard, and gets guard Monique Currie back from a knee injury.
Texas returns a strong team after reaching the Final Four and almost beating UConn in the semifinals. Tennessee lost to Connecticut in the championship game, then lost seniors Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson and longtime assistant Mickie DeMoss, now the head coach at Kentucky. But who would ever count the Lady Vols out of a title run?
LSU, third in the final poll last season, has super sophomore Seimone Augustus and plenty of talent to go with her. Kansas State, Texas Tech and Purdue also have Final Four potential.
"There weren't a lot of significant, impactful graduations, and I think that's one of the things that strikes me about this season,'' Texas coach Jody Conradt said. "It's a rerun, but the outcome is not going to necessarily be the same.''
It all will be settled in New Orleans, where the women's Final Four returns for the first time since 1991, which just happens to be the first year that Connecticut reached the Final Four.
If the Huskies get back, they'd be the first to make five straight trips to the Final Four.
"We're still hungry,'' Taurasi said. "We don't feel like we've really proved ourselves. If anything, we're going to come with a little more of an edge.''
Taurasi and Beard are part of a sensational senior class that has WNBA executives eagerly awaiting the draft next April.
"I think it's the best class that has ever come out of college basketball,'' Goestenkors said. "This senior class has really taken women's college basketball to another level.''
Penn State's Kelly Mazzante and Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde join the UConn and Duke stars as returning first-team All-Americans. That class also has Nicole Powell of Stanford, Shereka Wright of Purdue, Lindsay Whalen of Minnesota, Stacy Stephens of Texas, Iciss Tillis of Duke and Chandi Jones of Houston.
Don't recognize that last name? Jones has received little national exposure, despite leading the nation in scoring last season with a 27.5 average.
And it's Chandi, not Candy.
"I always call her 'Candy' because she's so sweet in terms of how she plays,'' said Northern Iowa coach Tony DiCecco, who saw Jones get 30 points, 12 rebounds and eight steals against his team. "She scores anytime she wants.''
Nov. 21 will be a special night in Logan, Utah, where Utah State has brought back women's basketball and will play its first game in 17 years. The sport was dropped in 1987 because of state budget cuts.
Also in the Welcome Back Department, two prominent coaches have returned after being out for a year. Carol Ross, who had nine NCAA Tournament teams in 12 seasons at Florida, is now the coach at Mississippi, where she starred as a player.
Cheryl Burnett, who had two Final Four teams at Southwest Missouri State and coached Jackie Stiles, is the new coach at Michigan. Burnett is one of four former Missouri Valley Conference coaches now leading Big Ten schools.
New Wisconsin coach Lisa Stone came from Drake, as did Iowa's Lisa Bluder, whose biggest rival during her days with the Bulldogs was Burnett. Indiana's Kathi Bennett came from Evansville.
"Do I want to look down the bench and see these coaches and have to coach against them?'' Burnett said. "I know the quality of coaches. It will be wonderfully challenging.''
In other coaching moves, Gary Blair left a Top 25 program at Arkansas for Texas A&M, which has had seven straight losing seasons; Agnus Berenato went from Georgia Tech to Pittsburgh; Keith Cieplicki moved from Vermont to Syracuse; and Jane Albright, who resigned at Wisconsin after being denied a contract extension, is now at Wichita State.
Louisville hired Tom Collen, the former Colorado State coach who was at Vanderbilt for one day in 2002, then quit after questions were raised about his résumé.
Blair joked that he was hoping to rebuild A&M through a Big 12 dispersal draft. But he was serious when he said it would be good for the sport to see someone other than Connecticut and Tennessee, which has won six national titles, playing in the final game.
"The game needs new national teams,'' Blair said. "We didn't necessarily need the Yankees winning, but all of the networks wanted Chicago and Boston. Well, the people wanted Florida to win, the people.
"And that's where we are right now. We need new teams to win.''
Head on down to Bourbon Street in early April to see if that happens. Or if it's just a UConn rerun.
"I don't necessarily think it's Connecticut and the rest of the world,'' said Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, whose team lost to UConn in the 2002 title game.
"Now, somebody has got to prove they can take the title. Absolutely. And that's a fact.''
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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