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UConn better, but so is everybody else

11/11/2003

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.''