A season full of surprises

Parity? Been there, done that.

Already this season, we have discussed it, dissected it and -- for many of us -- delighted in it.

We are, however, still feeling its repercussions. For some, it means seeing traditional powers such as Old Dominion and Purdue on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament. Unlike the past two seasons, the candidates for national player of the year extends well beyond a two-horse race. And hey, Connecticut and Tennessee really are human.

Yes, new faces and new teams have emerged in 2004-05, a season that hints at even more greatness in March and April.

So with less than three weeks to go before Selection Sunday, here's a look at some of the biggest surprises that caught the eyes of ESPN's experts:

Boiling ... over?
It certainly wasn't unexpected that Purdue would struggle some this year, after losing four seniors from last season's team. But the fact that the Boilermakers are scrambling to make the NCAA Tournament probably surprises people.

After all, Purdue in the NCAA field is almost a given; the Boilers have made it 11 years in a row. But each senior from last year -- Shereka Wright, Beth Jones, Erika Valek and Lindsey Hicks -- has proven to be difficult to

Wright, of course, did everything, especially come up with the big play when Purdue needed it. Jones was a better defensive player than she probably got credit for, and obviously could hit the huge 3. Hicks was a dependable cog, which is always underestimated until it's not there anymore.

And then there's Valek, who now looks worth her weight in gold for the Boilers. Like several other programs, Purdue has been hurt by a lack of consistent point-guard play.

Purdue is not out of NCAA contention, but the Boilers have a lot of work to do. Purdue hasn't missed the NCAA field since 1993. Of course, the interesting thing is that the next year, the Boilers made the program's first trip to the Final Four.

Special Kay
NC State coach Kay Yow has almost got it all: an Olympic gold medal, a trip to the Final Four, four ACC championships and a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame. What she doesn't have, unbelievably, is an ACC Coach of the Year award.

Yow has coached more than 900 games and collected 650-plus wins. After three decades on the sideline, she is proving this year that she still has game. And coach Yow has shown us that her way is still the best way to play; nothing brash or bold, but rather success based on hard work and team work.

Understated and undeterred by a recurrence of breast cancer this winter, Yow has taken a team without a true superstar and molded the Pack into one of the best defensive units in the country. NC State was picked to finish seventh in the ACC this year. Instead, NC State is hot on the heels of top-10 foes Duke and North Carolina in a battle for the conference crown.

The ACC Coach of the Year race appears to be a tight one involving Yow, Sue Semrau of vastly improved Florida State, and Gail Goestenkors for having Duke back in first place despite the graduation of Alana Beard.

Yow doesn't need the honor to fill out her résumé or to cap off a stellar career. In fact, she probably doesn't even care about personal accolades. She is happy to be coaching one of her best teams ever. The Pack are an unselfish, hard-working and determined bunch who live by their coach's creed: "The strength of the Pack is in the wolf ... and the strength of the wolf is in the Pack."

Parity = Power shift
Parity has been the buzzword all season. But most of the attention has focused on a less-than-dominant UConn, the new team atop the SEC, and Big Ten and Big 12 races that can't figure themselves out.

DelawareBut parity has extended to the mid-majors, too:

  • Delaware is on the verge of wrestling the Colonial away from Old Dominion and even putting itself in contention for an at-large bid.

  • The Big West tournament will not be the UC Santa Barbara Invitational. The Gauchos might still win the conference. But Long Beach and Idaho (the first team in 11 years to sweep its season series with UCSB) aren't going quietly, and for the first time since 1996, someone else actually has a chance to win some kind of title.

  • Gonzaga's ascent to the top of the WCC is complete (from 0-14 in 2001 to 13-0 this season). The Bulldogs have dominated their league unlike any other team in the country.

  • Wisconsin-Green Bay (Horizon), Montana (Big Sky) and Liberty (Big South) all have bucked the trend to continue dominance in their respective leagues. The Phoenix joined Gonzaga as mid-majors making an appearance in the top-25 rankings.

    The NCAA Tournament is still the ultimate measuring stick of parity, but if the regular season is any indication, even the mid-majors are starting to make the women's basketball pool much deeper.
    -- ESPN.com women's bracketologist Charlie Creme

    Underachievers among us
    Every season, Georgia is always expected to be a top-10 team. This season was no exception. With four starters -- and almost 70 percent of last year's offense -- returning, plus the addition of freshman phenom Tasha Humphrey, the Lady Dogs entered 2004-05 with high hopes. Things looked even brighter early on, after Georgia's 78-64 upset of then-No. 3 Texas on Nov. 21.

    Three months later, Georgia is a respectable 20-7. But the Lady Dogs have underachieved. Their only other win over a top-25 team occurred in mid-December (Arizona). And while two of their losses came against highly ranked teams such as LSU and Tennessee, two other losses came against unranked opponents Ole Miss and Kentucky.

    Humphrey is incredible, and Georgia's guards are amazing. But this team is nowhere near as strong of a Final Four contender as we're used to seeing.

    Another team that has underachieved and is falling off the map is Louisiana Tech, which surprisingly isn't even vying for one of the top-16 seeds.

    And then there's Purdue, which just can't seem to get its offense going now that point guard Erika Valek and Shereka Wright are gone.

    This season, Purdue's averaging almost eight fewer points than in 2003-04 (from 69.8 ppg to 62.2). More notable, however, are the Boilermakers' 488 turnovers, which translates to 19.5 giveaways a game and is 120 more turnovers than the team's 368 assists. Purdue has been held to 50 or fewer points in five games, including a 38-point performance against Minnesota. That's right ... thirty-eight.

    Those numbers are obviously disappointing, but even more so because the program and coach Kristy Curry have done such an incredible job in West Lafayette, winning over fans (including me) the past few years.

    Leaders of the 'Pac'
    Stanford is No. 2 in the country, has already captured its fifth consecutive regular-season conference title, and is being considered for a No. 1 seed. But perhaps the most intriguing thing about the Pac-10 is that just 1 1/2 games separate the next six teams in the conference standings, and yet, no other team in the conference is even included in the top 25.

    Bev Smith's hot Oregon Ducks (18-7) are the only Pac-10 squad to defeat the seemingly untouchable Cardinal this season, and currently boast the second-best record in league play at 11-5. Oregon once was an NCAA Tournament regular, making eight straight appearances beginning in 1994. But the Ducks haven't reached the Big Dance since 2001.

    Mark Trakh, in his first season at USC, has guided the Women of Troy to 17 wins for the first time since the 1996-97 season, which was also the last time they competed in the NCAA Tournament.

    With five seniors and one of the best newcomers in the country in freshman Candice Wiggins, Stanford has cleary earned the right to be regarded among the best in women's college basketball. The Cardinal have notched four top-25 wins over teams such as Texas Tech and Boston College, boasts an average margin of victory of 23 points over league opponents, and ranks seventh in RPI.

    Still, keep your eye on the Pac-10, where a photo-finish race might decide whether the league sends a few fresh faces
    to the NCAA Tournament that haven't been there in recent years.

    Last season, Stanford, Arizona and UCLA each advanced. The Wildcats and Bruins each lost in the first round; Stanford reached the Elite Eight before falling to Tennessee.