Blue Devils open season atop ESPN.com rankings
The preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll won't arrive until Nov. 2. But with practices officially getting under way Friday, ESPN.com couldn't resist crunching the numbers for our third annual preseason top 25 rankings. Three SEC teams landed among our top six, which included representatives from four conferences.A look at ESPN.com's preseason poll for 2005-06, with last season's record and NCAA Tournament finish* in parentheses: 1. Duke (31-5, lost in Elite Eight): Your eyes don't deceive you: There really are 13 players -- including star Monique Currie and freshman Abby Waner, the national high school player of the year as a prep senior -- on the roster. So depth is no longer an issue, and the Blue Devils also get a boost as point guard Lindsey Harding returns from a suspension that sidelined her all of last season. 2. Tennessee (30-5, lost in Final Four): After injuries forced Candace Parker and Alex Fuller to redshirt last season, the Super Six are expected to live to up the expectations. And don't be surprised if Parker -- who dunks regularly in pick-up games, including a recent jam over 6-foot-9 Ryan Childress, a freshman on the men's team -- throws one down this season. 3. Ohio State (30-5, lost in Sweet 16): Jessica Davenport is back to anchor the paint. But with Caity Matter gone, the pressure's on guard Brandie Hoskins to help keep the Buckeyes' inside-outside threat alive. 4. Georgia (24-10, lost in Sweet 16: The Lady Dogs are already down a key player as Rebecca Rowsey suffered a torn ACL last month. But Georgia still gets four starters back as well as six of its top scorers from a year ago. 5. Rutgers (28-7, lost in Elite Eight): Cappie Pondexter, a player of the year candidate, and sophomore Matee Ajavon form one of the country's best backcourts, and rookie Kia Vaughn should be a strong addition in the post. 6. LSU (33-3, lost in Final Four): Seimone Augustus is better than most at creating her own shot. Trouble is, she'll have to do it a lot more now that Temeka Johnson is gone. Sylvia Fowles will be a force inside, but the questions at point guard hurt the Lady Tigers early rankings. 7. Baylor (33-3, NCAA champion): The defending champs return player of the year candidate Sophia Young, and that goes a long way. But the Lady Bears have a battle ahead after losing their second- and third-leading scorers, as well as their starting point guard. 8. Connecticut (25-8, lost in Sweet 16): With plenty of talent back in Ann Strother, Barb Turner and Charde Houston, the key again is how quickly the Huskies can establish a reliable, consistent point guard. Duke star Brittany Hunter also will suit up for the first time in UConn blue. 9. Texas (22-9, lost in second round): After graduating six seniors, the 'Horns now welcome the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, headlined by 5-foot-10 guard Erika Arriaran who wears No. 4 in honor of Lou Gehrig. With just two returning starters, coach Jody Conradt says, "I don't remember another time at Texas when we had more playing time available to a freshman We are not banking on the freshmen to give us help in the future. We need them to play now." 10. North Carolina (30-4, lost in Elite Eight): With Ivory Latta leading the way, the Tar Heels are the quickest team in the country, although sometimes they're prone to playing too fast and out of control. All three of last season's top scorers return. 11. Texas Tech (24-8, lost in Sweet 16): Point guard Erin Grant -- who's on pace to break the Big 12 career assists record -- and 3-point specialist Alesha Robertson will continue to shine. But replacing center Cisti Greenwalt and her team-high 12.9 points and 8.6 rebounds from a year ago is a top priority. 12. Michigan State (33-4, lost in NCAA title game): Balance led the Spartans to the NCAA title game last season, and despite graduating a starting center and point guard, Michigan State again has several offensive weapons. Liz Shimek and Lindsay Bowen combine for one of the country's top inside-outside duos. Bowen will spearhead a point guard rotation that also will include Rene Haynes, Maggie Dwyer and Courtney Davidson. 13. Maryland (22-10, lost in second round): The Terps have plenty of talent. Sophomore Crystal Langhorne was the only ACC player to average a double-double last season and junior Shay Doron also is back after a team-high 17.6 points per game last season. Now, despite just two seniors and a freshman (Kristi Tolliver) at the point, it's time for Maryland to put the pieces together and reach its potential. 14. Vanderbilt (24-8, lost in Sweet 16): Ashley Earley, last season's top scorer and rebounder (18.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg) is gone. But second-team All-SEC honorees Carla Thomas and Dee Davis return. Key new faces include 6-foot-4 center Liz Sherwood, who was a Big East All-Freshmen selection before sitting out last season after transferring from UConn, and Christina Wirth, a guard/forward who was on USA Basketball's U-19 squad that won gold at the FIBA Women's World Championship. 15. Stanford (32-3, lost in Elite Eight): After losing five seniors, Stanford might lack its depth of previous years. But Brooke Smith, whose hook was one of the highlights from March Madness last season, and do-it-all Candice Wiggins -- just the ninth freshmen to be named a Kodak All-American -- are back to carry the Cardinal. 16. Notre Dame (27-6, lost in second round): Guard Megan Duffy returns and will be the Irish's top scoring threat. However, the pressure's on post Courtney LaVere, especially with the exits of Jacqueline Batteast and Teresa Borton and their combined 25 points and 12 rebounds per game. 17. Arizona State (24-10, lost in Sweet 16): Last season, the Sun Devils reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 22 years. Expectations remain high with four of five starters back, including junior forward and All-Pac-10 first team pick Emily Westerberg. 18. Utah (26-8, lost in second round): The top two players in the Mountain West Conference last season -- senior forward Kim Smith and senior guard Shona Thorburn literally shared league MVP honors -- are back for the Utes. The team's biggest scoring threat, Smith has reached double figures in 92 of 96 games and set a school record with 606 points in 2004-05. Thorburn set a Utah and conference single-season record with 221 assists. 19. Purdue (17-13, lost in second round): Plenty of familiar faces return to West Lafayette, where juniors Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless are back after averaging better than 14 points per game last season. But keep an eye on juco transfer Cherelle George from Iowa Western CC and Indiana Miss Basketball in freshman Jodi Howell. And Aya Traore, another former juco transfer who started just four games for Purdue last season, is looking to make the most of her senior season. During the Boilermakers' foreign tour, the 6-foot-1 forward averaged 19.4 points, 13 more than last season. 20. DePaul (26-5, lost in second round): The Blue Demons seem to get better every year, leading the nation in scoring last season and losing just five games before a second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. With four starters -- including Khara Smith, who averaged 18.6 ppg, 11.7 rpg and shot 60 percent from the field as a junior -- and 80 percent of the offense back, the future looks bright -- but tough. As one of five former C-USA members now in the Big East, DePaul must bring it night in and night out. 21. UCLA (16-12): We saw two sides of the Bruins last season. They started a promising 11-4, but finished with a 16-12 mark after guard Noelle Quinn suffered a season-ending left knee injury. She's healthy again, and along with senior guards Nikki Blue and Lisa Willis, who shined alongside the likes of Seimone Augustus at the World University Games, form one of the nation's top backcourts. 22. NC State (21-8, lost in first round): The Wolfpack graduated one starter but return all five leading scorers, all of whom averaged at least 8.2 points. Keep an eye, though, on senior guard Billie McDowell, who is still recovering from a torn ACL in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season. Key additions include transfer Gillian Goring, a 6-foot-7 center who originally signed with UConn but failed to meet NCAA eligibility requirements, and freshman Shayla Fields, whose high school jersey has already been retired after she led the state of North Carolina in scoring during her senior prep season (27.1 ppg). 23. Oklahoma (17-13, lost in first round): The Sooners were picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 and have three returning starters, including leading scorer Leah Rush. OU also returns 67 percent of its scoring, 69 percent of its rebounding and 78 percent of its 3-pointers made. But more than anything, OU is perhaps facing high expectations because of two new faces -- twin sisters Ashley (a 6-foot-3 forward) and Courtney (6-4 center) Paris, regarded as some as the biggest coup from last season's recruiting period. 24. Minnesota (26-8, lost in Sweet 16): Lindsay Whalen is long gone and so is Janel McCarville. But the Shannons -- senior guards Shannon Bolden and Shannon Schonrock -- are back and along with fellow tri-captain April Calhoun, give the Golden Gophers "the best leadership" coach Pam Borton has had. Minnesota, one of just six teams to reach at least the Sweet 16 each of the past three seasons, is loaded in the backcourt. Junior forward Jamie Broback, second last year in scoring and rebounding (14.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is expected to be the go-to Gopher, while Liz Podominick is expected to start at center. 25. Southern California (20-11, lost in second round): The Women of Troy played under the radar in 2004-05, yet finished with their first 20-win year since 1996-97 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. Mark Trakh, in his second season at USC, will continue to make waves with his very balanced yet young team. * UCLA did not qualify for last season's NCAA Tournament.