Backcourt, Vaughn could carry Rutgers long way

Updated: October 20, 2005, 7:50 AM ET
By Peter Newmann | Special to ESPN.com

College basketball is a guard's game, and the best guards in the women's game reside at the State University of New Jersey, also known as Rutgers.

RUTGERS TIDBITS
Key additions:
Kia Vaughn, fr., 6-4
Sammeika Thrash, fr., 6-1

Key losses:
Chelsea Newton, 9.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg
Nikki Jett, 5.2 ppg, 0.9 rpg

Projected starters:
G -- Cappie Pondexter
G -- Matee Ajavon
F -- Essense Carson
F -- Michelle Campbell
C -- Kia Vaughn

Cappie Pondexter, one of the five most talented players in the country, is the anchor, assuming the role of team leader with the departure of Chelsea Newton. Known primarily for her intangibles, Newton was the Scarlet Knights' heart and soul last season. She was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and started every game for the WNBA champion Sacramento Monarchs.

Newton will be missed, but Matee Ajavon helps make up for the loss. Ajavon, last season's Big East Freshman of the Year, showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, leading Rutgers in assists and steals. She should take on a bigger role this season and emerge and the secondary scoring option behind Pondexter.

A major coup for coach C. Vivian Stringer -- whose Scarlet Knights were ranked fifth in ESPN.com's preseason top 25 poll -- was signing 6-foot-4 freshman center Kia Vaughn. Her addition will transform the team; it allows Michelle Campbell, the Big East's Most Improved Player, to slide to her natural power forward position and Essence Carson to slide to her natural position at small forward.

The real key, however, is Vaughn's size and athleticism. She will head Stringer's vaunted 55-press, which employs numerous full-court traps and presses.

With one of the premier backcourts in the country and a more talented inside game, the Scarlet Knights should have another exceptional season. The team does have a few weaknesses, though. Rutgers finished second in the nation last season in points per game allowed (51.3). But Newton and Nikki Jett, who also graduated, were perhaps the Scarlet Knights' top two defenders.

Rutgers' biggest weaknesses are depth and finding someone who can provide leadership and the other intangibles Newton provided. Pondexter and Ajavon will be better, and the addition of Vaughn will be felt immediately.

Rutgers has a tremendously talented starting five, but can three-time All-American Pondexter shoulder the load and take the team to the Final Four in her final season? With Stringer at the helm, the answer very well could be yes.

Peter Newmann is the college basketball researcher for ESPN. He can be reached at peter.d.newmann@espn.com.

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