Four ranked teams to clash in Tip-Off Classic
Oklahoma is the host of Sunday's State Farm Tip-Off Classic, and it's also the one program of the four participating that doesn't have any real question marks.
That is, there are no worrisome queries concerning the Sooners, only fun ones. Before No. 3 Oklahoma takes on DePaul (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20 AP) at 3:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2), Sooners fans will be wondering things such as:
• How good are the freshmen going to be?
• Could Courtney Paris ever get 40 rebounds in a game?
• Will I get on television sitting here?
• Should I buy a pretzel or M&M's?
The Sooners bring back all five starters, plus have four other returning players from last season's team, which swept through the Big 12 regular season and tournament without a loss. The program has sold more than 8,000 season tickets, plus the Big 12 tournament will be in nearby Oklahoma City in March. These are some happy days in Norman, Okla., as coach Sherri Coale begins her 11th season with the Sooners.
One of the OU freshmen is 6-foot forward Amanda Thompson of Chicago. DePaul coach Doug Bruno acknowledged he would have loved to have kept Thompson "home" in the Windy City. Instead, she went to where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain.
Like OU, DePaul went to the Sweet 16 last season. DePaul has nine players back, but there's also a huge question: How will the Blue Demons do without Khara Smith?
She was DePaul's leading scorer and rebounder, someone who had become the program's signature player. She was drafted by San Antonio of the WNBA; Bruno called her a "mini-Courtney Paris."
He said senior Jenna Rubino and Allie Quigley, one of seven juniors on the team, need to lead the way at guard.
"Our key in the middle -- Caprice Smith -- is going to have to have a big season for us," Bruno said of the 6-foot-1 junior forward. "We have a very solid freshman class, it's a matter of when will they be able to contribute."
(We should note that one of those freshmen is named China Threatt. I hope she doesn't have dreams of becoming an international diplomat even if her surname is actually pronounced "ThrEEt.")
When asked about defending the Sooners -- a task which is considerably more than just defending Paris -- Bruno said, "I don't know if anybody in the country has a lot of real answers."
It so happened, though, that DePaul played in the San Antonio Regional last season, the same place where Stanford beat OU in the Sweet 16. So at least he can look at what the Cardinal did.
As for the opener Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN2), No. 9 Georgia meets Rutgers (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP. Don't expect either of them to appear even close to how they should in a couple of months. Since injury/graduation-loss issues are affecting both teams, though, it should at least make for a pretty even matchup and thus could be a good game.
Georgia lost its backcourt combo of Sherill Baker, who's with the New York Liberty now, and Alexis Kendrick. But fellow guard Cori Chambers returns for her senior season. Coach Andy Landers said Chambers is the player who has emerged the strongest thus far for Georgia.
"She's been terrific this fall with her teammates," he said. "Cori has been that person who has seemed to fire up our other players."
Georgia has multiple questions, though. Starting with how well the team can compensate for the loss of such quick, experienced and productive guards. Then there's the injury situation: five players are coming off surgeries in recent months.
One of them is 6-3 junior forward Tasha Humphrey, Georgia's leading scorer and rebounder last season, who had surgery on her kneecap. That, though, is only one issue with Humphrey; she has also been suspended for the first six games of the season after being charged with underage possession of alcohol.
(This has nothing to do with that, but I recently came across the fact that Humphrey's Gainesville (Ga.) High School team has the nickname "Lady Red Elephants." I mean, seriously.)
When Humphrey returns and gets into good game shape, she should have effective company in the paint: 6-5 Angel Robinson and 6-3 Rebecca Rowsey, who both missed last season with knee injuries.
"As the season goes on, we'll become a really good basketball team," Landers said. "In general we're not changing a great deal. Georgia has played the same way for a long time. We'd like a quick tempo hopefully, we'll be aggressive. We've been primarily a man-to-man team, one that forces turnovers and mistakes."
It was hard for opponents to do that against Rutgers the last few years, with Cappie Pondexter and Matee Ajavon in the backcourt. In fact, forcing others' mistakes was Rutgers' specialty.
Now, Pondexter is with the Phoenix Mercury and Ajavon is sidelined with an injury. She underwent surgery to repair a left tibial stress fracture, but is expected back this season.
That means only two starters from last season are available now: Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn. Carson, especially, is the player that coach C. Vivian Stringer will rely on heavily in the early part of the season. The Scarlet Knights have five freshmen, including Epiphanny Prince, who should become a great core group. But they need some time, obviously, to adjust to the college game.
"She probably will be the point guard until Matee gets back and I'm a little more comfortable with the freshmen," Stringer said. "[Sunday] will be a great test for us. Georgia always has an athletic and well-coached team. Our concern is the athleticism and quickness."
Oh, and as for the Sooners fans: Please come watch the first game. Show the nation that you are followers of the sport as a whole. You'll be there awhile so get the pretzel and the M&M's.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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