- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Wondering who the favorites and contenders are in the major conferences? Here's a look at who and what to watch for this season, from the ACC to the SEC:
Contenders: North Carolina, Duke
Keep an eye on: NC State, Florida State
The ACC is by far the toughest conference in the country this season. Just seven months ago, three of the league's teams reached the Final Four, where Maryland emerged as the NCAA champion. The Terps and North Carolina and Duke are contenders again for the national title.
Maryland must be regarded as the preseason ACC favorite. North Carolina has the best point guard in the nation in Ivory Latta, and Duke also has one of the top five point guards in the country in senior Lindsey Harding. But the Terps get eight players and all five starters back from last season's championship team and also add a top-10 recruiting class.
Crystal Langhorne leads the way. The program's first All-American since 1989, Langhorne is one of the nation's top five centers and led Maryland in scoring (17.2 ppg) and rebounding (8.6) last season. Then there's versatile sophomore Marissa Coleman, the only freshman to earn All-ACC accolades last season; sophomore point guard Kristi Toliver (could she have hit bigger shots at the Final Four?); ever-steady senior two-guard Shay Doron; and junior post Laura Harper, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Transfers Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (Tennessee) and Christie Marrone (Virginia Tech) only make Maryland that much more imposing on paper.
The big question now is how the Terps can repeat. Maryland had such great team chemistry last year. But now the Terps are adding a lot of talent to the mix, particularly in Wiley-Gatewood. She's a dynamic player but transferred because she didn't think she was getting enough playing time -- or publicity -- at Tennessee. Could this create chemistry issues for a team that is already loaded with talent, not to mention an intact starting lineup? Of course. So now, the onus is on Wiley-Gatewood to blend in with the team and find her role.
Harding will find out very quickly that her role at Duke must change if the Blue Devils are going to be successful this season. Though Harding increased her per-game scoring average by nearly four points last season to 10.7, she'll need to do even more. An incredibly gifted floor leader who averaged about 4.5 assists as a junior, Harding must be more of a scoring point guard, not just a distributor.
North Carolina has one of the best trios in the nation in seniors Latta and Camille Little and junior Erlana Larkins. They combined to average 44 points per game last season, with Latta's 18.4 ppg leading the way.
The Tar Heels were deemed the favorite last year heading into March, and even if they finish second in the ACC, they'll likely be one of the biggest contenders for a No. 1 seed again.
Latta is an incredible point guard and no doubt eager to return to the court after losing to the Terps in the national semifinals. In that game, she suffered a torn meniscus in her left knee but kept playing -- missing all nine of her shots. She had surgery in the spring to repair the cartilage.
Though the bottom of the ACC is weak, the league's top five teams -- which also includes NC State and Florida State -- can play with anyone in the country.
Contenders: Rutgers, DePaul
Keep an eye on: Louisville, South Florida, West Virginia
For the first time in a long time, the best player in the Big East might not hail from UConn, Notre Dame or Rutgers. That's because Jessica Dickson of South Florida is back for her senior season.
Dickson enters the season as the top returning scorer in the nation after averaging 22 points per game last season. In fact, Dickson challenged LSU's Seimone Augustus for the nation's scoring title, leading the country in scoring for 11 weeks before ultimately finishing third. The 5-11 senior forward is excellent at driving inside or hitting the 3-pointer.
Still, for all of Dickson's individual talent, UConn is again expected to be the Big East's top team -- despite not having a single senior on the roster or a returning All-American. The Huskies looked fantastic in their exhibition opener, a 101-87 win against Team Concept -- a group that included Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Junior Charde Houston, who was plagued by inconsistency last season after a promising freshman campaign, tallied 30 points and 19 rebounds. She must stay focused this season for UConn to be successful after graduating the likes of Ann Strother.
Another big key to UConn's success might be the backcourt play of junior Mel Thomas and Renee Montgomery. Last season's Big East freshman of the year, Montgomery really came on at the end of last season and is one of the top point guards in the nation. She is ready for a breakout season. Thomas, meanwhile, has improved more than any other UConn player since her freshman year. That's not to overlook her All-American accolades from high school; it's just that Thomas has a great feel for the game that is sometimes hard to quantify. She's very smart and tough and a good leader.
Everyone is looking forward to seeing another high school All-American, Tina Charles, play her first official game for UConn. The national prep player of the year, Charles is the most anticipated player in the freshman class. Charles, who led Christ The King (N.Y.) to back-to-back national high school titles her last two seasons, is a dominating forward who can dunk and is sure to have an immediate impact in Storrs, Conn.
The biggest question facing the Huskies is the health of 6-3 Brittany Hunter; according to The Hartford Courant, Hunter has suffered a small tear in the meniscus of her surgically repaired right knee. Hunter -- who underwent surgery two years ago to replace the lateral meniscus and had arthroscopic surgery on the same knee in November 2003 while still at Duke -- has participated in some drills since the injury and hasn't yet decided whether to undergo another arthroscopic surgery that would likely sideline her for six weeks.
An injury at Rutgers also keys heavily into the Scarlet Knights' expectations. Junior Matee Ajavon, one of the best two-guards in the country, is out until at least January as she continues to recover from offseason surgery. That loss alone will be tough for Rutgers to overcome, not to mention the fact that All-American Cappie Pondexter has moved on to the WNBA. Pondexter was pivotal in Rutgers' 16-0 run through the Big East last season en route to the regular-season title.
In addition to Ajavon, Rutgers relies on 6-0 junior guard Essence Carson (8.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.6 apg last year) and 6-4 sophomore post Kia Vaughn (6.3 ppg and team-high 7.0 rpg and 2.1 bpg). But like UConn, the Scarlet Knights have no seniors. The roster includes five freshmen, three sophomores and three juniors, and in typical C. Vivian Stringer fashion, some very high-profile recruits are on board. Delaquese "Dee Dee" Jernigan, a 5-11 guard, is great off the dribble and a good rebounder who already possesses a strong body and a nice outside shot. And 5-9 guard Epiphanny Prince is already well-known; she broke Cheryl Miller's 24-year-old, single-game national scoring record in October 2005 with 113 points (on 54-of-60 shooting, including four 3-pointers). Prince averaged 42.1 points per league game as a senior.
DePaul also needs to find a way to win after graduating its biggest star from a team that went 27-7 and reached its first Sweet 16. Overcoming Khara Smith's absence won't be easy; she led the Blue Demons in scoring, rebounding (averaged a double-double) and steals last season.
Still, DePaul returns its four other starters, including some great outside shooters. Allie Quigley and Jenna Rubino were second and third, respectively, in team scoring last season, combining for 27 points per game and 113 3-pointers. And keep an eye on 5-11 sophomore guard Holly Medley. She really came on strong toward the end of last season and set a school record in the NCAA Tournament with six steals vs. LSU. Allie's younger sister, Samantha Quigley, also joins the team.
Jazz Covington and Louisville also will continue to make waves in the Big East this season. But the Cardinals have to do it without Missy Taylor, who in September tore the MCL in her left knee. Taylor, a starter the past two seasons, was the Cardinals' second-leading scorer in 2005-06, averaging 9.7 points per game. She really helped open things up for Covington, and Taylor's 3-point shot prevented opposing defenses from collapsing on the gifted 6-2 senior center. Coach Tom Collen does get three of his top four scorers back, though.
West Virginia could be a surprise factor if Meg Bulger is able to return from a knee injury. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Villanova, though the Wildcats have been inconsistent the past few years.
Favorite: Ohio State
Contenders: Purdue, Michigan State
Keep an eye on: Iowa, Penn State
The Big Ten has two outstanding teams and four others that could make a run for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Jessica Davenport (62 percent shooting from the field) is the best player in the conference and one of the nation's top players, not to mention one of the best five centers. Ohio State runs everything through her. However, the Buckeyes have a lot to prove after ending last season on a disappointing note. The Buckeyes were a No. 1 seed but were upset by eighth-seeded Boston College 79-69 to become the first top seed eliminated in the second round since Texas Tech in 1998.
Look for senior Brandie Hoskins (reigning Big Ten tournament MVP) and junior Marscilla Packer (79 3-pointers on 46 percent accuracy) to continue to be big factors, as well. Coach Jim Foster says Packer "has never shot the ball better" and Hoskins is "better than she has ever been," despite undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' tendon suffered in the final minutes of that loss to BC in late March.
Perhaps the biggest question is how quickly Maria Moeller can adjust to the college game and make things happen for the Buckeyes as a freshman starting point guard. Still, Foster is a tremendous coach who added a great recruiting class. His team won't lack for motivation and is very disciplined.
Purdue should be Ohio State's biggest challenge for the league's top spot. Sharon Versyp might be in her first season as the Boilermakers' coach, but she's very familiar with the Big Ten. Versyp, a 1989 Purdue graduate, coached Indiana to a 19-14 record last season. Prior to coaching the Hoosiers, Versyp led Maine (2000-05) to a 98-51 record and three straight America East regular-season titles.
Plus, Versyp has the luxury of inheriting talents like Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless. Gearlds is one of the top five three-players in the country. She's big, strong and incredibly versatile, with the ability to post you inside or take you outside. Gearlds also is deflecting the spotlight toward junior teammate Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton.
"Lindsay is a Kodak All-American. She's that good," Gearlds said in the Journal and Courier. "She could easily have 20 points and 10 rebounds every night because she's that physically gifted. Her athletic ability is beyond anyone I've ever seen. You can see it in her eyes that she wants it a little bit more this year."
Wisdom-Hylton has been a tremendous defender but seems to be developing a more high-octane offense. A product of Naperville, Ill., Wisdom-Hylton has often played in the shadow of Tennessee's Candace Parker. But this might be the season Wisdom-Hylton truly breaks onto the national scene.
When Penn State has been discussed nationally recently, it's because the Lady Lions are embroiled in controversy with the Jennifer Harris vs. Rene Portland lawsuit. And to be honest, after going 13-16 last season, the first losing season since Portland took over Penn State in 1980-81, there haven't been a whole lot of expectations in University Park, Pa.
Senior forward/center Amanda Brown and Ohio State's Davenport were the only Big Ten players to finish in the top 10 in the conference in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage. For the second straight season, Brown -- a native of the Montreal, Quebec -- played with the Canada Senior National Team at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in September.
Contenders: Texas A&M, Texas
Keep an eye on: Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri
Though the conference is the weakest it has been in awhile, that shouldn't take away from how great Oklahoma is. The Sooners return everyone and really have every opportunity to win their first national championship.
Like Maryland, the Sooners are big, strong and experienced. Really, they have everything -- superstars, shooters, one of the most dominant posts in the country (if not the best overall) and a really nice recruiting class with three of the top-50 recruits.
The biggest mistake people make about OU, however, is that it's the Courtney Paris show. While the All-American rewrote rebounding record books last season and posted a double-double in nearly every game, the Sooners have a lot more to offer. For starters, twin sister Ashley Paris would start for most teams.
The backcourt features senior guards Erin Higgins (8.8 ppg last season) and Chelsi Welch (9.1 ppg); there's also senior forward Leah Rush (10.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Higgins is the team's best 3-point threat (88 last season at a 41 percent clip). Welch and Rush -- who in my opinion is the team's unsung hero -- each added 31 3-pointers. And senior Britney Brown is a very good ballhandler (154 assists and just 86 turnovers last year).
OU's biggest challengers likely come from the state of Texas. Gary Blair has done a wonderful job at Texas A&M, just as we all expected. Coming off a 23-9 season that resulted in a third-place finish in the Big 12 and a return to the Top 25, the Aggies tied their highest-ever national ranking Wednesday with the No. 14 spot in the AP Top 25. In fact, 12 years had passed since the last time Texas A&M appeared in the AP preseason poll.
There's good reason to be excited about this team. After reaching the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 1996, the Aggies are an up-tempo squad that didn't lose any starters and added four solid recruits. Morenike Atunrase (14.0 ppg) leads the way and is a two-guard who shouldn't be overlooked. Atunrase, Takia Starks and A'Quonesia Franklin each hit at least 31 3-pointers last season. The Aggies are here to stay -- they have only two seniors on their roster.
Texas, another team with some talented underclassmen, is coming off a year riddled with injuries. If everyone stays healthy and Tiffany Jackson has the sort of year we've come to expect from her, the Longhorns should be back in the NCAA Tournament.
The real key is freshman Brittainey Raven. For as much as injuries dashed the Longhorns' high expectations last season, their real Achilles' heel was the lack of a legitimate point guard. Raven should solve that problem this season. Equally impressive handling the ball and shooting it, Raven also is explosive off the dribble and will get after you defensively. And somehow, she has a smile on her face the entire time.
Don't hold last season against Texas. Because of the injuries, too many kids were forced to play out of position -- and coach Jody Conradt was forced to play kids who weren't quite ready to step up. Conradt has the biggest test of all, actually. Longtime associate head coach Karen Ashton left for a similar position at Baylor after eight years in Austin. Ashton is an amazing recruiter who helped resurrect Conradt's program, and she should be considered as valuable as Mickie DeMoss was at Tennessee or Chris Dailey is at UConn.
Contenders: Arizona State, Cal, Washington
Stanford is absolutely the favorite out West, though the Pac-10 has at least four teams which should be capable of getting into the NCAA Tournament. One of the things that hurts the conference is that outside of Stanford, Cal, Washington and Arizona State, the rest of the league plays a weak nonconference schedule.
Candice Wiggins remains the key for Stanford. The two-time reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year is one of the top five players in the country and is surrounded by talent, starting with Brooke Smith, one of the nation's top centers who's a very traditional post, down to a hook shot she can hit with her left or right hand. Kristen Newlin combines with Smith inside for one imposing frontline; the Cardinal have seven players who are 6-1 or taller.
The biggest buzz in Palo Alto, though, is around freshman Jayne Appel. The MVP of the McDonald's High School All-America All-Star Game in San Diego, Appel might remind Cardinal fans of Smith. Appel has nice step-through moves and countermoves and is a good rebounder and passer. She has a solid face-up shot from 15 feet and in, and she is a good athlete. Appel ranks third all-time in California with 680 career blocks and fifth in career rebounds with 1,707. Appel was largely regarded as the No. 2 recruit behind UConn's Tina Charles. JJ Hones and Michelle Harrison also were top-50 recruits.
Just down the road, Cal will be tested early and often this season, with 11 teams on the Golden Bears' schedule that played in last year's NCAA Tournament, plus four more opponents that were WNIT teams last spring.
That's a great step in the right direction for Cal. The Bears went 18-12 last season, reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993 and return three starters for a good outlook in 2006-07.
Washington also has an interesting schedule, including Purdue, Ohio State, Texas A&M and Florida State. The Huskies have five returning starters, though they're already battling injuries to some key players.
Arizona State gets four starters back, including the very talented Emily Westerberg. The Sun Devils tied the school record last season with 25 wins and established a school mark for Pac-10 victories (14) and highest ranking (ninth).
ASU, which reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, also was unbeatable at home (15-0). Watch out for freshman Dymond Simon (is that a great name or what?), a lightning-quick guard.
Keep an eye on: Kentucky, LSU, Vanderbilt, South Carolina
Talk to Pat Summitt and the Tennessee coach will tell you that this season's Lady Vols are a lot better than last season. Never mind graduating the program's best 3-point shooter in Shanna Zolman, a physical post in Tye'sha Fluker or the fact that five players on the roster a year ago -- including three players who transferred away -- are gone.
Of course, if you had all-everything Candace Parker on your team, you'd have a lot to get excited about, too. Parker, a Kodak All-American last year as a redshirt freshman, is the most multidimensional player in the country and, Summitt promises, is even better now. For starters, Parker spent the summer with USA Basketball at the World Championship. The only collegian to represent Team USA (and the youngest member of the squad since 1994), Parker played alongside veterans such as Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, gaining invaluable experience while finishing third among U.S. women in scoring (12.8 ppg) and setting a USA World Championship record for blocked shots in the competition (Parker's 14 surpassed three-time Olympian Katrina McClain-Johnson's 11 in 1990).
Since last season, Parker also has gained a new commitment to defense and can now "defend 94 feet," Summitt said. Combined with Parker's ability to play all five positions on the floor, she's easily one of the front-runners for national player of the year.
The biggest question facing Tennessee is what sort of talent surrounds Parker; for now, Tennessee looks to be lacking its usual depth. Junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle will combine with Parker to shoulder most of the load, though Summitt is high on junior college transfers Shannon Bobbitt (5-2 point guard) and Alberta Auguste (5-11 junior post). They are just the second and third juco players in Summitt's three decade-plus tenure. Bobbitt reminds Summitt of Temeka Johnson and Ivory Latta, though Bobbitt might be even quicker than Johnson. And in true Tennessee tradition, Auguste is a great defender. "Wait until you see them," Summitt said. Plus, freshman point guard Cait McMahan is expected to return to practice this week after undergoing surgery to clean up her right knee on Oct. 20.
Still, it's time for some old faces, particularly posts Nicky Anosike, Alex Fuller and Dominique Redding, to use their size and experience. The Lady Vols should have a talented frontcourt -- now it's time to see if they can get it done. Senior forward Sidney Spencer has been versatile and is another anchor in Knoxville.
At Georgia, coach Andy Landers is entering his 27th year. He has won more SEC games and conference titles than anyone except Summitt, and his Lady Bulldogs have the best chance of catching the Lady Vols in the SEC race this season.
Georgia starts out at a disadvantage, though, as Tasha Humphrey will miss the first six games, suspended after being charged for underage possession of alcohol. She is one of the top 10 players in the country, and the Lady Dogs will miss her. They do, however, get back Rebecca Rowsey, a 6-3 forward who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL in late August 2005, and redshirt freshman Angel Robinson, who also missed 2005-06 after a torn ACL suffered in Georgia's exhibition opener last year.
Last season, Georgia had one of the best backcourts in the country and returns a strong duo in Janese Hardrick and Cori Chambers, who is one of the top five two-guards in the nation.
Kentucky has a lot to build on -- and prove -- after a breakthrough year. Last season included many highlights -- the Wildcats' 22 wins were the most in 16 years, plus they earned their first NCAA bid in seven years and reached the second round. But the one most people remember is Kentucky's 66-63 win over Tennessee on Jan. 26 to become just the fourth unranked team in women's NCAA history to knock off the nation's No. 1.
Coach Mickie DeMoss, an ace recruiter, has done an incredible job. Her team has gotten better every season, and with all five starters back, Year No. 4 could be really special.
Returning leading scorer Samantha Mahoney, an All-SEC second-team pick last season (11.9 ppg), is an explosive 5-10 guard who can score inside and out. But keep an eye, too, on 6-6 junior Sarah Elliott, 6-3 junior Eleia Roddy and 6-1 sophomore Jenn'e Jackson. These posts are playing with a lot of confidence after last season's experience.
LSU has plenty of recent experience, coming off three straight trips to the Final Four. Only this time, Seimone Augustus has moved on to the WNBA and the spotlight is shining brightly on Sylvia Fowles and Erica White. Fowles is right up there with Humphrey as the SEC's best post, and White showed last year she's a capable point guard. Though she didn't make our final list, I voted for White as one of the top five point guards in the nation.
For as much as LSU will miss Augustus -- the two-time national player of the year -- and her 22.7 points per game, don't underestimate how important Scholanda (Hoston) Dorrell, who helped the Monarchs reach the WNBA Finals this past summer, was to this team last season. Hoston hit 40 3-pointers last season (the only Tiger to sink more than 20).
Without an outside threat to help open things up in the paint, or that superstar beside her to draw most of the attention, Fowles' production and offense could be hindered.
Still, with just two starters back, the pressure is actually more on coach Pokey Chatman, who did bring in some great recruits in freshmen Allison Hightower and Porsha Phillips and juco transfer Mesha Williams.
Considering the Commodores reached the Sweet 16 in 2005, they are coming off a disappointing '05-06 season. Vanderbilt finished sixth in the conference race and lost to Georgia in the second round of the SEC tournament. Then, in the NCAA Tournament, UNC blew out the Commodores in the second-round by 19 points.
Take a look at the SEC stats and it's easy to see where Vandy fell short. In almost every key statistical category, the Commodores were average. And in rebounding, they ranked last with a paltry 33.1 boards per game.
There were some bright spots, however, as the Commodores ranked second in field-goal (.479) and free-throw percentage (.765). Among the key returners are senior Dee Davis, another one of my top five point guards, who led the SEC with 6.84 assists per game last season; junior center Liz Sherwood, who shot a conference-best 64.2 percent; and senior guard Caroline Williams, who led the league with nearly three 3-pointers per game and was second in 3-point percentage (.444).
Overall, the SEC's top five teams should be very strong, and South Carolina could have the best team it's had in awhile.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Wondering who the favorites are in the major conferences? Here's an ACC to SEC look at who and what to watch for this season.