Commentary

Perennial favorites still on top -- except in Pac-10?

Updated: November 5, 2007, 6:39 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

The ACC graduated two of the game's greatest point guards. The Pac-10 just might be gaining ground on perennial West Coast favorite Stanford. And Van's the man in Baton Rouge.

A look at what's new, what has changed and who are the favorites as the 2007-08 women's college basketball season opens:

ACC

Expect Maryland to be more like the 2006 national championship team than last season's group that was bounced in the NCAA Tournament's second round. Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper are a terrific low-post combo. With Marissa Coleman, Kristi Toliver, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and newcomer Marah Strickland, the backcourt depth and athleticism run deep. Keep an eye on the pregnancy of coach Brenda Frese, who should be delivering twins around the ACC tournament.

North Carolina should be fine at point guard, with three players replacing All-American Ivory Latta. The Tar Heels will still be fast and the defense will still be disruptive. If Erlana Larkins gets enough touches, Carolina could be right back at the Final Four.

Longtime coach Gail Goestenkors is gone from Duke, but the Blue Devils still have their eyes on the big prize in Tampa, Fla., site of the 2008 Final Four. Abby Waner should see more scoring opportunities, and the return of 6-foot-5 center Chante Black helps, too. Arriving freshmen Jasmine Thomas and Crystal Thomas (no relation) are already creating a buzz around Durham.

The ACC runs deeper still. A much-improved Virginia team also will compete for the league title, and point guard Sharnee Zoll is poised to break Dawn Staley's ACC assist record later this season. Florida State has just about everybody back from the program's first Sweet 16 team. Georgia Tech won its first NCAA Tournament game last season and adds a top-10 recruiting class to an already deep roster built for speed.

Big East

Another Big East crown would make it 15 years in a row that Connecticut has captured a regular-season or tournament title. But the Huskies faithful would rather have a national championship this season. None of the current team members have cut down the nets in April, but the entire starting five does return, each with double-figure scoring averages. High school phenom Maya Moore adds to the great expectations in Storrs.

Rutgers has a full complement of talent returning from the group that reached April's national championship game. The Scarlet Knights' backcourt of Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson is second to none, and the fearsome 55 defense destroys the opponent's ability to score.

The Big East's third-place spot could come down to the backyard-brawl games between Pitt and West Virginia. They've both got their best teams in school history ready to tip it off. The clubs are loaded with upperclassmen and return key individuals from injury (Pitt's Mallorie Winn and the Mountaineers' Meg Bulger).

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame should also be in the Big East chase, with rising star Charel Allen and a super sophomore class. Louisville, with reigning conference Player of the Year Angel McCoughtry, and DePaul, with its fast-paced attack, are also in the mix.

Big Ten

Ohio State has the inside track on a fourth consecutive Big Ten title, which hasn't been done since the Iowa dynasty of the mid-1980s. The backcourt of point guard Maria Moeller, 3-point shooter Marscilla Packer and the versatile Star Allen is solid. The Buckeyes are also big with 6-5 Andrea Walker and 6-4 freshman Jantel Lavender.

After OSU, the Big Ten is wide open. Iowa has a shot at preventing that fourth Buckeye title. The Hawkeyes have five starters back. Guard Kristi Smith and center Megan Skouby should help Iowa rise from an eighth-place conference finish last season.

Wisconsin is ready to make a move after a trip to the WNIT finals last year. All-America candidate Jolene Anderson led the Big Ten in scoring last season and spent the summer with USA Basketball. Backcourt mate Janese Banks gives the Badgers a second 1,000-point scorer.

Big Ten tournament champion Purdue has been hurt by graduation and injuries and begins the season with just one returning starter. Michigan State, under new coach Suzy Merchant, will build around 6-9 sophomore shot blocker Allyssa DeHaan.

Big 12

Expect another great race in Big 12 country, where it wouldn't be totally surprising to see Texas A&M and Oklahoma split the regular-season and tournament titles again this year.

The preseason nod goes to Texas A&M because the Aggies swept OU last season. Texas A&M enjoyed the most successful season in school history and has a chance to be even better. The Aggies are small but speedy with a backcourt that can steal and score. Oklahoma, however, has the advantage inside over just about any opponent it faces. Center Courtney Paris is ready to repeat as Associated Press Player of the Year. A new supporting cast will have to step up for a trip to the Final Four, though.

Baylor graduated its top player from last season (Bernice Mosby), but the next six are all back, including point guard Angela Tisdale. Meanwhile, the Gail Goestenkors era is under way at Texas. A 20-win season and an NCAA invitation are not out of the question. A handful of players with impressive résumés are returning from injury, including former national high school player of the year Erika Arriaran.

Pac-10

The Stanford streak could come to an end this year at the hands of Bay Area rival California. Though local media picked Stanford to win its eighth consecutive Pac-10 title, the Bears get the nod here as the conference's top preseason team. Pac-10 Player of the Year Devanei Hampton controls the frontline with fellow forward Ashley Walker. The two combined for 33 points and 16 rebounds last season, and those numbers could be even better with the return of point guard Alexis Gray-Lawson. She suffered a season-ending knee injury nine games into last season following a Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honor in 2006.

Still, we all know better than to totally count out the Cardinal. Stanford must bounce back from a stunning home court loss in the second round of last season's NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal certainly have the talent to make amends, with three-time Kodak All-American Candice Wiggins back for her last shot at her first Final Four. Youngsters like guard JJ Hones and center Jayne Appel make them dangerous.

Arizona State knocked on the Final Four door a year ago, falling in the Elite Eight, the best finish in school history. The Sun Devils are stocked with perimeter talent, and new transfers from Tennessee and Minnesota should ease the loss of frontcourt tandem Emily Westerberg and Aubree Johnson.

SEC

It's good to be a Tennessee fan right now. The Lady Vols are the defending national champion and the favorite to repeat. They ran the table in the SEC regular season and could do it again with Olympic hopeful Candace Parker leading the way. She has the ability to take over games with her ballhandling skills, speed, agility and a myriad of moves around the basket. Quick point guard Shannon Bobbitt, versatile swing player Alexis Hornbuckle and rebounding machine Nicky Anosike also figure into the Lady Vols' front-runner status.

The question in Baton Rouge, La., is this: Is Van the man? Can Van Chancellor lead LSU back to the Final Four for a fifth straight season, and more importantly, can he finally lead the Lady Tigers to the championship game? Nine seniors hope he can, including All-American Sylvia Fowles, point guard Erica White and sharp-shooter Quianna Chaney.

Georgia is in position to have the folks in Athens once again saying, "How 'bout them Dogs?" Mobile forward Tasha Humphrey has surrounded herself with a trio of sensational sophomores to push for an SEC title.

Coach Nell Fortner's time has arrived at Auburn with five starters back from her WNIT team of a year ago. The Tigers will know exactly where they stand in early January with games against Tennessee, LSU and Georgia. Kentucky will continue to rise with new coach Matthew Mitchell, four starters back and a top-10 recruiting class.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.