Commentary

Five burning questions for 2009-10

Originally Published: November 9, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

The Yankees' World Series victory unleashed the expected tidal wave of complaints. To wit, a franchise that greatly outspends every other and now has won 27 championships is a monolith that is "bad" for baseball because many fans of small-market teams, especially, might lose interest.

[+] EnlargeAngie Bjorklund
G Fiume/Getty ImagesAngie Bjorklund said it took time for some of Tennessee's freshmen to adjust to Pat Summitt's coaching style last season.

Which, in turn, prompts a significant counter from Yankees fans, who say, "Stop saying it's 'bad' for baseball … did you see how much better the TV ratings were than the Phillies-Rays World Series of 2008? Besides, we hadn't won the World Series since 2000. That's practically a lifetime! So shut up!"

All of this will rage on high heat for a while, then keep bubbling and boiling during baseball's offseason. But while the circumstances are different in many, many ways, hearing that debate reminds us of a grievance among women's college basketball fans.

Many of those who aren't partisan to UConn and Tennessee will complain that those two programs get too much publicity, they're sick of hearing about them and how "annoying" it is when they win NCAA titles. (Which they've done quite a lot.)

Now, not all non-fans of the Big Two say this … but there is a sizable contingent that no doubt already has rolled their eyes and thought, "Oh, barf. Another UConn-Tennessee story."

This really isn't that. But as we launch into the 2009-10 season, it's unavoidable that UConn and Tennessee will be prominent parts of the discussion … again. The two programs have, after all, combined to win 52 percent of the NCAA tournament titles (14 of 27).

However, last season, Tennessee did have what -- for that program -- amounted to a cataclysmic disappointment. Emotionally, the Orange Crush fans probably felt like it was the basketball equivalent to all that crazy-destruction stuff you see in the "2012" movie trailers.

Tennessee lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament? Really? And the world somehow didn't come to an end?

No, it didn't … although maybe it felt a bit like it for some Tennessee followers, especially with the compounding factor of UConn going on to finish a perfect season. The fact that Tennessee had won the previous two championships wasn't enough to comfort those fans.

So now as we're about to begin another season, standing on the starting line with -- as always -- more questions than answers, two of the primary subjects are you-know-who and you-know-who.

But there are other big questions, too, for 2009-10. Let's look at five of them:

1. Can UConn repeat as national champion?

Although he lives in New England, UConn coach Geno Auriemma has always liked the idea that his program has some New York Yankees elements to it. He prefers having a target on his back, he prefers the highest expectations, he prefers being No. 1. He doesn't even mind if his Huskies are considered "the bad guys" despite his famous reference to Tennessee as the evil empire. He long ago accepted the idea of not running away from the term "favorite."

[+] EnlargeCaroline Doty
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn had so much talent in 2008-09, even losing Caroline Doty midway through last season didn't cost the Huskies the NCAA title.

But none of that means he doesn't worry about what might go wrong, of course. Especially this season, in regard to replacing team leader Renee Montgomery at point guard, where Lorin Dixon has quite a lot to live up to.

The other Huskies starters besides Montgomery return from the 39-0 championship team of 2009: Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Kalana Greene and Tiffany Hayes. Back, also, is Caroline Doty, who started 17 games before suffering an ACL injury.

However, Auriemma offered a very good analogy as to why Montgomery's absence could be problematic.

"You can have all the ingredients sitting on the table," he said, "but if you don't know how to mix them, you're not going to like what you're cooking."

But if you have ingredients that good, you pretty much can't mess up the dish, right? Then again, only the cook really knows what goes on in the kitchen.

Quickly tiring of culinary comparisons? We'll offer this: If you have the best car in a race, what's the thing you're most concerned about? Getting involved in a wreck. Injuries are always a primary X factor in sports. Not just if they happen … but also if they don't.

UConn had enough talent that Doty's injury did not cost the Huskies a national championship. But the year before, Greene's injury after eight games was one of the factors that made UConn not quite as good a defensive team as it had been with her. And Stanford in the 2008 Final Four was able to take advantage of that.

So what's the answer to the question: Can UConn repeat? Of course it can. Whether the Huskies will, however, comes down to avoiding injuries (aka staying lucky) and not succumbing to a team that can exploit whatever small weakness they might have.

By the way, native New Yorker Charles is not a Yankees fan, but rather a Mets fan. Nonetheless, she said she was rooting for the Bronx Bombers in the World Series out of loyalty to her hometown. And maybe also because she appreciates being expected to do something great, and then living up to it.

"Somebody has to be No. 1, so we're happy it's us," Charles said. "But Coach always makes it hard for us in practice. He never let it sink in last year, 'We're undefeated.'

"We know how to deal with the pressure and expectations. We'd like to go undefeated again, but that's not the focal point. Last year, we just handled our business in each game as it came, and that's what we have to do again."

2. How strong is Stanford?

Not to bring up any bad mojo, but …

From 1995-97, Stanford went to the Final Four three consecutive years and didn't win a title. Then the Cardinal did not make it back to the Final Four until 2008, when they lost in the championship game to Tennessee. Last season, Stanford fell in the national semifinals to UConn.

[+] EnlargeJJ Hones
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireJJ Hones and Stanford seek a third consecutive trip to the Final Four.

And if the Cardinal make it to San Antonio this season …

Well, suffice to say coach Tara VanDerveer really would prefer not to relive 1997. She does not want to dwell too much on the past. This is -- again, if everyone stays relatively healthy -- one of her most talented teams, especially with its interior play.

That's led by 6-foot-4 center Jayne Appel, considered along with UConn's Charles as the top two seniors in the country. She's joined by 6-4 junior Kayla Pedersen, 6-2 sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike and 6-3 freshman Joslyn Tinkle.

"We can use different combinations of those players," VanDerveer said. "There are other people that will get some time, too, but those four are our main inside game, and it takes pressure off of Jayne."

Last season, Stanford lost point guard JJ Hones to a knee injury in November. That, combined with the graduation of Candice Wiggins, left the Cardinal more guard-thin than VanDerveer was comfortable with.

Hones is back, but VanDerveer still acknowledges Stanford's primary area of concern is its backcourt.

"It's not any secret that how far we go will depend on guard development," VanDerveer said. "Jeanette Pohlen, JJ Hones, Melanie Murphy, Ros Gold-Onwude and Lindy La Rocque. But I'll play Kayla at the 2 [shooting guard] if I have to.

"We have to have one point guard out there -- Kayla, Nneka [Ogwumike], Joclyn and Jayne can't do that. But we could have a really big team. Our guard development is coming along, but we need it to accelerate. The message to our guards is, 'You've got to get out there and compete.' We need more rebounding and better defense from our guards."

VanDerveer doesn't worry about being straightforward to the point of blunt with this group.

"I think as coaches we're different with this team," she said, comparing it to 2008-09. "We have a lot of people who have started a lot of games for us. This team is very serious and more competitive every day in practice.

"We went to the Final Four [in 2008] and everyone said, 'It was Candice's team.' Then Candice left and JJ went down, and it's not that we didn't have the goal, still, to get to the Final Four. But I think that when we went back, it was sort of like, 'Surprise! We're here.' Now, this team is deeper and more experienced than last year."

3. After UConn and Stanford, who are the other contenders?

Truth be told, going into last season's Final Four, the semifinal between the Huskies and Cardinal seemed more like it should have been the NCAA title game. As it turned out, though, even Stanford wasn't much of a match for UConn.

Entering this season, there is unanimous agreement that those are the top two teams again. But what about everyone else?

[+] EnlargeJantel Lavender
AP Photo/Terry Gilliam Jantel Lavender and Ohio State, a Sweet 16 team in 2008-09, have been ranked as high as third by some preseason publications.

It's not a strong senior class, unless additional players emerge in their final year to stand out more than they have so far. So there aren't necessarily many senior-led powerhouses who look to really threaten UConn or Stanford.

Yet there are intriguing teams -- many of which are going to be relying on younger players and/or those who are returning from missing last season due to an injury. Both of those things are the case with Notre Dame, which might have its best squad since the program's 2001 national title team. Not that coach Muffet McGraw is willing to go that far yet.

"We have had a number of Sweet 16 teams that this team is very similar to," she said. "We don't have the dominating presence in the post, like Ruth Riley, to think that we have a championship team right now. We feel like we can get to that point, but we really have to find our rotation and how we are going to play without a dominating center."

Ohio State returns its dynamic inside-outside combo of Jantel Lavender and Samantha Prahalis and is the Big Ten favorite. But Michigan State, Minnesota and old-reliable Purdue are also top teams in the league. The Spartans are the last Big Ten program to have made the Final Four, in 2005.

That was the year Baylor won the NCAA title. Kim Mulkey's crew will be a team to watch again this season, too. Baylor won the Big 12 tournament a year ago and advanced to the Sweet 16 before running out of steam.

Mulkey brought in what's rated as the top freshman class, led by 6-8 dunking sensation Brittney Griner. Baylor lost a lot of senior leadership but was still picked by the coaches to win the Big 12 -- in part because of what's expected from the rookies and in part because there is no obvious favorite in the league.

Oklahoma advanced to the program's second Final Four last season and graduated the Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley. But the Sooners still have an excellent backcourt returning in Danielle Robinson and Whitney Hand.

In the ACC, archrivals North Carolina and Duke are expected to once again battle for the conference championship. The Tar Heels have the projected top freshman in the league in guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. UNC, always loaded with talent, is not sure of the status of senior forward Jessica Breland, who has been battling Hodgkin's lymphoma since the summer and might redshirt the season.

LSU, which last year had to rebuild after the program went to the Final Four five seasons in a row, is expected to be a top contender again, led by Allison Hightower.

Then there's that other program in the SEC …

4. What can we expect from Tennessee?

Angie Bjorklund talks about 2008-09 this way: The season was like a roller coaster made up of games that were like a roller coaster made up of possessions that were like a roller coaster.

[+] EnlargeShekinna Stricklen
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireShekinna Stricklen is one of Tennessee's top ball handlers.

Up and down, minute to minute. A good thing, followed by a bad thing, followed by a good thing, followed by …

In 2007-08, she was a freshman on a national championship team. As a sophomore, she lost in the first round to Ball State; that was the only one of Pat Summitt's Tennessee teams to fall before the NCAA Sweet 16.

"It was a real learning experience for everyone," Bjorklund said. "At times, definitely difficult. I think a lot of players didn't understand what it means to play here. You don't put on orange and just automatically win. It takes everyone investing every day.

"It was like we were running uphill in a sense last year. Because Coach would get on someone about something, and a lot of our younger players took that personally and didn't know how to respond to it. And I take that upon myself, because I'd already been through a year. I should have been leading them a lot more."

Tough self-critic. When she talks about "young players," Bjorklund excluded herself even though she was only a sophomore then. Tennessee had lost five senior starters, led by Candace Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike, from the 2008 title team.

There was an influx of freshmen, and another sophomore, post Vicki Baugh, never fully recovered from a knee injury she'd suffered in the national championship game. Thus, Tennessee struggled with a lack of experience in a season in which several other SEC teams were more experienced.

Baugh's status for this season is still uncertain.

"With Vicki coming off two ACL injuries on the same knee, it's important that we not rush this," Summitt said. "I told her, 'If you decide you don't want to play this year, you've got my total support. I want you to get on the court when you can say you really feel you're ready.'"

Summitt thinks 6-6 sophomore Kelley Cain will be a primary option and, overall, she feels good about the post game -- and pretty much everything else, including the maturation of two other sophomores, Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson.

"I think we can be very strong," Summitt said. "I'm excited about it, very optimistic. If we can stay healthy, we can be in the hunt. All you've got to do is look at the schedule we're playing, and if that doesn't motivate you to work every day, then you don't belong here."

Going through the hills and valleys of last season is not the only thing that created a strong tie between the Tennessee players who are back. There was also the frightening situation teammate Amber Gray went through this summer.

She had rotator cuff surgery in July, but later a brain aneurysm was discovered. Gray suffered a stroke and underwent neurosurgery. She's in the process of what doctors call a remarkable recovery and is back in school, hoping sometime in the future to return to playing.

"It's amazing how close the players are now," Summitt said of the emotional reaction to what Gray has endured. "You can just see how they have bonded with each other."

5. What might we see from the nation's freshmen this season?

Baylor's Griner has been a YouTube sensation for a while already because of her dunking prowess in high school.

Brittney Griner
AP Photo/Baylor Photography/Robert RogersBaylor freshman Brittney Griner, who dunked in Saturday's exhibition game, had 52 dunks in 32 games as a high school senior.

"I think the only dunk I've not seen her do is the windmill," Mulkey said. "But there's more to Brittney Griner than just dunking the basketball. What she is learning is the intensity that she has to play with and practice with every day. She's learning she's got to move her feet and guard people."

In those ways, she sounds like every other college freshman. Can rookies make a huge impact? Of course they can … but even the very best of them has some kind of learning curve.

One thing Skylar Diggins won't have to learn as a Notre Dame freshman is finding her way around South Bend, Ind., because that's her hometown. The recruit the Irish couldn't bear to lose did not, in fact, go away.

"Skylar wants to play well for the fans," McGraw said. "I think it may take her a little bit of time just to relax and get into her game. With five starters back, the impact is going to be a little bit less. She will certainly make her presence known, but she is going to have a lot of help."

Kelsey Bone didn't stay close to home the way Diggins did. Bone left Houston -- after being pursued by all the schools in her home state -- for South Carolina. However, another top post from Texas, along with Houston's Griner, did remain in the Lone Star State: Cokie Reed of Waco will suit up for the Texas Longhorns.

Two other star freshmen who represent both sides of that coin -- to stay close to home or go elsewhere -- are Stanford's Tinkle and Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, who will make her long-awaited college hoops debut.

Delle Donne, of course, originally signed with UConn as the top prep player from the class of 2008. She later acknowledged she did not want to be that far from her Delaware home, though, and spent last year playing for the Blue Hens' volleyball program.

Now she has returned to hoops, completing what has been one of the more intriguing paths of any elite women's basketball recruit.

As for Tinkle, she had quite a pull to stay in Missoula, Mont. Both of her parents played for Montana, where her father, Wayne, is currently head coach of the men's program.

"I give Joslyn a lot of credit, because there was a lot of pressure on her and her family for her to stay at Montana," VanDerveer said. "That would have been an easy and a good decision. It's a beautiful place and Robin Selvig has a tremendous program. But she just wanted a different experience.

"I would put Kayla and Jayne in a blender, and that's Joslyn. She has more of a post-up game than Kayla and more of perimeter game than Jayne. She is physical and tough. A lot of it is, 'Can she learn everything quickly enough to come in and help us right away?' We're cramming with her to learn out of bounds plays and sets, but she is going to play a lot for us."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.