Sleeper teams like Va. Tech in for another rude awakening

Perennial powers set to dominate again, with Big East leading the way

National women's preview


Sleeper actors in Hollywood are said to have three stages of fame. The first is the totally unknown stage, followed by the stage where every director can't wait to work with the actor. Then, there's the final stage, where the actor becomes unknown again.

The same is becoming true for women's college basketball, and Bonnie Henrickson and Virginia Tech, who went through the first and second stages last season and hope that stage three doesn't come to Blacksburg this season.

Henrickson, 36, the coach at Virginia Tech, guided the Hokies to a 28-3 record last season and the school's first berth in the Sweet 16, as well as a second straight Atlantic 10 title.

In only her second year at Tech, Henrickson became a hot coaching property, with inquiries from higher-profile schools like Northwestern, before the Hokies locked her up with a contract extension.

"For me, I felt a tremendous amount of satisfaction for what these players were able to accomplish," said Henrickson, a former Tech assistant. "They had been through some lean years, and to reap the rewards of their hard work was very satisfying and to watch them advance and get to the Sweet 16 was very exciting."

The Hokies, however, lost five players to graduation, and only four on the 11-player roster have more than one year of Division I experience, so their sleeper status may continue into this season.

"It's been a bit of a roller coaster so far," Henrickson said. "We have good parts of drills and bad parts of drills, but we'll get better. We still feel, as a group, that we have a chance to contend for the Atlantic 10 title, and we'll see what happens from there."

Of course, the definition of sleeper teams in women's basketball doesn't quite fit into the same nice, neat dictionary as it does in men's basketball.

With few exceptions, the women's favorites usually manage to muscle their way through the NCAA tournament.

The trend continued last March, when the higher-seeded team won 28 of 32 first-round games and all of the top 16 seeds advanced to the regional semifinals.

"You're going to see that until the [tournament] sites are more neutral," said Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini. "The players and coaches are better throughout women's basketball, but home court is a lot to overcome."

And, unlike the men's game, where a school from a smaller conference like Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference can reach the regional semifinals by beating Minnesota, Stanford and Florida, a sleeper in women's basketball is more likely to be a previously underachieving team from a power conference.

Last season, for instance, Boston College, whose best season had been 18 wins in 1996-97, went 22-8 (the first 20-win season in school history), defeated two top 10 teams and put a scare into defending champion Tennessee on the road in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Kentucky, a perennial Southeastern Conference doormat, finished tied for fifth in the league last season with a 21-11 record that included the first NCAA tour- tory.

This season's sleeper could be Florida State, which has had three different coaches, lost 107 games in the past five seasons and is picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But the Seminoles introduce the nation's eighth-ranked recruiting class and return two talented upperclassmen, junior guard Brooke Wycoff, the school's all-time blocks leader, and senior forward Latavia Coleman, who was averaging 21 points and seven rebounds a game last season before tearing her anterior cruciate ligament 10 games into the season.

"We think we're safely on our way up," said coach Sue Semrau, entering her third season. "You just never know, but it's a matter of how quickly we grow up. Quietly, we just believe we're going to do some things this year."

The list of contenders with a realistic chance to get to Philadelphia, the site of this season's Final Four, is a bit longer than usual, with three teams possibly coming from one conference.

And for a change, as far as the women's game is concerned, that power conference is not the SEC, but rather the Big East, where Connecticut, Rutgers and Notre Dame are expected to butt heads.

Geno Auriemma's Huskies, ranked first in most preseason polls, return a stellar sophomore class, and point guard Sue Bird, a New Yorker who was the cream of the Connecticut recruiting crop last season before she tore a knee ligament.

Rutgers will return perhaps the most athletic roster in the nation, and Notre Dame center Ruth Riley is one of the leading returning post players in the country.

In the SEC, Tennessee, even without national Player of the Year Chamique Holdsclaw, should be primed for a run at its seventh title in 13 years. Juniors Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall lead the way, along with this year's top national recruiting class.

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