Favorite? Just keep repeating

Contenders: Fans have heard this one before, but Connecticut and Tennessee again will figure into the NCAA title picture.

College Basketball 2003 : National Women

Sunset Season

November 21, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

There is no rule that says either Tennessee or Connecticut have to reach the NCAA women's basketball Final Four or win the championship each year.

Of course, no rule mandates that the sun must rise each day in the east, that traffic slows at rush hour and that Justin Timberlake must be on a teen magazine cover, but that doesn't stop those things from happening, does it?

As a new women's season opens, the road to New Orleans, the site of this year's national semifinals, appears to go through one of the places where the title flag has flown in seven of the past nine years, either Storrs, Conn., or Knoxville, Tenn., even if the opposition begs to differ.

"If you polled the top 10 teams in the country, I don't think one of them would say that it's inevitable that Tennessee or Connecticut is going to win the national title," said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. "If you look at the top 20, maybe 17 of us would say that we are better, and that's exceptional, when you've got that level of talent. We've all had great experience. We've had great leadership, and we've added a good freshman class as well. When you have maybe 15 or 20 teams from last year, and all better, I think that's an exciting time for women's basketball."

The rest of the field will have to prove that they can stay with the two titans of women's basketball, and especially with Connecticut.

After going undefeated in 2001-02, the Huskies went 37-1 last season with four new starters. The unifying thread between the 2002 and 2003 Connecticut championship squads is guard Diana Taurasi, the consensus national Player of the Year last season.

Taurasi, a 6-foot senior from Chino, Calif., averaged 18 points and six rebounds in the regular season, then ratcheted her scoring up to 26 points a contest during the Huskies' tournament run.

"I think all of us enjoy watching Diana play, especially when we're not on the opposing bench," said Texas coach Jody Conradt, whose Longhorns last year lost to Connecticut in the national semifinals. "We use a phrase here to describe special players who step up big. We say she has `it.' Diana Taurasi definitely does."

Connecticut's biggest challenge to its first threepeat may come from a pair of teams from the Big 12, a conference that has placed Oklahoma in 2002 and Texas in 2003 in the Final Four. That puts the league on par with the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big East conferences.

The next step, then, is for the Big 12, the nation's attendance leader the past four years, to earn that breakthrough title.

"We're right on the verge of that, and we've got programs that are capable of that," said Kansas State coach Deb Patterson. "We're all looking forward to that next step and to that moment when a Big 12 team wins a national championship. But I don't necessarily believe that we need that to validate the power and quality of our league. I think we've done that year in and year out with the kind of basketball we've been playing and the kind of players that we've been attracting."

Patterson, in her eighth year in Manhattan, has built a rising power that reached the Sweet 16 two seasons ago and finished second in the Big 12 last season. The Wildcats feature 6-5 senior center Nicole Ohlde, a first-team All-American who is also the nation's best returning post player.

Meanwhile, the Longhorns, who returned to the Final Four last season for the first time since they won the title in 1986, bring back 11 players -- including four starters -- from a balanced team.

Duke has reached the Final Four three of the past five seasons and began the season as the consensus choice to contend with Connecticut. The Blue Devils, who lost to Texas on Sunday in Tip-Off Classic at Purdue, return four starters and five others from a team that swept through the ACC regular season and won the conference tournament.

In addition to senior Alana Beard, a 5-11 guard who is expected to compete with Taurasi for Player of the Year honors, Duke gets back talented guard Monique Currie, a 6-foot sophomore who missed all of last season with a torn ligament in her left knee.

Tennessee, which lost to Connecticut in the national final last season, will face stiff competition in the SEC from Georgia and Louisiana State but could be in the hunt for a record seventh NCAA title. Stanford hasn't reached the Final Four since 1997 but is expected to return to form and dominate the Pac-10 behind senior forward Nicole Powell. Purdue surrounds All-America candidate Shereka Wright with a deep, young squad.

SWEET 16

1. Connecticut

Looking for Husky first: a threepeat.

2. Duke

Solid low-post play could mean title.

3. Texas

Longhorns appear back on national stage for good.

4. Tennessee

No cakewalk to Southeastern Conference title or Final Four.

5. Kansas State

Could ride Nicole Ohlde's coattails to New Orleans.

6. Stanford

Nicole Powell could be the best all-around player in country.

7. Purdue

Should fight off Penn State to win Big Ten.

8. Georgia

Terrific post players might help the Bulldogs unseat Tennessee

9. Louisiana State

Should be right there in the Souteastern Conference hunt.

10. Penn State

Kelly Mazzante is the best pure shooter in the game.

11. Texas Tech

Alesha Robertson makes Raiders Big 12 sleeper.

12. Louisiana Tech

Despite big graduation losses, the Lady Techsters are still formidable.

13. Minnesota

Lindsey Whalen is a solid National Player of the Year candidate.

14. North Carolina

With some luck, could topple Duke in ACC.

15. Notre Dame

Will fight Rutgers for second in Big East.

16. UC-Santa Barbara

Tennessee transfer April McDivitt should help Gauchos backcourt.

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