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Women's Power Rankings: UConn's vulnerable, so Baylor tops board

As he held court for a small group of reporters last month inside a midtown Manhattan restaurant, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma allowed himself a moment to reminisce about the past. "You know, Tina Charles could be a real pain in the ass," said Auriemma, smiling broadly as he reflected on his now-graduated All-America center. "But, now, all of a sudden, I can't believe how much I miss her. It's like, Come back, Shane! Come back, Tina Charles. I need you."

Charles, of course, is no longer in charge of UConn's paint -- she now does her work down the road from Auriemma for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun -- and her graduation opens up the possibility for something that hasn't happened in two years: Beating UConn. "I'm sure they will figure out a way to cover it up and get productivity in other places, but a player like Tina Charles does not come around every year," said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie. "The story is nobody replaces Tina Charles. You evolve to some other place."

Evolution is in the air in women's basketball, especially at Baylor where the game's most revolutionary force -- 6-foot-8 sophomore center Brittney Griner -- begins her second year after setting an NCAA record for blocked shots with 223. The Lady Bears are atop SI.com's initial women's power rankings not for where they are today but where we imagine they will be come next April. UConn is still a championship contender, but the Huskies' vulnerability opens up what will be one of the more exciting years in the sport. Stanford, Xavier and Tennessee are also in the mix.

NCAA Basketball Power Rankings
1Baylor Bears
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Baylor Bears (27-10 in '09-10)
Even Kim Mulkey admits that her team has "more talented" depth than its 2005 championship team, and it starts with the impossibly long Griner (18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 blocks per game), who worked on getting stronger in the offseason. Baylor had a unique advantage over its Top 3 foes with a returning senior backcourt, but senior point guard Kelli Griffin stunned the program by quitting a week before the start of the season. Still, senior shooting guard Melissa Jones (10.4 ppg) gives Baylor leadership and a gritty glue player who leads by example. The Lady Bears have a third starter back in sophomore wing Shanay Washington, and adds two impact transfers: sophomore forward Brooklyn Pope, who played at Rutgers as a freshman and was a 2008 McDonald's All-America, and Destiny Williams, a 6-1 sophomore who played as a freshman at Illinois. (Williams will join the team in December.) The player who could turn out to be the key to the season is freshman Odyssey Sims, the nation's top incoming point guard recruit and a potential game-changer. "She has tremendous quickness and very rarely do you see a girl who can pressure the ball and strip at will," Mulkey said. "She takes great pride in thinking she's going to dictate the flow of this game by what she does defensively." Baylor has nine players back from a 27-win team that advanced to the Final Four. The Bears are SI.com's pick to win the title next April in Indianapolis.

Quotable: "Let me make it clear: This team has done nothing to be mentioned in the same breath as UConn. Connecticut has lived up their hype and won their national championships. We have not done that yet. On paper we are as talented as anybody in the country, but we have done nothing and we don't have that experience yet, either. We got a little taste of it at the Final Four. While we welcome being mentioned in the same breath as the more talented teams in the country, let's let this evolve, and let's see what happens with this talent. We still have to prove ourselves."
-- Mulkey, on the preseason hype around Baylor this season.

Next Up: at UConn (Nov. 16), Michigan State (Nov. 19), Texas Southern (Nov. 23), Liberty (Nov. 26), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 28)
 
2Stanford Cardinal
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The best frontcourt in America calls Palo Alto home, as junior All-America forward Nnemkadi (Necka) Ogwumike (18.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and senior All-America forward/center Kayla Pedersen (15.8, 9.5) will be joined this season by Necka's younger sister, Chiney, a 6-3 forward who was the nation's top recruit. "You are looking at All-America, All-America and All-America at the 3, 4 and 5 with Pedersen, Ogwumike and Ogwumike," Duke's McCallie said. "I don't know if there has ever been a more interesting and talented frontcourt trio in women's basketball. What we will learn from Stanford this year is, what is the value of 1 and 2? But this team will be very good."

McCallie is right: The backcourt will determine if Stanford will be a champion. Senior Jeanette Pohlen has played point the past two years, though she's more of a natural shooting guard. With fifth-year senior point guard Melanie Murphy recovering from microfracture knee surgery and expected back for conference play, look for freshman Toni Kokenis, a pure point, to get time early in the season. Coach Tara VanDerveer is also considering playing Pedersen at guard, given the versatility on the roster.

Quotable: "The No. 1 characteristic that defines us is versatility. People can step in at almost every position and everyone knows all the plays from every position. We're not role players in the sense that this player does this or that. We're role players in the sense that we each have a role on our team and we do what we can to contribute. It just so happens that everyone can contribute a lot. Versatility is the big characteristic of our team this year."
-- Necka Ogwumike, on the team's multifaceted roster.

Next Up: at Utah (Nov. 19), at Gonzaga (Nov. 21), South Carolina (Nov. 26), Texas (Nov. 28), Fresno State (Dec. 12)
 
3Connecticut Huskies
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Auriemma has already said his team is going to lose this season. How many losses remains to be seen. The best player in the country still plays in Storrs and it will be interesting to watch senior forward Maya Moore this season because she'll be asked to shoulder more responsibility, particularly on offense. "Maya will have to overcome a lot of mistakes that the other players around her make and that means she will have to be a little more perfect," Auriemma said. "That's asking a lot, but she has put herself in that position." Moore is a three-time All-America who has averaged 18.7 points during her career and shoots 52.6 percent from the field. UConn will need more points from her this year, perhaps even deep into the 20s. "I think I will have to pick my aggressiveness even more and be more mindful of who we have and the lineups that we have on the floor because most likely it will be a young lineup," Moore said. "I can't afford to wait around. Knowing Tina and Kalana (Greene) were on the floor, I knew there was a potential for somebody to make a big play. I'm going to have to be more mindful of finding the ball if things start to break down"

Junior forward Tiffany Hayes (10.2 ppg) and freshman point guard Bria Hartley are certain starters. Sophomore guard Kelly Farris will also see plenty of time. Auriemma needs either freshman Stefanie Dolson or sophomore Heather Buck to make an impact in the post. "Most of the time we've won when we've had at least two All-Americans," Auriemma said. "If Tiffany can be that other All-American, then I think we have a chance to be really, really good. A lot will depend on her. Without Caroline (Doty, the team's starting point who is out for the year), it just made her job a lot tougher."

Quotable: "I'm a realist more than anything else. I think anyone who has been around our program knows that when we have the best team, I tell everybody that we are better than everybody else and that we are not going to lose. But I'd be really surprised if other than Bria Hartley and Stef Dolson, if the other three freshmen have an impact on our team. Maya will be Maya and Tiffany is Tiffany and there's Kelly. But where are you going to get the 2,000 rebounds and 3,000 points we lost? In February I might look up and say, "Wow, instead of averaging 90 points a game, we're averaging 75 points but winning 75-70." I don't know if the expectations should be less in terms of winning, but I just don't think it will be as overwhelmingly easy as it has been. And there are going to be some losses along the way."
--Auriemma

Next Up: Baylor (Nov. 16), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 21), Howard (Nov. 26), Lehigh (Nov. 27), LSU (Nov. 28)
 
4Xavier Musketeers
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The frontcourt duo of senior center Ta'Shia Phillips and forward Amber Harris-- they combined for 30 points and 20.6 rebounds per game last season -- has a deserving reputation for scoring, but Xavier rolled through the regular season last year with tough defense. The Musketeers finished fourth in the country in rebounding margin and 11th in field goal percentage defense. Phillips and Harris, the expected No. 2 in the WNBA draft behind Moore, are joined by a dynamic point guard in senior Special Jennings (an Atlantic 10-best 4.4 assists per game) and two emerging players in junior guard Tyeasha Moss (8.0 ppg) and sophomore guard Katie Rutan (85 three-pointers). The team's heartbreaking loss to Stanford in last year's regional finals is being used as a rallying cry. "It could have been an anchor that weighed on us, but we had a great fall and I think it's been motivating for us," coach Kevin McGuff said. "We got just enough of a taste of what we can possibly do and accomplish, but did not quite get all the way there."

Xavier will get a sense of how good it is early with back-to-back road games at Duke and Stanford in late December. "I'm not anticipating running the table there, but I'm not afraid of losing a game," McGuff said. "I want to take them and put them in the toughest environment I can early in the year."

Quotable: "The great thing about Amber and Ta'Shia is that they are both very talented and they play really well together, but they are very different. Amber has a lot of versatility. She can be terrific around the basket or on the perimeter. Ta'Shia is more of a physical, dominant low post player. Because they are so different, I think that makes them really unique, and in turn makes our team really special."
-- McGuff

Next Up: Louisville (Nov. 23), Troy (Nov. 26), Delaware State (Nov. 27), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 30), USC (Dec. 2)
 
5Tennessee Lady Volunteers
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If you wanted to get Tennessee, you're out of luck. Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt has every player back from a squad that dominated during the regular season before losing to Baylor in the regional semifinals. Now comes Tennessee's deepest roster (11 returning players) since its 2008 national championship team. The backcourt of senior sharpshooter Angie Bjorklund and junior Shekinna Stricklen is the SEC's best, and redshirt junior center Kelly Cain can be force inside if she stays out of foul trouble. Junior Glory Johnson is a skilled forward, and if redshirt junior center Vicki Baugh and junior forward Alyssia Brewer (expected back in January from an Achilles injury) stay healthy in March, the Lady Vols will be a monster in the frontcourt. Freshman guards Meighan Simmons and Lauren Avant will contribute immediately, and, as usual, Tennessee has an impressive out-of-conference schedule that includes Baylor, Georgetown and Stanford. "I thought the way that we played last year in the SEC was good," Summitt said. "We showed toughness down the stretch and I think we will be even better this year. This team is focused and excited about what is getting ready to happen."

Quotable: "They are taking ownership and holding people accountable, in practice and as well in our exhibition games. We have to have that. I feel like they really are mindful if someone is not sprinting the floor hard, if they are not boxing out. It is amazing how quickly our players are going to call people out because of that. I think you have to have that, when they start policing each other and respond. After the Ball State game (to end the 2009 season), I realized how young we were and we didn't have the leadership or maturity. But now we have leadership and we are identifying that."
-- Summitt, on her team's maturity.

Next Up: Virginia (Nov. 18), Arizona State (Nov. 21), Missouri (Nov. 25, at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands), Georgia Tech (Nov. 26, at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands), Georgetown (Nov. 27, at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands)
 
6Duke Blue Devils
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In her 19th year of coaching, McCallie has a roster with an average age of 19. "That's not something I've experienced before," she said. "This will be an interesting year." If you are going to be young, you might as well be talented and Duke brings in the top recruiting class in the country, a five-player group led by Chelsea Gray, a point guard and the McDonald's Player of the Year. "She sees the floor better than most any player I know," McCallie said. The three returning starters are excellent: Senior combo guard Jasmine Thomas is a stat machine (16.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.8 steals per game last season), 6-5 senior center Krystal Thomas can be a force in the paint on defense and Karina Christmas can play four positions. "Jas is just a great attacking and versatile guard," McCallie said. "You will definitely see her at the point and we'll play her there for sure. But there is no doubt we can play three guards at once." As for the mixing of lower and upperclassman, McCallie said that her team has blended together nicely. "All five of the freshman will get copious minutes and I can tell you all of them have made statements that they can play," she said.

Quotable: "Sometimes you have to worry about a team peaking early, especially if you have an overload of juniors and seniors, but there is no way we will peak early. I think it will take some time to get those five freshmen operating at the highest levels, but I believe we will eventually be peaking at the right time."
-- McCallie, on the impact of her freshman class.

Next Up: at Auburn (Nov. 18), Western Kentucky (Nov. 21), at Pittsburgh (Nov. 24), at Charlotte (Nov. 27), at James Madison (Nov. 30)
 
7Ohio State Buckeyes
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The Buckeyes have a deadly inside-outside game with senior All-America center Jantel Lavender (21.4 ppg) and junior point guard Samantha Prahalis, who is suspended for the first three games of the season but might be the best point guard in the country, averaging 8.0 assists per game last season. Ohio State returns all five starters from a team that won 31 games last season and should have a better center after Lavender spent the summer working on posting lower. "I want to get excellent position as opposed to good position on the floor," Lavender said. "I really emphasized more left-hand moves because teams tend to try to play my left shoulder." Along with Prahalis and Lavender, senior forward Sarah Schulze. (7.3 ppg), senior wing player Brittany Johnson (9.3 ppg) and sophomore guard Tayler Hill (8.5 ppg) are the expected starters. Ohio State has traditionally owned the Big Ten, but it has advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament only once during Lavender's three years, giving the Buckeyes an underachieving label. "It bothers me, especially because in my three years here, we have not gone further than the Sweet 16," she said. "It's hard to deal with because I know how good a team we have. You can have a great season, but in the postseason there is no time for a bad day or off game. It's about playing as a team and together and overcoming things. It's frustrating for me to read things because I know the caliber of team we have and what we are capable of doing. It's kind of like your legacy at Ohio State. You want it to end on a good note. Were they successful during her era at Ohio State?"

Quotable: "Because she is our point guard, it really affects how we play. When we see her fired up, when we see her with great energy, hitting the three and playing great defense, yelling and making great passes, it allows for our team momentum to go up. That's when she is in what we call 'Sammy Mode.' Off the floor, she is shy. It's like two different people. You can tell how the day will be when she walks into the gym. Will this be a fired-up day? Is she in a good mood? Does she have a lot of energy? She is our leader and she has to come in with the attitude of, I'm going to be a leader today. If she plays smart and under control, I think she's unstoppable. She can affect the game in excellent way or not."
--Lavender, on Prahalis.

Next Up: at LSU (Nov. 17), East Tennessee State (Nov. 22), UNC Wilmington (Nov. 28), Virginia (Dec. 2), Oklahoma (Dec. 5)
 
8Texas A&M Aggies
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The Aggies have been a No. 2 seed in the tournament for the past three years, but have not lived up to their vaunted seed. This year might be different with 11 returning letter winners, including senior forward Danielle Adams (16.3 ppg) and a speedy set of guards in Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter. "I like the depth of our team, our point guard play and the ability of Danielle Adams to score anywhere on the court," coach Gary Blair said. The Aggies need Colson, who looks to be fully recovered from knee surgery in 2008, to be a 30-minute player instead of the 21 she's been averaging over the past two seasons. A healthy Colson will be a force in the Big 12. "She is completely healthy and the fastest thing I've ever had a chance to coach," Blair said.

As for Adams, Blair compares her game to a distaff Charles Barkley. Said Blair: "Danielle can kill people inside and outside, but I want her to be a little bit quicker so nobody will have any doubts when she graduates next year and hopefully she'll be a first round WNBA choice." One newcomer to watch is Karla Gilbert, a skilled 6-5 freshman center.

Quotable: "Our kids realize we lost a second-round game last year to Gonzaga where we thought we were good enough to get to the Final Four. We've been a top-10 program over the last five years in and out, but what we want to do is find a way to be up there with the Tennessees and Connecticuts and Stanfords. I think we are knocking on the door. We just have to find a way to knock the door down. as Bum Phillips once said."
-- Blair, on whether Texas A&M can become a perennial top-five team.

Next Up: Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), at Rice (Nov. 20), Liberty (Nov. 22), Arizona (Nov. 26, at Cancun, Mexico), Michigan (Nov. 27, at Cancun, Mexico)
 
9Kentucky Wildcats
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In an effort to improve her outside shooting, senior All-America forward and SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap took 400 shots four times a week during the summer. Free throws. Mid-range jumpers. Deep threes. Anything she could do to get up a shot. Last year Dunlap averaged a team-high 18.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.1 steals in helping the up-tempo Wildcats reach the NCAA Elite Eight. While she might not draw the same kind of attention on Kentucky's campus as say John Wall, "Vic Diesel" is the face of a program, gaining fans in Lexington. "We have a lot of talent and we play hard," Dunlap said. "People tell me that we play hard, we have a lot of intensity and energy, and they like seeing us hustle on the floor."

Dunlap and sophomore guard A'dia Mathies (13.6 ppg), the SEC Freshman of the Year, are terrific scorers, and junior guard Keyla Snowden was third in the SEC last season in three-point shooting. But the team's emotional leader, senior point guard Amber Smith, is out indefinitely after tearing her ACL during a player-only pickup game this summer. Freshman Jennifer O'Neill, the first McDonald's All-American to sign with the women's team, is the long-term successor, but time will be split between junior Crystal Riley, freshmen Maegan Conwright and O'Neill. "That remains my biggest concern, that position," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Conwright is fantastic in the open court and defensively, she is just what we thought when we recruited her. Jen has some work to do. I am very optimistic that it will come together for her. Jen's pretty hard on herself and that's holding her back. She has to let that go. She has to stop being so hard on herself in practice because it doesn't allow her to get on to the next play. She needs to progress some defensively and offensively, she needs to run the team a little bit better." Kentucky needs one of its point guards to emerge as a reliable option. If so, they'll be a tough out in March.

Quotable: "Offensively, it's the intensity that she has attacking the basket and just how good she is at getting in the middle of the paint and dishing passes to the post and guards. I think Crystal and Jen and have that ability but Amber's mentality is something special."
-- Dunlap, on the loss of Smith.

Next Up: Notre Dame (Nov. 21), at Murray State (Nov. 26), Lady Eagle Thanksgiving Classic Championship/Consolation (Nov. 27), at Louisville (Dec 5), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7)
 
10West Virginia Mountaineers
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Last season West Virginia won a school-record 29 games, was ranked as high as No. 7 in the AP poll and advanced to the Big East championship game for only the second time in school history. But coach Mike Carey still could not accomplish one goal that haunts him. "This is my 10th year and we've beat every team in the conference except Connecticut," Carey said. "It would mean a lot to beat them, but it would really mean a lot if we beat them the Final Four." The Mountaineers have five starters back, including senior guard Liz Repella, a skilled player on both ends who led the team in scoring (13.9 ppg) and three-pointers (70). But for this team to jump into the top echelon, they have to increase last year's 62.9 ppg scoring average. Said Carey: "We have to score in the 70s this year for us to take the next step."

Quotable: "It's exciting and this is what we worked for. We want to get into the top 10 and top 20 and be consistent. I think for us to be considered where we want to go, we have to be consistent year in and year out. We want to be a consistent top-20 program and we have an opportunity to that."
-- Carey

Next Up: Duquesne (Nov. 17), Delaware State (Nov. 19), vs. TCU, at St. Thomas, Virgin Island (Nov. 25), vs. Virginia St at St. Thomas (Nov. 26), vs. Iowa State at St. Thomas (Nov. 27)
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