Like options trading and jumping the Snake River Canyon, the business of guaranteeing victory offers little margin for error. For every Pat Riley, who proved prescient by predicting a repeat tide for his Los Angeles Lakers in 1988, there are dozens of Patrick Ewings, forever falling short of entry into the Promise Keepers. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma says he understood what he was getting into last April when, at a rally for his national champions, he bounded up to a podium in the lobby of the state capitol in Hartford and declared that his team would not only return to the Final Four in 2001 but would also win the NCAA crown again. Guaranteed. "We'll be back here next year with a third one," proclaimed Auriemma, whose Huskies have won two national titles. "I promise you that."
With all five starters back from a squad that went 36-1, a roster flush with All-Americas and a 10-deep rotation that plays with the unselfishness of Mother Teresa, UConn figures to make Auriemma look like a soothsayer extraordinaire by winning the NCAA championship in St. Louis next April. The Huskies' endless wave of talent begins with a trio of Naismith Player of the Year candidates: senior forward Svetlana Abrosimova, junior point guard Sue Bird and senior guard Shea Ralph. Junior forwards Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams would be go-to players at any other program. Then there is the nation's top freshman, guard Diana Taurasi, who Auriemma says will make an immediate impact. "They've just got so much talent," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore, "that I don't think any other team is even close."
Don't expect Tennessee to wave the white flag just yet. "We recognize that UConn should be picked to win the championship," says Lady Volunteers coach Pat Summitt, "but are we practicing every day for second place? No." To combat the tsunami of Huskies frontcourt players that overwhelmed Tennessee in last spring's national championship game, a 71-52 Connecticut victory, Summitt is counting on four freshmen to provide extra depth. The best of the newcomers is 6' 5" Ashley Robinson, whose preseason battles with 6' 5" junior center Michelle Snow have taken on the intensity of a Subway Series. Given a deeper roster and the excellence of senior forward Tamika Catchings, the reigning Player of the Year, and sophomore point guard Kara Lawson, what the Lady Vols most need is for seniors Kristen (Ace) Clement, Kyra Elzy and Semeka Randall to become consistent offensive threats. "At times we played three-on-five last year," says Summitt. "It said on the front of our media guide BALANCED ATTACK, yet we never had a balanced attack last year."
With the marvelous Miller twins, seniors Coco and Kelly, junior center Tawana McDonald and junior guard Deanna (Tweety) Nolan, Georgia has an attack that rivals any in the nation. With all that firepower returning, the most dramatic change in the Lady Bulldogs during the off-season happened away from the court. After numerous misspellings of her daughter's first name in newspapers, Virginia Nolan began the process of legally altering Tweety's moniker from Deana to Deanna. In July the change became official. But any way you spell it, Deana-Deanna is a big-time player, averaging a team-high 15.7 points in SEC games. Whether the Lady Dawgs have enough depth in the frontcourt will determine whether they improve on last year's Elite Eight finish.
Inside the Purdue locker room is a giant poster of a globe in the guise of a basketball with a map showing the distance from West Lafayette to St. Louis. "We're dreaming big," says Boilermakers coach Kristy Curry. At the center of the dream is senior Katie Douglas, an All-America forward who enters the season with a heavy heart. Douglas, who averaged 20.4 points a game in 1999-2000, lost her mother to breast cancer in April, three years after her father died of pancreatic cancer. Douglas says she will honor her parents and Tiffany Young, her teammate who was killed by a drunk driver in July 1999, by wearing a monogrammed wristband emblazoned with their initials. She and senior center Camille Cooper will have to show the nation's top recruiting class—led by guards Cherrise Graham and Erika Valek—the way to the Show Me State.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has analyzed the footage from the Fighting Irish's 69-65 Sweet 16 loss to Texas Tech last season the way Kennedy conspiracy theorists pick apart the Zapruder film. Notre Dame burst to a 17-0 lead before folding like origami when All-America center Ruth Riley (16.2 points and 73 rebounds a game) got into foul trouble. If Riley can avoid getting her Irish up during games, Notre Dame will go far. The life of Riley will be aided by point guard Niele Ivey, a steely senior, and sophomore two guard Alicia Ratay, a 36.5% three-point shooter last season. "We have talent at every spot," Riley says.
There's no shortage of talent at Duke, either. As she does every year, Blue Devils coach Gail Goestenkors gathered her players in early September and asked them what Duke's goals should be. Freshman forward Iciss Tillis, one of five stellar recruits, announced that she wanted to get to the Final Four. Then senior point guard Georgia Schweitzer spoke: "I don't want to just go to the Final Four. I want to win." If the Blue Devils cut down the nets, it will almost certainly be because of Schweitzer, the 1999-2000 ACC Player of the Year, who averaged 15.6 points, 3.3 assists and 3.6 rebounds. Schweitzer and senior forward Rochelle Parent must set the example for the fab freshmen, whose leading lady, Alana Beard, will start on the wing. "We have more athleticism and depth than we've ever had," says Goestenkors, "but we're very young."
LSU coach Sue Gunter has heard about the Lady Tigers' shortcomings from almost everyone on the bayou. "Everybody keeps telling me, 'Sue, you've got to have more size,' " she says of a team with just one player over 6 feet. "Well, we went to the Elite Eight and played UConn very well [86-71] with the same size we have this year. We know what we've got." What LSU has is the nation's best all-around shooting guard in senior Marie Ferdinand (17.5 points and 5.3 assists per game), whose first step is as quick as a hiccup. It also has sophomore point guard Kisha James, who returns after missing last season with a torn left ACL. Keep an eye (or two) on talented freshman twin guards Doneeka and Roneeka Hodges, whom we'll call Miller Lite until they come of age. If center DeTrina White returns to the court next month without the nagging back ailments that have plagued her, the Lady Tigers will be tough to beat.
It's hoped that good things will happen this season for Rutgers senior point guard Tasha Pointer, who experienced a summer she'd like to forget. Upon walking home from a pickup game in her native Chicago in July, Pointer was hit in the eye by a pellet from a BB gun. She was rushed to the hospital, and her vision was blurry for two weeks following the incident. "I was scared for my life at first," she says, "but as soon as I headed to the emergency room, I started thinking about basketball. I've been waiting for this season to start." So have been the rest of the Scarlet Knights, who lost top scorer and rebounder Shawnetta Stewart but have four starters returning from a 26-8 team that advanced to the Final Four. Coach Vivian Stringer says Rutgers will run more this season and, as always, play its usual suffocating defense.
Two years ago Iowa State shocked UConn in the Sweet 16, a national coming-out party for a program that has risen from the dead since coach Bill Fennelly took over five years ago. The Cyclones, who won a school-record 27 games last season, have lost All-Americas Desiree Francis and Stacy Frese to the WNBA Don't feel too bad for Fennelly, who has three starters back, including junior center Angie Welle, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. If sophomore Lindsey Wilson comes close to resembling Frese at the point, the Cyclones will be a handful. "The expectations around here are high, but I'd rather have them that way," says Fennelly. Barmore has played the best and beaten the best as well, though don't expect his Louisiana Tech team to do the latter this season.