The Usual Suspects Rising above an all-too-familiar handful of other contenders, talent-rich Connecticut is the clear favorite for the championship

March 20, 2000

The terms wide open and up for grabs aren't usually applied to
the women's NCAA tournament, and you certainly won't hear them
this year. This is Connecticut's tournament to lose, just as it
was Tennessee's to lose last year (which the Lady Vols did) and
the year before that, and UConn's to lose in 1997.

Why does Connecticut or Tennessee (or occasionally one of a
handful of other schools) rank as the prohibitive favorite year
after year? To start with, the same force that spread the talent
in the men's game and broke the UCLA title monopoly 25 years
ago--television--has had nearly the opposite effect on the
women's game: There still aren't enough telecasts to go around.
Forty Division I women's teams made national TV appearances this
year. While 26 schools appeared just once, the two teams that
made the most appearances, Connecticut (seven) and Tennessee
(five), also got the most national press and had amassed, not
coincidentally, the lion's share of the nation's best talent. In
the last three years the Huskies and the Lady Vols have signed
40% of the first-team Parade All-Americas. "The rich get
richer," says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "Kids see those
schools on TV all the time, and they want to go there and play
in that kind of atmosphere."

Disproportionate airtime and ink aren't the only factors that
contribute to a closed-shop atmosphere. Though there may be a
move to neutral sites next year, for now the top four seeds in
each region get to play the first two rounds of the tournament
at home to ensure good crowds, a policy that effectively
defrocks Cinderella before she gets anywhere near the ball. Last
year all 16 first-round hosts reached the Sweet 16. Similarly,
even if an errant 8 or 9 seed has occasionally made it to the
Final Four, only twice in the 17-year history of the tournament
has a No. 1 or No. 2 seed failed to win the title--in 1994 (No.
3 North Carolina) and in '97 (No. 3 Tennessee).

Because of the established power structure of the women's game,
upsets in its tournament can be even more stunning than those on
the men's side. Last year the top-ranked Lady Vols had an
unprecedented three Kodak All-Americas--including Chamique
Holdsclaw, arguably the greatest woman player ever--and still
lost, in the Elite Eight, to No. 3-seed Duke. Will this
tournament provide that kind of shocker? It's possible but not
probable. Keeping in mind our sketchy prognostication record--we
thought Tennessee was a lock last year--we give you the teams
that have a realistic shot at winning the trophy at the Final
Four in Philadelphia, in order of likelihood:

Barring injury or an almost unthinkable collective mental
meltdown, CONNECTICUT (30-1) will avoid the sort of shortfall
Tennessee suffered in 1999. The Huskies have even more depth
than the Lady Vols did. They have three former high school
All-Americas--sophomores Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika
Williams--playing one position, power forward. Moreover, their
perimeter of small forward Svetlana Abrosimova, swingman Shea
Ralph and point guard Sue Bird may be the best in the nation.
But for a 72-71 loss at home to Tennessee on Feb. 2, the Huskies
have eviscerated opponents by an average of 30.5 points and held
them to 33% shooting while shooting 54% themselves. UConn has
talent, depth, size, speed, chemistry, focus and enthusiasm.
"They have a lot of players who can do things that other players
just can't," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.

One thing that this Connecticut squad doesn't have that GEORGIA
(29-3) does is Final Four experience. The Bulldogs, who lost in
the semis last year, are much improved. In Kelly and Coco Miller
and Deana Nolan, they have the best up-tempo three-guard
backcourt in the nation. However, for Georgia to win a title for
coach Andy Landers, who has left five Final Fours empty-handed,
center Tawana McDonald will have to stay out of foul trouble,
and the bench will have to produce. "I'm a little bit more
excited about the tournament this year," says Landers. "We have
a team that has some championship strengths. I think we can do
it."

After suiting up Holdsclaw and point guard Kellie Jolly for four
years, TENNESSEE (28-3) is sporting a new look: mortality. These
Lady Vols, who struggled in several of their wins, haven't
displayed the hallmarks of coach Pat Summitt's teams--smothering
defense and unmistakable leadership--night in and night out. Yet
Tennessee is hardly lacking in those "championship strengths" to
which Landers referred. While it can be argued that Semeka
Randall, a natural two guard, has played out of position at the
three and Kristen Clement has underachieved offensively at the
two, Tamika Catchings has performed like the All-America forward
she is, and center Michelle Snow has developed into a scorer, as
has freshman point guard Kara Lawson. Anyone tempted to write
off the Lady Vols should keep in mind that they knocked off the
U.S. national team and pinned that lone defeat on Connecticut.
Says Barmore, "You can never, ever count out Tennessee."

The same might be said for LOUISIANA TECH (28-2), another
establishment team that has appeared in 13 Final Fours. Powered
by the offense of quicksilver guards Betty Lennox and Tamicha
Jackson, and the auxiliary artillery provided by young but
improving frontline players like Catrina Frierson and Ayana
Walker, the Lady Techsters have outscored opponents by 30.4
points, second only to Connecticut, and outrebounded them by
11.7 boards, best in the nation. "We can get on a hot streak and
do some damage, but it can't be just the Lennox-and-Jackson
show," says Barmore. "If the others contribute, you never know."

You also never know with NOTRE DAME (25-4), a team that turns
the ball over with shocking frequency (its assist-to-turnover
ratio is .897) but shoots almost 50% and rebounds well. The
Irish have one of the best inside-out combos in the land: If
6'5" Big East defensive player of the year Ruth Riley, who
averaged 7.3 rebounds and led the conference with 2.7 blocks a
game, faces a double team, as she frequently will, she can pop
the ball out to senior guard Danielle Green; Big East rookie of
the year Alicia Ratay, who shoots 48.6% from beyond the arc; or
senior Niele (Poison) Ivey, one of the top point guards in the
nation (6.4 assists per game).

After last year's team paid its own way to San Jose to watch Big
Ten rival Purdue win the championship, PENN STATE (26-4) had a
title template for this year. Following the Boilermakers'
example, the Lady Lions traveled to Europe in the off-season,
made the Top 10 and won the Big Ten outright (though they lost
the conference tournament final to Purdue). They boast a
versatile and balanced group of upperclassmen, including Big Ten
player of the year Helen Darling, a point guard who rebounds,
and preseason conference player of the year Andrea Garner, the
rare post player who is faster than most guards. In a year when
many teams are going to have to hold onto good omens where they
can find them, Penn State has this: "We've been losing one game
a month," says coach Rene Portland, "and we've already lost in
March."

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON At 30-1, forward Swin Cash and the redoubtable Huskies own the best record in the country.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)