Over the last decade, women's basketball season previews have
become as repetitive as those airport P.A. announcements
reminding travelers that the white zone is for loading and
unloading only. Front-runner status is for Connecticut and
Tennessee only. Year after year the two powerhouses, which
between them have won six of the last 11 national titles, are
installed as favorites, making the ride to the Final Four seem
like a two-team carpool. The Huskies and the Lady Volunteers are
so deep that even in a purported off-year, such as last season,
when UConn lost stars Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova to
injuries, the Huskies finished 32-3 and nearly knocked off
eventual champion Notre Dame in an NCAA tournament semifinal.
"UConn is definitely the team to beat again this year," says Duke
coach Gail Goestenkors, sounding much like a prerecorded
announcement herself. "Of course, there's always Tennessee, too."
Given this perennial dominance by the Big Two, how can the NCAA
increase parity? One solution would be to reduce the number of
scholarships from 15 per team to 13, as men's basketball did in
the early '90s. This would keep teams such as Connecticut and
Tennessee from collecting high school All-Americas like so many
baseball cards, some of them to be kept in mint condition but
Although most coaches in the SI Top 10 were lukewarm about the
idea, citing the need to keep the sport growing and to safeguard
against injuries, the idea had one surprising supporter, Huskies
coach Geno Auriemma. "It's so stupid when you think about it,"
Auriemma says of the resistance to cutting back scholarships.
"Changing the rule isn't going to affect a coach's ability to
win, only the ability to stockpile players. If I have 15 girls on
scholarship, some of them won't play until they're juniors and
some won't play at all. If they went elsewhere, they'd probably
play right away and make another team better."
November 19, 2001
Of course, it's easy for Auriemma to be magnanimous, considering
how loaded Connecticut is again this season. Abrosimova and Ralph
graduated, but the Huskies have four seniors back, including the
preseason Big East player of the year, point guard Sue Bird, and
6'2" jumping-jack forwards Swin Cash and Asjha Jones. Sophomore
Diana Taurasi, who blossomed into one of the best guards in the
country last season before fizzling in the loss to Notre Dame,
will start at the other guard spot, and 6'2" senior Tamika
Williams will patrol the lane. Put the pieces together, and the
Huskies have good reason to feel cocky. "We're coming back with a
fire," says Bird, who led UConn with 5.0 assists per game last
season, "and we're ready to prove something."
The same can be said of Tennessee, which went 31-3 last season
but suffered a stunning 80-65 loss to Xavier in a regional
semifinal. "This team did not deserve anything other than the
outcome it got," an angry coach Pat Summitt said after the game.
Much of Summitt's ire was directed at 6'5" center Michelle Snow,
who last year showed the world that while she was capable of
dunking, she was often incapable of playing interior defense. If
Snow, a junior, can stiffen her resolve, she will team with
junior forward Gwen Jackson (injured but due back within six
weeks) and sophomore center Ashley Robinson (who should recover
from a torn ACL in time to pitch in during the second half of
the season) to form one of the nation's top frontcourts. A
freshman from California, Loree Moore, should add needed
quickness to the backcourt.
The key for Vanderbilt will be the play of 6'6" junior center
Chantelle Anderson, who's hoping to lower her field goal
percentage from the 72.3% she shot last season. After scoring
21.2 points per game in 2000-01 but rarely venturing out of the
paint, Anderson spent the summer working out with Snow, whom she
knew from the USA Jones Cup team, and honing her midrange jump
shot. "Coach [Jim Foster] actually told me that for me to become
a better player, my percentage has to go down," says Anderson. "I
need to step out on the floor and become more versatile." In
addition to Anderson, the Commodores retain all of their other
2000-01 starters--including 6'2" senior Zuzi Klimesova, who
averaged 8.1 rebounds and shot 56.5% from the field--as well as a
crop of blue-chip freshmen. "I consider us an inside-outside
team, and there aren't many of those," says Foster. "We've got a
very good team back. Now we need to blend in our new players."
Last April, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale met with star guard
Stacey Dales and told her how she would defend against Dales if
they were matched up in a game. "I told her I would play the
penetration and let her shoot," says Coale, who was a scrappy
guard at Oklahoma Christian in the mid-1980s. The 6-foot Dales,
who averaged 16.0 points and 7.3 assists last season, got the
hint and spent the off-season working on her pull-up jump shot.
She also hit the weights so she can play some in the post, where
the Sooners will need more help than ever: Oklahoma was
undersized before senior center Jen Cunningham tore her right
ACL for a fourth time in October, ending her career. Without an
interior presence Coale will rely on her smaller stars--Dales,
senior guard LaNeishea Caufield and junior forward Caton
Hill--to use their quickness to beat other teams. "I'd love to
have a big, strong center, but I don't," says Coale. "What I do
have is guards, and they're pretty darn good."
The Texas Tech women haven't lacked for support. Last season the
Lady Raiders averaged 12,660 fans, second only to Tennessee, and
for years, coach Marsha Sharp says, the program has brought in
more money than it has spent, a rare feat in women's college
basketball. Even so, Sharp has welcomed the publicity that
accompanied the arrival of her famously hot-tempered new
colleague, men's coach Bob Knight. "He's been terrific," says
Sharp in her Texas twang. "I've already learned a lot from him."
Maybe Knight should be the student, considering Sharp's career
record of 459-142 and Tech's berth in the Sweet 16 last spring.
Either way, behind junior forward Plenette Pierson and sophomore
guard Jia Perkins, who combined to average 28.3 points last year,
the Lady Raiders should end their season on the brink--of a
After nine straight titles in the relatively soft Sun Belt
Conference, Louisiana Tech has moved to the Western Athletic
Conference, in which the Lady Techsters should face tougher foes
than they did last season, when they ran up a 16-0 league record.
Add road games against Tennessee and Connecticut, and Tech coach
Leon Barmore, who retired for all of 17 days in 2000 before the
university and its surrounding community persuaded him to return
to the bench, will have plenty of opportunity to measure
Louisiana Tech's progress. The best benchmarks: shot-swatting
senior center Ayana Walker (2.4 blocks per game), senior guard
Brooke Lassiter (10.2 points, 91% from the line) and star
sophomore forward Catrina Frierson, who missed the entire 2000-01
season with a knee injury.
At Duke, guard Alana Beard may be only a sophomore, but she has
the confidence of a senior. When asked which opponents worry her,
she doesn't hesitate: "I'm not really scared of anything." Such
talk could be dismissed as youthful hubris if Beard's game
weren't frighteningly good. Last season she averaged 17.0 points,
3.8 assists and 3.5 steals while leading the Blue Devils to a
30-4 record and the Sweet 16, where they lost to Southwest
Missouri State, another team with a fearless guard, Jackie
Stiles. With the departure of last season's ACC player of the
year, Georgia Schweitzer, Beard will be asked to do even more.
"Her natural position is the wing, but I'll start her at the
point and play her some in the post, too," says Goestenkors.
Junior guard Sheana Mosch and sophomore forward Iciss Tillis will
provide help, as will sophomore guard Rometra Craig, the daughter
of former San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig.
Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly has an intricate game plan. It's
called, in his words, "Get the ball to Angie as much as
possible." The triangle offense it's not, but if the Cyclones'
27-6 record last season is any indication, the strategy is
nearly as effective. Angie Welle, the 6'4" center, averaged 18.3
points and 10.0 rebounds in 2000-01 while making 65.5% of her
shots. When the opposition collapses on her, she'll kick it out
to Iowa State's zone-busting guards, led by junior Lindsey
Wilson, who knocked down 42.0% of her treys, and senior Tracy
Gahan, who shot 45.6% from behind the arc last season and is
ready for a breakout campaign. "I think Tracy could be one of
the best players in the country," says Fennelly. "Now she only
needs to go out and prove it."
Last season North Carolina State lost both starting point guard
Terah James and starting center Kaayla Chones (daughter of former
NBA center Jim Chones) to injuries but still reached the Sweet 16
behind the play of dynamic forward Carisse Moody, now a junior.
This year, with James and Chones back for their sophomore
seasons, the Wolfpack will sneak up on teams. "People outside the
ACC don't understand how good they're going to be," warns
Goestenkors. "They've got those two starters back, and they're
hosting a regional [in the NCAA tournament]."
There was a time, from the late 1980s to the mid-'90s, when
Stanford was mentioned in the same breath with Tennessee. After a
few seasons below the national radar, the Cardinal is back, and
this time coach Tara VanDerveer shouldn't have to play sophomore
power forward Nicole Powell at the point, as she did in last
season's tournament after injuries felled her starting backcourt.
With a healthy roster that includes sharpshooting senior forward
Lindsey Yamasaki, who won a gold medal with the U.S. team at the
World University Games in Beijing this summer, and the
fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country, Stanford should
not only repeat as Pac-10 champ but also prove that its season
motto--"It's no secret"--applies to its talent.
It's even less of a secret that, as redundant as it sounds,
Connecticut should win its third national championship. Not
that Auriemma cares whether people are sick of seeing his team
in the title game. "I'm not going to apologize for having a lot
of good players," he says. "You can't mandate parity, and until
it happens, there will always be a gap between one level of
schools and the next."
Left unspoken is how sweet it is to be on the top side of that
5 Texas Tech
6 Louisiana Tech
8 Iowa State
9 N.C. State
Year after year Connecticut and Tennessee make the ride to the
Final Four seem like A TWO-TEAM CARPOOL.