TWO NOVEMBERS ago, after signing what many recruiting experts called the greatest class in women's basketball history, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt celebrated her bounty in high style. She rented a black stretch limousine and whisked her staff to dinner at Knoxville's Club LeConte, a tony restaurant on the 27th floor of the First Tennessee Plaza Building, where a party of 10 feasted on steak and lobster, shared good conversation and sipped Dom Perignon. "You can say we certainly enjoyed ourselves," says associate head coach Holly Warlick.
That ballyhooed Six-Pack--centers Nicky Anosike and Sybil Dosty, forwards Alex Fuller and Candace Parker, and guards Alexis Hornbuckle and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood--may give Summitt reason to pick up another LeConte tab next April. The Lady Vols enter the season favored to win their seventh national championship, though they're not a prohibitive pick. "Every team has some flaws," says Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "Some are going to be able to overcome theirs during the course of the season. Some are not."
With eight players returning, however, TENNESSEE has the experience to handle most rough patches. Senior sharpshooter Shanna Zolman (12.5 points per game) will provide perimeter support for senior center Tye'sha Fluker, junior forward Sidney Spencer and Anosike, a 6'4" rebounding demon. The Lady Vols will fast-break, press and hope that a go-to player emerges. "We haven't been able to score in the big games," says Summitt, who last led her team to an NCAA title eight seasons ago. "We haven't had someone who can take over."
That's not a problem at LSU, thanks to the reigning Naismith Award winner, senior swing player Seimone Augustus, who has led the Lady Tigers to back-to-back Final Fours. Coach Pokey Chatman will deploy a point-guard-by-committee to replace Temeka Johnson, and Augustus will often head that up as well. "I have to become one of the vocal leaders," says Augustus, who averaged 20.1 points last season. "That's been tough because I'm not a real talkative person, but Temeka sends me e-mails and stays on top of me." Sylvia (Baby Shaq) Fowles, a 6'6" sophomore center, and Augustus are the best inside-outside combination in the nation. Says Chatman, "I can tell you Seimone would trade all her hardware--if she could find it all--for a national championship."
DUKE coach Gail Goestenkors specializes in hardbounds as opposed to hardware. During each preseason she assigns her players a book to read, and Wooden Award runner-up Monique Currie was fittingly given John Wooden's My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey. While Currie typed up quotes from the book and gave one to each player on the team, the senior swing player's talent (17.5 points and 7.1 rebounds in 2004--05) should prove more inspirational. The Blue Devils suited up only eight players for most of last season, but depth is no longer a problem with the additions of freshman guard Abby Waner, the Gatorade high school player of the year from Highlands Ranch, Colo., and junior point guard Lindsey Harding, who sat out last year for violating team rules. Goestenkors's biggest challenge may be managing minutes and massaging egos, though, she says, "because we haven't won the national championship, everyone is determined to do whatever is necessary."
After transferring from Cincinnati, where she averaged 16.0 points over three seasons, OHIO STATE senior forward Debbie Merrill spent the past year working over All-America junior center Jessica Davenport in practice. Now eligible to play for the Buckeyes, Merrill will cause havoc alongside the 6'5" Davenport, the Big Ten player of the year. After Davenport tied for the conference lead in scoring (19.3) and junior guard Brandie Hoskins set the pace in shooting (60.3%), they helped the U.S. win a gold medal this summer at the World University Games in Izmir, Turkey. Did they bring back anything for the coaching staff? "Better games," says coach Jim Foster.
Is RUTGERS senior guard Cappie Pondexter the best player in the country? "Definitely," says Pondexter, who has a slick website (cappie25.com) set up by the athletic department to promote her candidacy for the Naismith Award. "I'm going to go out and prove it not just to everybody, but also to myself." Pondexter was the leading scorer in the NCAA tournament (24.0) and bypassed the WNBA draft (she might have gone No. 1) to try to win a championship. She and sophomore point guard Matee Ajavon, the 2004--05 Big East freshman of the year, will form one of the nation's top backcourts. Highly touted 6'4" freshman center Kia Vaughn, from St. Michael's Academy in the Bronx, needs to provide an inside presence immediately.
If you thought NORTH CAROLINA was fast last season, think again. "We're going to be faster," coach Sylvia Hatchell says. "I've got four starters who are better than they were last year." One of the speedsters is junior point guard Ivory Latta, who averaged 17.4 points. With Latta, sophomore forward Erlana Larkins (14.6 points) and junior forward Camille Little, the Tar Heels will do more trapping and pressing. UNC also has an impressive freshman class, led by 6'1" forward Rashanda McCants, the little sister of former North Carolina men's star Rashad. "She has a jump shot just like his," Hatchell says.
Auriemma knows he created a monster at CONNECTICUT. Now he has to deal with it. "We were 25--8 last year, and most places would kill for that record," says Auriemma. "At our place they act like they want to cancel the program." But the program goes on, propelled by its top three scorers from last season: senior wings Ann Strother and Barbara Turner, and sophomore forward Charde Houston. The point guard, though, is always the key for UConn, and Auriemma may have a gem in freshman Renee Montgomery, who won three state titles at South Charleston High in West Virginia. "She plays like she knows she's good," says Houston. If Montgomery quickly clicks with her teammates, the Huskies will be tough.
MARYLAND coach Brenda Frese is pretty happy these days--and not only because she was married three months ago in a small ceremony at Sand Key Park in Clearwater, Fla. Frese is all smiles over prized freshman swing player Marissa Coleman from Washington, D.C.; junior point guard Shay Doron (17.6 points); and sophomore post player Crystal Langhorne (17.6 points, 10.6 rebounds), the 2004--05 ACC rookie of the year. "When we beat Xavier last season, Crystal came off the court after a double double and said, 'Coach, I have a lot of work to do on the defensive end,'" says Frese. "Right then and there, I knew she would be a special kid."
Coach Andy Landers thought GEORGIA would be special this year, but the preseason was trying. First he lost three veteran frontcourt players--junior Rebecca Rowsey (torn right ACL), sixth-year senior Ebony Felder (chronic knee problems) and sophomore Reicina Russell (personal reasons)--then his top freshman, Angel Robinson, last season's Miss Georgia Basketball, tore her left ACL in the team's opening exhibition. At least there's sophomore forward Tasha Humphrey (19.0 points), the co--national freshman of the year. If Georgia's preseason woes weren't enough, the schedule is a nightmare: two games against both Tennessee and LSU.
"I'm not sandbagging," USC coach Mark Trakh says. "I really don't think we're a top 15 team." Trakh is right. The Trojans are a top 10 team--provided Brynn Cameron's hip injury heals. Famed for how she shoots (most threes in the Pac-10) and whom she dates (USC quarterback Matt Leinart), the sophomore guard will either return by conference play or redshirt this season. Still, Trakh has 10 other players back and admirable balance; in 2004--05 eight players led the team in scoring or in rebounding in at least one game. And USC has signed Stockton, Calif., guard Jacki Gemelos, arguably the nation's top high school player. Says Trakh, "I think a year from now we'll be legit."
4. Ohio State
6. North Carolina