1 Woe is Geno Auriemma. The Connecticut coach's practices are slower and lack the sharpness of last season. That's because his four-year starter at point guard, All-America Renee Montgomery, who controlled the play on the court and coordinated her teammates' social calendars off it, has moved on to the WNBA. During one UConn practice late last month Steve Lappas, the former Villanova men's coach turned CBS college sports analyst, asked his friend Auriemma about the team's prospects. "I told him that whenever we've had the best point guard in the country, we've won the national championship," Auriemma says. "But this year we don't have the best point guard." With an eye to junior Lorin Dixon and sophomores Tiffany Hayes and Caroline Doty, Lappas asked, "Can any of them develop into the best point guard in the next two months?" Auriemma shook his head and said, "I'm not even sure it could happen in the next two years."
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2009 issue
Still, it's mighty hard to feel sorry for Auriemma considering Montgomery is the only starter missing from a team that won the Huskies' sixth national title, was ranked No. 1 from the beginning of the season to the end, finished 39--0 and won every time out by at least 10 points. Auriemma says all three players—as well as freshman Kelly Faris—will see action at the point, though Hayes, whom her coach calls the program's next superstar, will also play shooting guard. The frontcourt, on the other hand, includes two All-Americas: junior forward Maya Moore, the reigning Naismith Player of the Year, who averaged 19.3 points and 8.9 rebounds last season, and senior center Tina Charles, who had a career-high in points (16.5).
"In some ways it's like playing for the Yankees," Auriemma says of the outsized expectations for his team. "You have to win every game."
2 And playing the role of the Red Sox this season will be STANFORD, which is 1--1 against UConn in national semifinals over the past two seasons. The Cardinal, which set a school record with 1,663 total rebounds while going 33--5, features the nation's best front line, led by All-America senior center Jayne Appel. Stanford has six returning starters if you include junior point guard JJ Hones (who missed most of last season with a torn left ACL) but must improve its perimeter shooting (33.4%) if it's going to challenge Connecticut. "We need to knock down perimeter shots this season," says Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
3 OHIO STATE's junior center, Jantel Lavender, has won back-to-back Big Ten player of the year awards and has no plans to give up the title. "You can't win it freshman and sophomore years and not win it as a junior," says Lavender, a 6'4" center who averaged 20.8 points and 10.7 rebounds last season. She and sophomore point guard Samantha Prahalis (10.2 points, 5.8 assists) form one of the nation's best inside-outside duos. With four returning starters the Buckeyes should better last year's Sweet 16 finish.
4 Play more mad. That's the assignment MICHIGAN STATE coach Suzy Merchant gave 6'?9" senior center Allyssa DeHaan (10.8 points, Big Ten--record 402 career blocks), one of five starters back for the Spartans. "I've been working on finding my angry place," says DeHaan, a three-time All--Big Ten selection and self-described "passive person" who needs to be more aggressive to dominate in the paint. If oft-injured senior forward Aisha Jefferson (11.1 points) can stay healthy—Merchant calls her the team's x factor—Michigan State will advance deep into March.
5 NOTRE DAME has depth at every position. "The tough thing will be figuring out how to get [everyone] minutes," says coach Muffet McGraw, who brings back five starters and 12 players in all from last season's 22--9 team. The Irish, who don't have great size, will play a perimeter-oriented rotation that includes fifth-year senior Lindsay Schrader (12.9 points). Freshman point guard Skylar Diggins, the Naismith National High School Player of the Year, will start the season as the first player off the bench. "It's a great spot for Skylar because she doesn't have the pressure of coming in and taking us to another level," says McGraw, "but she'll be an impact player."
6 Rebounds are hard to come by against XAVIER thanks to junior center Ta'Shia Phillips, who was fourth in the country in rebounds (12.1) and was named the Atlantic-10 player of the year. Phillips and junior forward Amber Harris (15.3 points, 8.9 boards in 2007--08), who missed last season following knee surgery, should form one of the nation's best frontcourts. The Musketeers were No. 11 in the AP's preseason poll—their highest ranking ever—but Phillips believes it was too low. "We're a top 10 team," she says.
7 "It's not if we're going to be good," says BAYLOR coach Kim Mulkey, "it's when. Will it be this year? Will it be at the end of this year? Will it be next year?" How good the Lady Bears will be this season—after losing their four top scorers—depends on how quickly the underclassmen, especially 6'8" freshman center Brittney Griner, adapt to the college game. Griner, whose dunks have been viewed more than five million times on YouTube, is the nation's most anticipated recruit. "She has not reached anywhere near how good she is going to be," says Mulkey.
8 OKLAHOMA's game plan the last four years was simply to get the ball to Courtney Paris. Now, with the four-time All-America center in the WNBA, the Sooners have shifted to a perimeter-oriented offense keyed by speedy junior point guard Danielle Robinson (12.9 points) and Big 12 freshman of the year Whitney Hand (9.2 points). "I've never had anyone shoot the basketball as well as Whitney does," says coach Sherri Coale. One frontcourt player to watch is senior center Abi Olajuwon (daughter of Hall of Famer Hakeem), who lost 30 pounds in the off-season and has become agile enough to make an impact in the paint this season, according to Coales.
9 LSU has a mighty one-two punch in senior guard Allison Hightower (14.9 points) and sophomore forward LaShonda Barrett, who was the league's co--freshman of the year (11.4 points, 5.7 rebounds). If a third scoring option emerges, the defensive-minded Lady Tigers, who led the SEC in fewest points allowed (52.4) for the fifth straight year, will be a tough out.
10 Each spring TENNESSEE coach Pat Summitt takes a two-week sojourn to her vacation home in Destin, Fla., but this year's trip included a third week—the better to get past the Lady Vols' first-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Junior sharpshooter Angie Bjorklund (40.8% on three-pointers) and sophomore guard Shekinna Stricklen (13.3 points) should provide enough offense to prevent another postseason meltdown. "Last year some of our players could not handle being challenged," says Summitt. "Now I think they understand they are going to be challenged—and they are going to have to step up and meet the challenge."
TEAM // CONFERENCE // RETURNING STARTERS
11 NORTH CAROLINA / ACC / 2 /
With forward Jessica Breland unlikely to play after undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, much is expected of freshmen Krista Gross, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Cierra Robertson-Warren.
12 TEXAS / BIG 12 / 3 /
The Longhorns have a talented backcourt in senior Brittainey Raven (13.4 points) and junior Kathleen Nash (11.4), but the development of freshman center Cokie Reed is the key to a deep run.
13 DUKE / ACC / 2 /
Duke's streak of 11 consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 ended last season, but a new one should begin if junior guard Jasmine Thomas (10.2 points) has anything to say about it.
14 MIDDLE TENNESSEE ST. / SUN BELT / 5 /
Senior forward Alysha Clark, the nation's leading scorer (27.5), a presence on the boards (9.8 rebounds a game) and a preseason Wooden Award candidate, leads a stocked team.
15 VIRGINIA / ACC / 2 /
Last season senior guard Monica Wright set Virginia's single-season scoring record with 696 points (a 20.5 average); she needs 329 more to surpass Dawn Staley's career record of 2,135.
16 RUTGERS / BIG EAST / 2 /
Top scorer Epiphanny Prince passed up her senior year to play overseas, but the Scarlet Knights have talented returnees in guards Brittany Ray (10.2 points) and Khadijah Rushdan (7.0).
17 VANDERBILT / SEC / 3 /
The Commodores need junior forward Hannah Tuomi (11.4 points) and senior guard Merideth Marsh (81 three-pointers) to make up for the loss of All-SEC forward Christina Wirth.
18 GONZAGA / WCC / 4 /
Senior forward Heather Bowman (19.4 points, 7.5 rebounds) and junior guard Courtney Vandersloot (7.5 assists)—back-to-back WCC players of the year—are preseason Wooden candidates.
19 GEORGIA / SEC / 3 /
Senior guard Ashley Houts, one of four returning starters, led the Lady Bulldogs in scoring (12.0), assists (4.7) and steals (2.2) and broke the school's record for average minutes played (37.7).
20 SOUTH CAROLINA / SEC / 4 /
Freshman Kelsey Bone, a 6'5" center, highlights a top five recruiting class for second-year coach Staley. There's plenty of talent around sophomore guard La'Keisha Sutton (11.0 points).