THE WOMEN'S top 10
6 North Carolina
7 Louisiana Tech
9 Penn State
The road to the 1994 women's Final Four was paved with rash promises, as Purdue coach Lin Dunn will tell you. When Dunn vowed to get a tattoo if the Boilermakers made it to the Final Four, it was January, her team was young, and Purdue had no hope of making it to Richmond. "And then, as the team got better and better, the tattoo became a sort of battle cry," says the despairing Dunn, who finally took the needle—which printed a tiny FINAL 4 somewhere on her body—just days before this year's opener. "I swear, it's the world's smallest tattoo, and no, there will be no public viewing."
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell got away with a relatively lower-cost, higher-return promise: She vowed to paint her hair blue if the Tar Heels won the national championship. The 42-year-old Hatchell wore the embarrassing blue rinse the night after the title game.
With women's coaches suddenly wary of making wild promises, what sort of spur will it take to get the top teams to the Final Four in Minneapolis this season?
At Tennessee coach Pat Summitt may need nothing more than the weight of tradition. Her four seniors are in danger of becoming the first Lady Vol class to graduate without an appearance in the Final Four since the NCAA first sanctioned the tournament, in 1982. Fortunately for them, Tennessee will host the Mideast Regional at Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Lady Vols have a 49-game winning streak. During the regular season the Lady Vols will tune up for the title against seven other teams in SI's Top 10. And to their loaded roster they add high school All-America guard Laurie Milligan, who has already displayed some serious chutzpah. When Milligan found out that her favorite number, 22, had been retired at Tennessee, she asked the coaches if they wouldn't mind unretiring it for her. They would. Milligan will wear number 11.
Major attitude is also rampant at Purdue, where the Boilermakers are already sporting T-shirts declaring themselves 1995 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. Their confidence is not entirely unfounded, as the bulk of last year's surprising Final Four squad is back—and we don't just mean 6'1", 200-pound sophomore center Leslie Johnson, last year's national freshman of the year. To go with Johnson's heft, Purdue now has height, in the person of 6'6" freshman Michele VanGorp.
Soon after Virginia sophomore point guard Tora Suber was born 4½ months premature and with a 10% chance of survival, some prescient individual stuck a sign on her incubator that read A STAR IS BORN. Nineteen years later, when Suber was thrown into Virginia's point-guard spot—months ahead of schedule, naturally—she emerged as ACC Rookie of the Year. With her and ACC Player of the Year candidate Wendy Palmer, the Cavaliers should improve on last year's 27-5 finish.
At Stanford senior forward Rachel Hemmer, sophomore point guard Jamila Wideman and forward Vanessa Nygaard have all been hobbled with slow-healing injuries, so the early going may be rocky. But prospects should brighten when 6'2" freshman Kristin Folkl returns from playing on the volleyball team to join five other towering classmates on an imposing front line.
Senior All-America center and Rhodes scholarship candidate Rebecca Lobo of Connecticut ma; be the most popular athlete in the Constitution State. After picking up her 19.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and four blocks a game, she usually doles out about 100 autographs to the Husky faithful who regularly pack 8,000-seat Gampel Pavilion. "They are totally supportive, even if we do something awful," says Lobo. The worst thing UConn could do this year is not make it to the East Regional, which is at Gampel, but with the Huskies featuring four starters from last year's final-eight team and a bench that includes 6'7" sophomore Kara Wolters and 6-foot freshman hotshot Nykesha Sales, that's not likely.
Returning for NCAA champion North Carolina are buzzer-beating star Charlotte Smith (page 82) and sophomore guard sensation Marion Jones, who reveals new superhuman qualities every week. Already faster than most mortals, Jones recently showed an alarming indifference to pain by ripping off a cracked big toenail in front of two horrified trainers—just so she could get back to practice. "We only scrimmage for 20 minutes," said Jones, "and I hate to miss that."
Speaking of a Tar Heel not missing, Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore has stopped agonizing over that Charlotte Smith three-point shot that came between his team and the title last April. "After three weeks, I got tired of being miserable," he says. Four returning starters must learn to play without Pam Thomas, last year's senior point guard, to have another shot at the title.
In senior guard Niesa Johnson, Alabama has a team leader who is both All-America and All-AT&T She rings up huge phone bills to keep in touch with friends from summer basketball teams and picks up scouting reports on Crimson Tide foes along the way. Johnson's outlook for her own team? "Every single player on this team can penetrate, shoot and rebound," she says.
Life at Penn State is so tradition-bound that coach Rene Portland has ordered the same team dinner, lasagna, at the same restaurant, The Tavern, before every home game for the last 14 years. Nevertheless, the Lady Lions will sport a lot of new looks this year, not all of them courtesy of senior guard Katina Mack, who wears 23 different hairdos in this year's team media guide.
What will become of Iowa, a team that successfully recruited so many of this year's top newcomers that the Hawkeye freshman class is already being called the Sensational Seven? The seven are already six, now that forward Angela Hamblin has to sit out for academic reasons, but in time they will be formidable. For now, though, coach Vivian Stringer is making no promises.
With Johnson (34) dominating the paint, Purdue sees itself winning a title.