5. LOUISIANA TECH
8. PENN STATE
10. N.C. STATE
Georgia coach Andy Landers walked into a tiny trinket shop in
Tijuana, Mexico, this summer, while on a side trip from his
vacation in California. As he was browsing among the leather
goods and fake Rolex watches, the man behind the counter
recognized him. "Ah," said he, "the coach at Georgia!"
Such is the state of women's basketball today that Landers, who
was once detained by security guards who didn't recognize him at
his own gym, is now a celebrity in other countries. Connecticut
coach Geno Auriemma, who took his family to Florida after his
team won the NCAA championship in April, ended up playing Pied
Piper to autograph-hunting children who trailed him down the
beach. Auriemma's moment in the sun didn't last forever, though.
He was recently greeted by an enthusiastic fan who thought he
was ... Joe Theismann.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that women's
basketball has a higher profile these days. Three years ago it
was a big deal when the Final Four sold out. Now the question is
how quickly the tickets will go. This season's championship
game, in Charlotte, sold out last April. Overall attendance topped
3.6 million last season, triple that of a decade ago, when only
a handful of teams had a chance to win the national title. This
year any of the Top 10 teams could win it all. And there's a
good possibility that none of them will. "Every year now,
there's a chance of someone other than the status-quo powers
winning," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster. "There could be
seven or eight preseason Number 1's. But Number 9 might win."
Landers agrees. His Georgia team wasn't ranked in the preseason
last year but reached the Final Four with four sophomores and a
junior in the starting lineup. The Lady Bulldogs fell flat,
though, losing 73-51 to Tennessee. After the season Landers told
his team it needed more bulk, and the players have tried
desperately to comply. They've done a fine job in the weight
room but again have proved to be lightweights at the training
table. "We're just skinny," says junior forward La'Keshia Frett,
who often eats two dinners. Expectations, though, are heavy. "We
got to the Final Four last year, but we don't want to settle for
that," says senior guard Saudia Roundtree. "If we got that far a
year ago, we can win it now."
Last season Connecticut was 35-0, and the Huskies' perfect run
was like gasoline on the fire that was building in the women's
game. They hope last year's enthusiasm can be sustained now that
player of the year Rebecca Lobo has graduated. "It's like
women's basketball was waiting for something to happen," says
5'5" senior point guard Jennifer Rizzotti, who, along with
6-foot forward Jamelle Elliott and 6'7" center Kara Wolters, is
back as a starter. Nykesha Sales will join the lineup at forward
after a freshman season in which she came off the bench to
average 11.4 points and earn Big East Rookie of the Year honors.
UConn's top recruit, 6'3" Tammy Arnold, could also see playing
Will these Huskies make fans forget Lobo? Not likely, but UConn
should remain a national phenomenon. "We even see Connecticut
women's basketball shirts in Nashville," says Vanderbilt center
Angela Gorsica. "But there are plenty of Vanderbilt shirts, too."
And rightly so. Vanderbilt lost only one first-stringer from
last season's Sweet 16 team, yet Foster expects two newcomers to
play right away and perhaps start. Freshman Beth Ostendorf has
worked at every position in practice, and either redshirt
freshman Nettie Respondek, who sat out last season with a stress
fracture in each foot, or freshman Paige Redmond could displace
senior Ginger Jared at point guard. "Competition is what made
America great," Foster says.
There's no chance that competition will ruin the team's sense of
family. Unbeknownst to her coaches and teammates, sophomore
forward Na'Sheema Hillmon was four months pregnant when she
earned a spot on the SEC's All-Tournament team last March as a
freshman. On Aug. 15 she gave birth to a boy, Zahkir Kahari
Hillmon-Baker, whose father is Vanderbilt football player Fred
Baker. Vanderbilt forward Sheri Sam was on hand for the delivery
and is the baby's godmother.
In other medical news, Virginia senior guard Jenny Boucek, a
sports-medicine major, was present this summer for the rebirth
of teammate Wendy Palmer's knee. "When I got the anesthesia and
was going to sleep, Jenny was there," Palmer says. "The last
thing I remember was squeezing her hand."
Palmer, a 6'2" senior forward and one of five returning starters
from a 27-5 team, has played in pain--with pulled muscles, stress
fractures and tendinitis--most of her career. It's amazing then
that she needs only 137 rebounds (about 13 games' worth for her)
to join Ralph Sampson as the only Virginia players to score
1,000 points and grab 1,000 boards. "One game last year, she had
tendinitis, a severe case of the flu and an ulcer, and she
scored 39 points," coach Debbie Ryan says. "When she puts her
mind to something, you can't stop her."
Louisiana Tech guard Vickie Johnson is a prime example of the
unforeseen spoils that accrue to a team that makes the Final
Four. She still remembers watching TV in the early 1980s and
seeing former Lady Techster guard Kim Mulkey, now a Louisiana
Tech assistant, play in four straight Final Fours and win two
national titles. "I didn't even know where Louisiana Tech was,"
says Johnson, who is from nearby Coushatta, La. "But I wanted to
An All-America who has led the team in scoring since she was a
freshman, the 5'9" Johnson averaged 16.4 points last season and
has excellent range. However, the inside play of 6'4" senior
Racquel Spurlock may be the key to the Lady Techsters' season.
She'll get help from 6'3" freshman Priya Gilmore, the daughter
of former NBA star Artis Gilmore.
Tennessee rarely dips out of the Top 5 in the preseason, but
when that happens, there's usually cause for celebration in
Knoxville. The last two times the Lady Vols started the season
ranked lower than fifth (in 1986-87 and '90-91), they won
national championships. "There aren't a lot of high expectations
of us this year," says senior guard Michelle Marciniak, "so
we're in the prove-people-wrong mode."
Marciniak and her backcourt mate, Latina Davis, are the only
seniors on the team, which has five new players. That makes for
some interesting workouts. "The first day of practice we looked
like a veteran team," coach Pat Summitt says. "The second day of
practice we looked like the youngest team I've ever coached."
Freshman Chamique Holdsclaw is battling to start at the small
forward spot vacated by the graduation of All-America Nikki
McCray. Like McCray, the 6'2" Holdsclaw wears number 23, but not
in honor of a basketball deity. Holdsclaw, the top recruit in
the country, wears the number to represent her favorite passage
in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has taken a year off to prepare
the U.S. Olympic team for the '96 Games. Serving as co-head
coaches in her stead are Amy Tucker, a 13-year assistant to
VanDerveer, and Marianne Stanley, the former coach at Southern
Cal. "Everything is going smoothly," says 6'2" forward Kate
Starbird, a junior who led the Cardinal in scoring last year
with a 16.0 average. "It's the same system, same plays."
Junior point guard Jamila Wideman, finally free of the foot pain
she suffered throughout 1994-95, is the only other returning
starter, but Stanford has lots of experience, with 11 lettermen
coming back. The team has no rookies except the coaches, who are
filling VanDerveer's shoes but not her desk. "We go in her
office only to drop off mail or edit film," Stanley says.
"Nobody is going to be sitting in her chair."
Penn State coach Rene Portland regularly sits in a swivel chair
in a TV studio, a common spot for men's coaches but a place not
many women's coaches find themselves. Center Court with Rene
Portland, a monthly highlight show heading into its second
season, was nominated for a regional Emmy last year, not bad for
a rookie. "It's great having something like that for Penn State
and women's basketball," says senior guard Katina Mack. "I never
Mack is the one who was missed last year. She suffered a severe
concussion in the second game, sat out a month and then suffered
another concussion in her first game back. She didn't play the
rest of the season--teammates took to calling her Coach Mack
because she got so involved in practices--but has now been
pronounced ready to go.
Enthusiasm is sky-high at Purdue thanks to freshman aviation
major Stephanie White, who, when she isn't flying a plane, will
pilot the Boilermakers from the point-guard position.
Season-ticket sales are up 67%, to an alltime high of 4,209, and
folks from White's hometown of West Lebanon, Ind., are the
reason. "The people who have followed her career don't want to
just come to the games," coach Lin Dunn says. "They want a good
seat." Dunn hopes they're in for a good show. Four of Purdue's
10 players are freshmen, but they're considered by many
observers to be the best incoming class in the country. They'll
help replace Leslie Johnson, the nation's premier freshman two
years ago, and Danielle McCulley, who both transferred to
North Carolina State sophomore Chasity Melvin led the Wolfpack
in scoring and rebounding last season, earning conference rookie
of the year honors. "She's something special," coach Kay Yow says.
After last season's 21-10 performance, Yow thinks her team might
be special too. N.C. State made the NCAA tournament for the
first time since 1991 and ran all the way to the Sweet 16.
Besides Melvin, the Wolfpack keeps forward Umeki Webb (who, at
5'11", is four inches taller than her cousin Spud) and junior
point guard Jennifer Howard in the starting lineup. Howard
averaged 12.9 points in 1994-95, nothing to be ashamed of but
nothing close to her performance in the classroom, where she
carries a 4.0 in communications. On a break from more scholarly
pursuits, she recently figured out how to access her E-mail and
found some messages that people had sent her during last season.
One was from a recent convert to women's hoops, a man who wrote:
"I used to think women's basketball was bad, but now I love it."
It appears he's not the only one.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND When Frett (left) is on her game, Georgia's worries are over. [La'Keshia Frett]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Johnson (55) should again be the driving force behind the Lady Techsters. [Vickie Johnson]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Laura Milligan (with ball) and the Lady Vols hope they can confound the preseason pundits once more.