THE TOP 10
2 Louisiana Tech
Sarah Edwards was determined to play for Tennessee this
season--even if that meant never getting to play. So with two
weeks left in the spring signing period last April, she traveled
to Knoxville to persuade coach Pat Summitt to let her walk on,
an invitation Summitt has extended over the past two decades
about as often as she has lost in the NCAA tournament. To
prepare for her sit-down with Summitt, Edwards pored over the
pages of the coach's playbook for life, Reach for the Summitt,
on the 40-mile drive from her home in Sevierville, Tenn. When
Edwards exited Summitt's second-floor office at Thompson-Boling
Arena later that afternoon, the Lady Vols had a 5'11" practice
player with all-state credentials, Charles and Patricia Edwards
had autographed copies of the coach's book, and their
17-year-old daughter had pulled off that rarest of feats: She
had won over Pat Summitt.
Such victories against Tennessee won't come as easily to teams
across the nation this season, even if their campus bookstores
are stocked with Reach for the Summitt. The 39-0 juggernaut that
led the nation in scoring (88.8 points per game), carved up
opponents by an average of 30.1 points and brought Summitt her
third consecutive title and sixth in 12 seasons is back
essentially intact. "Like any great team, you're going to need
them to help you," says Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "You can
go out and play your absolute best game, but if they play their
best game, they win."
The Lady Vols didn't play their best in their first serious test
of the 1998-99 season, against Purdue on Sunday, and lost 78-68
to end a 46-game winning streak, but they still figure to win it
all come March. Winning, after all, has been the primary
vocation of 6'2" senior forward Chamique Holdsclaw, whose streak
of eight consecutive titles began when she led her eighth-grade
team in Queens, N.Y., to a Lutheran-school league championship.
After the Lady Vols' loss on Sunday, she needed just 98 points
and eight rebounds to become the school's career leader in both
categories. "Chamique's become more serious about her game than
ever," says Summitt. "Her body strength has gone to another
Indeed, after the physical pounding they endured in last year's
taut 76-70 Elite Eight victory over North Carolina, the Lady
Vols vowed never to be bullied again. The memory of that near
nightmare in Nashville has been exorcised with exercise in the
Stokely Athletics Center's weight room this off-season. "They
want to show that they can play a physical game or a finesse
game this year," Summitt says.
Joining the bulked-up Holdsclaw (23.5 points, 8.4 rebounds) are
her fellow All-America "Meeks": sophomore forward Tamika
Catchings (18.2 points; page 144) and sophomore guard Semeka
Randall (15.9 points). The unrelenting wave of speed, defense
and athleticism continues with tough-as-nails senior point guard
Kellie Jolly, flashy 5'11" sophomore Kristen (Ace) Clement and
6'3" sophomore center Teresa Geter. The addition of two highly
touted post players--6'5" Michelle Snow and 6'3" Shalon
Pillow--should help overcome the loss of junior center LaShonda
Stephens, who quit in late October because of chronic knee
ailments, and junior guard Kyra Elzy, who will miss at least the
next three months after undergoing surgery on her right knee for
the second time in two years.
"I'm not ready to crown Tennessee champion just yet," says
Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore. "A lot of us are going to work
hard and try to develop our teams. It would be an upset, no
question. But upsets do happen." If one does, it will likely be
orchestrated by Barmore, who has adopted a team slogan in each of
his 17 seasons at the helm in Ruston. This year's
forward-thinking theme is A Season to Remember, which will only
happen if the Lady Techsters fulfill the last of the preseason
goals written in their notebooks: Win a national championship.
Four starters return, including junior point guard Tamicha
Jackson (14.6 points) and senior forward Amanda Wilson (18.5
points, 8.8 rebounds). Barmore hopes his seven new recruits will
provide the depth he lacked last year, when Tennessee dismantled
Tech 93-75 in the national championship game. He won't have to
wait long to find out: The Lady Vols visit Thomas Assembly Center
on Nov. 30, putting Tech's current 52-game home winning streak in
serious jeopardy. "You cannot beat them unless you have
production from every spot on the floor," Barmore says. "This is
what everybody in the country is faced with: Do any of us have
enough offense to score enough to beat them?"
Auriemma is asking himself that same question now that Nykesha
Sales, the alltime leading scorer at Connecticut, is gone.
"We've won 30 games five years in a row, yet it feels like we're
starting over," says Auriemma. If you're going to start over,
you might as well do it with the best recruiting class in the
nation. The hype for forwards Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones, Swin
Cash and guards Sue Bird and Keirsten Walters prompted the
school to hold its first-ever Freshman Media Day, which
attracted 12 beat writers, three TV stations and two
photographers. That's when Cash revealed that she and her mates
had come up with a name befitting their assignment: the TASSK
Force. Whether the TASSK force is up to the task against
Tennessee should make for terrific theater when the two battle
at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 10. "Last year we were afraid, but we
won't be this year," says sophomore guard-forward Shea Ralph,
who missed the '97-98 season following surgery on a torn right
ACL. "We try to take it one game at a time, but Tennessee is
always at the back of our minds."
Huskies sophomore forward Svetlana Abrosimova (14.5 points) is a
burgeoning star from St. Petersburg, Russia, and senior guard Amy
Duran and junior center Paige Sauer are also back. Auriemma's
biggest challenge will be finding which of his newcomers will
replace point guard Rita Williams. "If they just act like regular
freshmen," says Auriemma, "then we're not going to be able to
beat the teams we need to beat."
Three weeks after a bitterly disappointing loss to Arkansas in
the Elite Eight, Duke coach Gail Goestenkors called her players
together for a team meeting at Cameron Indoor Stadium. "I asked
them, 'What have you done today to prepare for tomorrow?'" says
Goestenkors. "Then I wrote down the schedule for next year." What
followed was a list of names that read like a Top 10 roll call,
including Tennessee, Connecticut and UCLA. "My biggest concern
was complacency," she says. "I think I took care of that."
There's plenty of reason for optimism among the Blue Devils, even
with their bedeviling schedule. Led by the senior backcourt of
Hillary Howard and Nicole Erickson, Duke has perhaps the most
balanced lineup in the nation; the top six returnees averaged
between 7.7 and 12.8 points in '97-98. If 6'6" center Michele
VanGorp, renowned for her two-handed dunks in practice, can
develop into a force in the middle, the Blue Devils should
advance beyond the Elite Eight. "We set our goals a little too
low last season," says Goestenkors. "We don't want to make that
same mistake again."
If any coach has the scoop on beating Tennessee, it's Carolyn
Peck of Purdue, as she proved with Sunday's shocker. Four years
ago she was a $16,000-a-year restricted earnings coach for the
Lady Vols, and she continues to espouse the wisdom she gleaned
from Summitt. "Pat taught me you learn something new every day,"
Peck says, "and, most important, you've got to love your team."
Peck will have no difficulty embracing that second lesson: All 13
players are back from last year's 23-10 squad. The Boilermakers
have one of the few backcourts that can match up with the Lady
Vols', led by 5'11" Stephanie White-McCarty (20.6 points) and
5'9" Ukari Figgs (15.5 points), a pair of seniors with 157 career
starts between them. They outscored their Tennessee counterparts
34-19 in Sunday's upset. Sophomore Katie Douglas, a 6'1" forward,
and 5'7" freshman Kelly Komara, the reigning Indiana Miss
Basketball, should also help create havoc. The biggest question
facing Purdue may be how the players respond to Peck's lame-duck
status: She will leave next April to become general manager and
coach of Orlando's WNBA franchise. Says Peck, "We've talked about
it, we've handled it, and we're moving forward."
Should UCLA end up making the 350-mile trip north on the Golden
State Freeway to San Jose, site of this year's Final Four,
remember the name of Carla Houser, a reserve forward on last
year's 20-9 squad. Following a loss at North Carolina last
December--UCLA's fourth defeat in its first six games--Houser lit
into her younger teammates. "She told us, 'This is my senior
year, and you can't keep doing this,'" recalls junior forward
Maylana Martin. "She said, 'You sophomores keep saying, Next
year. For me and the other seniors, we don't have a next year.'"
The baby Bruins got the message and finished on an 18-4 run
before sloppy refereeing in the final second against Alabama
sent them home from the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Houser is gone, but what returns to Westwood is the best junior
class in the country. The 6'3" Martin (18.8 points, 7.4
rebounds) leads a frontcourt of classmates Janae Hubbard, a 6'4"
center, and Marie Philman, a 6-foot forward. But the player who
makes the Bruins go is junior point guard Erica Gomez, who was
named the National Comeback Player of the Year after missing the
entire 1996-97 season recovering from a torn right ACL. Junior
guard Melanie Pearson rounds out the best starting five west of
Injuries crippled Georgia so badly before last season that coach
Andy Landers issued a call to arms in the student press. The
results, along with the season that followed, weren't pretty.
"We had one 44-year-old woman ask if she could walk on after the
story had gotten to the local papers," says Landers. "We told
her there was one qualification: You had to be a student."
Georgia ended up playing most of the year with just seven
healthy scholarship players--four of them freshmen. Those dog
days are over for the Lady Bulldogs, who have five starters
back. Georgia's guard play should have opponents seeing double,
starting with the Miller twins, 5'10" Kelly and Coco, whose
sister act set Athens ablaze last year. Kelly (17.5 points)
earned freshman All-America honors, while Coco scored a
school-record 45 points against Charleston Southern. The Lady
Bulldogs' lack of experience in the frontcourt won't be a factor
if 6'4" freshman center Tawana McDonald lives up to Landers's
laurels. "She's impressed me more in our early practices than
any player I've ever had," he says. "I get chill bumps thinking
Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, on the other hand, remains grounded
about the hunt for the national title. "I wouldn't say Tennessee
is a can't-miss champion," she says. "Everybody's vulnerable.
You just have to figure out what that Achilles' heel is." The
Achilles' heel for Virginia last year was the Achilles tendon of
junior guard Tiffany Bower. The right tibia of senior
guard-forward Monick Foote was a major pain as well. With Bower
and Foote healthy again after missing all of last season,
Virginia's versatile lineup will now be a pain for its
opponents. "I can go small and quick, and I can go big and
quick," says Ryan, who can go really big if she wants to.
Sophomore Elena Kravchenko, a 6'10" center, is the tallest
female player in Division I, and 6'3" forward DeMya Walker (16.3
points, 8.4 rebounds) should be even deadlier in the post now
that teams have to respect Virginia's perimeter game. Sophomore
point guard Erin Stovall gives Ryan another topflight athlete to
face the likes of the Lady Vols.
The scouting report on Rutgers sophomore point guard Natasha
Pointer is, Always goes for the kill. Attacks from the wing only
when necessary. "I want to take all your pieces," says Pointer,
who has been honing her other game--chess--since junior high.
"I'm coming straight down the middle, but be prepared because I
might get you on the side." So far Pointer remains the
undefeated chess champion of the Scarlet Knights, though coach
Vivian Stringer refuses to surrender. "She has a reason for
everything going wrong on the chessboard," says Pointer. "But
I'm just better right now." So is Rutgers, thanks to a
remarkable freshman class that won 22 games last year, including
an upset of No. 2-ranked Connecticut. But Pointer (14.0 points,
5.6 assists) and the sophomore-dominated frontcourt will have to
pick up the slack until senior guard Tomora Young (13.7 points)
is at full strength after surgery on her left knee. That should
be just in time for a Jan. 3 matchup with the national champs at
Madison Square Garden. "People will be coming to knock down our
door this year," says Pointer. "It's no longer, Have you heard
of Rutgers? It's now, Rutgers is coming to town."
Last season Alabama gave Tennessee a scare twice. Dictating the
tempo, coach Rick Moody forced the Lady Vols into a half-court
game and nearly pulled off the impossible, losing 73-66 and
67-63. His blueprint for vanquishing the Vols? "You just cannot
turn the ball over," he says, "or they'll destroy you." Despite
its near success with the slowdown, the Crimson Tide will pick
up the pace this season with what Moody says is the best
incoming class of his 10-year tenure. Setting the tempo in
Tuscaloosa will be guard-forward Dominique Canty, a 5'10" senior
who many believe is the best player in the country whose name
doesn't include Meek. "She's going to get hers," Moody says.
"One way or another, she always does."
So likely will Summitt, who begins her 25th year at Tennessee
with a powerful cast that may yet live up to Holdsclaw's
proclamation after the title game last March: The 1998-99 squad
will be the best in college basketball history. "I'll tell you
this," says Summitt. "If we're at our best and someone else is
at their best, I wouldn't want to trade teams."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Pumped Already the nation's top player, Holdsclaw should be even more dominant after an off-season of heavy lifting. [Chamique Holdsclaw in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Net gain Louisiana Tech hopes Wilson (center) and a deep recruiting class will make 1998-99 a season to remember. [Overhead view of Amanda Wilson and others under basket in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Heads up Abrosimova (above) provides a steady hand for callow Connecticut, while Erickson is a driving force for balanced Duke. [Svetlana Abrosimova in game]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT SHARPE [See caption above--Nicole Erickson in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SPURLOCK Well guarded White-McCarty, who scored 23 points against Tennessee, helped prove Purdue's backcourt can match up with anyone's. [Stephanie White-McCarty and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: TODD WARSHAW/ALLSPORT Power play The 6'3" Martin anchors a fearsome frontcourt for UCLA, which has learned to play with a greater sense of urgency. [Maylana Martin and opposing players and in game]
"You can play your absolute best," Auriemma says, "but if [the
Lady Vols] play their best, they win."
"This is what everybody is faced with," says Barmore. "Do any of
us have enough offense to beat Tennessee?"
"We try to take it one game at a time," Ralph says, "but
Tennessee is always at the back of our minds."
"If we're at our best and someone else is at their best," Summitt
says, "I wouldn't want to trade teams."