Old school may be the fashion in men's basketball this year, but
the vogue in the women's game is decidedly different. Look
around--the signs of modernity are everywhere. Once ponderous
Vanderbilt is running a fast break, motion offenses are being
employed at both Stanford and Tennessee, and, most shocking of
all, Louisiana Tech is throwing modesty to the wind and going
Seniors? With a few notable exceptions, they are not the ones
running the show this year. "There's a real lack of experience
out there," says Tennessee guard Kara Lawson, a two-time Final
Four veteran who is one of the most experienced seniors around.
"That will make this year fun. With young players, you never know
what's going to happen."
Perhaps no team is more comfortable dealing with the
unforeseeable than Duke, which made it to the Final Four last
year despite seeing its roster hacked to eight after two players
unexpectedly transferred in December. This year the Blue Devils
have already been blindsided by the loss of sophomore guard and
All-America candidate Monique Currie, who tore her left ACL in
the first five seconds of Duke's first exhibition game on Nov. 5.
While the loss of Currie for the season is significant, Duke
remains our favorite to win the NCAA title in Atlanta on April 8.
The Blue Devils still have two All-America candidates in the
lineup--5'11" guard Alana Beard and 6'4" forward Iciss Tillis,
both juniors--and Currie's absence will open up a starting spot
for Sheana Mosch, a 5'10" senior who has responded heroically to
crises in the past. When Beard was injured and out of the lineup
for four games two years ago, Mosch raised her scoring average
from 7.4 to 26.5 points. Currie's 6.0 rebounds a game will be
harder to replace, but two members of the top recruiting class in
the nation, 6'3" freshman centers Mistie Bass (the daughter of
'60s dance icon Chubby Checker) and Brooke Smith, should be a big
help in the low post. With improved depth at almost every
position, expect Duke to run, press and pile up points at an even
greater clip than last season, when it was second in the nation
in scoring, with 83.5 points per game.
National semifinalist Tennessee has less depth than it did last
season, and that may be a good thing. Choosing a lineup from last
year's stellar roster of 14 was like "shopping at Macy's," says
assistant Mickie DeMoss. "Too many choices." Since then the Lady
Vols have lost five players--three seniors to graduation and two
transfers, April McDivitt and Michelle Munoz, to UC Santa Barbara
and Ohio State, respectively--and added two freshmen. Both
newcomers should help Tennessee address what, despite all that
talent, it lacked last year: inside strength and outside scoring.
In 6'5" center Tye'sha Fluker the Lady Vols will have a big,
physical force in the post, and in guard Shanna Zolman, whose
3,085 career points in high school shattered the Indiana record
of 2,869 set by Stephanie White from 1991--92 through '94--95,
they should have a consistent and prolific shooter.
Lawson, taking her role as senior leader seriously, ordered her
teammates to show up for pickup games three nights a week over
the summer, and she worked out with Zolman almost every day.
After three years in Knoxville without winning a national title,
Lawson says she has learned that "you don't win championships
because of the name on your uniform but because of the work you
put in. You come to Tennessee, though, to win championships. I
still have that expectation."
The expectations for Louisiana State can be heard in the ka-ching
of the ticket-office cash register, which rang up record sales of
1,300 season tickets (nearly quadrupling the previous high) in
the month after Baton Rouge native Seimone Augustus signed on to
play for the Lady Tigers. Says coach Sue Gunter, "Everyone around
here has watched her grow up. No one wants to miss her college
How big a deal is her staying home to play for LSU? Athletic
director Skip Bertman, incredibly, called her "the most important
recruit in the history of our athletic program."
Despite all the attention, Augustus, a velvety smooth 6'1" guard
who averaged 28.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 5.0
steals for Class 4A champ Capitol High last year, will not be
expected to carry the Tigers. LSU has back six of the seven hardy
souls who took the team to an 18--12 record last year.
With the departure of seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones
and Tamika Williams, defending champion Connecticut has been
reduced to, according to some skeptics, one excellent player and
a lot of question marks. One Big East opponent even taunted the
Huskies as they steamrolled through the league tournament last
season, saying, "Wait till next year!"
"We took offense at that," says All-America junior guard Diana
Taurasi. "We'll see what happens."
What happens will depend on how many relatively inexperienced
players step up to complement Taurasi, whom coach Geno Auriemma
considers the best player in the country. "I think people will be
shocked by how much better Diana is this year," he says. "We're
playing better than I expected [in practice], and that's because
she makes everyone around her better." Though 6'3" sophomore
center Jessica Moore is showing signs of future stardom in the
low post, the Huskies' strength will be on the perimeter,
especially if freshman guards Nicole Wolff and Ann Strother, last
year's national high school player of the year at Highlands Ranch
High in Castle Rock, Colo., continue their rapid adjustment to
collegiate ball. "There are a lot of people out there who don't
expect us to be very good," says associate head coach Chris
Dailey, "but I think they'll be surprised."
After a bunch of underclassmen from tiny Kansas burgs led
formerly moribund Kansas State to the Sweet 16 last season, the
Wildcats won't have the advantage of surprise anymore. But they
will still have their happily rabid following. After years of
seeing mere hundreds in the stands, K-State averaged 8,158 in
attendance last year, thanks in no small part to the citizenry of
Clay Center (pop. 4,564), Moundridge (1,593) and Marysville
(3,271), the respective hometowns of 6'4" junior center Nicole
Ohlde, sophomore guard Laurie Koehn (her 122 three-pointers led
the nation) and all-around athletic marvel Kendra Wecker, a
sophomore forward. "We're grateful for all the respect and
support, but we can't stop working hard now," says Wecker, who
finished sixth in the javelin at last year's NCAA track and field
championships and is the only girl to have made the national
finals of the Punt, Pass and Kick competition. (She came in
second as a 12year-old.)
Like Kansas State, Georgia is breathtakingly young--seven of the
10 players on scholarship are freshmen or sophomores--but youth
has served coach Andy Landers well in the past. Of the five teams
he has led to the Final Four, three were carried by
underclassmen. And this team "can fly," he says. Few guards run
the court as well as 6'6" sophomore center Kara Braxton, who
averaged 16.3 points and 6.8 rebounds last season to earn SEC
freshman of the year honors. Point guard play was a weakness for
the Lady Dogs but should be better with the addition of blue-chip
freshmen Sherill Baker, who was Miss Georgia Basketball, and
Alexis Kendrick, a McDonald's All-American from Los Angeles. "The
main difference this year is that everyone is willing to work
hard and is clearly focused," says senior shooting guard Mary
Beth Lycett. "What could be better than getting Georgia its first
national title, in the Georgia Dome?"
In Lubbock, Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp thinks she has a much
better story line: the Lady Raiders' winning their second
national championship on the 10th anniversary of their first,
also won in Atlanta, when Sheryl Swoopes wowed the crowd with a
championship-game-record 47 points at the first advance sellout
in women's Final Four history. "We've been pulling out all the
Peach stuff from that trip," says Sharp. "That's good motivation
for our players."
To the solid core of six returnees from last year's 20--12 team,
the Lady Raiders add freshman point guard Erin Grant, a
McDonald's All-American from Arlington, Texas, who led Mansfield
High to an unprecedented four consecutive Class 5A state titles.
Texas Tech also hopes to get a full season out of '99--2000 Big
12 rookie of the year Plenette Pierson, who sat out most of last
year serving a suspension for what Sharp terms a "team conduct"
issue after averaging 14.7 points the year before. "I'm so glad
this year is finally here," says Pierson, a 6'2" senior. "We have
the talent to win the national championship; it's just a matter
of putting it all together."
There is also a matter of fighting off league rival Texas, which
has one of its best teams in years, in part because 6'2" forward
Heather Schreiber decided to specialize in basketball rather than
volleyball. Schreiber, who was the Big 12 rookie of the year last
season, got into sports to avoid doing early-morning and
afternoon chores on her family's dairy farm outside tiny
Windthorst, Texas (pop. 390). She played five sports in high
school but still had time to develop the all-court talents that
earned her the nickname T.K., short for Toni Kukoc, the NBA
player whose game hers most resembles. She is joined on the front
line by 6'1" player of the year candidate Stacy Stephens, whose
911/416-inch hands--measured from heel to middle fingertip--allow
the junior forward to palm a six-pound medicine ball and grab
rebounds one-handed. Vying for the point guard spot will be
former Pac-10 freshman of the year Jamie Carey, who transferred
from Stanford after sitting out for two years because of
postconcussion symptoms and has two years of eligibility left. "I
feel like I won the lottery with Jamie," says Texas coach Jody
Conradt. "Her maturity and play have had a real impact on this
The team Carey left behind is a lot like her: very good when
healthy. Thus everyone around the Stanford program is keeping
their fingers crossed that 6'2" junior All-America forward Nicole
Powell's bulging disk will improve while she sits out preseason
practice. They are also hoping the rehabbed knees of 6'3"
sophomore center Chelsea Trotter hold up.
Of equal concern is the status of sophomore point guard Susan
King, who blew out her right ACL in the ninth game of her
freshman year two seasons ago and reinjured it in her second game
back last year. King is feeling strong now, especially after a
summer spent in the weight room with fiance Curtis Borchardt, the
oft-injured Utah Jazz draft pick whom she met in the Stanford
training room while rehabbing her knee.
When coach Jim Foster surprised his Elite Eight Vanderbilt team
by leaving for Ohio State last spring, seniors-to-be Ashley
McElhiney, a 5'6", second-team All-SEC guard, and 6'6"
All-America center Chantelle Anderson decided to put aside their
shock and disappointment and embrace whatever new coach walked
into their gym. Adjusting to former Xavier coach Melanie
Balcomb's style--which adds a transition game to Foster's
half-court sets--wasn't easy at first. Fortunately the former
walk-it-up Commodores got in nine extra practices in preparation
for a team-bonding trip to Italy in August. "We've had to learn
to do everything on the move, and in our first couple of
practices we were horrible," says Anderson. "But we're getting
the hang of it."
The new flow will make Anderson, one of the few centers with old
school, back-to-the-basket skills, much harder to double-and
triple-team. "This new style is going to open up things for me
and for a lot of other people," she says. "It's fun, it's
exciting." And it's what Vandy needs if it's going to keep
up--stylewise and otherwise--with the other champion wannabes.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK STEP FOR STEP For Lawson (20) and Taurasi to meet in the Final Four again, they'll have to carry an even bigger load.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES FRESH STARTER With the touted freshman Grant at the point, Texas Tech hopes to make another title run in Atlanta.
WOMEN'S TOP 10
5. Kansas State
7. Texas Tech