JUST WHEN women's college basketball coaches figured they could put away the antacids, relieved that the best class of players in history had exhausted its eligibility, along comes a slew of new stars who promise to make this one of the more wide-open races in years. "Last season coaches talked about how to stop great players like Diana Taurasi at Connecticut or Alana Beard at Duke," says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "This year we're talking about stopping teams. And not just one team. I think there are 15 to 20 teams that could win it all this year."
Adds Georgia coach Andy Landers, "This year every top team is a hopeful."
The team with the highest hopes might be LSU, thanks to junior guard Seimone Augustus, who is making Lady Tigers fans out of football junkies in Baton Rouge. But LSU wouldn't be SI's No. 1 pick if 5'3" senior Temeka Johnson, perhaps the quickest point guard in the country, wasn't sharing the backcourt with Augustus. In three years Johnson has broken all but one assist record at the school, including a few once owned by her coach, Pokey Chatman. "She did that while averaging double figures [in scoring] on a team that was missing a lot of pieces," says Chatman. Thanks to 6'5" Sylvia Fowles, a Parade All-America who can dunk, and four other highly rated freshmen, LSU is no longer missing any pieces.
But then, neither is SEC rival TENNESSEE. After making it to last year's NCAA title game on perseverance and grit (and maybe a bit of luck), the Lady Vols can once again count on sheer talent. Even though injuries have slowed three of their vaunted Six Pack of freshmen stars, including Candace Parker, winner of the slam-dunk contest at the McDonald's All-American game, the Lady Vols are loaded. Seven players from last year's 31--4 squad return. Key among them is senior point guard Loree Moore, who sat out half of last season with a left ACL tear. "Simply put, we are a much better team with Loree than without her," says coach Pat Summitt.
TEXAS welcomes back all but one player, Stacy Stephens, from last year's Sweet 16 squad, but don't expect it to be the same team. "It's like a cake," says coach Jody Conradt. "You take out one ingredient and put in two more, it's not going to taste the same." Adding spice to the mix will be defensive stopper Annissa Hastings--she sat out last season with a ruptured left Achilles tendon--who's part of the Longhorns' large senior class. "There are six of us," says senior point guard Jamie Carey, "so you can imagine there's a strong sense of urgency."
After three consecutive NCAA titles CONNECTICUT figures to have lost some of its hunger, but you wouldn't know it by watching the Huskies in practice. The trio of Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Jessica Moore give UConn arguably the strongest nucleus in the country and Charde Houston, a 6'1" freshman guard, will provide ample backup; she broke Cheryl Miller's California high school career scoring record. The backcourt will be green but quick. Freshman Ketia Swanier, possibly the fastest Husky in history, should get lots of playing time, as will fellow freshman Mel Thomas, as long as the sweet-shooting Thomas lives up to her nickname. "I call Mel 'Ninety-nine point nine,'" says Turner, "because she never misses."
Landers doesn't have that kind of confidence in his young GEORGIA frontline just yet, but he likes the potential of 6'3" freshman forward Tasha Humphrey, named Miss Georgia basketball a record three times and whom Landers calls "a female Charles Barkley." He also likes the experience in his army of quick guards, which includes master thief Sherill Baker, a junior who is the school record holder for steals by a freshman (89) and by a sophomore (104). "We just need to shoot better this year," says Landers.
DUKE may have lost Beard, All-America Iciss Tillis and starting point guard Lindsey Harding, who has been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, but the Blue Devils are deep and have players eager to fill vacancies. Monique Currie, a junior swingman who averaged 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds last year, is due for an All-America season. Two freshmen will help her: Wanisha Smith, an electric guard with range and speed who may be running the point before season's end, and Chante Black, a 6'5" center who could threaten every rebounding and shot blocking record at the school.
As a reminder of a controversial call at the buzzer that gave Tennessee two free throws and ended BAYLOR's season in last year's Sweet 16, the Bears are wearing Tshirts that read .2, the amount of time the refs ruled was left in the game when they blew the disputed whistle. "You bet we use that as motivation," says coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson. More critical to Baylor's goal of getting to its first Final Four will be the play of 6'1" junior forward Sophia Young, the team's top scorer (16.7 points a game) and rebounder (8.6), and senior center Steffanie Blackmon, a superb shot blocker--she needs just 12 rejections to break the school record--who missed the last four games of last season with a dislocated left knee that required surgery.
Despite a summer spent pounding the hardwood at Mr. Bill's Bowling Center in Columbus, OHIO STATE's 6'5" sophomore center Jessica Davenport is not yet a great kegler. But in a different lane she is a menace. The Big Ten freshman of the year used her 6'9 1/2" wingspan to chalk up 12.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots a game last year. She'll team with fifth-year senior Caity Matter, who led the nation in three-point shooting two years ago. "We're a team of veterans, and we have a lot of different looks," says Matter. "We can be very good this year."
So can MINNESOTA if Janel McCarville's left hand, broken during an Oct. 28 practice, heals quickly. "People think we lost everything when we lost [point guard] Lindsay Whalen, but we're going to be tougher than people think," says McCarville, one of the best low-post scorers in the country. With Whalen's dazzling offensive game gone, the Gophers will have to rely more on their defense, which will be quicker and more aggressive thanks to six newcomers and a much deeper bench.
Likewise, defense will be key for NOTRE DAME, just as it was last year when the Irish made it to the Sweet 16 despite scoring 64.2 points a game, the team's lowest average in 20 years. The Irish's lone double-figure scorer, 6'2" senior Jacqueline Batteast (16.0 points a game) must get some help from junior forward Courtney LaVere, whose average dropped by almost four points last year. But Batteast is prepared if she still attracts double teams. This summer she added 13 pounds of muscle. "Maybe now," she says, "people will be bouncing off me and falling to the floor rather than the other way around."
Like everyone else in the women's game, she can hope, can't she? --K.A.
WOMEN'S TOP 10
8. Ohio State
10. Notre Dame
Shanna Zolman (5) is one of seven returnees determined to help Tennessee win its first title since 1998.
Strother is part of a three-star nucleus that should keep reigning champion Connecticut in the hunt.