8. NORTH CAROLINA
GENO AURIEMMA and Diana Taurasi reunited in Burlington, Vt., last month for the wedding of Ashley Valley, a teammate of Taurasi's when CONNECTICUT was winning national championships with drumbeat regularity. As part of their long-running comedy act, Auriemma reminded Taurasi how she owed her WNBA stardom solely to the lessons imparted by her college coach. Recalls Auriemma, "She put her arm around me in front of a handful of people and said, 'Coach, I really haven't been following the program lately. How many have you won since I left?'"
The answer is zero, which is something Auriemma and his players are reminded of on a daily basis. "We haven't been to the Final Four for three years," says Auriemma. "As hard as it was to get there, it's a lot [more frustrating] when you don't go." The drought should end this year. The Huskies bring their top 11 scorers back, including junior point guard Renee Montgomery (who averaged 13.3 points in 2006--07) and forward Tina Charles, last season's Big East freshman of the year. They also add 6-foot freshman forward Maya Moore, a two-time national high school player of the year, whom Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer says will "be one of the defining players of the decade." Every player Auriemma has recruited since 1988 has been to a Final Four except the members of this senior class, so forward Charde Houston (12.5 points per game) and guard Mel Thomas (87 three-pointers) have ample incentive. "If they play the way I think they can," says Auriemma, "it would not surprise me at all if we won a national championship."
To do that, UConn will likely have to go through defending champ TENNESSEE, though for the first time since 1994 the archrivals won't meet during the regular season. Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt chose to end the series in June but won't explain why. "I haven't talked about it with anyone other than Geno," she says. (Auriemma told The Hartford Courant that Summitt should "just come out and say she's not playing us because she hates my guts.") Tennessee has star power aplenty: rugged senior center Nicky Anosike, All-SEC senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle and one of those defining players of the decade, junior forward Candace Parker, who increased the range on her jumper while leading the U.S. senior team to an Olympic berth this summer. Don't expect a letdown. "The championship party is over," says Anosike. "Everyone here is still motivated."
Stringer met Bill Clinton last May at civil rights leader Andrew Young's 75th birthday party in Atlanta. Says Stringer, "[Clinton] put his arm on my shoulder and said, 'You made short order of LSU, and I was sure you were going to win the game against Tennessee.' I said, 'You watched the games?' He replied, 'Are you kidding me? I didn't know what you were going to do with Sylvia Fowles.'" The remarkable run for RUTGERS ended in the title game, but Stringer welcomes back all five starters and 98.7% of her team's scoring, including seniors Matee Ajavon (12.0 points per game) and Essence Carson (12.3 ppg), and junior center Kia Vaughn (9.3 rebounds).
March Madness will have a new meaning for MARYLAND coach Brenda Frese, who is due to give birth to fraternal twins on less than two weeks before the NCAA tournament begins. "There's not going to be any maternity leave as long as the kids are healthy," says Frese. Her roster is stacked with the same players who won a title in 2006, and the core—senior forwards Crystal Langhorne (14.9 points per game) and Laura Harper (10.4) and junior guards Marissa Coleman (13.2) and Kristi Toliver (12.3)—will be hungry to reach Tampa after getting bounced by No. 7 seed Ole Miss in the second round of '07.
OKLAHOMA center Courtney Paris has an NCAA record 61 straight double doubles. But the 6'4" junior, who admits she often slacked off in training last year, should be even more forceful this season thanks to the experience she gained playing for the U.S. team over the summer. "My mentality has changed," says Paris, who averaged 23.5 points and 15.9 rebounds in 2006--07. "Coach [Sherri Coale] is always saying the best player has to be the hardest worker too. Now I understand, because I've seen Diana Taurasi going hard at practice every day." Paris and twin sister Ashley (6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds), a forward, form a formidable frontcourt. But the Sooners lack experience on the perimeter aside from sophomore point guard Jenna Plumley, who didn't become a starter until midway through last season
Van Chancellor had some concerns about returning to college basketball after a decade of coaching in the WNBA. He knew he could handle the X's and O's; it was text messaging that frightening him. "Got a Blackberry my first week," he says. "Scary stuff." Chancellor, 64, takes over at LSU from Pokey Chatman, who resigned on March 7 amid allegations of inappropriate conduct with a former player. The roster he inherits has nine seniors, including All-America center Fowles (16.9 points and 12.6 rebounds per game). She figures to get even more touches. "My two favorite plays probably will be, Get the ball to Sylvia, and get the ball to Sylvia," Chancellor says.
As usual, GEORGIA's success will be determined by 6'3" senior forward Tasha Humphrey, a mercurial and oft-injured talent who averaged 16.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in a season shortened by a six-game suspension. The good news? Humphrey enjoyed her first pain-free summer in years while winning a gold medal with the U.S. team at the Pan American Games. "I expect her to have the best year of her career," says coach Andy Landers. Setting Humphrey up will be point guard Ashley Houts, the SEC freshman of the year who won a gold medal of her own at the under-21 world championships in Moscow.
So how will life be different for NORTH CAROLINA after the graduation of All- America point guard Ivory Latta? "It's going to be a lot more quiet," says senior forward Erlana Larkins (12.9 points, 9.4 rebounds). "But our style will not change. We'll still go fast." The Tar Heels set a school record for field goals last season (1,174) with an up-tempo style that earned them back-to-back Final Four appearances. The big question is whether Italee Lucas or Cetera DeGraffenreid, both McDonald's All-Americans, can replace the fast-paced Latta at the point. Larkins knows the answer: "It's not a good idea for people to think we won't be as good this year."
STANFORD senior point guard Candice Wiggins spent most of September guarding WNBA All-Stars Taurasi, Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Alana Beard and Cappie Pondexter. "The first five days felt like two weeks," says Wiggins of her 17-day stint as an alternate on the U.S. senior national team. "Playing with them was humbling, but I'd like to think I held my own." Wiggins (16.9 points per game in '06--07) can't afford to be deferential this season; because of departures of forward/centers Brooke Smith and Kristin Newlin the Cardinal will shift from a post to a perimeter team. Sophomore center Jayne Appel (13.2 points), the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, will be the inside complement to Wiggins.
At DUKE, Coach P (Joanne P. McCallie) takes over for Coach G (Gail Goestenkors, now at Texas) without the All-America PG (Lindsey Harding) who carried the Blue Devils last season. Freshman Jasmine Thomas is Harding's long-term successor, but in the interim Duke will lean on returning guards Wanisha Smith and Abby Waner as well as forward Carrem Gay. Junior center Chante Black, who missed last season with a knee injury, will shore up the middle. McCallie changed the color scheme in her new office from white to a "Duke hue of cobalt blue." A not-so-subtle signal that it's a new era for the Blue Devils? "Not exactly," McCallie says, laughing. "It just really needed a paint job."
MONTGOMERY'S WARDS The Huskies will follow their floor leader all the way to Tampa.