IN HIS 31 yearsas coach at Villanova, Harry Perretta has become adept at distinguishing thegreat Connecticut teams from the merely good. His analysis of the 2007--08edition of the Huskies, the overall top seed in the tournament? "Extremelytalented," he says. "The only difference I see between this team andthe one that went undefeated with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi in 2002 [and isconsidered one of the greatest teams of all time] is inexperience."
Setting aside its73--71 loss at Rutgers on Feb. 5 and a few close calls, UConn (32--1) hasdominated opponents, winning by an average margin of 30.5 points. These Huskieshave so far faced a tougher road than the 2001--02 squad did. Consider firstthat they are playing in a Big East Conference that's far stronger than it wasin '01--02. Then consider: This team lost two starters to season-ending kneeinjuries. "That's what blows my mind," says LSU associate head coachBob Starkey, whose team fell to UConn 74--69 in February. "They lost KalanaGreene, an outstanding athlete, and Mel Thomas, a great spot-up shooter, andthey're still a notch above."
It's likely thatno other team could have survived such losses because no other team hadfreshman forward Maya Moore waiting in the wings. The 6-foot phenom fromLawrenceville, Ga., has started the last 25 games, and is shooting 43.9% frombeyond the arc and delivering 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists a game.She has worked her way into every national player of the year conversation."Maya is as dominant a freshman as I've ever seen," says Perretta."And not just from a talent standpoint. She's smart; she knows what todo." Meanwhile sophomore Tina Charles has blossomed in the post, and juniorRenee Montgomery (14.2 points, 4.0 assists per game) has continued to be thedriving force of the team even after moving from the point to shooting guard toreplace Thomas. "Connecticut can hit you from all five spots offensively,and the Huskies have stepped it up a notch defensively," says LSU coach VanChancellor. "That freshman can shoot in the dark!"
For all itstitle-contender credentials, UConn, which hasn't been to the Final Four since2004, has yet to play its traditional measuring stick, third-ranked anddefending national champion Tennessee (30--2). For the first time in 13 yearsthe two powers did not meet in the regular season. (Vols coach Pat Summittdeclined to renew the series last June. Although she has never explained herdecision publicly, Tennessee has filed two complaints with the NCAA aboutConnecticut's recruitment of Moore.) That's one reason a potentialwinner-take-all matchup in the final between these two heavyweights would bethe most anticipated game of the tournament. Here's another: It would be fans'only chance to see two players who are destined for the sport'spantheon—UConn's Moore and Tennessee's graduating 6'4" forward, CandaceParker—face off in college.
"I would loveto play Tennessee," says Moore, who of course has no guarantee that she'llget that opportunity. "I think it's a great rivalry, and it's good forwomen's basketball." And whether the games happen in January or April, itis always compelling theater.
BILL FRAKES (PARKER)
DREAM MATCHUP Parker (3) and Moore didn't meet during the regular season, so a potential showdown is tantalizing.
DAVID BUTLER II/US PRESSWIRE (MOORE)
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