1 Only a program with CONNECTICUT's tradition and depth could lose four key players and still be considered a consensus preseason favorite to win a title. What's more, five of the top eight Huskies are freshmen and sophomores. The upperclassman they'll count on most is junior Tina Charles, the all--Big East center whose lack of intensity landed her on the bench in the postseason. Charles, who led UConn in rebounding (9.2 a game) and trailed only Maya Moore in scoring (14.2 points) appears to be out of coach Geno Auriemma's doghouse. "Our team is different mentally than it was last year," Charles says. "You can tell everyone wants to be accountable."
2 STANFORD got a scare in September when 6'4" junior center Jayne Appel tore the meniscus in her left knee during off-season conditioning drills. But she has already recovered from arthroscopic surgery and is one of 11 players returning from last year's national runner-up. Appel, who averaged 15.0 points and 8.8 rebounds, is joined on an intimidating frontline by 6'4" forward Kayla Pedersen—the Pac-10's top freshman last year—and 6'2" freshman Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the nation's top-ranked recruit. "We have, arguably, the best inside game in the country," says coach Tara VanDerveer, who has led the Cardinal to two championships. "We're deeper than we've ever been."
3 OKLAHOMA entered last season figuring it would win its first national title, only to crash and burn in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Why didn't the Sooners take care of business? "I don't think we ever really became a team," says coach Sherri Coale. So building chemistry became the off-season priority. Last May the team went on a 10-day tour of Europe. Besides going 2--3 against various international teams, the trip featured sightseeing stops in Rome and Athens, plus a cruise to the Greek island of Hydra, where the players took turns jumping off cliffs into the Aegean Sea as part of an impromptu trust-building exercise. "That showed everybody's willingness to take risks and follow one another," says sophomore point guard Danielle Robinson, last season's Big 12 freshman of the year. Like the rest of the Sooners, she wants seniors Courtney and Ashley Paris to make it to the Final Four before the twins' storied careers are over.
4 NORTH CAROLINA's championship fortunes rest with senior forward Rashanda McCants, the top returning scorer. After spending the past three seasons on the wing, the all-ACC forward—among 10 players back from a team that went undefeated in the conference and 33--3 overall—moves to the post where, at 6'1", she'll be a scoring and shot blocking threat. Even more imposing is 6'3" senior center Iman McFarland, who can be intimidating to her own teammates. UNC took a step back in '08, falling to LSU in the regional final, and McFarland has bluntly told the team's underclassmen that a reoccurrence is unacceptable. "We want to make sure they know it's our last year and that we're trying to do big things," McFarland says. "We're pushing one another."
5 For four years RUTGERS made defense its calling card, but after another promising season ended without a national title, coach C. Vivian Stringer has made offense a priority—a tall order, in fact, considering stars Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon were lost to the WNBA. (Only two Big East teams had a lower points-per-game average than the Scarlet Knights' 61.0 in 2007--08.) Helping replace them will be Stringer's best recruiting class in her 13 seasons at Rutgers, led by Nikki Speed, who averaged 12.1 points at L.A.'s Marlborough School last season.
6 Turnovers cost DUKE last year—the Blue Devils averaged 18.1 per game as they adjusted to first-year coach Joanne P. McCallie's offense—and guard Abby Waner's shooting troubles hurt too. One of the top three-point shooters in school history entering her junior year, Waner was true on just 26.1% from the arc in 2007--08, and her scoring average fell four points, to 10.3. After spending the summer away from the game (as an intern at ESPN) she returned eager to play. "I needed to do something different because I tend to overthink," she says. "When I do, I don't play well. Getting away kind of freed all that."
7 MARYLAND must replace Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper inside, but everyone else is back—including all-ACC guards Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman, two of the three returning starters from the 2006 national championship team. Coach Brenda Frese, who missed six road games before giving birth to twin boys Markus and Tyler last February, says, "I've always thought of and treated my players as my daughters, but now that I'm a mom, it brings new meaning to our basketball family. I'm even closer to each and every player."
8 All five starters from last year's championship team have departed, but that's not the only reason TENNESSEE is smarting. Four Lady Vols went under the knife this summer, including senior forward-center Vicki Baugh, who blew out her left ACL in the title game, and coach Pat Summitt, who dislocated her right shoulder stiff-arming a raccoon away from her Labrador. "But I never saw that raccoon again," Summitt says. "He's probably thinking, That's the craziest woman I've ever met!" Baugh was not as quick to bounce back from her injury and is out indefinitely. Summitt will rely on SEC rookie of the year Angie Bjorklund, a three-point specialist (36.8%), to carry a largely inexperienced but talented cast that features five high school All-Americas.
9 In coach Jeff Walz's first season at LOUISVILLE the Cardinals made their deepest run in the NCAA tournament before losing to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Four starters are back, including senior forward Angel McCoughtry, who led the Big East in scoring (23.8), rebounding (8.9) and steals (4.1) but will be asked to do even more. "We are all held to a higher standard now," McCoughtry says. "It has been intense since the first day of practice. There's a lot of [yelling], but that's what we need. We need to get better."
10 At TEXAS A&M the bench is strong and the bar is set high. Junior college transfer Tanisha Smith, who averaged 18.2 points and 2.9 steals last season, is a one-person depth chart. At 6 feet, she can play every position but center. After coming from nowhere last March to reach the Elite Eight for the first time, "we know the formula to be champions," says coach Gary Blair. "We expect to be playing in a championship game."
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BREAKING NEWS AND DAILY ANALYSIS.
SI.com predicts the 44 teams that will round out the women's tournament field. si.com/women.
Second 10: Waiting in The Wings
When members of the Top 10 falter, these are the teams poised to move up and take their places. They want to dance deep into March too
TEAM // CONFERENCE // RETURNING STARTERS // SKINNY
11 CALIFORNIA // PAC-10 // 5 //
Forward Alexis Gray-Lawson and centers Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton, all upperclassmen now, combined for 56.9% of the Bears' scoring last season.
12 OKLAHOMA STATE // BIG 12 // 3 //
Point guard Andrea Riley set four school records as a sophomore last season, including points (807), scoring average (23.1) and minutes (1,216).
13 NOTRE DAME // BIG EAST // 3 //
The Irish don't have any senior starters, but they do have stars-in-the-making: junior guard Ashley Barlow (12.1 ppg) and sophomore forward Becca Bruszewski.
14 VANDERBILT // SEC // 5 //
The team that won a school-record 11 conference games returns intact, including forward Christina Wirth, the SEC's eighth-leading scorer (13.1 ppg).
15 ARIZONA STATE // PAC-10 // 3 //
With a troika of talented guards in Briann January, Dymond Simon and Danielle Orsillo, the Sun Devils should make inroads in a tough conference.
16 VIRGINIA // ACC // 3 //
Junior point guard Monica Wright (17.6 ppg) will have to take on a greater leadership role following the graduation of Sharneé Zoll, the ACC's career assists leader.
17 PITTSBURGH // BIG EAST // 4 //
The Panthers will miss alltime leading rebounder Marcedes Walker, but senior shooting guard Shavonte Zellous (18.2 ppg) is ready to make this her team.
18 OHIO STATE // BIG TEN // 4 //
The Buckeyes will go as far as sophomore center Jantel Lavender (17.6 ppg) and senior guard Ashlee Trebilcock (9.6 ppg) can carry them.
19 OLD DOMINION // CAA // 2 //
Senior Tiffany Green—the conference's top shot blocker (1.94 per game)—is one of four upperclassmen who give the Lady Monarchs a shot at their 18th straight league title.
20 TEXAS // BIG 12 // 4 //
Junior sharpshooter Erika Arriaran, out last year with a torn ACL, should boost a team three-point percentage (31.2) that ranked eighth in the conference.
Photograph by Greg Nelson
Cardinal Ruled Stanford's towering frontline of Appel (left) and Pedersen stopped UConn in the Final Four, but it could be different in '09.