Move over, Huskies. The road to the national championship now goes through Waco
Kim Mulkey does not want you to praise her squad—at least not in November. "This team has done nothing to be mentioned in the same breath as UConn," Mulkey says. She will concede that her Lady Bears have more "talented depth" than her 2005 championship team. That and the presence of a transcendent star, 6'8" sophomore center Brittney Griner, who averaged 18.4 points and blocked an NCAA-record 223 shots as a freshman, make Baylor SI's pick to win the national title on April 5. Senior guard Melissa Jones (10.4 points) is a potential All--Big 12 performer, and the team adds two high-ceiling transfers: former Rutgers recruit Brooklyn Pope, a 6'1" sophomore forward who is the preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year, and Illinois transfer Destiny Williams, a 6'1" sophomore forward. Senior point guard Kelli Griffin's decision to quit the team a week before the regular season will cost the Lady Bears early, but freshman Odyssey Sims is the nation's top point-guard recruit and has the talent to dictate games on both ends with her quickness.
The Cardinal's Ogwumike sisters have athleticism, drive and scoring ability, but they don't have a collective nickname. "I'm looking forward to seeing how creative people can get," says Nnemkadi (Nneka) Ogwumike, the All-America junior forward (18.5 points, 9.9 rebounds) who is joined this season by her freshman sister, Chiney, a 6'3" forward whom Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw calls "spectacular." Stanford has another frontcourt star in senior forward Kayla Pederson, who averaged 15.8 points and 9.5 rebounds and can play all five positions.
Coach Geno Auriemma knows what's coming: losses. "Anyone who has been around our program knows that when we have the best team, I tell everybody that we are better than everybody else and we're not going to lose," says Auriemma, whose Huskies enter the season with a 78-game unbeaten streak. "I don't know that the expectations should be less, but there are going to be some losses along the way." Even so, the Huskies have the best player in the country in senior Maya Moore, a three-time All-America who has averaged 18.7 points at UConn, and a potential second star in junior forward Tiffany Hayes. Auriemma is also high on freshman Bria Hartley, who will run the point.
The Musketeers have four starters back—including Amber Harris, Ta'Shia Phillips and a terrific point guard in junior Special Jennings—from an Elite Eight team that lost to Stanford on a buzzer-beating layup. Says coach Kevin McGuff, "The loss could have been an anchor that weighed on us, but it's been motivating. We got just enough of a taste of what we can accomplish."
Coach Pat Summit has the SEC's top backcourt (senior Angie Bjorklund and junior Shekinna Stricklen), as well as a slew of experienced, athletic forwards. "We have more depth than we probably anticipated," says Summitt.
Senior combo guard Jasmine Thomas is a stat machine (16.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists), but what makes this squad one to watch is the nation's No. 1 recruiting class—including four state players of the year: guard Chelsea Gray (Calif.), forward Haley Peters (N.J.), forward Richa Jackson (Okla.) and guard Tricia Liston (Ill.) and a top 50 recruit in guard Chloe Wells.
7 OHIO STATE
When junior point guard Samantha Prahalis (who averaged a Big Ten--best 8.0 assists last season) is in "Sammy mode," as All-America center Jantel Lavender describes it, Ohio State is a nightmare to play. Lavender herself is a two-time Big 10 player of the year and has scored in double figures in all of her 102 career games.
8 TEXAS A&M
Coach Gary Blair says senior forward Danielle Adams (16.3 points) has "George Foreman's personality and Charles Barkley's game." What she doesn't have is a place in the starting lineup. Last season Adams started only 10 of 33 games, but she's likely to see more time as a starter this year while promising 6'5" freshman center Karla Gilbert gets up to speed.
The Wildcats have adopted an attention-getting slogan this season: Can you hear us now? "Last year people did not expect us to get [to] where we got," says senior All-America forward Victoria Dunlap, who averaged a team-high 18.1 points in leading the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, "so it's a message saying Kentucky women's basketball is an elite program."
10 WEST VIRGINIA
Last season West Virginia won a school-record 29 games, but coach Mike Carey is still looking for one prized accomplishment. "This is my 10th year here, and we've beaten every team in the conference—except Connecticut." West Virginia has five starters back, including senior guard Liz Repella (13.9 points), and one well-known believer in its corner: Says Geno Auriemma, "I think West Virginia is good enough to go to the Final Four."
EARLY BATTLE Griner (42) and the Bears will be tested early, taking on UConn in Hartford on Nov. 16.