Saturday, November 20, 2004


Tennessee top threat to UConn's streak of three NCAA titles

Geno Auriemma, coach of Connecticut's NCAA women's basketball champions, actually respects Pat Summitt, his archrival from Tennessee.

Yet, after Diana Taurasi led UConn to its third consecutive national title in her final college game last spring, and Auriemma was asked if his Huskies finally were the class of the sport, he couldn't resist jabbing Summitt.

"Well, not if you go by recruiting," he said. "I see where they (Tennessee Volunteers) have just signed something like the first 15 players off the high school All-America team. So, when it comes to winning, yeah, we're there. But when it comes to recruiting, they are."

The consensus of the folks who predict how the 2004-05 season will finish is that, because Taurasi has gone on to the WNBA, UConn's reign might be over. And because Summitt did enroll a super-looking freshman class (of six, not 15), this might be the year of the Lady Vols.

However, Tennessee might have to endure the season without its flashiest new signee, 6-foot-3 national dunking champion Candace Parker of Naperville, Ill.

Parker, who beat the boys in the field in a national high school dunking contest, is rehabbing from knee surgery. Doctors have not decided whether she will sit out the season.

Also, don't discount Auriemma's Huskies just because they have lost their leader. Taurasi leaves behind several gifted teammates at UConn, and they are better players for having played with her.

UConn isn't the only school that finished high in the polls last season and graduated a star of All-American caliber.

Duke no longer has Alana Beard. Stacy Stephens has left Texas. Kelly Mazzante has scored her last basket for Penn State. Minnesota must go on without Lindsay Whalen.

Yet, each of these schools retains a player capable of leading a run to the Final Four: Monique Currie at Duke, Tiffany Jackson at Texas, Tanisha Wright at Penn State and Janel McCarville at Minnesota.

Summitt's Lady Vols, losers to UConn in the past two NCAA title games, still appear the most likely to thwart UConn's bid for a four-peat and earn the Vols their first national title since 1998.

Summitt's squad contains standouts Shyra Ely, Shanna Zolman, Loree Moore and 6-5 Tye'sha Fluker.

It also boasts what was considered the nation's best freshman class in what might prove to be best year for freshmen since Taurasi's group in 2000.

Three Lady Vols rookies already have been mentioned as future All-Americans and Olympic players — Parker and guards Alexis Hornbuckle and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood.

Parker does much more than dunk. She's a complete basketball player: scorer, rebounder, passer, defender, competitor. She could lift the Vols to a higher level whenever she rejoins the team.

Ely, a consensus preseason All-American, led last year's team with 14.5 points and 8.0 rebounds a game. Moore ran the offense before she sustained a knee injury.

The Southeastern Conference placed three teams in the preseason top 10: Tennessee, No. 2 Louisiana State and No. 9 Georgia.

Two leagues have two teams in the top 10: the Big East with No. 3 UConn and No. 7 Notre Dame and the Big 12 with No. 4 Texas and No. 6 Baylor.

Three leagues are represented by one team apiece: No. 5 Duke from the Atlantic Coast, No. 8 Stanford from the Pac-10 and No. 10 Ohio State from the Big Ten.

The common thread among them is the presence of a superstar. At LSU, she is 6-1 junior Seimone Augustus, a 19.4-point scorer, consensus All-American and perhaps the best player in the nation.

UConn goes for its four-peat with just about everyone except a Taurasi. Forward Barbara Turner leads the returning regulars with a 13.7-point average. Center Jessica Moore led the Huskies in rebounding last season with 7.1 per game. Ann Strother can drill three-pointers. Auriemma recruited a top-five freshman class.

No. 4 Texas could offset the loss of Stephens with Jackson and Heather Schreiber, who combined for 26 points per game last year. Guard Jamie Carey provides outside shooting, and coach Jody Conradt's teams always play tough defense.

Picks five through 10—Duke, Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford, Georgia and Ohio State—could be sparked respectively by Currie, Sophia Young, consensus All-American Jacqueline Batteast, freshman Candice Wiggins, Janese Hardrick and 6-4 sophomore Jessica Davenport.

The Midwest, limited to Notre Dame and Ohio State in the top 10, has five teams ranked between 11th and 25th: No. 14 DePaul from Conference USA and four Big Ten teams—No. 11 Penn State, No. 16 Minnesota, No. 17 Michigan State and No. 23 Purdue.

Ten of the top 25 teams are coached by men or women who have won between 437 and 852 games covering between 17 and 30 years at their current schools.

Summitt tops the list with 852 victories in 30 years at Tennessee. Next come Conradt with 730 in 28 years at Texas, Sylvia Hatchell with 654 in 28 years at North Carolina, Andy Landers with 610 in 29 years at Georgia, Rene Portland with 562 in 24 years at Penn State, Marsha Sharp with 533 in 22 years at Texas Tech, Auriemma with 532 in 19 years at UConn, Harry Perretta with 488 in 26 years at Villanova, Tara Vanderveer with 450 in 17 years at Stanford and Elaine Elliott with 437 in 21 years at Utah.

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