Sunday, November 05, 2006

No longer just Vols and Huskies

Five favorites for Cleveland

1. Maryland. Everybody's back from last season's title team, led by guard Kristi Toliver and forward Crystal Langhorne. But only three teams have repeated since 1982. The challenges? Continuing to win when everyone's gunning for you and adding Tennessee transfer Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood to the mix at guard without disrupting the chemistry that was a strength last spring.

2. Oklahoma. Courtney Paris made a name for herself as a freshman alongside twin Ashley, and the Sooners add freshman Abi Olajuwon (Hakeem's 6-foot-3 daughter) to what is now easily the nation's most dominant frontcourt.

3. Stanford. The never-ending War on Tara continues, though VanDerveer has won six Pac-10 titles in a row. With senior Brooke Smith and junior Candice Wiggins leading the way, the Cardinal can end a run of three straight losses in a region final.

4. Tennessee. We'll say Candace Parker is the best player in college basketball, and Pat Summitt's backcourt gets a boost from 5-2 junior college transfer Shannon Bobbitt. After a rare year off, expect the Vols to return to the Final Four.

5. North Carolina. The Tar Heels' only two losses were to Maryland, and they might have three or four shots at avenging those this season. Senior Ivory Latta is the reigning ACC player of the year with Erlana Larkins and Camille Little a strong 1-2 punch inside.

Five Cinderellas

1. Baylor. The Bears are ranked 18th in the preseason poll and have only two players left from the 2005 NCAA champion. But watch out: Former Florida star Bernice Mosby transferred and joins, perhaps, the nation's top recruiting class, led by 6-3 Danielle Wilson, who averaged 29 points and 20 rebounds as a high school senior.

2. Kentucky. Picked to finish fifth in the SEC by league coaches, the Wildcats should surprise, coming off a 22-9 season and their first NCAA appearance in seven years. All five starters are back led by sophomore point guard Carly Ormerod.

3. Virginia. Debbie Ryan hasn't made a Sweet 16 in seven years, but a strong recruiting class, led by freshman guard Monica Wright and junior center Aisha Mohammed, could make the Cavaliers this season's Maryland of the ACC.

4. Purdue. Former Indiana coach Sharon Versyp returns to her alma mater and leads the Big Ten's best challenger to Ohio State. Senior Katie Gearlds is one of the nation's top point guards.

5. Bowling Green. Winning the MAC, even going undefeated, only goes so far: The Falcons are 1-8 in the NCAA Tournament. This season's squad has enough back to be the Mid-Major to Watch, led by senior forward Ali Mann.

Five super seniors

1. Ivory Latta, guard, North Carolina. Returning from a left knee injury sustained in NCAA semifinal loss.

2. Jessica Davenport, center, Ohio State. Led Big Ten in scoring (18.7) and rebounding (8.9) last season.

3. Brooke Smith, center, Stanford. Teams with guard Candice Wiggins for perhaps best inside-outside combo.

4. Tiffany Jackson, forward, Texas. Can 6-3 frontcourt star get Longhorns back to prominence?

5. Jessica Dickson, guard, USF. Third in nation in scoring last season has led Bulls' rise over past three years.

Five newcomers to watch

1. Tina Charles, center, Connecticut. The 6-foot-4 standout went 82-2 in high school, earned Gatorade national player of the year honors and has dunked.

2. Epiphanny Prince, guard, Rutgers. Great name, and she scored 113 points in a game last season.

3. Abi Olajuwon, center, Oklahoma. Bio on Sooners' site says her father is "NBA legend Hakeen Olajuwon."

4. Brittainey Raven, guard, Texas. Jody Conradt raves about her speed; could spark Longhorns' resurgence.

5. Jayne Appel, center, Stanford. Part of stellar recruiting class, she's 6-4 with great hands and range.

Five coaches under pressure

1. Brenda Frese, Maryland. Like Billy Donovan, she's a defending champ with everyone back, so any loss is a disappointment. Final Four or bust!

2. Carolyn Peck, Florida. Four seasons in Gainesville and she still hasn't made a Sweet 16 appearance.

3. Jody Conradt, Texas. The legend went 13-15 last season, but expectations are high for a quick recovery.

4. Kay Yow, N.C. State. Another coaching mainstay, but her teams haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001.

5. Pokey Chatman, LSU. The Tigers must find success without Seimone Augustus, the two-time Wade Trophy winner as the nation's top player.

Five must-see early games

1. Tennessee. How about just the Vols' top five? We'll give you at No. 8 Connecticut on Jan. 6, vs. No. 4 Stanford on Nov. 24, at No. 2 North Carolina on Dec. 3, at No. 12 Arizona State on Nov. 19 with your pick of the SEC schedule for the fifth game.

2. Connecticut at North Carolina, Jan. 15. You'll know who freshman Tina Charles is before the Huskies go to Chapel Hill.

3. No. 7 Ohio State at No. 3 Oklahoma, Dec. 20. Frontcourt battles don't get much bigger than Jessica Davenport vs. Courtney Paris.

4. No. 4 Stanford at No. 22 USC Dec. 20, at No. 23 UCLA Dec. 22. Six straight Pac-10 crowns are on the line, facing two of the West Coast's top challengers in a span of three days.

5. No. 1 Maryland vs. No. 6 Duke. Is there a better rivalry? They meet in Durham on Jan. 13, in College Park on Feb. 18, and, to be sure, in the ACC tourney, if not the Final Four.

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