Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lady Vols start season at top of coaches' poll

The Tennessee women's basketball team, seeking to defend its NCAA title and add an eighth championship in the sport, starts the season with the No. 1 ranking in the USA TODAY/ESPN Top 25 Coaches' Poll.

The Lady Volunteers return All-American Candace Parker, the leading contender for player of the year, and three other starters from a team that went 34-3. The only significant loss for the Vols is Sidney Spencer, the team's best three-point shooter who had an impressive rookie season with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.

Tennessee isn't the only team loaded with veterans. No. 2 Connecticut has everyone back from a team that was one victory from the Final Four.

No. 3 Rutgers has all starters and key reserves from the team that lost the title game 59-46 to Tennessee.

No. 4 Maryland has four starters from its 2006 NCAA title team.

No. 5 LSU returns all starters from a team that went to its fourth consecutive Final Four.

Parker, a 6-4 redshirt junior, could be better than ever after an offseason that included helping the U.S. national team qualify for next summer's Beijing Olympics and practicing with her brother, Anthony, and fiancé, Shelden Williams, both NBA players.

"She's a lot stronger," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt says. "She's a lot more aggressive to the basket. The next best thing that happened to her game was working on her perimeter skills. Her outside game's the best it's ever been."

Parker's cast includes point guard Shannon Bobbitt, shooting guard Alexis Hornbuckle, center Niki Anosike and two freshmen post players, Vicki Baugh and Kelly Cain, who should boost the team's rebounding ability.

Could Tennessee, whose schedule includes Rutgers, LSU and No. 6 Oklahoma, be better than last year?

"I think we could be better in terms of our depth and our size in the post," Summitt said. "We added two shooters (Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone), but we know they're freshmen. But with our schedule they won't be freshmen for long."

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