Saturday, November 03, 2007

Champion Lady Vols get No. 1 preseason AP rank

It's unanimous. Tennessee is No. 1.

Seven months after winning their seventh national championship, the Lady Vols are the top team in The Associated Press preseason poll for the 12th time in school history.

The Lady Vols received all 50 first-places votes Saturday from a national media panel and compiled 1,250 points -- 75 more than No. 2 Connecticut.

It's easy to see why.

Coach Pat Summitt returns four starters, including All-American Candace Parker, from the team that ran through the NCAA Tournament last season, beating Rutgers 59-46 in the title game to finish 34-3.

"For our team being No. 1 is a tremendous compliment," Summitt said. "It's also a tremendous challenge. Coming off a national championship, we are every opponent's target."

Rutgers is third in the poll, Maryland is fourth, and LSU fifth. All three teams return almost their entire rosters from last season.

This is only the fourth time since it became a writer's poll in 1994 that the preseason No. 1 pick has been unanimous. The Lady Vols received all the first place votes in 1998-99, the season after their last title. Connecticut held the honor twice, in 2000-01 and 2003-04.

Still, Summitt understands that talent and the top ranking don't guarantee anything. Since the 1989-90 season, the No. 1 team in the preseason poll has won the NCAA championship only four times, most recently Connecticut in 2003-04.

"I think this team has yet to understand what goes with a No. 1 ranking," Summitt said. "It's a first for them, at the same time, we play a tough schedule every year. There are always high expectations here. It's interesting because it's amazing to see how teams respond to that."

Tennessee opens against Chattanooga on Sunday, Nov. 11.

Connecticut heads seven Big East schools in the poll. Joining the Huskies are Rutgers, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville, and DePaul. It's just the third time a conference has had seven teams in the preseason Top 25. The Southeastern
Conference did it twice in 1991-92 and 1997-98.

"It proves the Big East has an extremely well-balanced conference and you can't take any days off, not one," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer. "We really believe we have the toughest league in the country. Connecticut set the pace and others have
followed, Notre Dame has had tremendous success. West Virginia and Pittsburgh have emerged, as has DePaul. And I hope we have improved each year."

Oklahoma follows LSU at No. 6.

"We're the inexperienced team in the group," said Sooners coach Sheri Coale. "I think it's unusual, it's atypical. There were a lot of young teams last year that experienced a great deal of success."

Stanford is ranked seventh, followed by North Carolina, Georgia and Duke, in its first season under coach Joanne McCallie.

Texas A&M is No. 11 then Arizona State, California, George Washington, Baylor and Ohio State at 16. Michigan State, West Virginia, Florida State and Pittsburgh round out the first 20.

"Our chancellor and our administration believed in us and gave us a real chance at becoming a Top 25 program," Pitt coach Agnus Berenato said. "We feel, that as a women's basketball program, we are finally pulling our weight and we knew it was only a matter of time. I am happy for our staff and our kids. This is the first year
that we have all of our kids on the team and it is validating our work over the last four years."

Louisville, Texas, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and DePaul held the final five spots.

Louisville, Pittsburgh, Florida State and West Virginia are the only teams in the Top 25 that had never before appeared in the preseason poll. The Mountaineers are ranked for the first time since the final poll of the 1991-92 season.

"It really means a lot for the program," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. "We've been trying hard to get our program better the last few years so we can be recognized nationally. But we haven't played a game yet and it's going to take a lot more work to stay there."

The Mountaineers have all five starters back from last season's team that lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

West Virginia and six other teams in the poll weren't ranked at the end of last season. Joining the Mountaineers are California, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Texas, Notre Dame, and DePaul. Cal had been ranked for eight weeks last season before falling out of the Top 25 on Feb. 26.

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