The USC and UCLA women's basketball teams have more in common then they would like: lots of talent in the front court, a legitimate shot at the NCAA tournament and a starting point guard named Erica out for the season because of injury.
The Bruins will be without Erica Gomez, last season's Pacific 10 Conference freshman of the year, and the Trojans are minus sophomore Erica Mashia, so any lofty thoughts have been put on hold while the teams try to find replacements.
"You can never completely replace players like that," USC Coach Fred Williams said.
There is still reason for optimism, though, particularly in Westwood, where a freshman class considered by many to be among the best in the nation puts the Bruins behind only Stanford in the Pac-10.
UCLA, which opens the season today against the University of San Diego, lost to Stanford twice last season by a total of six points, and the five new players signed make the Bruins deeper and more talented. But their chances of knocking off Stanford, ranked No. 1 in the country, seemed strongly tied to Gomez.
On Oct. 8, she blew out her knee, leaving the question of who will replace her 11.8 points and 6.5 assists a game, and who will settle the four freshman who will start.
Freshman Melanie Pearson, called an All-American candidate at shooting guard by Coach Kathy Olivier, will move to the point to replace Gomez.
"Mel is talented and with her size [6 feet 1] she sees the floor well," Olivier said. "But what is hard to replace is Erica's confidence and the confidence she gave the post players. She has that take-control attitude that makes other players feel like everything will be fine."
It took little time for Olivier to put four of the freshmen in the starting lineup. Takiyah Jackson, from Seattle, will start at one forward, and 6-2 Maylana Martin, from Perris, will play the other. Both were first team prep All-Americans last season. At center is 6-4 Carly Funicello from Alemany High, with Pearson, formerly of Woodbridge High, the fourth.
"I hear people talking about this being like a Fab Five," Olivier said. "But we are probably better with one junior [guard Tawana Grimes] on the floor. She helps bring the freshmen to the level they need to play."
For USC, Mashia will be missing, but senior Tina Thompson will not. Last season's co-Pac-10 player of the year with Stanford's Kate Starbird, is a player for whom few defenses have an answer and brings her 23.1 points and 9.3 rebounds a game back for one more season.
"Teams are going to key on Tina," Williams said. "She's a versatile player, really rebounds well, and she knows how to read the defense, and her outside shooting has improved, which will make her even more difficult to defend."
USC, which plays its first game Dec. 1 at San Diego State, also has 6-4 Adrain Williams returning. She used the summer to grow three inches, and is now only an inch shorter than starting center Michelle Campbell.
"We knew when we recruited her that she was going to grow, but when she walked into the office this summer it shocked us," Williams said.
USC's front line will stand 6-4, 6-5 and 6-2, and Williams, a sophomore, is the youngest. That should pose problems for opposing defenses, but only if USC can find a point guard to get them the ball. Mashia did an admirable job, averaging 11.8 points and 3.2 assists last season but is out after aggravating a hip injury from last year.
"We are looking for guards like [sophomore] Kristin Clark and [freshman] Kiyoko Miller to really step up," Williams said. "But we lost 12 points a game and 80% shooting from the free-throw line when Erica went out, and that is tough to replace."
At Long Beach State, Coach Dallas Boychuk begins her second year with few standouts or reinforcements. The core is gone from last season's team, which surprised many Big West Conference observers by finishing 15-13 and fifth in the conference at 10-8.
Boychuk hasn't decided on her rotation yet, but guard Michelle Esparza and forward Adara Newidouski from Dana Hills High, the returning starters, figure to play prominent roles.
Times Staff Writer Jason Reid contributed to this story.