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Connecticut Finds Itself in Driver's Seat


All right, all you usual suspects, go ahead and buy your plane tickets to St. Louis.

Yes, we're talking to you, Connecticut, Tennessee, Georgia and Duke. We'll see you at the Big Dance in the Kiel Center on March 30.

That's the pick from here, wondering if anyone out there can give UConn a game this year.

Tennessee certainly couldn't, in last season's national championship game in Philadelphia, pounding the Lady Vols, 71-52.

Afterward, Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said, "We're lucky they didn't beat us by 40."

So, with his top eight scorers back, plus arguably the nation's top recruit, guard Diana Taurasi from Chino, one wonders if Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma can run the table this year.

He has certainly put the onus on his players to do just that.

At the conclusion of a snowy parade in Hartford, the Sunday after the Huskies' national title victory, Auriemma told the crowd:

"We'll be back here for a third one, I'll guarantee you that."

A season ago, UConn won its first 19, lost at home to Tennessee, 72-71, then won the final 17 for 36-1.

Connecticut and Tennessee have won eight NCAA national championships since 1987, six by Tennessee. UConn won its titles in 1994-95 and last season.

In a word, UConn is loaded. This could be Auriemma's super team, one to surpass the 35-0 juggernaut in 1995.


* He lost two seniors from last year's group, neither of whom started.

* His top eight scorers from 1999-2000 are back, among them Svetlana Abrosimova, arguably the nation's best player, and Shea Ralph and Sue Bird, unarguably the NCAA's best pair of guards.

* The Huskies are at least two-deep at every position.

Taurasi, from Chino's Don Lugo High, started slowly in early season practices but after a talk with Auriemma, during which he impressed upon her how much harder she had to practice, she's now expected to play major minutes.

* Center Kelly Schumacher, the 6-foot-5 Canadian, made major improvements in the second half last year, culminating with a brilliant performance against Tennessee in the NCAA championship game. She blocked nine shots and made 6-5 Tennessee center Michelle Snow disappear.

Schumacher, Abrosimova and Ralph are all seniors and all but certain first-round WNBA draft choices.

Bird will be too, in 2002.

Southland followers of the women's game will get an early look at UConn. The Huskies play at Pepperdine on Nov. 21.

Tennessee too, has all five starters back from the 33-4 team that was pummeled by UConn at Philadelphia.

The best of the bunch is Tamika Catchings, the Naismith player of the year. The 6-1 senior had double-digit rebounds 11 times last season. She also scores from inside, on mid-range jumpers and shot 33% from the arc last season.

A daughter of 11-year NBA player Harvey Catchings, she spent last summer as an intern with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.

Summitt spent the off-season wondering what happened in the NCAA title game.

"We were on the bottom of our game, they were on the top of theirs," she said. "They were on their toes, we were on our heels."

She's still a bit puzzled by Snow's disappearance--five points and four rebounds--in the title game, but added, "We didn't give Michelle enough help, and UConn double-teamed her a lot too."

That game might have contributed to Snow's being dropped, at least temporarily, to a backup role. Summitt is raving about her new center, 6-5 freshman Ashley Robinson.

"She's better than we thought," Summitt said.

"She's very aggressive on the boards and has a chance to be a very special player. I really like her attitude too."

If Tennessee had a weak spot last season, it was spotty guard play. But sophomore point Kara Lawson has a year behind her and should be more consistent. Senior Ace Clement, who sprained an ankle the morning of the UConn title game and didn't play, will share the other guard spot with sophomore April McDivitt.

Georgia is the best women's team never to have won a national championship. Andy Landers' teams have played in 52 NCAA tournament games and been to the Final Four five times. However, his teams are only 2-5 in the Final Four.

If UConn or Tennessee stumbles, this could be the Lady Bulldogs' year.

Of course, that has been said before. Landers' team, led again by senior identical twin guards Kelly and Coco Miller, are joined by two more returning starters, 6-0 wing Deanna Nolan and 6-4 center Tawana McDonald.

Landers has two highly regarded recruits, 6-1 Ebony Felder and 6-5 Christi Thomas.

Landers hopes to correct a flaw seen in last year's club. Georgia has few peers in run-and-gun games but in games where they were held to 65 or fewer points, they were 1-3 in a 32-4 season.

UCLA followers get a look at Georgia Dec. 30, when the Lady Bulldogs visit Pauley Pavilion.

Duke, 28-6 last year, also has four starters back, plus what Coach Gail Goestenkors calls the best recruiting class of her Duke tenure.

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