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This Time, Nothing Is Perfectly Clear

After Connecticut's unbeaten title run, the women's elite should include No. 1 Duke, Tennessee and Stanford.

November 14, 2002|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

That collective sigh of relief heard around women's college basketball in June came when Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams graduated and took their acts to the WNBA.

Connecticut's quintessential quartet, along with second-team All-American guard Diana Taurasi, stormed through last season to a 39-0 record and the Huskies' third national championship.

Taurasi, a junior, is the sole returning starter. Connecticut is prepared to take some lumps this season -- but only a few -- while it reloads for another title chase.

In the meantime, the 2002-03 NCAA championship will have a flock of pursuers from the Pacific 10, Big 12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten and Big East conferences, all thinking this is their time.

Duke opens the season No. 1 for the first time. The Blue Devils won 31 games last year, dominated the ACC, and reached the Final Four with only eight scholarship players and one senior.

All five starters return, including guard Alana Beard -- a national player-of-the-year candidate -- and center Iciss Tillis.

Duke had a big setback when starting guard Monique Currie was lost for the season after suffering a torn ligament in her left knee during an exhibition game. To soften the blow, Coach Gail Goestenkors can mix in what many think is the nation's top recruiting class.

"It's going to be interesting," said Goestenkors, when asked how she would keep everyone motivated. "It's a challenge that I'm looking forward to deal with. I'd rather have too much talent than too little talent."

Don't expect pedigreed programs such as Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Louisiana State, Purdue and Notre Dame to be too impressed.

The Lady Volunteers, who beat Oklahoma in their season opener, were flattened twice by Connecticut last season, including the Final Four.

But it's doubtful the game has passed by Coach Pat Summitt. She has six national championships and may be in line for a seventh with four returning starters, including guard Kara Lawson.

Still, there is the SEC to navigate. Vanderbilt is coming off a 30-7 season. The Commodores have a new coach (Melanie Balcomb replaces Jim Foster, who went to Ohio State) and 6-foot-6 center Chantelle Anderson, expected to be the top WNBA draft pick in April, back for her senior year. Louisiana State (which convinced high school star Seimone Augustus to stay in her home state), Georgia and Arkansas also should contend.

Notre Dame is taking aim at ending Connecticut's streak of nine consecutive Big East titles. The Fighting Irish have nearly everyone back from last season's 20-10 squad, including shooting guard Alicia Ratay.

The Big 12 had seven top-25 teams last season, led by Oklahoma, which reached the NCAA title game.

Texas Tech, which lost its season opener against Louisiana Tech, is projected as the conference standout with the return of forward Plenette Pierson.

She'll anchor a lineup with two other double-figure scorers in guards Jia Perkins and Natalie Ritchie.

Texas Tech will be pressed in the conference by Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma.

Purdue, still fuming over its NCAA second-round ouster by Old Dominion, could be the class of the Big Ten.

The Boilermakers, 24-6 last season, have a bona-fide scorer in forward Shereka Wright and an inside presence in 6-5 center Mary Jo Noon.

If Purdue stumbles, Minnesota or Penn State -- led by the NCAA's top scorer, Kelly Mazzante -- could break through.

Stanford probably won't duplicate last year's 32-3 mark, especially if All-American forward Nicole Powell is sidelined by a bulging disk in her back. Powell will miss the team's season opener because she was suspended for playing in a summer league game not sanctioned by the NCAA.

If the Cardinal slips in the Pac-10, look for Washington to emerge.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Preseason Top 25

The top 25 teams in the Associated Press' women's preseason college basketball poll, with first-place votes in parentheses, 2001-02 records, total points based on 25 points for a first-place vote through one point for a 25th-place vote and last year's final ranking:

*--* Record Pts Pv 1. Duke (38)...31-4 1,093 3 2. Tennessee (4)...29-5 1,049 6 3. LSU (1)...18-12 941 22 4. Connecticut (1)...39-0 873 1 5. Kansas St....26-8 839 11 6. Stanford...32-3 818 5 7. Texas Tech...20-12 814 17 8. Purdue...24-6 794 9 9. Georgia...19-11 749 -- 10. Notre Dame...20-10 696 -- 11. Texas...22-10 674 14 12. Vanderbilt...30-7 608 4 13. North Carolina...26-9 551 16 14. Penn St....23-12 506 24 15. Minnesota...22-8 453 18 16. Louisiana Tech...25-5 442 8 17. Arkansas...20-12 338 -- 18. Cincinnati...27-5 235 19 19. Colorado St....24-7 218 20 20. Boston College...23-8 165 21 21. George Washington...21-9 150 -- 22. Oklahoma...32-4 148 2 23. Iowa St....24-9 147 10 24. Mississippi St....19-12 141 -- 25. UC Santa Barbara...26-6 106 --

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Others receiving votes: TCU 100, Washington 94, Tulane 88, Virginia 81, Old Dominion 75, Oregon 67, BYU 46, Colorado 46, N.C. State 26, New Mexico 26, South Carolina 21, Ohio St. 14, Florida 12, Pepperdine 8, Villanova 8, Michigan State 6, USC 6, Harvard 5, Houston 5, Michigan 5, Ball State 3, Temple 3, DePaul 2, Rutgers 2, Pittsburgh 1, Rice 1, Siena 1.

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