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East Region

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Posted: Monday October 30, 2000 3:50 PM
Updated: Wednesday November 01, 2000 9:29 AM

  Geno Auriemma Geno Auriemma's Huskies are favored to repeat as national champions. AP

Ron Chimelis, Special to

How can a virtually flawless team get better? The University of Connecticut seems to have found the formula, which is to return all the key elements of last year's team that routed Tennessee to win the national women's basketball championship -- and bring in a top recruiting class to boot.

UConn is so good this year that even the improvement at other Big East schools is sometimes easy to overlook. Rutgers poses the biggest in-house challenge, with point guard Tasha Pointer and center Tammy Sutton-Brown leading a strong returning cast.

There's more to Eastern basketball than UConn and the Big East, though. In the Atlantic 10, old reliables St. Joseph's and George Washington were a combined 51-12 last year, and they return four key players each. Explosive Xavier returns all five and may be the best of the A-10. Elsewhere, Vermont returns three starters from a team that won 25 games, and should battle Delaware in America East.

St. Peter's returns most of the nucleus of the Metro Atlantic's NCAA Tournament representative, And Dartmouth should return to the NCAA field with a team that returns most of its talent from last year's champions.

By and large, though, all eyes will be on UConn, right through the Final Four.

Teams That Will Make the NCAA Tournament
Connecticut (Big East)   Delaware (America East)  
Rutgers (Big East)  George Washington (Atlantic 10) 
Notre Dame (Big East)  Vermont (America East) 
Old Dominion (Colonial Athletic)  Dartmouth (Ivy) 
Boston College (Big East)  Holy Cross (Patriot) 
St. Joseph's (Atlantic 10)  St. Francis, Pa. (Northeast) 
Xavier (Atlantic 10)  St. Peter's (MAAC) 

Top Storylines
Can anybody beat UConn? Everybody is back and quality recruits have been added. The Big East has improved, but the Huskies keep getting so much better that the gap sometimes seems widening. This has the potential to be Geno Auriemma's best team ever.

How good is Xavier? The Musketeers (26-5 last year) can score, and four key players are back. Always searching for an identity, the Atlantic 10 is counting on this team to make noise.

Is Virginia Tech ready? The preseason Big East vote predicted the Hokies would tie Georgetown for fifth. That's not unrealistic, but making it would be more than enough.

On the Rise
• The Hoyas won 17 games last year and senior guard Katie Smroka-Duffy -- the Big East scoring leader at 18.3 ppg. -- leads a group of five returning starters that also includes 6-10 sophomore Suzy Bendegue, the tallest player in Big East history. The Hoyas have a decent chance to reach 20 and may do better than last year's WNIT appearance.
• The Panthers aren't nearly there yet, but third-year coach Traci Waite has dreams and has made headway. The Panthers were 16-13 last year, their best showing since 1994-95, and they doubled their previous year's win total. This year, seven returning players will be joined by a promising recruiting class.
• The Minutewomen made the NCAAs twice in the late 1990s, and Joanie O'Brien is making inroads on the recruiting front. UMass is willing to play tough teams out of conference, which will help in the long run, and should do much better than last year's 14-15.
St. John's
• Last year's story was 11-18 overall and 5-11 in the Big East. High scorer Latasha Thompson (13.2 ppg.) leads a team that returns its four top scorers and can hit the 3. But second-year coach Darcel Erstep still has work to do.
Rhode Island
• Last year, Boe Pearman took over a chaotic program, won two games and finished the year with six players. But the world loves a winner and Pearman went all over the world to build one, bringing in recruits from Yugoslavia and Poland, including Vedrana Bajagic, a 6-4 center. Pearman is a respected recruiter and tactician with coaching experience in the now-defunct American Basketball League. Rhode Island has won before in the Atlantic 10, and it will again, though maybe not this year.
• All five starters are back for a team that went 10-18 last year, and 3-13 in the Big East. A welcome addition will be senior Paula Moore, who redshirted due to a knee injury after averaging 17 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in 1998-99. Senior forward Beth Record (17.1 ppg.) and point guard Jakia Ervin are other welcome returnees. But Syracuse was 1-10 on the road last year, and any serious improvement will require a better showing than that.

Five New Faces to Watch
Diana Taurasi, UConn, G-F
• Preseason Big East rookie of the year is good enough for a spot in America's best rotation.
Ashley Battle, UConn, G
• Like Taurasi, her biggest challenges will come in practice, not in games.
Marianthi Koukouvinou, F, Old Dominion
• The Swedish player joins a lineup that lost one starter, and continues ODU's tradition of finding quality foreign players.
Rebekkah Bruson, Georgetown, C
• The Hoyas are pretty strong in the post already, so she can develop at a reasonable pace.
Mandakova Clark, Rutgers, G
• She lends athleticism to a Final Four team that must replace leading scorer Shawnetta Stewart.
Five Familiar Faces to Watch
Shea Ralph, UConn, G-F
• One of America's most complete players keeps getting better and better, and her 14.3 ppg. average last year doesn't nearly reflect the level of her game.
Svetlana Abrosimova, UConn, F
• The biggest question is who will be the Big East's most dominant player, the 6-2 Abrosimova or the 6-foot Ralph.
Ruth Riley, Notre Dame, C
• .After averaging 16.2 ppg., the 6-5 senior is the best player on a balanced Top 10 team, but she has to stay out of foul trouble.
Sue Bird, UConn, G
• Point guard was supposed to be an uncertain spot last year for the Huskies, but Bird orchestrated a national championship.
Tasha Pointer, Rutgers, G
• There's room for improvement on last season's performance, which included a 9.7 ppg. scoring average. But she is still reaching her potential and should be helped by a strong recruiting class around her.

Coach to Watch
Sharon Versyp, Maine
The Black Bears have been to six straight NCAAs, and as Versyp begins her first year, there are no Cindy Blodgett types around to lead them. But they are still a better program than their league (America East) implies.

Toughest Schedule
Virginia Tech
UConn plays harder teams, but simply moving from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East puts the Hokies into an entirely new world. Coach Bonnie Henricksen is convinced her program can be competititive from the start.

Toughest Place to Play
Alumni Fieldhouse, Philadelphia, Pa
Known as Hawk Hill, the 3,200-seat of St. Joseph's basketball has helped establish a strong identity for a small school that loves to beat the bigger ones.

Things You Didn't Know
With a 21-game contract on Connecticut Public Television, UConn is advertising its 2000-2001 team as the most televised women's squad in college basketball history. The Huskies will also play six national TV games (CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, Fox) and won't lose any gate revenue by doing so. A package of five games at the 16,000-seat Hartford Civic Center was sold out less than an hour after going on sale.

Mark Your Calendar
Georgia vs. Connecticut, Nov. 12
• State Farm Classic at Hartford Civic Center. Old Dominion-Penn State is the other half of the State Farm Classic. A splendid doubleheader to get the season underway.
Rutgers vs. Georgia, Dec. 3 in Orlando, Fla.
• Half of a Honda Elite 4 Classic that also includes Notre Dame-North Carolina matchup.
Boston College at Tennesse, Dec. 6
• If the Eagles don't get blown out on the road, their confidence for league play will soar.

Tennessee at UConn, Dec. 30 in Hartford
• They meet again Feb. 1 in Knoxville. Now it's the Volunteers who have to prove they can keep up.
Rutgers at Notre Dame, Jan. 6
• Even if they can't beat UConn, these teams believe they can beat anyone else in the Big East, including each other.
UConn at Louisiana Tech, Jan. 7
• The Lady Techsters lost a lot from last year's team, but the game is in Ruston and they have the inside strength to give the Huskies a rare battle.

Ron Chimelis covers college basketball for the Springfield(Mass.) Union-News.

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