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The Usual Suspects

Rising above an all-too-familiar handful of other contenders, talent-rich Connecticut is the clear favorite for the championship

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Posted: Tuesday March 14, 2000 12:31 PM

By Kelli Anderson

Sports Illustrated

  Click for larger image At 30-1, forward Swin Cash and the redoubtable Huskies own the best record in the country. Chuck Solomon
The terms wide open and up for grabs aren't usually applied to the women's NCAA tournament, and you certainly won't hear them this year. This is Connecticut's tournament to lose, just as it was Tennessee's to lose last year (which the Lady Vols did) and the year before that, and UConn's to lose in 1997.

Why does Connecticut or Tennessee (or occasionally one of a handful of other schools) rank as the prohibitive favorite year after year? To start with, the same force that spread the talent in the men's game and broke the UCLA title monopoly 25 years ago -- television -- has had nearly the opposite effect on the women's game: There still aren't enough telecasts to go around. Forty Division I women's teams made national TV appearances this year. While 26 schools appeared just once, the two teams that made the most appearances, Connecticut (seven) and Tennessee (five), also got the most national press and had amassed, not coincidentally, the lion's share of the nation's best talent. In the last three years the Huskies and the Lady Vols have signed 40% of the first-team Parade All-Americas. "The rich get richer," says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "Kids see those schools on TV all the time, and they want to go there and play in that kind of atmosphere."

Disproportionate airtime and ink aren't the only factors that contribute to a closed-shop atmosphere. Though there may be a move to neutral sites next year, for now the top four seeds in each region get to play the first two rounds of the tournament at home to ensure good crowds, a policy that effectively defrocks Cinderella before she gets anywhere near the ball. Last year all 16 first-round hosts reached the Sweet 16. Similarly, even if an errant 8 or 9 seed has occasionally made it to the Final Four, only twice in the 17-year history of the tournament has a No. 1 or No. 2 seed failed to win the title -- in 1994 (No. 3 North Carolina) and in '97 (No. 3 Tennessee).

Because of the established power structure of the women's game, upsets in its tournament can be even more stunning than those on the men's side. Last year the top-ranked Lady Vols had an unprecedented three Kodak All-Americas -- including Chamique Holdsclaw, arguably the greatest woman player ever -- and still lost, in the Elite Eight, to No. 3-seed Duke. Will this tournament provide that kind of shocker? It's possible but not probable. Keeping in mind our sketchy prognostication record -- we thought Tennessee was a lock last year -- we give you the teams that have a realistic shot at winning the trophy at the Final Four in Philadelphia, in order of likelihood:

Barring injury or an almost unthinkable collective mental meltdown, CONNECTICUT (30-1) will avoid the sort of shortfall Tennessee suffered in 1999. The Huskies have even more depth than the Lady Vols did. They have three former high school All-Americas -- sophomores Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams -- playing one position, power forward. Moreover, their perimeter of small forward Svetlana Abrosimova, swingman Shea Ralph and point guard Sue Bird may be the best in the nation. But for a 72-71 loss at home to Tennessee on Feb. 2, the Huskies have eviscerated opponents by an average of 30.5 points and held them to 33% shooting while shooting 54% themselves. UConn has talent, depth, size, speed, chemistry, focus and enthusiasm. "They have a lot of players who can do things that other players just can't," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore.

One thing that this Connecticut squad doesn't have that GEORGIA (29-3) does is Final Four experience. The Bulldogs, who lost in the semis last year, are much improved. In Kelly and Coco Miller and Deana Nolan, they have the best up-tempo three-guard backcourt in the nation. However, for Georgia to win a title for coach Andy Landers, who has left five Final Fours empty-handed, center Tawana McDonald will have to stay out of foul trouble, and the bench will have to produce. "I'm a little bit more excited about the tournament this year," says Landers. "We have a team that has some championship strengths. I think we can do it."

After suiting up Holdsclaw and point guard Kellie Jolly for four years, TENNESSEE (28-3) is sporting a new look: mortality. These Lady Vols, who struggled in several of their wins, haven't displayed the hallmarks of coach Pat Summitt's teams -- smothering defense and unmistakable leadership -- night in and night out. Yet Tennessee is hardly lacking in those "championship strengths" to which Landers referred. While it can be argued that Semeka Randall, a natural two guard, has played out of position at the three and Kristen Clement has underachieved offensively at the two, Tamika Catchings has performed like the All-America forward she is, and center Michelle Snow has developed into a scorer, as has freshman point guard Kara Lawson. Anyone tempted to write off the Lady Vols should keep in mind that they knocked off the U.S. national team and pinned that lone defeat on Connecticut. Says Barmore, "You can never, ever count out Tennessee."

The same might be said for LOUISIANA TECH (28-2), another establishment team that has appeared in 13 Final Fours. Powered by the offense of quicksilver guards Betty Lennox and Tamicha Jackson, and the auxiliary artillery provided by young but improving frontline players like Catrina Frierson and Ayana Walker, the Lady Techsters have outscored opponents by 30.4 points, second only to Connecticut, and outrebounded them by 11.7 boards, best in the nation. "We can get on a hot streak and do some damage, but it can't be just the Lennox-and-Jackson show," says Barmore. "If the others contribute, you never know."

You also never know with NOTRE DAME (25-4), a team that turns the ball over with shocking frequency (its assist-to-turnover ratio is .897) but shoots almost 50% and rebounds well. The Irish have one of the best inside-out combos in the land: If 6'5" Big East defensive player of the year Ruth Riley, who averaged 7.3 rebounds and led the conference with 2.7 blocks a game, faces a double team, as she frequently will, she can pop the ball out to senior guard Danielle Green; Big East rookie of the year Alicia Ratay, who shoots 48.6% from beyond the arc; or senior Niele (Poison) Ivey, one of the top point guards in the nation (6.4 assists per game).

After last year's team paid its own way to San Jose to watch Big Ten rival Purdue win the championship, PENN STATE (26-4) had a title template for this year. Following the Boilermakers' example, the Lady Lions traveled to Europe in the off-season, made the Top 10 and won the Big Ten outright (though they lost the conference tournament final to Purdue). They boast a versatile and balanced group of upperclassmen, including Big Ten player of the year Helen Darling, a point guard who rebounds, and preseason conference player of the year Andrea Garner, the rare post player who is faster than most guards. In a year when many teams are going to have to hold onto good omens where they can find them, Penn State has this: "We've been losing one game a month," says coach Rene Portland, "and we've already lost in March."

Issue date: March 20, 2000

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