With all five starters returning from last season's championship team, including All-America Val Whiting (page 86), Stanford is the rational pick to repeat as champion at this season's final Four in Atlanta. But if we were superstitious—and cross-our-hearts-and-hope-to-die, we're not—we would have to say that this is Tennessee's year to cut down the nets. After all, Lady Vol coach Pal Summitt has won the NCAA title in every odd-numbered year since 1987. Summitt has much more than biennial destiny in her favor, though. Her sophomore talent alone is breathtaking. Michelle Marciniak has transferred from Notre Dame, meaning that Summitt's hellish recruiting trip two years ago has finally paid off: Summitt went into labor while en route to Allentown, Pa., to visit Marciniak, carried out the visit and then flew back to Knoxville, where she had her first child. With Marciniak aboard, Lady Vol practices feature four of the top five national recruits from two years ago. Marciniak has to sit out this year, but her fellow sophomores, 5'6" Tiffany Woosley, 6'6" Vonda Ward and 6'2" Dana Johnson, are ready to go.
Since we're talking about superstitions, let's not forget coach Chris Weller at Maryland. She once appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss her myriad rituals (such as rapping her knuckles on the floor three times, then hitting her head three times at various times during games for good luck). She brings back three senior All-America candidates—6'4" center Jessie Hicks and guards Malissa Boles and Katrina Colleton—from last year's 25-6 team, which made a first-ever appearance at the top of the polls. Also back is junior forward Michele Andrew of Helsinki. Finland, who is "perhaps the best athlete Maryland's ever had," according to Weller.
On Jan. 20, Maryland gets a chance to avenge last year's home court sellout loss to Virginia, a team that has a new look, the result of losing fleet backcourt stars Dawn Staley and Tarn mi Reiss. Although the Lady Cavs will play a little slower this year, at least they will play together: Senior point guard Dena Evans rallied her teammates to unprecedented off-season camaraderie, organizing team meetings and pack running in Charlottesville. But coach Debbie Ryan will need immediate contributions from freshman guards Jenny Boucek and Kris Somogyi; the latter is the New Jersey high school phenom who broke the state scoring record that had been set by her father, John, in 1968.
Vanderbilt can sigh with relief now that the right foot of 6'10" Heidi Gillingham (12.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.2 rejections a game last year) is out of its cast and the junior center's stress fracture has healed. Team doctor Kurt Spindler was also busy in the off-season repairing the left knee of sophomore forward Mara Cunningham and the right knee of forward Lisa King. Now that he has 10 healthy players, coach Jim Foster hopes to improve on last year's 22-9 record and final eight finish.
Senior guard Kristie Jordan, like her Western Kentucky team, has a penchant for jumping out of nowhere and surprising people. Jordan's 1.8 steals a game in the postseason was one reason the Lady Toppers went from a No. 4 seeding in the NCAA Mideast Regional to a showdown with Stanford in the tournament final, knocking off Tennessee and Maryland along the way. High-scoring guard Kim Pehlke and forward Liesa Lang are gone, but still on hand are "Trey" Re-nee Westmoreland, a 43% three-point shooter, and Paulette Monroe, a solid 6'4" authority in the lane.
At Iowa, spending time with the basketball team is a little like hanging around a karaoke bar. The talented Hawkeyes, several of whom sing soul and gospel in the locker room and on the bus, have no problem stepping up to the mike—until it really counts. First, the Hawkeyes clammed up when Whitney Houston visited their locker room last season. Then they hit a sour note in the second round of the NCAA tournament, losing to Southwest Missouri State by one point in overtime. Coach Vivian Stringer's goals for this year: get the team to the Mideast Regional in Iowa City and get the team to sing the national anthem at a home game.
Last year 6'4" Louisiana Tech center LaShawn Brown averaged 5.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game as an occasional starter. Pretty decent stats for a freshman, particularly when you consider that Brown lost parts of three lingers on her shooting hand to a lawn mower when she was seven years old. "I don't consider it a handicap." she says. "Most people I've played against don't even realize it until we shake hands."
Things have changed at Southern Cal. "We used to be a nice, sweet, sensitive team," says Lisa Leslie, a 6'5" forward/center who once scored 101 points in a single half in a high school game in Los Angeles. Then came her new roommate, outspoken junior college transfer Nicole McCrimmon, a 5'8" point guard and fellow scoring machine (she once had 80 points in a game in New York City in 1990) who has everyone at USC positively giddy. McCrimmon calls herself "3-D," which stands "for dribble-drive-dish." She adds. "Lisa is dribble-drive-dunk." Watch out for the game's first alley-oop dunk, courtesy of the two 3-D's.
If Leslie doesn't throw down an alley-oop soon, though, she may be beaten to the punch by six-foot ACC Rookie of the Year Charlotte Smith of North Carolina. Smith got her springs from her mom, Etta, whose brother is former North Carolina State star David Thompson. But wait: Teammate Sylvia Crawley might get the jam jump on Smith. The 6'5" Crawley is the cousin of Georgeann Wells, the former West Virginia star who has the distinction of being the only woman to dunk in a college game. And lest we forget, the Heels also have 6'7" sophomore Gwendolyn Gillingham, the "little" sister of Vanderbilt's Heidi. With all-ACC guard Tonya Sampson also returning, there will be no keeping the Tar Heels down.