Women's Top 10
5. LOUISIANA TECH
8. PENN STATE
10. N.C. STATE
Georgia coach Andy Landers walked into a tiny trinket shop in Tijuana, Mexico, this summer, while on a side trip from his vacation in California. As he was browsing among the leather goods and fake Rolex watches, the man behind the counter recognized him. "Ah," said he, "the coach at Georgia!"
Such is the state of women's basketball today that Landers, who was once detained by security guards who didn't recognize him at his own gym, is now a celebrity in other countries. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who took his family to Florida after his team won the NCAA championship in April, ended up playing Pied Piper to autograph-hunting children who trailed him down the beach. Auriemma's moment in the sun didn't last forever, though. He was recently greeted by an enthusiastic fan who thought he was... Joe Theismann.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that women's basketball has a higher profile these days. Three years ago it was a big deal when the Final Four sold out. Now the question is how quickly the tickets will go. This season's championship game, in Charlotte, sold out last April. Overall attendance topped 3.6 million last season, triple that of a decade ago, when only a handful of teams had a chance to win the national title. This year any of the Top 10 teams could win it all. And there's a good possibility that none of them will. "Every year now, there's a chance of someone other than the status-quo powers winning," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster. "There could be seven or eight preseason Number l's. But Number 9 might win."
Landers agrees. His Georgia team wasn't ranked in the preseason last year but reached the Final Four with four sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup. The Lady Bulldogs fell flat, though, losing 73-51 to Tennessee. After the season Landers told his team it needed more bulk, and the players have tried desperately to comply. They've done a fine job in the weight room but again have proved to be lightweights at the training table. "We're just skinny," says junior forward La'Keshia Frett, who often eats two dinners. Expectations, though, are heavy. "We got to the Final Four last year, but we don't want to settle for that," says senior guard Saudia Round-tree. "If we got that far a year ago, we can win it now."
Last season Connecticut was 35-0, and the Huskies' perfect run was like gasoline on the fire that was building in the women's game. They hope last year's enthusiasm can be sustained now that player of the year Rebecca Lobo has graduated. "It's like women's basketball was waiting for something to happen," says 5'5" senior point guard Jennifer Rizzotti, who, along with 6-foot forward Jamelle Elliott and 6'7" center Kara Wolters, is back as a starter. Nykesha Sales will join the lineup at forward after a freshman season in which she came off the bench to average 11.4 points and earn Big East Rookie of the Year honors. UConn's top recruit, 6'3" Tammy Arnold, could also see playing time early.
Will these Huskies make fans forget Lobo? Not likely, but UConn should remain a national phenomenon. "We even see Connecticut women's basketball shirts in Nashville," says Vanderbilt center Angela Gorsica. "But there are plenty of Vanderbilt shirts, too."
And rightly so. Vanderbilt lost only one first-stringer from last season's Sweet 16 team, yet Foster expects two newcomers to play right away and perhaps start. Freshman Beth Ostendorf has worked at every position in practice, and either redshirt freshman Nettie Respondek, who sat out last season with a stress fracture in each foot, or freshman Paige Redmond could displace senior Ginger Jared at point guard. "Competition is what made America great," Foster says.
There's no chance that competition will ruin the team's sense of family. Unbeknownst to her coaches and teammates, sophomore forward Na'Sheema Hillmon was four months pregnant when she earned a spot on the SEC's All-Tournament team last March as a freshman. On Aug. 15 she gave birth to a boy, Zahkir Kahari Hillmon-Baker, whose father is Vanderbilt football player Fred Baker. Vanderbilt forward Sheri Sam was on hand for the delivery and is the baby's godmother.