Auriemma is asking himself that same question now that Nykesha Sales, the all-time leading scorer at Connecticut, is gone. "We've won 30 games five years in a row, yet it feels like we're stalling over," says Auriemma. If you're going to start over, you might as well do it with the best recruiting class in the nation. The hype for forwards Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones, Swin Cash and guards Sue Bird and Keirsten Walters prompted the school to hold its first-ever Freshman Media Day, which attracted 12 beat writers, three TV stations and two photographers. That's when Cash revealed that she and her mates had come up with a name befitting their assignment: the TASSK Force. Whether the TASSK force is up to the task against Tennessee should make for terrific theater when the two battle at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 10. "Last year we were afraid, but we won't be this year," says sophomore guard-forward Shea Ralph, who missed the '97-98 season following surgery on a torn right ACL. "We try to take it one game at a time, but Tennessee is always at the back of our minds."
Huskies sophomore forward Svetlana Abrosimova (14.5 points) is a burgeoning star from St. Petersburg, Russia, and senior guard Amy Duran and junior center Paige Sauer are also back. Auriemma's biggest challenge will be finding which of his newcomers will replace point guard Rita Williams. "If they just act like regular freshmen," says Auriemma, "then we're not going to be able to beat the teams we need to beat."
Three weeks after a bitterly disappointing loss to Arkansas in the Elite Eight, Duke coach Gail Goestenkors called her players together for a team meeting at Cameron Indoor Stadium. "I asked them, 'What have you done today to prepare for tomorrow?' " says Goestenkors. "Then I wrote down the schedule for next year." What followed was a list of names that read like a Top 10 roll call, including Tennessee, Connecticut and UCLA. "My biggest concern was complacency," she says. "I think I took care of that."
There's plenty of reason for optimism among the Blue Devils, even with their bedeviling schedule. Led by the senior hack-court of Hillary Howard and Nicole Erickson, Duke has perhaps the most balanced lineup in the nation; the top six returnees averaged between 7.7 and 12.8 points in '97-98. If 6'6" center Michele VanGorp, renowned for her two-handed dunks in practice, can develop into a force in the middle, the Blue Devils should advance beyond the Elite Eight. "We set our goals a little too low last season," says Goestenkors. "We don't want to make that same mistake again."
If any coach has the scoop on beating Tennessee, it's Carolyn Peck of Purdue, as she proved with Sunday's shocker. Four years ago she was a $l6,000-a-year restricted earnings coach for tire Lady Vols, and she continues to espouse the wisdom she gleaned from Summitt. "Pat taught me you learn something new every day," Peck says, "and, most important, you've got to love your team."
Peck will have no difficulty embracing that second lesson: All 13 players are back from last year's 23-10 squad. The Boilermakers have one of the few backcourts that can match up with the Lady Vols', led by 5'11" Stephanie White-McCarty (20.6 points) and 5'9" Ukari Figgs (15.5 points), a pair of seniors with 157 career starts between them. They outscored their Tennessee counterparts 34-19 in Sunday's upset. Sophomore Katie Douglas, a 6'1" forward, and 5'7" freshman Kelly Komara, the reigning Indiana Miss Basketball, should also help create havoc. The biggest question facing Purdue may be how the players respond to Peck's lame-duck status: She will leave next April to become general manager and coach of Orlando's WNBA franchise. Says Peck, "We've talked about it, we've handled it, and we're moving forward."
Should UCLA end up making the 350-mile trip north on the Golden State Freeway to San Jose, site of this year's Final Four, remember the name of Carla Houser, a reserve forward on last year's 20-9 squad. Following a loss at North Carolina last December—UCLA's fourth defeat in its first six games—Houser lit into her younger teammates. "She told us, 'This is my senior year, and you can't keep doing this,' " recalls junior forward Maylana Martin. "She said, 'You sophomores keep saying, Next year. For me and the other seniors, we don't have a next year.' "
The baby Bruins got the message and finished on an 18-4 run before sloppy refereeing in the final second against Alabama sent them home from the second round of the NCAA tournament. Houser is gone, but what returns to Westwood is the best junior class in the country. The 6'3" Martin (18.8 points, 7.4 rebounds) leads a frontcourt of classmates Janae Hubbard, a 6'4" center, and Marie Philman, a 6-foot forward. But the player who makes the Bruins go is junior point guard Erica Gomez, who was named the National Comeback Player of the Year after missing the entire 1996-97 season recovering from a torn right ACL. Junior guard Melanie Pearson rounds out the best starting five west of Knoxville.
Injuries crippled Georgia so badly before last season that coach Andy Landers issued a call to arms in the student press. The results, along with the season that followed, weren't pretty. "We had one 44-year-old woman ask if she could walk on after the story had gotten to the local papers," says Landers. "We told her there was one qualification: You had to be a student."
Georgia ended up playing most of the year with just seven healthy scholarship players—four of them freshmen. Those dog days are over for the Lady Bulldogs, who have five starters back. Georgia's guard play should have opponents seeing double, starting with the Miller twins, 5'10" Kelly and Coco, whose sister act set Athens ablaze last year. Kelly (17.5 points) earned freshman All-America honors, while Coco scored a school-record 45 points against Charleston Southern. The Lady Bulldogs' lack of experience in the frontcourt won't be a factor if 6'4" freshman center Tawana McDonald lives up to Landers's laurels. "She's impressed me more in our early practices than any player I've ever had," he says. "I get chill bumps thinking about it."