Over the last decade, women's basketball season previews have become as repetitive as those airport P.A. announcements reminding travelers that the white zone is for loading and unloading only. Front-runner status is for Connecticut and Tennessee only. Year after year the two powerhouses, which between them have won six of the last 11 national titles, are installed as favorites, making the ride to the Final Four seem like a two-team carpool. The Huskies and the Lady Volunteers are so deep that even in a purported off-year, such as last season, when UConn lost stars Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova to injuries, the Huskies finished 32-3 and nearly knocked off eventual champion Notre Dame in an NCAA tournament semifinal.
" UConn is definitely the team to beat again this year," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, sounding much like a prerecorded announcement herself. "Of course, there's always Tennessee, too."
Given this perennial dominance by the Big Two, how can the NCAA increase parity? One solution would be to reduce the number of scholarships from 15 per team to 13, as men's basketball did in the early '90s. This would keep teams such as Connecticut and Tennessee from collecting high school All-Americas like so many baseball cards, some of them to be kept in mint condition but rarely used.
Although most coaches in the SI Top 10 were lukewarm about the idea, citing the need to keep the sport growing and to safeguard against injuries, the idea had one surprising supporter, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. "It's so stupid when you think about it," Auriemma says of the resistance to cutting back scholarships. "Changing the rule isn't going to affect a coach's ability to win, only the ability to stockpile players. If I have 15 girls on scholarship, some of them won't play until they're juniors and some won't play at all. If they went elsewhere, they'd probably play right away and make another team better."
Of course, it's easy for Auriemma to be magnanimous, considering how loaded Connecticut is again this season. Abrosimova and Ralph graduated, but the Huskies have four seniors back, including the preseason Big East player of the year, point guard Sue Bird, and 6'2" jumping-jack forwards Swin Cash and Asjha Jones. Sophomore Diana Taurasi, who blossomed into one of the best guards in the country last season before fizzling in the loss to Notre Dame, will start at the other guard spot, and 6'2" senior Tamika Williams will patrol the lane. Put the pieces together, and the luskies have good reason to feel cocky. "We're coming back with a fire," says Bird, who led UConn with 5.0 assists per game last season, "and we're ready to prove something."
The same can be said of Tennessee, which went 31-3 last season but suffered a stunning 80-65 loss to Xavier in a regional semifinal. "This team did not deserve anything other than the outcome it got," an angry coach Pat Summitt said after the game. Much of Summitt's ire was directed at 6'5" center Michelle Snow, who last year showed the world mat while she was capable of dunking, she was often incapable of playing interior defense. If Snow, a junior, can stiffen her resolve, she will team with junior forward Gwen Jackson (injured but due back within six weeks) and sophomore center Ashley Robinson (who should recover from a torn ACL in time to pitch in during the second half of the season) to form one of the nation's top front-courts. A freshman from California, Loree Moore, should add needed quickness to the backcourt.
The key for Vanderbilt will be the play of 6'6" junior center Chantelle Anderson, who's hoping to lower her field goal percentage from the 72.3% she shot last season. After scoring 21.2 points per game in 2000-01 but rarely venturing out of the paint, Anderson spent the summer working out with Snow, whom she knew from the USA Jones Cup team, and honing her midrange jump shot. "Coach [ Jim Foster] actually told me mat for me to become a better player, my percentage has to go down," says Anderson. "I need to step out on the floor and become more versatile." In addition to Anderson, the Commodores retain all of their other 2000-01 starters—including 6'2" senior Zuzi Klimesova, who averaged 8.1 rebounds and shot 56.5% from the field-as well as a crop of blue-chip freshmen. "I consider us an inside-outside team, and there aren't many of those," says Foster. "We've got a very good team back. Now we need to blend in our new players."
Last April, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale met with star guard Stacey Dales and told her how she would defend against Dales if they were matched up in a game. "I told her I would play the penetration and let her shoot," says Coale, who was a scrappy guard at Oklahoma Christian in the mid-1980s. The 6-foot Dales, who averaged 16.0 points and 7.3 assists last season, got the hint and spent the off-season working on her pull-up jump shot. She also hit the weights so she can play some in the post, where the Sooners will need more help than ever: Oklahoma was undersized before senior center Jen Cunningham tore her right ACL for a fourth time in October, ending her career. Without an interior presence Coale will rely on her smaller stars—Dales, senior guard LaNeishea Caufield and junior forward Caton Hill-to use their quickness to beat other teams. "I'd love to have a big, strong center, but I don't," says Coale. "What I do have is guards, and they're pretty darn good."
The Texas Tech women haven't lacked for support. Last season the Lady Raiders averaged 12,660 fans, second only to Tennessee, and for years, coach Marsha Sharp says, the program has brought in more money than it has spent, a rare feat in women's college basketball. Even so, Sharp has welcomed the publicity that accompanied the arrival of her famously hot-tempered new colleague, men's coach Bob Knight. "He's been terrific," says Sharp in her Texas twang. "I've already learned a lot from him." Maybe Knight should be the student, considering Sharp's career record of 459-142 and Tech's berth in the Sweet 16 last spring. Either way, behind junior forward Plenette Pierson and sophomore guard Jia Perkins, who combined to average 28.3 points last year, the Lady Raiders should end their season on the brink—of a national championship.
After nine straight tides in the relatively soft Sun Belt Conference, Louisiana Tech has moved to the Western Athletic Conference, in which the Lady Techsters should face tougher foes than they did last season, when they ran up a 16-0 league record. Add road games against Tennessee and Connecticut, and Tech coach Leon Bar-more, who retired for all of 17 days in 2000 before the university and its surrounding community persuaded him to return to the bench, will have plenty of opportunity to measure Louisiana Tech's progress. The best benchmarks: shot-swatting senior center Ayana Walker (2.4 blocks per game), senior guard Brooke Lassiter (10.2 points, 91% from the line) and star sophomore forward Catrina Frierson, who missed the entire 2000-01 season with a knee injury.