Old school may be the fashion in men's basketball this year, but the vogue in the women's game is decidedly different. Look around—the signs of modernity are everywhere. Once ponderous Vanderbilt is running a fast break, motion offenses are being employed at both Stanford and Tennessee, and, most shocking of all, Louisiana Tech is throwing modesty to the wind and going sleeveless.
Seniors? With a few notable exceptions, they are not the ones running the show this year. "There's a real lack of experience out there," says Tennessee guard Kara Lawson, a two-time Final Four veteran who is one of the most experienced seniors around. "That will make this year fun. With young players, you never know what's going to happen."
Perhaps no team is more comfortable dealing with the unforeseeable than Duke, which made it to the Final Four last year despite seeing its roster hacked to eight after two players unexpectedly transferred in December. This year the Blue Devils have already been blindsided by the loss of sophomore guard and All-America candidate Monique Currie, who tore her left ACL in the first five seconds of Duke's first exhibition game on Nov. 5. While the loss of Currie for the season is significant, Duke remains our favorite to win the NCAA title in Atlanta on April 8.
The Blue Devils still have two All-America candidates in the lineup—5'11" guard Alana Beard and 6'4" forward Iciss Tillis, both juniors—and Currie's absence will open up a starting spot for Sheana Mosch, a 5'10" senior who has responded heroically to crises in the past. When Beard was injured and out of the lineup for four games two years ago, Mosch raised her scoring average from 74 to 26.5 points. Currie's 6.0 rebounds a game will be harder to replace, but two members of the top recruiting class in the nation, 6'3" freshman centers Mistie Bass (the daughter of '60s dance icon Chubby Checker) and Brooke Smith, should be a big help in the low post. With improved depth at almost every position, expect Duke to run, press and pile up points at an even greater clip than last season, when it was second in the nation in scoring, with 83-5 points per game.
National semifinalist Tennessee has less depth than it did last season, and that may be a good thing. Choosing a lineup from last year's stellar roster of 14 was like "shopping at Macy's," says assistant Mickie DeMoss. "Too many choices." Since then the Lady Vols have lost five players—three seniors to graduation and two transfers, April McDivitt and Michelle Mu�oz, to UC Santa Barbara and Ohio State, respectively—and added two freshmen. Both newcomers should help Tennessee address what, despite all that talent, it lacked last year: inside strength and outside scoring. In 6'5" center Tye'sha Fluker the Lady Vols will have a big, physical force in the post, and in guard Shanna Zolman, whose 3,085 career points in high school shattered the Indiana record of 2,869 set by Stephanie White from 1991-92 through '94-95, they should have a consistent and prolific shooter.
Lawson, taking her role as senior leader seriously, ordered her teammates to show up for pickup games three nights a week over the summer, and she worked out with Zolman almost every day. After three years in Knoxville without winning a national title, Lawson says she has learned that "you don't win championships because of the name on your uniform but because of the work you put in. You come to Tennessee, though, to win championships. I still have that expectation."
The expectations for Louisiana State can be heard in the ka-ching of the ticket-office cash register, which rang up record sales of 1,300 season tickets (nearly quadrupling the previous high) in the month after Baton Rouge native Seimone Augustus signed on to play for the Lady Tigers. Says coach Sue Gunter, "Everyone around here has watched her grow up. No one wants to miss her college career."
How big a deal is her staying home to play for LSU? Athletic director Skip Bertman, incredibly, called her "the most important recruit in the history of our athletic program."
Despite all the attention, Augustus, a velvety smooth 6'1" guard who averaged 28.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 5.0 steals for Class 4A champ Capitol High last year, will not be expected to carry the Tigers. LSU has back six of the seven hardy souls who took the team to an 18-12 record last year.
With the departure of seniors Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams, defending champion Connecticut has been reduced to, according to some skeptics, one excellent player and a lot of question marks. One Big East opponent even taunted the Huskies as they steamrolled through the league tournament last season, saying, "Wait till next year!"