AFTER THE season she had a year ago it's hard to believe that Tennessee's Candace Parker, SI's pick for women's player of the year, could improve. In 2006--07 she averaged 19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds, won the Wooden Award as the nation's best player and led the Lady Vols to their seventh national title. But this year she has been even better. She is more refined in her decision-making and a better shooter facing the basket. She's also sharper on defense, having already increased her steals total from last season, and is less inclined to take the occasional play off. She had to be all of those things to emerge from this season's field of POY candidates. It is no easy thing to eclipse, for example, the season of Oklahoma junior forward Courtney Paris, who has chalked up an NCAA record 88 straight and 93 career double doubles, or that of Stanford's prolific senior guard Candice Wiggins, who has scored 2,424 points, surpassing Lisa Leslie's career Pac-10 record.
But sort through all the stats, consider overall impact and throw in the degree of difficulty of playing Tennessee's schedule, and Parker (right) stands alone. Her numbers—20.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.2 blocks a game for the No. 3--ranked Lady Vols (27--2)—barely hint at what a matchup nightmare she presents. She can post up, push the ball in transition, make the occasional three-point shot and (this may be the thing that defines her legacy) dunk. "When she's 6'4" and can do all that, where do you even start in trying to guard her?" asks Texas assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who watched Parker score 21 points in 24 minutes in a 92--67 rout of the Longhorns on Nov. 18.
Opponents devote a lot of resources to the task of stopping Parker, throwing double and triple teams at her, but her ability to pass makes them pay a high price. "You have to hope that [guards] Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt aren't hitting, because she will find them," says DeMoss. Some teams try to get physical with Parker, but that doesn't work either. She shoots 70.6% from the line, and hard fouls seem to have the opposite of their intended effect. "I think it just gets her fired up," says Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
Since Parker took up basketball in earnest, in seventh grade, she has pursued success with the passion and exactitude of a scientist. Her mom, Sara, would videotape her games at Naperville Central High in suburban Chicago, and after the games ended, Candace and her dad, Larry, would analyze the footage. Candace also studied tapes of women's NCAA championships. "Her knowledge about the game is amazing," says Summitt.
Parker, who is engaged to former Duke star and current Sacramento Kings player Shelden Williams, announced on Feb. 21 that she would enter this April's WNBA draft, becoming the first woman to give up her final year of eligibility to join the league. (She redshirted her freshman season after undergoing two operations and is due to graduate with a degree in sports management in May.) She'll also represent the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics. In the meantime Summitt intends to make the most of her final weeks with Parker. "Candace and her class came here to win a championship, and they did that," says Summitt. "I'm just hoping they can find one more in there before they leave."