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FOR THOSE who have already crowned Maryland as repeat national champion, we offer a short history lesson: In 1998--99 Tennessee, coming off a 39--0 season, was expected to waltz to an unprecedented fourth consecutive title behind seniors Chamique Holdsclaw and Kellie Jolly. "I remember seeing Holdsclaw standing in the middle of the floor on the first day of practice," recalls Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. "She had the ball against her hip and was staring at the basket. I came up to her from behind and said, 'Chamique, what are you thinking about?' She goes, 'That I can't wait till March.' I thought, Oh, no. So I said, 'Chamique, we have a lot of basketball to play between now and March.'"
That month proved unkind, as top-seeded Tennessee was shocked by No. 3 Duke in the finals of the NCAA East Regional. So although MARYLAND rightfully heads into the season as a solid favorite--the Terps welcome back 98% of their scoring and 95% of their rebounding from a team that won a school-record 34 games--"nobody is letting our heads get too big," says junior forward Crystal Langhorne, who led the ACC in double doubles (15) for the second straight year. Shooting guard Shay Doron is the team's only senior, so Maryland's best team may still be a year away.
Last season NORTH CAROLINA's goal was 100 possessions every game. This year the target is 115. "You think you can run with us?" says senior point guard Ivory Latta, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. "O.K., then we're gonna run all night." The Tar Heels attempt to sprint to their first title since '94 with essentially the same team as last season. Eleven players are back, including starters Latta (18.4 points per game in '05--06), junior forward Erlana Larkins (13.8) and senior forward Camille Little (11.7). The big question is, Can they solve Maryland? North Carolina was 32--0 against the rest of the nation last year but 1--2 against the Terps.
Asked to grade her performance in 2005--06 (among other achievements, she became the first player in NCAA history to have 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in a season), OKLAHOMA sophomore center Courtney Paris gives herself only a B-plus. "There are so many little things--free throws, boxing out--that I didn't do," she says. "But they'll come around as I mature as a player." Paris averaged 21.9 points and 15.0 rebounds and is one of five starters back from a Sweet 16 team that adds one of the nation's best recruiting classes (headlined by forward Amanda Thompson).
There is a running joke in the STANFORD basketball office that junior guard Candice Wiggins walks on water. "I try really hard to be critical of her, but this is someone incredibly special," says coach Tara VanDerveer. "I just enjoy every single day I am her coach." With good reason. Wiggins led Stanford last season with 21.8 points per game and scored 30 or more five times. She'll get scoring help from senior center Brooke Smith, who had 35 points in an 88--74 Sweet 16 victory over Oklahoma last March.
The Lady Vols' Summitt is sleeping much better this fall. Why? "Because we have two true point guards," she says. Last year TENNESSEE was forced to play point-guard-by-committee because of injuries and the departure of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (who transferred to Maryland) but now the offense is in the hands of junior transfer Shannon Bobbitt, whom Summitt calls the "quickest player with the basketball" she has ever coached. The best news? Sophomore forward Candace Parker, who spent the summer with the U.S. team at the world championships, will be at the other end of passes from Bobbitt (and from talented backup point guard Cait McMahan). "Candace came back much more mature about her approach to the game," says Summitt. "If you put her in the paint, I don't know who is going to stop her."
For the first time since 1995, CONNECTICUT does not have a player with Final Four experience. Nor does the Huskies' roster feature a preseason All-America--or even a senior. So why is coach Geno Auriemma smiling? "It's a whole different dynamic for us, and actually kind of exciting," he says. Auriemma's enthusiasm stems in part from 6'4" freshman Tina Charles, the nation's top recruit, whom Auriemma calls a "little bigger Swin Cash." Sophomore point guard Renee Montgomery and junior shooting guard Mel Thomas form a solid backcourt, and Auriemma says his most enigmatic player, the talented but inconsistent junior forward Charde Houston, has improved her conditioning. "If you asked me to pick the Final Four," says Auriemma, "I would say Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma and us."
DUKE coach Gail Goestenkors has seen the tape of last year's national championship game overtime loss to Maryland only once. "I got a bottle of wine, sat by myself and watched it the night I got home from the Final Four," she says. "It was medicine that didn't taste good, but it was necessary." Also hard to swallow was the loss of All-America guard Monique Currie, but there's still optimism in Durham. Duke has seven players back, including three starters (sophomore point guard Lindsey Harding, senior center Alison Bales and junior forward Chante Black) and a terrific sophomore guard in Abby Waner.
Not much bothers easygoing OHIO STATE star center Jessica Davenport, but she admits she was a little spooked when she was honored as the school's Athlete of the Year during the Ohio State-- Indiana football game at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 21. "It was nerve-racking to have 100,000 people focused on me," says Davenport, a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year who averaged 18.7 points a game last season. The Buckeyes also have talent in the backcourt in senior point guard Brandie Hoskins (12.3 points) and junior shooting guard Marscilla Packer (79 three-pointers), both third-team All-- Big Ten selections.
PURDUE coach Sharon Versyp officially accepted her job last April while on a 40th-birthday cruise in the Caribbean. When she returned to land, she inherited one of the grittiest teams in the country. No one personifies the Boilermakers' toughness more than senior swingman Katie Gearlds, who at 6'1" can play four positions and will see plenty of action at the point. "Katie can take over the game," says Versyp. "We need for that to be consistent every game." Senior forward Erin Lawless (10.3 points per game last season) and junior forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton (10.2) must stay injury-free on a team that lacks depth.