For two weeks in early fall, as the leader of a USA Basketball tour that originated in Naples, passed through Prague and took a day trip to the tiny Italian village of Montella for his uncle Antonio's homemade provolone, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma had a close-up view of college basketball's biggest phenomenon: Baylor's 6'8" junior center, Brittney Griner. It was Griner's first international competition, and Auriemma found himself mesmerized by her burgeoning talent. "What did the statue of David look like before it became the statue of David? It looked like a giant piece of marble," Auriemma says. "Right now there's just a couple of little cutouts here and there with Brittney. But the finished product down the road is going to be so unbelievable, you cannot even imagine it."
The current product is the centerpiece of SI's preseason No. 1 team. The Bears have 88.5% of their scoring back from last year's 34--3 squad, including Griner (23.0 points, along with 7.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks, second best in the nation), sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims (13.1 points), junior forward Destiny Williams (8.7) and junior guard Jordan Madden (8.3). Departing guard Melissa Jones will be missed, but this is a loaded squad that relishes the lofty expectations. "A national championship is a realistic goal," says coach Kim Mulkey, "and I don't say that every year."
2 NOTRE DAME
It happens at every practice and every workout: A player will shout, "15:52," reminding her teammates how much time remained in last year's national title game when the Irish held a seven-point lead over Texas A&M. Notre Dame's advantage began to evaporate after that, and the Aggies won 76--70. "It's the driving force for this entire year," says senior guard Natalie Novosel, who led the team in scoring with 15.1 points per game. Notre Dame has experience: three senior starters (Novosel, forward Devereaux Peters and guard Brittany Mallory) return, as well as junior point guard Skylar Diggins (15.0 points) and seven reserves. Depth at the post is a concern, which makes it paramount for the athletic Peters to not get into foul trouble.
Time for 9. That's the slogan the Lady Vols have adopted this season, reflecting their goal to win a ninth title for 59-year-old coach Pat Summitt, who announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Though Tennessee's assistant coaches are more involved in practice, sophomore guard Meighan Simmons (the top returning scorer, with 13.5 points per game last season) notes that her famed coach's eye is as sharp and critical as ever. "Pat Summitt is going to be Pat Summitt," Simmons says. "She is going to yell if she doesn't like something." Four starters are back, including the SEC preseason player of the year, 6'2" guard-forward Shekinna Stricklen, but the biggest impact could come from 5'6" freshman Ariel Massengale. After winning three straight state titles at Bolingbrook (Ill.) High, she gives the Lady Vols something they have not had in years: a championship-caliber point guard.
How different are things in Storrs without three-time national player of the year Maya Moore? "Well, there are a lot more shot-clock violations in practice," says coach Geno Auriemma. Five of UConn's top eight players are underclassmen, including sophomore guard Bria Hartley and 6'5" sophomore center Stefanie Dolson, both preseason Wooden Award candidates. Senior guard Tiffany Hayes must be more consistent: She averaged 13.7 points and 2.4 turnovers and ranged from All-America to All-Frustrating. The x factor is how quickly junior point guard Caroline Doty returns to form after tearing her left ACL in August 2010 for the third time in four years.