Early Season Highlights
by Tracy Granzyk
With women’s NCAA basketball season officially open for practice as of this week, it’s time to start thinking hoops once again. Even as the ever-elongating baseball season provides for the illusion of summer, the crisp fall air beginning to blanket college campuses nationwide is a telltale indication that basketball season is around the corner. Coming off last season’s record-breaking attendance levels at a number of stadiums across the country, there is great anticipation for the start of this new season among players, coaches and fans alike.
While there are some unanimous favorites among early polls, the 2002-2003 season is still wide open and waiting for a new champion to emerge. With the defending National Champions, Connecticut, graduating 4 of 5 starters to the WNBA, remaining lone wolf and All-American Diana Taurasi will have an augmented leadership role. Taurasi is aptly suited for the responsibility, coming off a stellar season herself as the teams second leading scorer and passer.
And though the Huskies’ roster is void of even one senior for ’02-’03, you can’t underestimate Geno Auriemma’s recruiting skills, or the four freshmen he has picked up from across the country this summer. Remember–Bird, Jones, Cash and Williams were also freshman once. Look for UConn to challenge each opponent. National Championship repeat? A longshot.
Duke has been named an early season favorite in a number of polls. The Lady Blue Devils have tasted a championship one too many times, having lost in the Final Four to the ’01-’02 runner-up Oklahoma and in the Finals to Purdue in 1999. Oddsmakers would say the ladies of Duke are due. Last year’s post season loss still smarts, and this team is all too ready to get back to work. All-American junior guard Alana Beard returns, along with six of her teammates from last year’s 31-4 team. The veterans will have the support of a freshman class that is being touted as tops in the nation. With a tradition for basketball that runs deeper than even some southern roots, look for Duke to come out of the blocks fired up by their multiple number one bids. We’ll find out for sure if Blue Devils really bleed blue, as this team won’t go down without a good fight.
What would a Women’s NCAA preseason poll be without Tennessee? The Lady Volunteers, who seemed to struggle through the second half of last year, managed to pull it together in time to be part of the Final Four. This year, nine players return, including 2001 All-American Kara Lawson, and All-SEC Gwen Jackson. For Tennessee to stay at the top of the pack, they’ll need to work on building a chemistry that seemed to wax and wane throughout last year’s season. The individual pieces are there, but will they come together?
Stanford, who went 32-3 overall and 18-0 in the Pac-10 during the 2001-2002 season, finished with a disappointing Sweet 16 loss to Colorado. This season’s team returns three starters, including Kodak All-American Nicole Powell and eight Cardinals overall. Early season games against Kansas State and Tennessee will set the tone for Stanford and point out what areas they’ll need to focus on throughout conference play. The experience and savvy is here, but does this team have what it takes to press on through to post season play and win?
Kansas State, who returns 4 of 5 starters from a phenomenonal 26-8 season is not only a personal favorite, but has been ranked as high Number three and consistently in the Top 10 by preseason pollsters. K-State is still a young team, and will most likely start 3 sophomores when they take the floor in November. The fab freshmen of ’01-’02 – Laurie Koehn, Megan Mahoney and Kendra Wecker – are one year wiser, one more year accustomed to the nerve-rattling post season crowds and one year closer to furthering their NCAA tournament experience.
The Wildcats now have expectations to live up to and the talent to carry them. They know how to shoot, they know how to run the ball and have the youthful legs to keep the pressure on for all 40 minutes. They will need to develop an on the court leader that can reign in the underclass enthusiasm as needed. Kari Hanson, who watched from the bench while nursing a knee injury for the majority of last season, could fill that role provided she stays healthy. With a schedule that doesn’t provide much of an apparent challenge early on aside from Stanford, the Wildcats will need to create challenges for themselves if they want to become a Final Four caliber team.