tampabay.com

Women's outlook

By GREG AUMAN
Published November 13, 2005


5 FAVORITES FOR BOSTON

1. DUKE: The Blue Devils, 31-5 last season, have all five starters back, led by senior forward Monique Currie, who will battle LSU's Seimone Augustus for national player-of-the-year honors. 2. TENNESSEE: LSU actually got more first-place votes in the preseason SEC media poll, but the Vols edged the Tigers as favorites to win their 14th league crown. Watch out for junior Dominique Redding of Clearwater.

3. BAYLOR: The defending national champs return only one double-digit scorer in senior forward Sophia Young (18.4 points, 9.3 rebounds per game) and have no players taller than 6 feet 1. But a new wave of talent is coming.

4. LSU: After a 33-3 debut, Pokey Chatman's second season could be even better, with senior guard Seimone Augustus leading the way. 5. RUTGERS: Picked to win the Big East ahead of Connecticut, the Knights have a great combination of experience - fifth-year senior Cappie Pondexter - and youth, in sophomore shooter Matee Avajon and 6-4 freshman C Kia Vaughn.

5 CINDERELLAS

1. MARYLAND: Lost in the ACC shadows of Duke and Carolina, they're picked to finish third again, but return nine letterwinners and add a top-five recruiting class. C Crystal Langhorne was ACC Rookie of the Year last season, and with this much young talent, the Terps will make a Final Four in the next two years.

2. SOUTHERN CAL: The Pac-10 is on the rise, and while Stanford is favored, the Women of Troy have 10 returning players from last year's squad, USC's first to make the NCAA field in seven years. 3. GEORGIA: A top-10 team lurking third in the SEC, the Bulldogs have a future star in sophomore Tasha Humphrey, a 6-3 forward who averaged 19.0 points and 8.4 rebounds. 4. OKLAHOMA: Those twin towers in freshmen Courtney and Ashley Paris will be a national phenomenon, and the Sooners return a post presence in forward Leah Rush, their leading scorer last season. 5. NEW MEXICO: Lost in the first round last year, but they're tough at home - 16-1 last season, averaging more than 10,000 fans. They have a ton back, led by sophomore forward Dionne Marsh.

5 SUPER SENIORS

1. SEIMONE AUGUSTUS, F, LSU: Won the Naismith Trophy as a junior, averaging 20.1 points in leading LSU to its second straight Final Four. Said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson last season: "I go back to the Cheryl Miller days, the Cynthia Cooper days. She is that kind of player." 2. MONIQUE CURRIE, G/F, DUKE: Averaged 17.5 points and 7.1 rebounds as a junior and will lead the preseason No. 1 Blue Devils as the best of five returning starters.

3. CAPPIE PONDEXTER, G, RUTGERS: The tattoo on her right biceps reads "WNBA" and "The Future," and the 5-9 star could be the top pick in next year's draft after a long look at leaving early last season.

4. SOPHIA YOUNG, F, BAYLOR: She'll have a new cast around her, but if she starts where she left off - 26 points in the NCAA final against Michigan State for Most Outstanding Player honors - the Bears will be a force again as they try to repeat.

5. ANN STROTHER, G/F, CONNECTICUT: The Huskies' leading scorer and top perimeter threat last season, she was the only unanimous pick by league coaches to the preseason All-Big East team.

5 NEWCOMERS TO WATCH

1. CANDACE PARKER, F, TENNESSEE: A two-time USA Today National Player of the Year, the 6-3 player sat out last season after knee surgery. Her Napierville, Ill., high school team went 95-4 in her four years, winning two state titles, and she was touted enough that she committed to Tennessee live on ESPN News.

2. ABBY WANER, G, DUKE: Named by Gatorade and McDonald's as the nation's top high school player last year, the 5-10 guard averaged 32.5 points, 5.7 steals and 6.9 assists as a senior in Colorado. 3. ASHLEY AND COURTNEY PARIS, Fs, OKLAHOMA: The twin post players made a quick impression in their exhibition opener, with Courtney getting 25 points and 20 rebounds and Ashley scoring 20 with 23 boards. Courtney's an inch taller, while Ashley has a little more range.

4. KIA VAUGHN, C, RUTGERS: From the Bronx, the 6-4 player had gaudy numbers last season - 26 points and 20 rebounds per game - and should be the post presence needed to balance the Knights' outstanding backcourt.

5. RENEE MONTGOMERY, G, CONNECTICUT: Only 5-7, but she'll be starting at point guard for the Huskies, so we'll keep an eye out. Won three state championships in West Virginia, and she can shoot, too: her first three came 38 seconds into the season, part of an 11-point debut.

5 COACHES UNDER PRESSURE

1. CAROLYN PECK, FLORIDA: She's 42-45 in three seasons, and losing in the NIT's opening round isn't what she was brought to Gainesville to do. Her fate could rest, one way or another, in a talented crop of six freshmen.

2. CYNTHIA COOPER, PRAIRIE VIEW A&M: One of the game's most popular players, the two-time WNBA MVP will have to show she can recruit talent to a program picked to finish last in the SWAC this season.

3. MaCHELLE JOSEPH, GEORGIA TECH: She's finished exactly one game under .500 in each of her two seasons, with a 9-21 record in ACC play. Last season ended with seven straight losses, so she'd do well to crack the postseason and show progress this time around.

4. NELL FORTNER, AUBURN: Expectations were low in her first season with the Tigers, so a 16-13 record was well-received, but with a new recruiting class under her belt, fans will ask for more in Auburn. 5. CHRIS LONG, LOUISIANA TECH: With Kurt Budke at Oklahoma State, he has a tough act to follow, with the Techsters going 167-29 in his six seasons as an assistant.

5 MUST-SEE GAMES

1. BAYLOR VS. GEORGIA, AT TEXAS TECH, NOV. 13: The defending champs open against a tough SEC power in the Tip-Off Classic, which also features LSU - fresh from two straight Final Fours - taking on the host Red Raiders.

2. TEXAS AT TENNESSEE, DEC. 1: The Vols' Pat Summitt and the Longhorns' Jody Conradt combine for 1,751 career victories, with Conradt 13 behind Summitt for the all-time high in men's and women's basketball.

3. TENNESSEE AT DUKE, JAN. 26: An ESPN2 game in the middle of a thick conference slate for both teams. The Devils won 59-57 last season in Knoxville, so Summitt will want to return the favor in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

4. CONNECTICUT AT DEPAUL, JAN. 28: DePaul is the most challenging of the new Big East teams from Conference USA, and this road game will be one of the Huskies' toughest tests. 5. DUKE AT NORTH CAROLINA, FEB. 25: The Tar Heels swept all three meetings with the Blue Devils last season, the last the ACC tournament final.