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Friday, January 28, 2005
Wildcats' Wecker among POY favorites

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

You know, they call us "experts" here at ESPN.com. I don't like that, but I'm not sure what they could say instead. How about "person who watches basketball all the time and isn't exactly doing a lot else with her life?"

That would take up more space and not necessarily seem very alluring ... although I'm not sure that "expert" does much more than set you up like a clown figure in the amusement-park games section, to be knocked over by anyone with a decent arm and a strong will to carry around a stuffed giraffe for a few hours.

So would "rabid aficionado" work better?

Anyway, people do ask for opinions on various stuff, and that's what this mailbag is for. Sometimes, I'll get a topic that is kind of "in my wheelhouse," so to speak. This week, we'll start with one of those.

Does Kansas State's Kendra Wecker have a shot at being national player of the year?

Kendra Wecker
K-State's Kendra Wecker is averaging 20.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 steals this season.
She should get as much consideration as anybody. This year is very different from the last two seasons, when UConn's Diana Taurasi and Duke's Alana Beard really were the only two, ultimately, in the hunt for POY.

This season, LSU's Seimone Augustus has been considered the frontrunner. Augustus is averaging 20.2 points per game. However, her averages in rebounding and assists are 4.5 and 1.9, respectively. She has made one 3-pointer this year. Now, is all that just indicative of the role she is asked to play and the talent around her? Or does the rest of Augustus' game have some catching up to do with her great scoring ability mid-range and in? Those are questions voters need to contemplate.

Clearly, Augustus has a load of talent and is playing for the No. 1 team. But there are several other worthy candidates. How their teams fare, obviously, will have a lot to do with who wins the various POY awards.

At this moment, my top three players -- and I'm not putting them in exact order just yet -- are Minnesota's Janel McCarville, TCU's Sandora Irvin and Wecker.

McCarville is the most complete big woman in college, and one of the most complete players at any position: 16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.4 spg, 2.4 bpg. Everyone saw what she did in the NCAA Tournament last year -- maybe the best rebounding anyone has ever displayed during the postseason in the women's game. She's making an extremely strong case for POY this season and might be the WNBA's top draft pick.

Irvin has been very productive, although she is not the passer that McCarville is. But Irvin has improved elements of her game each year, and her WNBA potential is enormous.

And I'll make the case for Wecker being -- pound for pound as the old boxing analogy goes -- perhaps the most versatile player overall. She, too, is going to be an outstanding pro player.

There are certainly other very good POY candidates, among them Duke's Monique Currie, Baylor's Sophia Young, Notre Dame's Jacqueline Batteast, Mississippi State's Tan White, DePaul's Khara Smith, Ohio State's Jessica Davenport and Texas' Tiffany Jackson.

And that's not even getting into a really impressive freshman class, the top representatives of which will be battling for POY soon enough.

But let me return to Wecker, because I believe she has been overlooked the last two years nationally when the spotlight went to her teammate, Nicole Ohlde. Wecker is now the leader at Kansas State, and her team is 17-4 and tied atop the Big 12 at 8-2. The 5-foot-11 Wecker is averaging 20.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.0 steals this season.

Wecker can defend posts or guards, can pull down rebounds against bigger players, can start and finish the break. She can create her own shot, and with her javelin-champion arm, can throw some of sharpest passes you'll see. She's not only been one of the best rebounders in Big 12 history, but she also has made 141 career 3-pointers.

Wecker is on pace to pass Ohlde and become not just K-State's but the Big 12's all-time leading scorer. She's at 2,087 and needs 155 more points for that. And Wecker is just 29 rebounds away from topping Ohlde's school record of 995.

Wecker has 45 career double-doubles, second in Big 12 history to former Iowa State center Angie Welle (54). And it should be noted that Wecker did miss three games and the equivalent of a fourth (played just 4 minutes) in December because of an ankle sprain.

Also, Wecker's career averages in all 117 games -- 17.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 steals -- are almost identical to those from the 33 games she has played against ranked opponents: 17.8, 8.2, 2.4 and 1.8.

I've never before advocated a Big 12 player for national player of the year, based on realistically assessing the competition. But this season, Wecker deserves a good look. Several kids do, and it's not going to be an easy choice.

Who are the top assistants you think will be filling potential women's basketball coaching jobs next year?

Great question, and one to throw out to ESPN.com readers. Last year, I wrote about how difficult it really is to "judge" coaching, because there are so many elements to it. And unless you're inside the locker room and the huddle, you have a hard time knowing what a coach's true strengths and potential weaknesses are. That's even more the case, I think, with assistants.

But observant fans/media might have pretty good insight into what assistant coaches bring to the programs they follow. If you have some ideas, pass them along and I'll relay them in the next mailbag.

There are a couple of other elements to this, too. Clearly, there are outstanding longtime assistants at top programs -- such as UConn, for an obvious one -- who almost certainly would be sought-after candidates for head-coaching jobs, but appear to have no intention of leaving where they are.

Sometimes, though, even those folks do decide to make a move. Related to that is the fact that it takes some assistants several years to either realize they want to be head coaches and/or be ready to make a bold move in that direction.

Could you name a few teams from mid-major or non-power conferences that have a chance at pulling off a first- or second-round NCAA upset?

This question comes from Jeremy, an Eastern Michigan fan, so I want to give a little pub first to his conference, the Mid-American. At this writing, Marshall, at 7-2, is leading the MAC East and Bowling Green, at 8-2, leads the West. Jeremy's EMU Eagles are second in the West at 6-3.

Eastern Michigan won the MAC tournament last year, got the NCAA automatic bid and almost grounded Boston College's Eagles in the first round. No. 3 seed BC edged No. 14 EMU 58-56.

Middle Tennessee of the Sun Belt did pull off an upset last year, beating No. 4 seed North Carolina. So did Chattanooga of the Southern Conference -- admittedly on its home floor -- as it knocked off No. 7 seed (and injury-depleted) Rutgers. And Valparaiso of the Mid-Continent gave Kansas State a tough battle in the first round before falling by eight.

So mid-major and non-power leagues can definitely make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. However, it's really hard to predict potential upset teams until you see the bracket. Because, often, teams from those leagues are given next-to-impossible tasks.

Ask perennial Big South champion Liberty about that -- that program for the last seven years has been "sacrificed" as a No. 13, 14, 15 or 16 seed to one of the best SEC schools. Liberty has had to play Georgia three times, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU and Tennessee in that span. And prior to that gauntlet, in 1997, Liberty opened and closed NCAA play with No. 1 Old Dominion.

The new-this-season setup of eight teams at eight sites for the early rounds still doesn't mean all "neutral sites" -- but it increases the potential chances for mid-major/non-power conference teams to meet a higher seed in a neutral setting.

As for "hot" mid-major teams now, there's the Horizon League's leader, Wisconsin-Green Bay, which entered the coaches and media polls this week. The only losses this season for the Phoenix were back to back in December; by nine points to Minnesota and by three at Wisconsin.

No team wants to face Wisconsin-Green Bay in the NCAA first or second round, you can be sure.

Now ... does the Atlantic 10 get peeved if it's called a "non-power" conference? No offense intended. But East leader Temple and West leader Richmond are both high-potential postseason teams. And don't count out Xavier and George Washington.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.com.