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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Welcome to our yearly struggle

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Welcome to our annual headache at ESPN.com: Picking the top five players at each position. Here's the complicated, scientific process we use: It's kind of a free-for-all.

Jessica Breland
Jessica Breland, who is battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, intially was unamiously voted ESPN.com's top power forward.

Graham Hays, Charlie Creme and I submit our ballots to our editor, Melanie Jackson, who has her own ballot. Then Melanie pulls her hair out for a few days as we all go back and forth via e-mail trying to reach consensus and making sure we have the right people in the right places.

Which always poses difficulties because it requires -- for the purpose of the exercise -- that players be put in boxes. Although we know they don't actually play only in the parameters of such boxes.

So before you say, "Hey, Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen plays a lot of point guard!" when you see the lists … yes, we know.

The thing is, she also plays at wing, where we have listed her. She'll play both, and even Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt isn't sure how much of each. It will depend on the combination of players on the court with Stricklen, the opponent and various game situations.

For that matter, Summitt has told Stricklen to remember she doesn't necessarily have to think of herself as a point guard to play point guard.

"I tried to explain that to her, because last year she didn't want anything to do with the point but she had to run it some anyway," Summitt said. "And I just told her again the other day, 'Have you realized that if you are the point guard, you bring the ball up and then make a pass, and now you're just a player?'

"I said, 'You don't need to act like the decision-maker for everybody on every possession. All you have to do is push the ball and get us in an offense.' And she said, 'Yeah, Coach, I got it now.'"

Diana Taurasi was famously such an example at UConn: the wing player who could -- and often did -- take the point role in bringing the ball up the court and setting things in motion. She was also big and strong enough to mix it up inside. She was the ultimate out-of-the-box player.

There is also the fact that some programs don't even refer to there being much difference between center and power forward in their systems. They call all these players posts. Even those programs that do differentiate have players who rotate between the spots based on personnel.

Then you have the big players who can play "down." Stanford's 6-foot-4 Kayla Pedersen could be anywhere from power forward to wing (where we're listing her this year) to even shooting guard if coach Tara VanDerveer wants to go with a really big lineup.

And you have smaller players who can play "up." Middle Tennessee State's 5-10 Alysha Clark, whom we picked as a wing player because -- as with Pedersen -- we're really not sure how to define her, is both strong on the low block and can face up.

(Maybe it's something about central Tennessee? Remember last season that Vanderbilt used 5-9 Jennifer Risper at center? Injuries forced the Commodores into that, but still … the team got to the Sweet 16 -- and nearly the Elite Eight -- with a 5-9 center in the year 2009. Talk about out of the box.)

It turned out that the top-five list we had the most trouble finalizing was for power forward, in part because a player who was a unanimous pick for that spot is North Carolina senior Jessica Breland.

She has been battling Hodgkin's lymphoma and recently completed five months of chemotherapy. North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell is being understandably cautious in regard to Breland's status, about which there probably will be more information this week. But for now, it appears more likely Breland will redshirt.

With that uncertainty, we'll instead make Breland No. 1 on our top-five "wish" list: That she is very soon free and clear of cancer and feeling great. (No. 2 is nobody else gets diagnosed with cancer; No. 3 is no ACL injuries; No. 4 is no Achilles tendon ruptures; No. 5 is no high ankle sprains. Hey, we can dream.)

We've had years in the past where we struggled to come up with strong candidates for best centers -- but this is definitely not one of those years. However, in general …

Well, this is a little hard to phrase the right way, but here goes: There isn't a long list of "great" players out there. At least not players who have proved themselves as such. Senior losses from the past two seasons have left the "superstar" quotient lacking.

And while we're all bursting to watch freshmen such as Baylor's Brittney Griner, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and -- at long last -- Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, we can't include them yet in things such as top-five-at-each-position lists. Because none of them has actually played a college game.

I'll have no problem -- and neither will anyone else, I suspect -- voting for freshmen for the real awards/honors at the end of the season after they've had the chance to compete at this level.

But while we're making preseason projections, we're still waiting for what they have to show us. And, frankly, we are also looking to see what performances come from a lot of older players who are now in bigger roles because of departing seniors and/or just their own maturation process.

And we'll be very happy to acknowledge through the course of the season the emerging stars that we might not be seeing as clearly now.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.