Lady Vols aim to regain regular-season title

Just how tough is the SEC? Though the conference is top heavy this season, all four of the league contenders are easily ranked in the top 25. In fact, Tennessee, LSU and Georgia are ranked among the top five or six teams in the country in most preseason rankings.

A look at how the SEC race might shape up this season:

The favorite

For the second straight season, expectations in Knoxville, Tenn., are extremely high. Last year, the Super Six freshmen were expected to help the Tennessee Lady Vols win their first title since 1998. Instead, two rookies -- including the highly touted Candace Parker -- never stepped on the floor, injuries plagued the team throughout the season and LSU snapped Tennessee's streak of seven straight SEC regular-season titles.

Though no fan of the Orange Nation was happy to see the Lady Vols' season end with them blowing a 16-point lead to lose to Michigan State in the national semifinals, plenty of things were accomplished in 2004-05. Tennessee notched another 30-win season, reached its fourth consecutive Final Four and Pat Summitt became the all-time winningest NCAA coach (she enters her 32nd season with 882 victories).

But perhaps most importantly, the underclassmen who were healthy gained an extraordinary amount of experience. Freshman Alexis Hornbuckle started 21 games to average 8.6 points, which ranked third on the team, while Nicky Anosike -- who's being compared to Tamika Catchings because of her similar work ethic -- started 25 games and ranked sixth in scoring (6.7 ppg) but second in rebounds (6.1 rpg). Both were unanimous selections to the SEC All-Freshman team.

Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood averaged 15.2 minutes and 3.9 points, and Sybil Dosty averaged 7.0 minutes and 2.5 points.

This year's team is as good and certainly as athletic a Tennessee squad as I've seen in a very long time. Despite graduating leading scorer and rebounder Shyra Ely (14.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and point guard and defensive stalwart Loree Moore, the Lady Vols are really solid inside and out.

Parker, who's finally recovered from two knee surgeries she underwent last season, has a lot to do with that. She will play all five positions, and Summitt will look to exploit that versatility to the Lady Vols' advantage.

Shanna Zolman, the top returning scorer who averaged 12.5 points last season, is a tremendous shooter, both from 3-point range (an amazing 50 percent accuracy during SEC play in 2004-05) and at the foul line (she's a 90 percent free-throw shooter).

Summitt already has lauded Zolman and fellow senior Tye'sha Fluker (7.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) for their senior leadership. Fluker, in particular, is key because she needs to help Anosike, Dosty and Alex Fuller, who also redshirted last season, develop a consistent and productive post game.

"Tye now understands that in order for us to be successful from beginning to end, we must have a consistent anchor inside," Summitt said. "We have size, speed and athleticism, but we need to have a player give us that game-in, game-out factor in the paint.

"They have the size, the defensive skills and board presence -- they just have to get it done every game."

Defense will continue to be a Tennessee strength. The Lady Vols ranked fourth in scoring defense, fifth in steals and sixth in field-goal percentage defense last season.

The contenders

Senior Seimone Augustus is a fantastic talent, but the LSU star has a definite challenge ahead of her this season. Adjusting to life without Temeka Johnson -- who was the best point guard in the college game last season before winning WNBA Rookie of the Year honors this past summer -- will be tough. Nevertheless, expect Augustus to continue to raise her game at both ends of the floor and expand her shot to the 3-point line.

Augustus, a very good ball handler, is one of the best at creating her own shot. She creates separation and can go over or around the opponent. Her shot is very difficult to block, she knows how to dribble into the heart of defenses and is extraordinary in getting to the foul line.

Still, Augustus has been a very quiet leader at LSU. The ever-tenacious Johnson shouldered much of that responsibility, and helped LSU lead the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio. That's a stat the Lady Tigers likely won't be able to repeat this season without her.

However, LSU does have one of the country's better 1-2 punches. Sylvia Fowles, the SEC Sixth Player of the Year last season who moves into the starting lineup, averaged 12 points and nine rebounds and got a wealth of experience as a freshman. Now, after a summer playing alongside Augustus on the gold-medal winning USA Basketball World University Games team, this could be a coming out party for Fowles. The 6-foot-6 sophomore is a very dominating force in the middle and combines with Augustus to give LSU a strong inside-outside combination, which undoubtedly makes the Lady Tigers tougher to defend.

LSU suffered several losses in the post and will be very weak on that inside rotation. Tillie Willis, who graduated, and Wendlyn Jones, who is a senior this season but not included on LSU's roster, both started all 36 games last season, combining for 7.8 points and 8.7 rebounds. Reserve Crystal White also graduated.

According to LSU's Brian Miller, an associate sports information director, Jones left the team at the end of last season. It was a mutual decision, he said, between Jones and LSU coach Pokey Chatman.

Other than Fowles, the only other posts returning are 6-1 junior Hanna Biernacka, 6-1 senior Florence Williams and 6-foot sophomore Ashley Thomas. None of the three averaged more than 10 minutes last season; they combined for 6.2 points and 5.4 rebounds. Now, at least one of them -- or 6-2 freshman Kristen Morris from Detroit -- must step up and transition from role player to impact player.

Other than Augustus, Scholanda Hotson is the only other returning starter. She is an excellent defender and was the team's top 3-point shooter last season, nailing 46 treys to average 8.9 points, which ranked fourth on the team.

Sophomore Quianna Chaney -- who came off the bench last season to hit 40 3-pointers -- averaged 4.8 points as a freshman and is expected to provide even more production this season. She is one of seven talented sophomores, although most didn't get a lot of playing time last year.

Other second-year players like Erica White, RaShonta LeBlanc and Khalilah Mitchell, are expected to compete for the starting point guard spot.

Pokey Chatman has done an outstanding job since taking over the team. Last season, LSU went 14-0 in conference play to break Tennessee's streak of seven straight regular-season titles. The Lady Tigers, who have made two Final Four appearances in a row, were the league's best defensive team, holding opponents to 34 percent shooting and just 52 points per game. LSU shot 49 percent from the field and had the SEC's second-best rebounding margin (behind Tennessee), beating conference foes by an average of 19.5 points.

Georgia's roster is loaded. Trouble is, the Lady Bulldogs -- who lost to Duke last season in the Sweet 16 -- already have suffered four losses, all in the frontcourt. First, Rebecca Rowsey suffered a torn ACL in September. Then in October, veteran Ebony Felder retired because of chronic knee pain and Penn State transfer Reicina Russell left the team for undisclosed personal reasons. And just last week, freshman Angel Robinson suffered a torn left ACL.

Neither Felder nor Russell played last season, but Rowsey started all but one game, averaging 4.1 points and 5.0 rebounds. Felder, an All-SEC Freshman Team honoree in 2002, sat out last season due to her knees. Russell was a Freshman All-Big Ten performer in 2003-04 when she led the Lady Lions in rebounding and blocked shots.

Those are significant losses, particularly in the frontcourt. Rowsey's numbers weren't remarkable, but as a back-up post, she came in and did a lot of dirty work that will be missed.

Still, Georgia's post game will continue to revolve around Tasha Humphrey, one of the best centers in the country. One of only two unanimous All-SEC first-team picks last season by SEC coaches and media members (LSU's Augustus was the other one), Humphrey has great footwork, is an incredible rebounder and understands quality shots. She has a beautiful blend of size and ability, can shoot while facing up or get her back to the basket, and run in transition. In the SEC last season, she ranked third in scoring and fifth in rebounds, and averaged 19 points and 8.4 boards per game. She shot 56 percent from the field, knocked down 17 3-pointers on 40 percent accuracy from downtown and hit 78 percent of her free throws.

For as good as Humphrey is, however, Georgia's backcourt is what separates the Lady Dogs from everybody else. Coach Andy Landers has four incredible guards who could start for just about any team in the country. Cori Chambers (13.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 73 3-pointers, 43 assists), Sherill Baker (11.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 93 assists, 84 steals) and Alexis Kendrick (6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 117 assists) were the primary starters. And what's most startling is that junior Janese Hardrick, who didn't start a game last season, could very well be the best player in the backcourt. She averaged 8.2 ppg, dished out 66 assists and nailed 31 3-pointers -- in just 18.7 minutes per game.

Simply put, Georgia's guards are fast. They are great defenders who easily disrupt the opponent. On offense, they can penetrate and knock down 3s.

Landers, who has been to five Final Fours and ranks among the leaders in nearly every category, has a lot of talent, enough to go all the way. Now it's time for his Lady Dogs to pull together as a program and follow through. Georgia must make a stand and show some consistency.

At Vanderbilt, it's going to take a committee to replace Ashley Earley, who led the Commodores in scoring and rebounding last season en route to All-SEC first-team honors.

Abi Ramsey, who also graduated, combined with Earley to account for 38 percent of Vanderbilt's 77 points per game in 2004-05.

Still, the Commodores return plenty of talent -- albeit young -- and welcome a heralded group of freshmen that was ranked as high as seventh among the nation's recruiting classes.

Junior post Carla Thomas -- who like point guard Dee Davis was an All-SEC second-team pick last season -- is the top returning offensive threat. She's extremely versatile -- "She can drop down, hit a 15-17-foot jumper or drive to the basket," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb says -- and often creates matchup problems for opponents. Thomas ranked second on the team last season in both scoring (15.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg), and shot 54 percent from the field and 80 percent at the free-throw line.

Davis dished out 192 assists last season, sank 40 3-pointers and ranked third in scoring (13.3 ppg). She'll likely be joined in the backcourt by Caroline Williams, who started 14 games last season. More importantly, Williams knocked down 48 3-pointers, hitting 51 percent from downtown (48-for-95).

Only one other returner -- junior guard Cherish Stringfield -- started at least one game last season (she started three), but don't panic yet. Liz Sherwood, a 6-foot-4 center who sat out last season after transferring from Connecticut, is expected to team inside with Thomas. She could give Vanderbilt a potent high-low game, and needs to take advantage of the extra space she might get under the basket when Thomas and her solid jump shooting draws the defense away from the hoop. Sherwood, a Big East All-Freshman Team selection in 2004, averaged 4.3 points and 1.8 boards while shooting 58 percent from the field in only 8.5 minutes per game.

Another transfer, 6-3 forward Rachel Brockman, also is a newcomer worth keeping an eye on. She actually started her collegiate career at Vanderbilt before brief stays at Murray State and Daytona Beach CC.

Of Vanderbilt's four freshmen, 6-1 guard/forward Christina Wirth is the most notable, and most likely to break into the starting lineup. She's versatile enough to play the four and can extend out where her height can create some mismatch problems and get her some open looks from beyond the arc. The Arizona native, whose father, Alan Wirth, played baseball for the Oakland Athletics, tallied 2,550 points, 1,173 rebounds, 312 steals, 266 assists and 120 blocks in high school. Wirth also has won two gold medals with USA Basketball, on the U-19 team this past summer and the 2004 Junior World Championship squad.

Balcomb, who's entering her third season at Vanderbilt and has put together an extremely tough nonconference schedule, has led the Commodores to two consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt came on strong late last season, winning 11 of its final 14 games, ending the season with a loss to Michigan State, which went on to reach the NCAA title game.

Vanderbilt will most likely replace Earley's points by committee, but rebounding remains the biggest question. The Commodores ranked seventh in the SEC last season in rebounding -- and that was with Earley. That said, the team is bigger and expected to be stronger than last season.

And as usual, this year's Commodores will get after you defensively and try to push tempo. They're also good at executing in the half court.

Balcomb already has accomplished a lot at Vanderbilt, where she's 72-26 and has won an SEC Tournament title. Now she just needs to learn how to beat Tennessee.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com. Melanie Jackson, who coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage, contributed to this report.