How might the ACC and SEC league races shape up? Who are the players to watch in the Big Ten and Big 12? Will Stanford still rule the Pac-10? Can anyone challenge Connecticut for the top spot in the Big East? Here's a preview of each conference race:
The ACC has been a three-team race for a few seasons now and is as top-heavy as a beefsteak tomato on a toothpick. While Maryland and North Carolina remain the class of the league, Duke is lurking close behind and Virginia is adding more balance to the mix.
Virginia's strength is the talent of veterans Monica Wright (17.6 ppg) and Lyndra Littles (16.8 ppg). Wright is the team's top scorer and best defender and one of the most dynamic guards in the country. Both get help in the middle from Aisha Mohammed, who should have more room to roam in league play with the likes of Crystal Langhorne (Maryland) and Erlana Larkins (North Carolina) now out of the league.
In most conferences, the Wright-Littles combo would easily be the best. But in the ACC, both Maryland and North Carolina have a pair of potential All-Americans as well.
It only seems like Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman have been in College Park the entire Bush administration. Few players who don't have Tennessee or Connecticut on their jerseys have been as front and center in so many big games and have won as much. If the two seniors play at their expected level and get help in the post from highly regarded freshman center Lynetta Kizer, coach Brenda Frese (who gave birth to twin boys earlier this year) has a chance to match her number of children with championship rings.
North Carolina's tandem of Rashanda McCants and Cetera DeGraffenreid isn't as decorated as its Maryland counterpart, but these Tar Heels could be primed for a better season. DeGraffenreid is the kind of lightning-quick point guard who gives Toliver problems. The 6-foot-1 McCants is athletic and offensively diverse, a tough matchup even for Coleman, who is usually the one causing matchup nightmares.
Duke has its own star duo, the inside-out power of Chante Black and Abby Waner. The 6-foot-5 Black is rock-solid and anchors a good collection of baseline talent -- including 6-2 Carrem Gay, 6-1 Joy Cheek and 6-4 Krystal Thomas -- that gives second-year coach Joanne P. McCallie some options. However, the key is Waner. In fact, the single most important part of the ACC season might be Waner's jump shot. She seemed to lose it last season; her 3-point accuracy dipped to 26 percent. Duke will win games one way or the other (the Blue Devils were still 25-10 and made the Sweet 16 in '08), but the level of success will ride on whether the senior regains her stroke. If she does, Duke could threaten for a conference title and a No. 1 seed. If she doesn't, a season similar to 2007-08 is more likely.
Player of the Year: Kristi Toliver, Maryland
Additional players to watch: Quick, who led the ACC in scoring a year ago? The not-so-obvious answer is Virginia Tech's
Brittany Cook, who will need a little more help if the Hokies are to get back to the postseason. After a fantastic freshman season, Boston College's Stefanie Murphy will be the leader of the emerging Eagles as they transition from Cathy Inglese to new coach Sylvia Crawley. Florida State's Mara Freshour is one of the country's most accurate 3-point shooters, and she's part of an experienced Seminoles squad that might register an upset or two. The athletic, long and versatile
Alex Montgomery of Georgia Tech should become the face of the program in just her second season.
Of the six major conferences, this is by far the easiest call. The Huskies were virtually unstoppable in the Big East last season and should be even better in 2009. The Huskies have a chance to have three first-team All-Americans: Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery. That's John Wooden-UCLA Bruins kind of stuff. Depth could possibly be the only chink in the armor. That became a small factor last season when some injuries occurred, but assuming no major health issues arise, the discussion won't be about a Big East championship or a No. 1 seed -- it will be whether UConn can produce an unbeaten regular season.
The more interesting race should be for second place. Louisville and Rutgers are both very good but they just aren't Connecticut-good.
The Scarlet Knights are talented and perhaps deeper than they have been in recent seasons. Much of that talent is in a freshmen class that includes four players -- Jasmine Dixon, Chelsey Lee, Brooklyn Pope and April Sykes -- who played in the WBCA High School All-America game. C. Vivian Stringer can sprinkle that collection around the corps of Epiphanny Prince, Kia Vaughn, Heather Zurich and Myia McCurdy, making it easier to deal with the loss of mainstays Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson.
Expect an adjustment period, though Prince's leadership and scoring could shorten the transition. Stringer's defensive system isn't the easiest to learn, and the November/December schedule (at Cal, at Stanford, Georgia, George Washington) is brutal. This club has No. 1 seed potential, but might not look like it until about midway through league play.
That means the schedule might favor the Cardinals. Their lone regular-season meeting with Rutgers is fairly early (Jan. 11). The Cardinals will also have the distinct advantage of always having the best player on the floor (except in their one meeting with UConn). If Moore didn't exist, Angel McCoughtry would likely join Oklahoma's Courtney Paris as the national player of the year favorites.
Taking care of a manageable nonconference slate and finishing second in the Big East could mean at least a No. 2 seed for the Cardinals. Plus, Candyce Bingham is the Robin to McCoughtry's Batman, just the kind of second option to keep defenses from cheating on the Cardinals star.
It's also worth keeping a close eye on Pittsburgh and Syracuse, two programs that have made great strides in the past couple of years and now have some expectations.
Player of the Year: Maya Moore, Connecticut. She never seems to waste movement and can dominate without anyone knowing.
Additional players to watch:
Shavonte Zellous of Pittsburgh is a smooth scorer with the experience of being the main option for two seasons. She has even more responsibility now that Marcedes Walker and Mallorie Winn have graduated. Marquette's
Krystal Ellis makes the Golden Eagles go and go and go.
Chandrea Jones of Syracuse emerged last year with great enthusiasm and balance; every team needs an anchor, and this senior guard is it.
Favorite: Ohio State.
Perhaps now that 2007-08 is over, the Big Ten can get back to being the Big Ten. No major conference in the past few years has been more closely identified with mediocrity than last season's version of the Big Ten. And to be honest, the reputation was well-earned. Ohio State earned the conference's top NCAA tournament seed at No. 6, and only Purdue, which qualified solely based on its run to the Big Ten tournament title, picked up an NCAA tournament victory.
The situation, however, should improve a bit in 2009.
Ohio State and Purdue should battle for the conference crown. Buckeyes sophomore Jantel Lavender is the conference's most talented player and should dominate even more than she did during a rookie campaign in which she led the Big Ten in rebounding, finished third in scoring and became the first freshman to win league player of the year honors. The rest of the rotation is largely intact, led by Star Allen and Ashlee Trebilcock on the wings.
The nightmarish injury problems of a year ago for Purdue might turn into a blessing this season. While Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Jodi Howell were out with injuries, Danielle Campbell and Lakisha Freeman established themselves inside. The 6-4 Campbell anchored a defense that ultimately carried the Boilermakers to their end-of-the-year success. Wisdom-Hylton averaged 14.8 points and was the Big Ten defensive player of the year in 2006-07. FahKara Malone is probably the player most responsible for keeping Purdue alive last season, and the junior returns to anchor the backcourt. The Buckeyes and Boilers meet Jan. 25 in West Lafayette and Feb. 5 in Columbus.
Michigan State also gets a big boost with the return of sophomore Aisha Jefferson, who also missed last season with an ACL tear. She was a double-figure scorer in 2006-07, something only Allyssa DeHaan (14.4 ppg) and Kalisha Keane (12.4 ppg) managed last season.
The 6-9 DeHaan is also primed to become the Big Ten's all-time leading shot-blocker, but a bit more dominance on the offensive end, notwithstanding the solid numbers, would go a long way toward helping the Spartans challenge Ohio State and Purdue.
The senior trio of Kristi Smith, Wendy Ausdemore and Megan Skouby put Iowa in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth, if not quite enough for a run at the Big Ten title. With one more outstanding season, Smith will go down as one of the best players in Iowa history.
The kinds of seasons (specifically, if they qualify for the NCAA tournament) that Iowa and Minnesota have will ultimately determine if last season was just a minor dip for the Big Ten or a trend.
Player of the Year: Jantel Lavender, Ohio State.
Additional players to watch: Minnesota's Emily Fox does plenty of everything and has been the face of the program like no other since Lindsay Whalen. It's hard to imagine Fox being even better, but she might need to be for the Gophers to improve on last season's first-round NCAA tournament exit. The recent struggles of the Fighting Illini have diminished Jenna Smith's profile, but with apologies to Wisconsin's Jolene Anderson, the junior might have been the league's second-best player. Michigan is a rising program under Kevin Borseth. Jessica Minnfield, a high-energy senior point guard, is the key to reaching the next step.
Yes, we're calling the Sooners the favorite to win the Big 12, but by a margin slimmer than Michael Phelps' in winning the 100-meter butterfly in Beijing. The Big East has one -- maybe two -- conference championship threats. The Pac-10 has two contenders. Same for the Big Ten and SEC. The ACC goes a little deeper with three or four. But the Big 12 One could argue that six or seven schools have a shot at the title.
Last season provided plenty of proof. Kansas State was picked to finish eighth by the coaches in the preseason, but the Wildcats went 13-3 and have a new banner to hang in Bramlage Coliseum.
So for the Sooners to deliver on this label of "favorite," it comes down to answering the same question. Will the guard play be good enough? The Paris twins will deliver. Courtney might be the nation's best player. She's impossible to stop within 5 feet of the basket and will likely be the top pick in next spring's WNBA draft. Ashley has grown into an all-conference-caliber player, making the sisters a true one-two punch for the first time. How Oklahoma finishes in March (or maybe April) will depend largely on Danielle Robinson, the Big 12 freshman of the year last season, and how well she runs the point. Plenty of eyes will also be on Whitney Hand, the preseason pick for the league's top rookie after she capped her prep career as the second leading scorer in Texas high school history. Hand's talents as a deep shooter could open up the offense in a way the Sooners couldn't last season.
Oklahoma's biggest problem might be that the Big 12's other top teams can brag that their backcourts are their strengths. Baylor has Jhasmin Player back from an ACL tear. Not only is she well-liked and well-respected, but she can also do a little of everything and will be the ideal leader next to sophomore Kelli Griffin or whichever Lady Bear settles into the point guard spot to replace Angela Tisdale.
Texas has a seasoned point guard in Carla Cortijo to go along with Brittainey Raven, who could be ready to explode as a junior and live up to those expectations as a top-10 recruit three years ago.
Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley will be Courtney Paris' biggest challenger for conference player of the year honors. She is a first-team All-American and can be credited with turning the Cowgirls into a competitive program.
Texas A&M will win games simply because seniors Takia Starks and Danielle Gant are more athletic, aggressive and physical than anyone else on the court. If newcomers Tanisha Smith (a juco transfer via Arkansas), Tyra White and Adaora Elonu blend into Gary Blair's system easily, the Aggies will be a big threat for the top spot.
Kansas State's Shalee Lehning is a triple-double threat and the heart and soul of the Wildcats, who are the defending Big 12 regular-season champs. Replacing the scoring that Kimberly Dietz provided last season before a late-season knee injury will be the biggest challenge, but senior Marlies Gipson on the inside is certainly capable. Kansas State also gets the huge scheduling advantage that is sure to get discussed more and more as it relates to the competitiveness of the conference and for NCAA tournament selections: Positioned in the Big 12 North, the Wildcats only have to play South counterparts Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor once, while that collection of heavyweights will meet one other twice each. This was something Kansas State took advantage of last season and is sure to be a much hotter topic in the 2008-09 season.
Player of the Year: Courtney Paris, Oklahoma. She has done almost everything except get to a Final Four and this is the last shot.
Additional players to watch: If Nebraska reaches a third consecutive NCAA tournament, it will largely be on the shoulders of Kelsey Griffin, one of the conference's most consistent players over the past two seasons. Iowa State's Alison Lacey is probably the best of an experienced group of Cyclones. But this season, Lacey should get more minutes at her more natural shooting guard spot after she played the point a year ago. Kansas' Danielle McCray, a junior guard, led the Jayhawks in scoring, rebounding and steals. Her aggressiveness and tenacity will again be the catalyst for a team that received a big blow when highly regarded freshman point guard Angel Goodrich suffered a knee injury. McCray and Goodrich would have made an interesting backcourt combination.
The sun comes up. Sean Hannity votes Republican. The Cardinal win the Pac-10. That's right -- it's eight years and running for Stanford and there aren't any signs that anything will be different in 2008-09. Stanford will have a slightly different look without Candice Wiggins and the four-year fingerprint she had in the program. Otherwise, the core of what made the Cardinal a national runner-up is back
beginning with 6-4 junior Jayne Appel and 6-4 sophomore Kayla Pedersen, who make up what might be the best post duo in the country. They both can score on the block, but their ability to work together in the high-low set -- in which they are interchangeable -- makes them even more difficult to contend with. Appel is also a national player of the year candidate because of the way she defends. She blocked a school-record 84 shots a year ago.
Throw in a collection of consummate team players in the backcourt rotation -- Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, Jillian Harmon, JJ Hones and Jeanette Pohlen -- plus another potential program-changer in 6-2 freshman Nnemkadi Ogwumike, and Stanford has another team that is favored to make another Final Four appearance.
Coincidentally, the biggest threat to Appel-Pedersen as the nation's best post combo also resides in the Pac-10 -- just about 40 miles away. Cal's 6-1 Ashley Walker and 6-3 Devanei Hampton are both seniors and now have their last crack at dethroning Stanford, against whom they lost three times last season. Senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson is also back for one last run. Her production is important, but the steadying influence she brings to big games will be just as crucial.
The Bears will be watching the right knee of Hampton very closely. Having undergone two procedures in the past year, the senior experienced some pain in the preseason. She has missed practice time and sat out Cal's two exhibition games. With her, the Bears are a real threat to Stanford and a No. 1 seed come tournament time. Without Hampton, that order would be tall.
If Cal has a white whale in Stanford, then Arizona State's task is twice as daunting. The Sun Devils won every Pac-10 game a year ago except when the Cardinal or Bears were sitting on the other bench. Then their record was 0-5. The results against the northern California contingent don't necessarily have to change for a good season in Tempe or for a decent seed in the NCAA tournament, but they must improve if the program is going to elevate any higher.
Sybil Dosty and Lauren Lacey, a couple of 6-3 seniors, had solid seasons a year ago, but they must play better in big games to contend with the frontcourts of Stanford and Cal. Last season, the Sun Devils duo was outscored by their Bay Area counterparts 145-70 in the five meetings.
Danielle Orsillo's return in the backcourt should really help. After scoring 21 points in the opener against North Carolina, the junior suffered a knee injury and was lost for the season. If coach Charli Turner Thorne can get a full season out of the trio of Orsillo, Dymond Simon and Briann January, the Pac-10 might just be a three-team race.
Player of the Year: Ashley Walker, Cal.
Additional players to watch: How well Southern California senior center
Nadia Parker has recovered from her late-season MCL tear and how she battles the Appels and Parkers of the league will have much to do with USC's postseason fate. If first-year UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell is going to have a smooth transition from being a Tennessee assistant to running her own program, she will need sophomore Doreena Campbell to continue to display the all-around game that the Pac-10 saw glimpses of last season. Oregon's
Taylor Lilley is a long-range bomber who, when hot, could be cause for concern for the upper-division clubs.
Vanderbilt was the coaches' choice, but until the Lady Vols prove differently, it really is hard to pick against them. Granted, this is a different year in Knoxville. With the entire starting lineup having left Pat Summitt's coop for the WNBA, plenty of unknowns exist, but the power of Pat and the program's standing can't be overlooked.
Much will be asked of the trio of senior forward Alex Fuller and sophomore wings Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh. That's really the extent of the experience for Tennessee, but none of them averaged double figures a year ago. Summitt is sure to experiment with the rotation plenty, but if Tennessee is to outpace the rest of the SEC, the Hall of Fame coach will have to get a lot out of another highly regarded recruiting class, led by forwards Shekinna Stricklen, Amber Gray, Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer. No one replaces Candace Parker, but some form of a combination of players needs to compensate for the production of Parker and Nicky Anosike in the post.
Finding a dependable point guard -- perhaps 5-2 freshman Briana Bass -- will be extremely important. But Tennessee has won with its defense time and again, so the biggest key will be whether this new group grasps and buys into Summitt's emphasis on that end of the floor. It will also be important to see if this young team gets swallowed up by the always imposing nonconference schedule; this season's version includes Virginia, George Washington, DePaul, Old Dominion, Texas and Stanford -- all before the new year.
If ever there existed a year for Vanderbilt to turn over the Tennessee/LSU apple cart, it's this one. The Commodores have arguably the league's best player in Christina Wirth, a talented and experienced point guard in Jennifer Risper, the experience of a Sweet 16 appearance a year ago and an efficient offense that has gotten more athletic. Vanderbilt also should take some comfort in the fact that the only two teams to beat the Commodores last season -- the aforementioned Lady Vols and Lady Tigers -- both graduated their entire starting fives. At the very least, by season's end Vanderbilt should have supplanted LSU as Tennessee's chief title competition if the Dores aren't calling themselves champions.
Meanwhile, LSU and its seven true freshmen should see its streak of five straight trips to the Final Four come to an end. In fact, Auburn should also jump past the Lady Tigers.
If Wirth is not the SEC's best player, then Auburn's DeWanna Bonner certainly is. And with the return of senior point guard Whitney Boddie, Bonner has some more help. Guards Alli Smalley and Sherell Hobbs were productive and also return, but Boddie was noticeably missed in the second half of the season when she left the team for academic reasons. The Tigers never beat a good team after trouncing Georgia in mid-January and limped into the NCAA tournament. The gallop should be back in that step this March.
Player of the Year: DeWanna Bonner, Auburn. Her versatile scoring skills and all-around game should get more attention nationally because Parker and LSU's Sylvia Fowles are off in the professional ranks.
Additional players to watch: At 5-11, Florida's Marshae Dotson is the best inch-for-inch rebounder in the conference. Georgia isn't a lock for the NCAA tournament as it typically is. If Andy Landers' relatively inexperienced crew is to make some noise in the SEC and beyond, 6-5 Angel Robinson needs to transition into a more dominant player. The only Lady Tiger with any significant experience, Allison Hightower will have to beef up her scoring output and provide intangibles for an LSU team that is otherwise undergoing a changing of the guard and forward and center and bench.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.