Commentary

Baylor leads the way as 2011-12 opens

But as last season proved, the run to Denver could hold many surprises

Originally Published: November 6, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

A lot has gone on in the college sports world since Texas A&M triumphed for the women's basketball title in Indianapolis last April -- much of it not very good. Football programs for Ohio State and Miami, in particular, were revealed to have bigger problems than we might have imagined even at our most cynical.

The conference realignment merry-go-round got to spinning again, with Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, and Missouri apparently soon to follow. Syracuse and Pittsburgh (to the ACC), plus West Virginia (to the Big 12) are walking away from the Big East, which also lost TCU to the Big 12 before the Horned Frogs even officially became part of the conference.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
Mark D Smith/US PresswireBrittney Griner and Baylor are the favorite not only in the Big 12 but in both of the preseason top-25 rankings.

The Big East has been picked over like an unguarded grocery store after a natural disaster, but it also has turned the tables, trying to raid other conferences. You half-expect any day now that Hawaii will get an invite to join the Big East.

But the worst news, by far, came in August when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt announced she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. It put a lot of things into more sobering perspective, but Summitt has been determined to try to keep her team as upbeat and focused on winning as ever.

It's a Lady Vols group that has a chance to claim the program's ninth NCAA title -- although one wouldn't say Tennessee is the favorite. If any team is close to that designation, at least in November, it's Baylor, which also has the top candidate for national player of the year in center Brittney Griner.

But is there, truly, a prohibitive favorite this season? Probably not … and that's great. What both Texas A&M and Notre Dame provided last season was a needed dose of the unexpected after Tennessee and Connecticut each had won back-to-back NCAA titles. It wasn't that the Aggies and Irish making the final was utterly shocking, but it was definitely a surprise that resulted in an entertaining and exciting -- and different -- championship game.

This season will end in Denver, the first time the Women's Final Four has been held in the Mountain Time Zone. Could the Mile High City see a new champion, like we had in Indy last year? Don't count on it; the top six teams in the preseason coaches' poll -- Baylor, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Connecticut, Stanford and Texas A&M -- all have won titles. But …

The next three ranked teams -- Miami, Duke and Louisville -- have not. Neither have Georgetown, Georgia, Florida State, Penn State and Kentucky, who are ranked 11-15. No. 10 Maryland has, but the Terps also have had their struggles since that 2006 championship that came at Duke's expense. Maryland didn't make the NCAA field in 2010 and was upset at home in the second round last year by Georgetown.

The Hoyas then lost to UConn in the Sweet 16 but talked afterward with what some might call chutzpah and others might call a needed "swagger" for a program trying to slightly downsize a giant. Georgetown thought it should have beaten the Huskies, and the Hoyas seemed downright annoyed they didn't do it.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesNnemkadi Ogwumike and Stanford seek their fifth consecutive Final Four.

It took another Big East team to knock off UConn and end Maya Moore's college career short of a third consecutive NCAA title. That was Notre Dame, which hoped to win a second championship on the 10th anniversary of the program's first, in 2001. Despite victories over Tennessee (Elite Eight) and UConn (national semifinals) -- the first time any team had defeated both those powerhouses in the same NCAA tournament -- Notre Dame didn't get the big trophy. But now, the Irish are being picked as the favorites in the Big East, which traditionally has not been a role Notre Dame embraces.

That position typically has gone to UConn, and Geno Auriemma is one of the few coaches who actually prefers having the target on his team. The Huskies lost Moore -- who went on to win the WNBA's rookie of the year award and a league title with Minnesota -- but get back Caroline Doty from the knee injury that sidelined her last season.

UConn doesn't have the individual star power that it did with the likes of legends Moore or Diana Taurasi, but it's still a very good squad with new standouts about to hit the national spotlight. Among those teams that will challenge Notre Dame and UConn in the Big East are Louisville, Georgetown, Rutgers, St. John's and DePaul.

Texas A&M -- which sent Stanford home disappointed again from the 2011 Final Four with a semifinal win over the Cardinal -- doesn't come into this season in the favorites' role even in the Aggies' own conference. Baylor has that designation in the Big 12, just as it does nationally.

Still, the Aggies -- with Sydney Carter back at guard and transfer center Kelsey Bone eligible -- are confident they can be in the Final Four mix again in their last season before moving to the SEC. Texas, which should feel a little put-up-or-shut-up pressure this season, never-say-die Oklahoma and don't-forget-about-us Texas Tech could make some noise in the Big 12, as could Oklahoma State.

Still, much of the preseason focus understandably goes to Baylor.

"I don't know that I'll have to say a whole lot," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of motivating her team. "I think when you have a goal to win a national championship and you don't reach that goal, that if you're any kind of a competitor, the hunger should be there.

[+] EnlargeGlory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen
Danny Murphy/Icon SMITennessee's Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen combined to average about 25 points and 17 rebounds per game last season.

"Sometimes you don't want to be the favorite. You like the underdog role because your team will work harder. Sometimes you embrace [being] the favorite because your team understands how good they are, and they work hard anyway."

Baylor was led last season by senior guard Melissa Jones, who played the final month of the season with little or no vision in her right eye due to a swollen optic nerve. Jones was the fiercest competitor on a team that almost -- but not quite -- was prepared to be the front-runner.

"I think that last year we didn't really want to embrace it, because we were young," Mulkey said. "This year, [with a] junior/senior team, we should embrace that and understand the expectations that come with it."

No two programs have carried that mantle with more gusto than UConn and Tennessee, of course. The latter is the favorite to win the SEC, as everyone in orange -- and plenty of outsiders, too -- have rallied whole-heartedly around Summitt.

"We have been through a lot," said reigning SEC player of the year Shekinna Stricklen, one of Tennessee's five seniors. "We've faced just about everything. I just think this team has to stay together, be committed to defense, rebounding and communicating a lot better than we have in the past."

Communication is at a premium in Knoxville with Summitt's assistants taking on even bigger roles. But no staff in the country could have been any better prepared to do that.

Tennessee's primary challengers in the SEC are expected to be Georgia, Kentucky and LSU -- the latter team now coached by former Lady Vols assistant and player Nikki Caldwell.

In most of the major conferences, the preseason favorites are programs that are either entrenched in that role or are at least pretty familiar with it. That's not the case, though, in the ACC. Miami, elevated by senior guards Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams, was picked to win the league for the first time since the Hurricanes came to the ACC in 2004.

The much-more familiar choice, Duke, was picked second. But the Blue Devils, who bring in another strong class of freshmen, are still going to get a heavy spotlight in the ACC this season.

The Pac-10 turned into the Pac-12 this season, but one thing didn't change a bit. The league remains the Stanford show, as the Cardinal look to tie UConn and LSU this season with five consecutive appearances in the Final Four. The Huskies won in four of those -- 2000, '02, '03 and '04 -- while the Tigers never got past the semifinals. Stanford made two title-game appearances and lost twice in the semis the last four years.

A deep team that adds some speed and shooters with a highly regarded freshman class, Stanford will miss stalwarts Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, now both in the WNBA. But led by sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, the Cardinal are positioned well again to contend for what would be the program's first NCAA championship since 1992.

We have to go back almost that far -- 1993 -- for a year that looked to be a breakthrough for the Big Ten. The league had two Final Four participants then: Ohio State and Iowa. But there wasn't really a huge follow-up to that.

The Big Ten hasn't had a Final Four team since Michigan State in 2005. The teams expected to challenge for the league title this year -- Penn State, Purdue, Iowa and Michigan State -- all have been to the Final Four, although in the case of the first three, it has been awhile. The Boilermakers made it that far in 1999 and 2001; Penn State went in 2000.

Ohio State won or shared the Big Ten regular-season title every year from 2005-10. Last season, the Buckeyes finished in a four-way tie for third in the conference but still won the Big Ten tournament as the No. 5 seed.

Now without a superstar post such as Jessica Davenport (2004-07) and then Jantel Lavender (2008-11), the Buckeyes will be more an underdog in the league than they have been in a long time. Still, point guard Samantha Prahalis was named preseason co-player of the year in the Big Ten, and looks to have a senior season to answer some of her critics.

Among the so-called mid-majors, Green Bay and Gonzaga both put a big footprint on the 2011 NCAA tournament. The Phoenix lost just two games all season, the last one to Baylor in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs made it one step further, to the Elite Eight, before falling to Stanford.

Despite big losses to graduation for both programs, they are still picked to win their respective leagues, the Horizon and the West Coast Conference. Same goes for Marist in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference. In the Atlantic 10, Dayton -- a team that never made an NCAA tournament appearance until 2010 -- and Temple are co-favorites.

Might any of the mid-major schools make an even bigger push toward the Final Four this season? In some ways, it seemed there was a greater chance of that last season, with a school such as Gonzaga having home-court advantage in a regional.

But the fact that, overall, this doesn't appear to be all that strong a senior class nationwide might impact the Final Four more than we expect.

Baylor is the on-paper favorite. Tennessee has become the emotional favorite. Texas A&M will try to defy the odds with a repeat, while Notre Dame wants to go the step further the Aggies denied the Irish last season. Stanford hopes to become the first West Coast team to win the NCAA title since the Cardinal did it two decades ago. UConn simply can never be ruled out.

It could be quite a run to a Rocky Mountain high in April.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.