Stanford is yet another team that lost an outstanding player when the Class of 2004 headed to the WNBA. Nicole Powell easily is considered one of the top players in Cardinal history, and her versatility and talents will no doubt be missed.
However, five seniors who each averaged at least 5.6 points last season return, and with a great veteran core and some talented freshmen, the Cardinal should be in great shape for 2004-05.
Three starters also return, led by Kelley Suminski (10.0 ppg, 2.9 apg), one of the nation's top shooting guards who really took her game to another level last season. Although she has good range and a strong body, the 5-foot-9 senior guard remains underrated after playing in Powell's shadow. That should change quickly this season.
Suminski (53 3-pointers), Susan King Borchardt (55) and 5-11 forward Sebnem Kimyacioglu (57) were all threats from downtown last season as Stanford averaged 7.5 3-pointers a game.
Expect Borchardt (8.5 ppg, 2.6 apg), a fifth-year senior, to continue to step up her game. Another returner to keep an eye on is Kristen Newlin, a 6-5 sophomore forward/center who started just nine games and averaged 17.5 minutes last season, but tallied a team-high 50 blocks, shot 46.4 percent from the field and averaged 5.6 points.
As usual, coach Tara VanDerveer brought in another solid group of freshmen, touted as the 11th-best recruiting class in the nation. Candice Wiggins, who's 5-11½ and one of the country's 10 best rookies, was rated the No. 1 shooting guard -- and seventh overall prospect -- by the All-Star Girls Report coming out of high school.
Turnovers were the Cardinal's Achilles' heel a year ago; they committed 29 more turnovers than their opponent (500 to 471) and nearly 15 giveaways a game. Stanford must take better care of the ball this season and get after it defensively, especially since the Cardinal play another tough schedule, including a home date with Texas Tech and road dates at Utah and Tennessee.
Contenders: Arizona, UCLA
Arizona sports one of the best inside-outside combinations in 6-5 junior center Shawntinice Polk and Dee-Dee Wheeler. Polk (16.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.4 bpg, 2.3 apg, 1.6 spg, 57.4 percent from field) is one of the top five posts in the nation. She's extremely efficient in the paint, has great footwork and led the Pac-10 in blocks a year ago.
Wheeler, a 5-6 point guard, led the team in scoring last season with 16.9 points per game, hit 45 3-pointers and averaged 4.2 rebounds. She also dished a team-best 4.7 assists, and is a tremendous perimeter defender (2.8 spg). But don't overlook her backcourt mate Natalie Jones, who averaged 8.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals.
Last March, Arizona had the talent to go further than it did in the NCAA Tournament, settling for a disappointing first-round loss to Michigan State. With nearly all the major components back from a team that pushes tempo and averaged 72 points last season, expect the Wildcats to make some noise this season and be top-25 regulars.
UCLA might not end up testing Stanford and Arizona for the conference title, but the Bruins hope to return to the national spotlight this season. And they're worth keeping an eye on with talented backcourt players such as junior Nikki Blue (15.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.9 apg, 3.0 spg) and sophomore Noelle Quinn (15.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.1 apg) leading the way.
The guards, along with junior Lisa Willis, combined to average 45 points and almost 19 rebounds last season. They are quick, young and exciting to watch, and a lot of teams might have a hard time keeping up with this backcourt.
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.