Anything possible as parity increases

Baylor is the defending champion, Connecticut has no All-Americans and Tennessee's most heralded player is a freshman who has yet to appear in a game.

Is this really women's basketball? Amazingly, it is.

The sport begins its 25th season as part of the NCAA with a feeling that the Final Four no longer is the exclusive domain of a few elite teams, and a belief that the path to a championship doesn't have to go through Storrs, Conn., or Knoxville,Tenn.

And it's due in large measure to Baylor and the team the Bears beat in last season's national championship game, Michigan State. Their run to the final night of the season -- neither had been to the Final Four previously -- showed that with the right combination of players, coaching and chemistry, anything is possible.

"It probably gave every team in the country hope,'' Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "That's what our sport needed. You can't take away from the great teams, but we needed somebody new, some new enthusiasm.''

There's certainly plenty of the latter as the season gets under way, from Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C., to Baton Rouge, La., from Athens, Ga., to Columbus, Ohio, and certainly in Knoxville, where Candace Parker will make her long-awaited debut with Tennessee.

Fans had looked forward to watching Parker last season after she won a slam-dunk contest against boys, but she had to sit out because of knee problems. If anything, the anticipation is even greater now, especially after the 6-foot-3 forward dunked over a Tennessee men's player in a pickup game.

"She just plays over people,'' teammate Shanna Zolman said.

Parker still has to prove herself in the college game, something LSU senior Seimone Augustus already has done -- time after time. Augustus, a first-team All-American and the national player of the year, will join 6-5 sophomore Sylvia Fowles in leading LSU's bid for a third straight Final Four trip.

Two other first-team All-America selections are back: Monique Currie, Duke's strong, athletic wing player, and Jessica Davenport, Ohio State's imposing 6-5 center.

Currie passed up a chance to begin a WNBA career to return for one more season, which could very well end at the Final Four in Boston. With Currie, Duke has all five starters back from a 31-5 team that lost to LSU in the NCAA regional finals.

And if that's not enough, point guard Lindsey Harding rejoins the team after a yearlong suspension and super recruit Abby Waner is on board. A national championship is the only thing that has eluded the Blue Devils and coach Gail Goestenkors. This looks to be their best chance to remedy that.

Some of Duke's fiercest competition will come from its own backyard. Speedy junior Ivory Latta heads a strong cast at North Carolina, which beat Duke three times last season en route to the ACC championship. The ACC was the nation's top-ranked league and should be even better now with the addition of Boston College from the Big East.

Ohio State returns 80 percent of its scoring, Georgia should go a long way with 6-3 Tasha Humphrey in the middle, guard Cappie Pondexter's return makes Rutgers a Final Four contender and Texas still has Tiffany Jackson to go with an outstanding recruiting class.

"There are so many good teams in our league and across the country,'' North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "You look at the top 20 and I think any of those teams could win the national championship.

"There used to be only a few. You knew the national champion would be one of three or four teams. Not any more.''

Baylor and Michigan State both lost key players, though neither is bereft of talent. Still, getting back to the Final Four will be tough.

"I've had people tell me that since we didn't have people who were all-world, it gave them restored faith in the opportunities that can be there,'' said Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie, The Associated Press national coach of the year last season.

"With that said, it's just really, really hard. There are so many great teams out there, so much parity. Invariably, you're
going to have different people arriving on the scene at the Final Four.''

Oh, and don't forget Tennessee and Connecticut, both well stocked with experience and talent. And both are hungry.

Tennessee still is smarting from blowing a 16-point lead to Michigan State in the second half of the national semifinals. UConn didn't even get to the Final Four. After winning three straight national championships, the Huskies lost eight games last season and were knocked out of the NCAAs in the third round, their earliest exit since 1999.

"My fans are adamant that if we're 25-8 again next year, heads are going to roll,'' UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

The Huskies find themselves in a much bigger Big East, which has grown to 16 teams with the addition of DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati and South Florida. DePaul and Louisville were NCAA Tournament teams last season.

Two experimental rules will be tried in some early-season tournaments. The 3-point line will be moved back 9 inches to 20 feet, 6 inches, and a 10-second backcourt violation will be enforced.

Zolman, a guard and Tennessee's best outside shooter, thinks the 10-second call will have more impact than the longer 3-point shot. Tennessee will see those rules at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where, by the way, the Lady Vols will get another shot at Michigan State.

"For teams that like to get up in your shorts, so to speak, like our team, the 10-second call will be to our advantage,''
Zolman said. "We can set up the press, keep them back there and try to get those turnovers.

"At the other end, you have to consciously be aware on offense that you have to get the ball up there. You can't stay back and try to waste time.''

In another change designed to avoid competition with the men's game, the announcement of the NCAA Tournament bracket will move from Sunday to Monday. Will that bracket include another Baylor or Michigan State?

"There's so much talent and parity,'' said North Carolina's Hatchell. "It's just a great game right now."