Cardinal, Wiggins still leading way in Pac-10

On Selection Sunday last season, the Pac-10 put an end to any discussion that the conference isn't up to par with the country's other top tier leagues.

Five Pac-10 teams garnered berths to the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Only the ACC and Big 12 got more invitations (six apiece). And for the first time in 13 years, and just the second time in league history, five Pac-10 teams boasted 20-win seasons, headlined by Stanford, which reached the Elite Eight.

As 2005-06 opens, the five-time defending Pac-10 champion Cardinal remain the cream of the crop. However, much of the preseason attention has focused on the tragic death of Arizona center Shawntinice Polk in September. Polk was one of the best posts in the country, and more important, a very special person who will be missed throughout the Pac-10 and the rest of the nation.

Although it seems odd to open the Pac-10 season without "Polkey," here's a look at how the league race might shape up:

The favorite

Last season, Stanford finished with a 17-1 league record and advanced to the Elite Eight for the second straight year, falling to eventual national finalist Michigan State in the Kansas City Regional final.

The Cardinal graduated three starters and five seniors. But this will hardly be a rebuilding year. Sophomore Candice Wiggins, who in April became just the ninth freshman to be named a Kodak All-American, had a spectacular rookie season. The first Pac-10 woman to win the conference's Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards in the same season, Wiggins is Stanford's returning leader in points, assists and steals. And she gets to the foul line. Wiggins made 162 free throws last season (while shooting 84 percent from the foul line), a school record. Equally potent on the wing or in the post, Wiggins is the team's primary 3-point shooter, too.

Brooke Smith, the other returning starter, is in her second season at Stanford after transferring from Duke. Smith is the primary low-post threat and has a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-like skyhook that is one of the best offensive post moves in the country. She led the team in rebounding and blocks last season and was second in the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage. She is very skilled at passing out of the double-team, as well.

Stanford doesn't have a true point guard but rather a multitude of interchangeable guards who can handle the ball. Wiggins is one of those players. Another is Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, a true freshman who had some knee problems during her senior year of high school. She's continuing to get healthy and could start, but likely will open the season backing up Clare Bodensteiner. Cissy Pierce also will see action at the guard position, but currently has a fractured elbow. She is expected to be ready for the start of the season.

Krista Rappahahn will stretch the defense for Stanford. She is a deadly 3-point shooter who will benefit from the double-teams Wiggins and Smith will draw.

Kristen Newlin, a 6-foot-5 post, will form a very big, almost Twin Tower, look inside with Smith, who's 6-3. Initially, Newlin and Smith might start, but eventually Newlin might come off the bench to give Stanford a faster, more up-tempo team. Both will be game changers on the defensive end. And, speaking of defense, Stanford held its opponents to a school-record 56.0 points per game last season.

The team lost Kelley Suminski, a starter and last season's minutes leader, to graduation. She was a coach on the floor and ranks second in school history with 208 3-point field goals. Also gone is Sebnem Kimyacioglu, who ranks third in school history with 205 3-pointers. Suminski and Kimyacioglu hold the school records for games played with 136. Key contributors Susan King Borchardt and T'Nae Thiel are also gone.

Depth could be an issue. Losing five seniors hurts the experience level, too. Players will have to learn on the fly to keep up with Wiggins and Smith, the best duo in the West.

The contenders

If believing in yourself is half the battle, Arizona State will continue to move in the right direction.

"Last season, we certainly got a taste of what it feels like to be one of the best teams in the country, and we are certainly over the hump as far as having doubts that we are one of the best," Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne said on the Pac-10's official Internet site.

Yes, ASU earned the right to be confident in March with its first trip to the Sweet 16 in 22 years and its highest ranking (16th) since 1983-84. With three starters and seven letterwinners back from that squad, and five talented incoming freshmen, there's no reason to think the Sun Devils can't build on that momentum.

Although ASU might lack experience after graduating four seniors -- including Kylan Loney, who ranked third in scoring last season at almost 10 points per game -- Turner Thorne says the team will be very tough to defend.

"The ways that we can score and the weapons that we have are varied and deeper than we've had in the last ten years," she has said. "The depth of talent that we have returning, and coming in, is as impressive as we've ever had. We have never had a team with this much talent top to bottom."

The talent starts inside with forwards Kristen Kovesdy and Emily Westerberg, who each averaged just more than 11 points per game last season as ASU's top scorers. Versatile Westerberg is lethal both in the paint and from the perimeter: She ranked second on the team with 4.9 rebounds but also sank 20 3-pointers. An All-Pac-10 first-team pick last season as a sophomore, Westerberg should be even better in 2005-06 after working extremely hard to improve her conditioning in the offseason.

Kovesdy likely won't improve much on her shooting. That's because she shot a team-high and single-season Pac-10 record-61.3 percent from the field last season. Like Westerberg, Kovesdy can dominate the low block, but the 6-foot-3 senior also can run in transition, which makes her tough to match up with. Also, Kirsten Thompson, a 6-6 freshman, is expected to bolster the frontcourt immediately.

Senior Amy Denson, a part-time starter a year ago, averaged 6.6 points and 4.0 rebounds and is among the team's best shooters. Aubree Johnson, fifth in scoring last season at 6.1 points per game and a solid defender, is a 6-2 junior who really came on late in the season, playing some of her best ball in the Pac-10 and NCAA tournaments.

An AAU teammate of Westerberg and Johnson, sophomore Reagan Pariseau is expected to take over point guard duties now that Loney is gone. Pariseau averaged just 19 minutes last season, but ranked second in 3-point shooting (35 percent) and contributed 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the NCAA Tournament.

And look for freshman Danielle Orsillo to break out as a 3-point threat early on. Other than Loney, no one hit more than 21 3-pointers last season. Turner Thorne is hoping Orsillo can help improve the team's accuracy from downtown; it was 33 percent last season.

One of Arizona State's biggest strengths is its balance. Only one player averaged more than 25 minutes per game last season, and 10 players averaged at least 10 minutes. The Sun Devils need to take better care of the ball, though. They committed almost 100 more turnovers than assists in 2004-05.

UCLA's backcourt takes better care of the ball than most. In fact, though Georgia's and Rutgers' guards largely are touted as the best in the nation, the Bruins' "Triple Threat" should be mentioned in the same breath.

Seniors Nikki Blue and Lisa Willis and junior Noelle Quinn combined to average 50.2 points, 19.0 rebounds, 10.5 steals and 11.9 assists per game last season. Blue and Willis ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Pac-10 in scoring last season, and Quinn ranked fourth in scoring and rebounding before being sidelined by torn cartilage in her left knee. The injury seemed to sidetrack the Bruins, too. They started the season 11-5 but finished 5-7 after Quinn's injury in mid-January.

All three players are extremely quick and athletic. Willis, who helped USA Basketball win gold at this summer's World University Games, and Blue, a three-time All-Pac-10 first-team pick, ranked one-two in the conference in steals and sixth and 11th, respectively, in the nation in the same category.

Blue, UCLA's point guard, became just the second Bruin (joining Hall of Famer Ann Meyers) in school history to record at least 1,300 career points and 400 career assists. Blue, who led the Pac-10 with 18.8 points in conference play, ranked 12th in the nation in steals (91) and tied for 12th in assists last season (she totaled 162, averaging 6.0 dishes per game).

Willis ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10 and tied for 25th in the nation in 3-point field goals, tying her own school record with 70. One of the country's top defensive players, Willis also ranked sixth in the nation in steals (102 total, 3.7 per game) and averaged 16.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. She led the conference in 3-pointers per game (2.52), and already is UCLA's all-time leader in 3-pointers with 186.

Quinn, who was averaging 16.9 points per game and 7.1 rebounds when she got injured, is expected to be at 100 percent. During UCLA's summer tour to Australia, Quinn averaged 20.5 points.

Inside, keep an eye on Lindsey Pluimer, a 6-4 forward who was a first-team All-Pac-10 freshman team selection. She averaged 10.1 points and 6.4 boards last season, ranking sixth in the conference in rebounding and 18th in scoring. Her 180 rebounds ranked ninth all-time among the top performances by Bruins freshmen.

UCLA also added three highly touted freshmen, including guard Ashlee Trebilcock, a Parade and WBCA All-American.

"This year, we will have as much athletic talent, with as high an experience level, as we have ever had in my time at UCLA," said coach Kathy Olivier, who's starting her 13th season with the Bruins.

Southern California -- ranked No. 22 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll -- is a team in the truest sense of the word. The Trojans are extremely unselfish, very balanced and don't have a dominant personality on the team. Ten of the top 12 scorers are back, including the top four. Nine players averaged between 5.1 and 9.8 points per game last season. Seven returning players have starting experience.

The Trojans were a surprise to women's college basketball last season under first-year coach Mark Trakh, going 20-11 after a 15-13 record the year before. It was the team's first 20-win season since 1996-97. And the Trojans made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven seasons, beating Louisville in the first round before losing to eventual NCAA runner-up Michigan State by two points in the second round.

Camille LeNoir, USC's starting point guard, is an excellent distributor and was the team's second-leading scorer last season. Sharpshooting Brynn Cameron made a school-record 72 3-pointers last season. A member of the All-Pac-10 freshman team last season, she is the team's go-to scorer.

Meghan Gnekow is the only senior on the roster, and, as described by Trakh, is USC's heart and soul. She is a good outside shooter and the best defender on the team. Gnekow also led the Trojans in rebounding and led the Pac-10 in offensive boards at almost three per game.

Eshaya Murphy, the first guard off the bench, is a slasher who's very adept at getting to the basket. Backup point guard Jamie Hagiya has led the Women of Troy in assists in each of the last two seasons. Jamie Funn and Chloe Kerr, two part-time starters last season, will open this season in the starting five.

Simone Jelks will back up both frontcourt positions. Nadia Parker, the only key newcomer, is a highly touted 6-foot-3 freshman who plays center but has the ability to slash to the basket from the wing.

USC's balance -- and the fact it can create matchup problems -- is its biggest strength. Plus, the team's guard play is outstanding, with very good depth. The frontcourt also has experience.

The biggest weakness, at least on paper, is the loss of 6-foot-5 Kim Gipson, who graduated. Now, the tallest players on the roster are 6-3, which could be a problem against teams with skilled, bigger players such as Ohio State's Jessica Davenport and Duke's Alison Bales.

As with most teams, injuries are something else to keep an eye on as the season approaches. Cameron (hip), Murphy (ankle) and Funn (hip) are all banged up and won't be completely healthy until the beginning of the season.

Another X-factor is the team's record in close games. USC was only 7-6 in games decided by five or fewer points. But with all of the experienced players, the Trojans should win some of those games this season. They'll have to if they want to continue to improve and become an elite team.

Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com. Peter Newmann, ESPN's college basketball researcher, can be reached at peter.d.newmann@espn.com.