Can you handle the truth? Because our experts dug down to answer 20 of the biggest and perhaps most debatable questions that had us scratching our head as the 2006-07 season nears. With last year's super seniors gone, several notable coaching changes and lots of young stars looking to steal the show, the upcoming season is certain to hold a few surprises. A look at some of the bigger storylines on our minds before games tip off Thursday:
1. Is this a "down" year across the board nationally?
Sure seems like it. In putting together a preseason Top 25, I thought, "Are there really that many teams worth being ranked?"
Maybe it's because some of the major conferences don't seem as strong as usual. That appears to be the case with the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Big East and even the SEC. That might be due to a relatively anemic senior class in terms of impact players.
That doesn't mean that there isn't still a lot to be interested in, though. There is -- both in terms of how players will
develop and how many teams are conceivably in the running for the Final Four. -- Mechelle Voepel
2. Who has the nation's best backcourt?
It's difficult to pick a backcourt that combined to average fewer points per game last season than Candice Wiggins did all on her own, but Duke's duo of point guard Lindsey Harding and shooting guard Abby Waner will be the most well-rounded backcourt in the country this season.
Overshadowed to some degree by Monique Currie last season, Harding quietly played as well as any point guard in the country. Returning after a season-long suspension in 2004-05, she not only led the team with 4.5 assists per game (and nearly a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) but averaged 10.7 points per game on 48 percent shooting. Even better, after hitting a total of eight 3-pointers during her first two seasons, Harding hit 23 last season while shooting 41 percent from behind the arc. One of the quickest players in the country, Harding's outside range now punishes slower defenders who try and give themselves some space to compensate for her first step.
As good as Harding is, plenty of top teams have backcourts with one elite player. That's why Waner is the key to making Duke's backcourt something special. The Gatorade and McDonald's player of the year coming out of high school, Waner wasn't the nation's most productive freshman by anyone's estimation last season. Part of that was because the Blue Devils didn't need her to play the kind of role Oklahoma asked of Courtney Paris, but part of it was also due to an midseason slump that temporarily delayed her development. Still, by the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, Waner provided ample evidence of why she earned all those prep accolades. In Duke's last four games, against Michigan State, Connecticut, LSU and Maryland, she averaged 12.5 points in 29 minutes per game, shooting 8-of-12 from behind the arc and showing a fearlessness at big moments that escapes most freshmen.
Alison Bales remains an anchor in the paint, and Chante Black has breakout potential, but Duke's point of attack is likely to shift this season from the wing and frontcourt to the backcourt. With Harding and Waner, what isn't likely to change is the team's level of success. -- Graham Hays
3. Candace Parker is the best collegian since _______ ? (fill in the blank)
Diana Taurasi. Parker deserves tremendous praise for her ability and versatility. We talk about Parker and her gifts, which allow her to do so many things near the basket and on the perimeter.
Now let's see if she can match Taurasi's ability to elevate the play of her teammates and win national championships. -- Beth Mowins
4. Who's the second-best team out West behind Stanford? And will the
Cardinal's resurgence at the top overshadow the region's other top teams?
I'm inclined to say New Mexico, which is picked to win the Mountain West. As for the Pac-10, Arizona State was selected to finish second behind the Cardinal, and teams such as USC, Washington, Cal and UCLA also might be
NCAA Tournament teams.
Stanford always seems to overshadow the rest of the West, but that's for an obvious and undeniably good reason. No other program consistently has represented that region anywhere near as well as Stanford has. Nobody's close.
Yet Stanford fans always feel their team is overlooked and underestimated by the rest of the country. Specifically, they are frustrated now that they have no games on ESPN's or ESPN2's regular-season schedule in 2006-07. (If nothing else, I sure wish that Stanford vs. Tennessee was being televised by somebody.)
We go through this every year, it seems, with West teams feeling generally "left out." I empathize to a point. But, ultimately, I'll say this, and I don't mean it in a smart-aleck or unkind way: The West has to focus on getting a program back in the Final Four.
That hasn't happened in nearly a decade -- since Stanford made its third consecutive appearance in 1997. And, as Stanford fans are painfully aware, no West team has won the NCAA title since the Cardinal did in 1992.
Further, the only West programs that have made the Final Four besides Stanford are Long Beach State and Southern Cal -- both in the 1980s.
One way to "guarantee" attention is to get to that ultimate showcase.
-- Mechelle Voepel
5. Who will be the starting point guard for Maryland come March?
I expect it'll be the same person who starts at point guard in the Terps' season opener at Middle Tennessee State on Friday: Kristi Toliver. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who isn't eligible until next month after transferring from Tennessee a year ago, will start as Maryland's backup guard at both the point and off-guard positions (at the 2, she'll spell starter Shay Doron). I don't see Toliver losing that starting spot.
Wiley-Gatewood is a great player, but -- and I mean this with no disrespect -- I'm not sure she has the mind-set of a true point guard. Players like Sue Bird and Steve Nash -- and on a more familiar level, Lindsey Harding and Dee Davis -- take that mentality to a different level. I don't think that is part of Wiley-Gatewood's game. -- Nancy Lieberman
6. Who is the top senior?
Depends on what you are looking for. Perimeter play? North Carolina's Ivory Latta. Inside play? Ohio State's Jessica Davenport.
This is not a class with a whole lot of high-impact players, especially in terms of what appears to be their ability to play at the next level. Most of the "stars" are juniors or sophomores.
Maybe, though, some of the seniors really will surprise us.
-- Mechelle Voepel
7. Who's a team on the rise?
Texas A&M is on the rise with everybody back and looking to be even better than last year. The Aggies turned things around last season, improving from four league wins to 11 conference victories. The Aggies are young and deep and tremendously athletic. Coach Gary Blair brings the experience to the bench. -- Beth Mowins
8. Who's a team on the decline?
Notre Dame could find itself in unfamiliar places this season -- near the bottom of the Big East and out of the NCAA Tournament. The Irish will be fighting to limit the damage from the graduation of All-America Megan Duffy and the season-ending injury to leading returning scorer Lindsay Schrader. Will the pick of 11th in the Big East preseason poll be on the money, or will the remaining Irish rise to the occasion? -- Beth Mowins
9. How will Texas Tech do in Kristy Curry's first season?
Texas Tech missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 1989. It seems as if Tech's players bonded very quickly to Curry and the rest of the new staff. That includes Curry's husband, Kelly, former Baylor assistant Bill Brock and former Purdue standout Shereka Wright.
Brock brings in his knowledge of working in the Big 12 for Kim Mulkey since 2000-01. That really helps the transition, Curry said.
Tech lost its point guard, Erin Grant, and top scorer/rebounder, LaToya Davis. But there is talent back. Alesha Robertson hopes to have a big senior season, as do Chesley Dabbs (who redshirted last season) and Brooke Baughman.
Tech might be the most underestimated team in the Big 12. Which is a great position for Curry to be in for her inaugural season in Lubbock. -- Mechelle Voepel
10. How will Purdue do in its first season without Kristy Curry?
It's fair to say that the Boilermakers had trouble, initially, both adjusting to Curry's absence and getting used to Sharon Versyp's different personality. They seem to have worked through that. At least at the start of the season, they are sounding very positive and upbeat.
Do they miss Curry? Yes. She and her husband and children were well-liked by the players. But they also understand it's time to move on and that there is a big opportunity for them this season. The Big Ten is not at "normal" strength, with only Ohio State and Purdue clearly in the top tier.
The Boilermakers have a chance to win the conference and earn a very good seed for the NCAA Tournament. With leaders such as Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless, Purdue should have another successful season. -- Mechelle Voepel
11. How far can Sylvia Fowles carry LSU now that the past two WNBA rookies of the year are gone?
I have the Lady Tigers finishing fourth in the SEC regular season, behind Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. Losing the past two WNBA rookies of the year is very hard to overcome. And for as much as LSU will miss Seimone Augustus -- the two-time national player of the year -- and her 22.7 points per game, don't underestimate how important Scholanda (Hoston) Dorrell, who helped the Monarchs reach the WNBA Finals this past summer, was to this team a year ago. Hoston hit 40 3-pointers last season (the only Tiger to sink more than 20).
Fowles is one of the top five centers in the country, but without an outside threat to help open things up in the paint, or that superstar beside her to draw most of the attention, Fowles' production and offense could be hindered. With just two starters back, the pressure is actually more on coach Pokey Chatman, who did bring in some great recruits in freshmen Allison Hightower and Porsha Phillips and juco transfer Mesha Williams. -- Nancy Lieberman
12. What does Charde Houston have to do to be more consistent this season?
The nation's most enigmatic player just needs to keep doing what she has been doing recently. The lasting image many people have of Houston might be her trudging back to the bench in the regional final against Duke after shooting 0-for-5 from the field, or Geno Auriemma's unfiltered assessment of her future after the game. But that's just as much a part of the past in Connecticut as Ann Strother firing a 3-pointer or Barbara Turner attacking the glass. That's not to say the future is unquestionably rosy, but all involved are intent on letting it unfold free of the weight of the past.
Houston's summer was spent on campus, focusing on basketball in a way she didn't her first two seasons in Storrs. The early results, which had even Auriemma expressing wary optimism, looked pretty good in a 30-point, 19-rebound effort in the team's first exhibition game this fall.
Houston appears to be in the best shape of her life, and not coincidentally, more energized about being part of the Huskies than ever before. She's clapping during warm-up drills, offering advice to freshman Tina Charles during practice and talking about making the most of her final two years of college basketball. All of which will mean nothing if she reverts to her tentative form when the games count for real, shutting herself down the way no defender at this level can hope to by thinking too much. If she plays hard and trusts her instincts, Houston can be consistently great. -- Graham Hays
13. Utah reached the '06 Elite Eight. Who will break through this season?
I'll stay in the Mountain West and go with New Mexico. The Lobos always will be staunch defenders and hard workers. This year they should have some scorers, as well. MWC preseason player of the year Dionne Marsh and long distance sharpshooter Katie Montgomery give New Mexico a good combo. -- Beth Mowins
14. Will anyone challenge UConn in the Big East this season?
Fans of Rutgers probably won't appreciate the wording of this question considering the Scarlet Knights captured the regular-season title last season with a 16-0 conference record, but Cappie Pondexter's brilliant rookie season for Phoenix in the WNBA was a reminder both of one of the college game's more underrated careers and of the distance that now separates her from her alma mater.
But if Pondexter's departure makes Connecticut the favorite to win the conference, the Scarlet Knights will be close on the Huskies' heels all season. In fact, if Matee Ajavon follows up last season's improvement by giving Rutgers a go-to option capable of creating her own points, Kia Vaughn shows the kind of consistency and conditioning that will allow her to play 30 minutes a game in the post, and a talented group of freshmen play defense up to C. Vivian Stringer's standards, this team has the potential to get to a place Pondexter wasn't fortunate enough to visit: the Final Four. -- Graham Hays
15. After the ACC, which conference is the best?
The SEC runs a close second with such strength at the top in teams like Tennessee, Georgia and LSU, as well as rising contender Kentucky, surprising Florida and steady Vanderbilt. The athleticism in the SEC is incredible and each team in the league usually has at least one or two playmakers. -- Beth Mowins
16. Who wins this season's annual UConn-Tennessee game (Jan. 6 in Hartford, Conn.)?
UConn might have the upper hand. Right now, Renee Montgomery is a better point guard than anyone Tennessee has in its backcourt, and though she doesn't have the experience, Tina Charles could have an advantage inside. It's doubtful anyone can offset Candace Parker, but Charde Houston has the potential to match up well with the Tennessee star.
Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle will carry the majority of the load -- and that can be a disadvantage against smart coaches like Geno Auriemma, who will be able to come up with defensive schemes to limit their touches. Though this is always a great rivalry and attracts a tremendous amount of national interst, this year's meeting might not be the marquee matchup it has in the past. Neither program is at the top of its game -- yet. -- Nancy Lieberman
17. Who is the nation's top outside shooter?
Three players come to mind, starting with Ivory Latta. The North Carolina senior point guard knocked down 85 treys last season, hitting 40.1 percent of her attempts and 2.4 3-pointers per game. She's lightning quick and able to create her own shot as well as anyone. Other standouts from beyond the arc include New Mexico 5-11 senior Katie Montgomery, who shot 45.4 percent on 3-pointers (104-of-229) last season, hitting 2.3 per game. Lastly, Ohio State's Marscilla Packer shot 46.2 percent (79-of-171). The 5-9 junior sank 2.5 3-pointers per game. -- Nancy Lieberman
18. Who is the nation's best defender?
Statistics are at their most dangerous when applied to defense. Offensive statistics certainly can be twisted and turned to fit a particular need, but they generally reflect some positive contribution toward scoring a basket, the ultimate objective behind everything that happens on the court. Defensive statistics, especially steals and blocks, aren't quite as reliable. A player who gambles repeatedly might earn steals in the box score, but the baskets scored as a result of failed gambles can't be statistically traced back to her.
But, dang it, sometimes you just can't ignore the numbers, and Tulsa's Jillian Robbins is at least the most underrated defender in college basketball. The senior forward averaged 2.2 blocks and 2.7 steals during her first three seasons, including 2.3 blocks and 2.9 steals in 32 games last season. How rare is that dual threat at her size? Robbins, who is listed at 6 feet, 1 inch, was the only player taller than 6 feet to rank among the top 30 in steals last season. And she was the shortest player among the top 30 in blocks last season. -- Graham Hays
That is what you call a match-up nightmare.
19. Who is the best-kept secret?
The Maryland Terrapins dominated ESPN.com's list of the top five players at each position, showing off the kind of talent that makes them the consensus preseason No. 1 and a good bet to defend their national championship. But when the Terps travel to Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 10, the best player on the court just might be wearing the other uniform.
The name Chrissy Givens might not ring a bell unless you're a fan of the Blue Raiders or the Utah Utes, whose tremendous run in the NCAA Tournament almost ended before it began thanks to Givens. Playing nearly 38 minutes per game last season, Givens averaged 21.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.2 steals. That's a gaudy line even if you're playing in the local rec league, but don't chalk up Givens as a product of her competition. She put up 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists against Georgia in the regular season and then torched Utah for 25 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The 5-11 senior guard is the Sun Belt's version of Stanford's Candice Wiggins, but she'd be the ACC's version of Candice Wiggins if she played in that league. -- Graham Hays
20. Why hasn't Pat Summitt won a championship in this millennium, and when will that drought end?
After seeing her win four titles in the 1990s, does it seem like forever since Pat Summitt and Tennessee hoisted the championship trophy? Maybe, but keep in mind that although the Lady Vols last won in 1998, they reached the Final Four an amazing five times in the last eight seasons. Though everyone tends to point toward Diana Taurasi and UConn's domination (the Huskies ended the Lady Vols' season in four of those trips to the national semifinals) as the reason for the "drought," the loss of two key assistants might be a bigger key to Tennessee falling just short.
Summitt is one of the sport's all-time greatest coaches, but personnel moves and periods of transition are never easy, especially when you're talking about assistants who make such large impacts as Al Brown and Mickie DeMoss. Brown left Summitt's staff in 2002 after a seven-year period in which the Lady Vols went 224-29 and won three straight titles from 1996-98. Brown is the only coach in college basketball history to coach in the men's (1969, Purdue vs. UCLA) and women's national championship game (Tennessee, 1996-98, 2000; Michigan State, 2005). Then, DeMoss -- largely regarded as one of the best recruiters in women's hoops -- left to take over Kentucky in March 2003.
Summitt also has had several players leave. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood is the one who first comes to mind, having left the Lady Vols last December. Then both Sybil Dosty and Lindsey Moss announced they were transferring last April, and, combined with the graduation of Shanna Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker, that means five players are gone from last season's roster. How do you replace those kids, especially when -- to be quite honest -- some players from the Super Six class that Summitt welcomed in November 2004, a group at least one recruiting expert tabbed "the greatest recruiting class in the modern era," underachieved?
As for when the streak might end, you can never count out Summitt. She insists this year's team is better than last season's. She says Candace Parker is an even better player now that the All-American has made a "stronger commitment to playing 94 feet of defense" and gained invaluable experience competing for Team USA at the World Championship. Summitt also speaks very highly of the addition of two junior college players, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste.
For now, we'll take Summitt's word. This year's version of the Lady Vols is by no means lacking in talent. But to be honest, this might be the least-talented Tennessee team Summitt has coached in awhile. Tennessee is typically a very deep team, but this year, the Lady Vols are missing their usual depth, which means that if Parker or Alexis Hornbuckle don't play even better than last season -- or get hurt -- Tennessee could be in trouble. -- Nancy Lieberman