College Basketball: Tar Heels and Huskies start on top

North Carolina for the men and UConn for the women lead our preseason Top 25, but the only thing that matters is whose cutting down the nets in April.

By Frank Jakka
Outsports.com

Just like the election that just passed, there are early favorites for the respective 2008-09 NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball seasons.

On the men’s side, the University of North Carolina, a Final Four participant last year, is by far the early season favorite.All-American Tyler Hansbrough, a rugged inside presence, returns for his final season, and will look to put a hurt on the ACC and keep the Tar Heels at the top of the polls.

Tyler Hansbrough
The Big East Conference will be the battlefield conference, as Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Marquette, Villanova and Syracuse all appear in the pre-season rankings. The Huskies appear to have the most balance and depth to challenge North Carolina nationally.

The West Coast again returns national challengers UCLA and USC, and both talented new candidates to lead their squads this year. However, Arizona State, with most of their roster returning, may be the team that may surprise the most out West.

Defending National Champion Kansas lost nearly every key component, but has a quality freshman class that could win over supporters come tournament time. Watch for the young Jayhawks, along with Arizona State, Baylor, Villanova, Marquette and Notre Dame to be the dark horse contenders during the 2008-09 campaign.

The leading candidate on the women’s side is the University of Connecticut. Experience counts at NCAA tournament time, as does talent and depth, so look for the Huskies, led by Maya Moore, to be in the mix when the nets are being cut down.

Defending champion Tennessee, like their male counterparts at Kansas, lost the majority of their championship lineup but gains the best recruiting class in the country. While they lack experience, Pat Summit’s treacherous preseason trail will surely have the Lady Vols up to task for the NCAA tournament.

The most tightly contested conference in the country will most likely take place in the Big 12 Conference, as no less than nine teams will vie for the conference crown. Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas A & M, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Texas Tech all return key players ready to make another run for conference and national prominence.

Stanford brought respectability back to the West Coast with last season’s Final Four run, though it will not be just a one horse race. Look for the Cardinal and Bay Area rival California to lead the Pacific-10 and West Coast contingency.

If you’re looking for a surprise run for the women, watch for Purdue, Louisville and Rutgers -- all are flying under the radar now, but capable of grabbing headlines.

The men’s championship game will be held on April 6, in Detroit, Michigan. The women’s Final Four will take place in St. Louis, Missouri, with the national champion being unveiled on April 7.

A look at the men’s and women’s top-25:

MEN WOMEN

1. The NORTH CAROLINA (36-3) Tar Heels return the toughest inside player in the college game in 6-9 senior forward Tyler Hansbrough (22.6 ppg./10.2 rpg./54% FG). If experience counts for anything, the Heels are golden as 6-4 Wayne Ellington (16.6 ppg./4.5 rpg./40% 3 FG/2 apg.), 6-6 Danny Green (11.5 ppg./4.9 rpg./37% 3 FG), 6-5 Marcus Ginyard (6.9 ppg./45 rpg.) and 5-11 Ty Lawson (12.7 ppg./5 apg./2.7 rpg.) – all seniors, return. Last year’s Final Four run was an accomplishment, but the bar is even higher for this year’s ACC campaign. Watch for Tyler Zeller a 7-0 freshman to make an impact.

2. If there’s a team that can challenge Carolina in terms of experience, quality and depth, it’s CONNECTICUT (24-9). Led by 6-7 senior Jeff Adrien (14.8 ppg./9.1 rpg.) and 6-2 senior point guard A. J. Price (14.5 ppg./6.1 apg./3.5 rpg.). Key contributors for the Huskies include Jerome Dyson, a 6-4 junior (12.5 ppg./3.6 rpg./2 apg.), Hasheem Thabeet, a 7-3 junior (10.5 ppg./7.9 rpg./4.8 bpg.) and Craig Austrie, a 6-3 senior (7.5 ppg.). If UConn can make it through the challenges of the Big East Conference, they will be battle tested to take on any team in the NCAA tournament.

3. The Big East Conference will also be the primary run for the LOUISVILLE Cardinals (27-9) and their hopes of a national title run. Led by Earl Clark, a 6-9 junior (11.1 ppg./8.1 rpg.), Terrence Williams, a 6-6 senior (11.1 ppg./7.2 rpg./4.5 apg.), Jerry Smith, a 6-1 junior (10.7 ppg./3.6 rpg./38% 3FG), Edgar Sosa, a 6-1 senior (7.6 ppg.) and Andre McGee, a 5-10 senior (6.5 ppg.). Keep an eye on Samardo Samuels, a 6-8 freshman and one of the most decorated high school players from last year, to be make a name for himself in the Big East and challenge for National Freshman of the Year honors.

4. Head Coach Tom Izzo’s MICHIGAN STATE Spartans (27-9), will depend on their ability to defend as well as their balance to win the Big Ten and make a late season run. Raymar Morgan, 6-8 junior (14 ppg./6.1 rpg.) is the offensive leader, while Kalin Lucas, a 6-0 sophomore (10.3 ppg./3.9 apg./1.6 rpg.), Goran Suton, a 6-10 senior (9.1 ppg./8.2 rpg.), Chris Allen, a 6-3 senior (6.3 ppg./36% 3FG) and Marquise Gray, a 6-8 senior (4.3 ppg./3.7 rpg.) all defend and execute the game plan. For the Spartans to make this run, they will need consistent outside shooting.

5. Yes, NOTRE DAME (25-8) is yet another Big East squad with lofty expectations. It’s hard to argue against the Fighting Irish, as they have experience, depth and a go-to player in 6-8 junior Luke Harangody (20.4 ppg./10.6 rpg.). 5-11 junior Tory Jackson (8 ppg./6.1 apg./5.1 rpg.) will lead the offense, while Kyle McAlarney, 6-0 senior (15.1 ppg./3.4 apg./44% 3FG) and Ryan Ayers, 6-7 senior (7.8 ppg./3.2 rpg./45% 3FG) shoot from outside. Key for the Irish will be the play of their inside players – 6-9 Zach Hillesland (6.1 ppg./5.2 rpg.) and 6-11 Luke Zeller (4.5 ppg.) will need to control the glass and defend the interior.

6. Every year it seems that GONZAGA (25-8) surprises everyone with their post season success, and have one big-time player. This year, the Zags will be expected to continue that success, but with a more balanced formula, as Matt Bouldin, a 6-5 junior (12.6 ppg./3.7 rpg./2.9 apg.), Jeremy Pargo, a 6-2 senior (12.1 ppg./3.7 rpg./6 apg.), Austin Daye, a 6-10 sophomore (10.5 ppg./4.7 rpg.), Josh Heytvelt, a 6-11 senior (10.3 ppg./4.9 rpg.), Steven Gray, a 6-4 sophomore (8.1 ppg./46% 3FG)and Micah Downs, a 6-8 senior (7.9 ppg./3.7 rpg.), budget the offense. The West Coast Conference is better than ever, and San Diego and St. Mary’s will push the Zags.

7. While they are still relatively young, the ARIZONA STATE Sun Devils (21-13) key players played the majority of last season’s minutes. 6-5 sophomore James Harden (17.8 ppg./5.3 rpg./3.1 apg./41% 3FG) is one of the best guards in the country, while 6-9 senior Jeff Pendergraph (12.4 ppg./6.4 rpg./59% FG) is one of the most versatile. Ty Abbott, a 6-3 sophomore (9.9 ppg./3.6 rpg./35% 3FG), Derek Glasser, a 6-1 junior (6.1 ppg./3.9 apg.), Jerren Shipp, a 6-3 junior (5.9 ppg./3.3 rpg.)and Richards Kuksiks, a 6-6 sophomore (5.4 ppg.) all contribute. ASU will need to emphasize rebounding this year, but proved their mettle by winning all four of their overtime games last year.

8. Another youth movement is taking place at PURDUE (25-9). The Boilers are led by E’Twaun Moore, a 6-3 sophomore (12.9 ppg./3.9 rpg./2.5 apg./43% 3FG), Robbie Hummel, a 6-8 sophomore (11.4 ppg./6.1 rpg./2.5 apg./44% 3FG), Keaton Grant, a 6-4 junior (11.2 ppg./3.2 rpg./44% 3FG), Chris Kramer, a 6-3 junior (6.8 ppg.), Nemanja Calasan, a 6-9 senior (6.4 ppg./3.3 rpg.) and JaJuan Johnson, a 6-10 sophomore (5.4 ppg./3.1 rpg.). Purdue is the Big Ten ballot favorite, and if they can tighten up their defense, they will make good on those expectations and challenge nationally.

9. Every season, it seems the TEXAS Longhorns (31-7) are led by a great player, and this year is no different as 5-11 senior A. J. Abrams (16.5 ppg./2.9 rpg./38% 3 FG) leads the squad. Abrams will get balanced help from Damion James, a 6-7 junior (13.2 ppg./10.3 rpg.). Conner Atchley, a 6-10 senior (9.5 ppg./5.3 rpg.) and Justin Mason, a 6-2 senior (7.1 ppg./4.5 rpg./3 apg.) return to the starting line-up as well. With the majority of the Big Twelve in transition, Texas should hold their own. To challenge on the national level, the Horn’s need to establish depth and another interior presence to help James and Atchley on the glass.

10. DUKE (28-6) may have the most balanced team in the history of their program, as four returning players averaged double figures last year. Greg Paulus, a 6-1 senior (11.4 ppg./3.2 apg./2.1 rpg./42% 3 FG), Kyle Singler, a 6-8 sophomore (13.3 ppg./5.8 rpg.), Gerald Henderson, a 6-4 junior (12.7 ppg./4.7 rpg.) and Jon Scheyer, a 6-5 junior (11.7 ppg./3.9 apg./2.4 apg./39% 3 FG) are all key figures for the Blue Devils. If the Devil’s have a weakness it’s on the inside, as they do not have a proven post presence to count on. The plethora of guards and small forwards will need to utilize their experience and offensive execution to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and make a post season run.

11. Having experienced their fourth consecutive Final Four, the UCLA Bruins (35-4) will be hard pressed to make it five in a row, following the early departure of Kevin Love. However, a new super-frosh, in 6-3 freshman guard Jrue Holiday, is on campus to aid the cause. Also returning are Darren Collison, a 6-0 senior (14.5 ppg./3.8 apg./2.6 rpg./52% 3FG), Josh Shipp, a 6-5 senior (12.2 ppg./3.2 rpg./2.2 apg./32% 3FG) and Alfred Aboya, a 6-9 junior (2.9 ppg./2.2 rpg.). The Bruins have a great group of quality, athletic guards, so if the inside game can recover from the loss of Love, the will challenge for the PAC-10 and possibly nationally.

12. WAKE FOREST (17-13) is still a relatively young team, but a year of being in the trenches and playing in the ACC should prepare the Demon Deacons for surprise run this year. James Johnson, a 6-9 sophomore (14.6 ppg./8.1 rpg.) and Jeff Teague, a 6-2 sophomore (13.9 ppg./2.7 rpg./2.3 apg.) ignite the inside-outside attack. L. D. Williams, a 6-4 junior (8.9 ppg./3.8 rpg.), Ishamel Smith, a 6-0 junior (8.6 ppg./3.4 rpg./4.7 apg.) and Chas McFarland, a 7-0 junior (8.4 ppg./5.8 rpg.) will all look to improve their individual numbers as well as the Deacons chances of advancing in the post-season.

13. Another Big East candidacy is alive and well at PITTSBURGH (27-10). Led by 6-6 senior Sam Young (18.1 ppg./6.3 rpg./38% 3FG), one of the best guards in the conference. Levance Fields, a 5-10 senior (11.9 ppg./5.2 apg./3.9 rpg.), DeJuan Blair, a 6-7 sophomore (11.6 ppg./9.1 rpg./54% FG) and Gilbert Brown, a 6-6 sophomore (6.5 ppg./3.1 rpg.) will add support, as the Pitt starting five is one of the strongest in the country. Facing the rigors of the Big East will be a difficult challenge for the Panthers, and if they wish to do some damage on the national scene, they will surely need to develop some depth.

14. Last season, MEMPHIS (38-2) had one of the best players in the country in POY candidate Chris Douglas-Roberts, who led the Tigers to a Final Four appearance. This year’s Tigers will be faced with finding offensive firepower, as none of the returnees averaged double figures. However, the roster is filled with capable athletes, led by seniors Robert Dozier, a 6-9 forward (9.2 ppg./6.8 rpg.) and Antonio Anderson, a 6-6 guard (8.6 ppg./3.7 rpg./33% 3FG). Juniors Doneal Mack a 6-5 swing player (6.9 ppg.) and Shawn Taggart a 6-10 forward (5.9 ppg./4.2 rpg.) will be counted on to lead a precocious freshman class that must be ready to contribute.

15. The high flying BAYLOR Bears (21-11) return their top five scorers from last season, including Curtis Jerrells, a 6-1 senior guard (15.3 ppg./3.5 rpg./3.8 apg./33% 3FG), LaceDarious Dunn, a 6-4 sophomore (13.6 ppg./4.1 rpg./42% 3FG), Kevin Rogers, a 6-9 senior (12.3 ppg./8.5 rpg.), Henry Dugat, a 6-0 senior (12.2 ppg./4.1 rpg.) and Tweety Carter, a 5-10 junior (9.6 ppg./2.4 apg./40% 3FG). Expectations for a Big Twelve title run high in Waco for the Bears supporters, and could come to fruition if Josh Lomers, a 7-0 junior (3.7 ppg./61% FG), can help on the boards and become a defensive force in the post.

16. VILLANOVA (22-13) may be the best sleeper team in the country. Led by nine of their top ten players in rotation, the Wildcats may have more depth than any other team in the country. Scottie Reynolds, a 6-2 junior (15.9 ppg./3.2 apg./3.1 rpg./38% 3FG), Dante Cunningham, a 6-8 senior (10.4 ppg./6.5 rpg.), Corey Fisher, a 6-1 sophomore (9.1 ppg./2.7 apg.), Shane Clark, a 6-7 senior (7.1 ppg./4.3 rpg.), Antonio Pena, a 6-8 sophomore (6.9 ppg) and Dwayne Anderson, a 6-6 senior (6.5 ppg./4.8 rpg.) lead ‘Nova and all play big minutes. Look for the Cats to make some noise in the post season.

17. In Los Angeles, the Trojans of USC (21-12), like crosstown rival UCLA, lost their best player, O. J. Mayo, from last year. Like the Bruins, the Trojans are expecting big things from arguably their best ever recruiting class, as six fantastic freshmen are on campus. The Trojans will look for Dwight Lewis, a 6-5 junior guard (10.8 ppg./2.6 rpg.), Taj Gibson, a 6-9 senior (10.8 ppg./7.8 rpg.), Daniel Hackett, a 6-5 junior (8.6 ppg./3.5 rpg./3.1 apg.) and Keith Wilkinson, a 6-10 senior (2.5 ppg./2.8 rpg.) to provide leadership and steady play while the freshman class get their feet wet. The freshman will look to provide offensive punch, so the upperclassmen must defend.

18. This may be MIAMI’s (23-11) best shot at making some noise in the ACC, and possibly on the national level as well, with 6-1 senior guard Jack McClinton (17.7 ppg./2.1 rpg./2.7 apg./42% 3FG). Adding support are James Dews, a 6-4 junior (10.3 ppg./2.9 rpg./37% 3FG), Brian Asbury, a 6-7 senior (8.8 ppg./4.1 rpg.), Dwayne Collins, a 6-8 junior (8.6 ppg./6.5 rpg.), Lance Hurdle, a 6-2 senior (8 ppg) and Jimmy Graham, a 6-8 senior (6 ppg./4.9 rpg.). The Hurricanes have a quality experience and leadership, depth and a go-to player in McClinton, so when the votes are counted, with or without the hanging-chads, look for Miami to be near the top.

19. Offense may sell tickets and garner votes, but for OKLAHOMA (23-12), defense wins games. The Sooners are led by 6-10 sophomore Blake Griffin (14.7 ppg./9.1 apg.), one of the most imposing physical players in the country. Tony Crocker, a 6-6 junior (11.3 ppg./3.8 rpg./42% 3FG) and Austin Johnson, a 6-3 senior (8.6 ppg./2.7 rpg./2.8 apg.) will man the guard positions, while Taylor Griffin, a 6-7 senior (6.5 ppg./4.9 rpg.) helps Blake on the inside. OU doesn’t have the offensive flash of Texas or Baylor, but they do have solid fundamentals and play great team basketball and defense, which will keep them in most games.

20. At FLORIDA (24-12), Head Coach Billy Donovan has some of the best guards in the country, led by Nick Calathes, a 6-6 sophomore (15.3 ppg./5.2 rpg./6.3 apg./37% 3FG), Walter Hodge, a 6-0 senior (10.4 ppg./2.8 apg./2.1 rpg./37 % 3FG) and Jai Lucas, a 5-11 sophomore (8.5 ppg). If the Gators can get their inside game up to speed, they have a good chance at winning the swinging SEC, which is going through a transitional year because of the roster losses by most teams. Dan Werner, a 6-8 junior (9.1 ppg./6.4 rpg./2.8 apg.), Chandler Parsons, a 6-9 sophomore (8.1 ppg), and 6-8 sophomores Alex Tyus (4.3 ppg.) and Adam Allen (4 ppg.) need to step up.

21. The MARQUETTE Golden Eagles (25-10) had a very successful campaign last season, and return the bulk of their roster. Led by a balanced group that included 6-3 senior Jerel McNeal (14.9 ppg./4.9 rpg./3.7 apg.), Dominic James, a 5-11 senior (12.9 ppg./2.7 rpg./4.2 apg./31% 3FG), Lazar Hayward, a 6-6 junior (12.8 ppg./6.5 rpg) and 6-5 senior Wesley Matthews (11.3 ppg./4.4 rpg.), Marquette has great group of experience returning. The biggest plus for the Eagles, however, is their balance and their willingness to share the ball. Look for the Eagles to utilize their quickness and bettering last season’s record.

22. Coach Bruce Pearl has truly turned TENNESSEE (31-5) into a SEC threat, as evidenced by this year’s pre-season hype on the heels of losing their top two scoring options. The junior class, led by 6-7 Tyler Smith (13.6 ppg./ 6.7 rpg./3.7 apg.), 6-9 Wayne Chism (9.9 ppg./5.8 rpg.) and J. P. Prince 6-7 junior (8 ppg./3.2 rpg.) will be the foundation for this year’s SEC and national run. However, the Volunteers will need to get some help from their freshman class of six to help out. Look for the Vols to continue to utilize their quickness, depth, athleticism and up-tempo play – trademarks of Pearl’s teams.

23. Year in and year out, the WISCONSIN Badgers (31-5) play hard-nosed, defensive and physical basketball. This year should be no different though the Badgers look for 6-7 senior forwards Marcus Landry (10.8 ppg./5.4 rpg.) and Joe Krabbenhoft (7.6 ppg./6.5 rpg./2.5 apg.) to man the frontline. The Badgers have a terrific guard combination on the perimeter in Trevon Hughes, a 6-0 junior (11.2 ppg./3.1 rpg./2.4 apg.) and Jason Bohannon, 6-2 junior (8.2 ppg./2.4 rpg./39% 3FG). Wisconsin will again be steadied by their defense and will need to find some offensive firepower to win the Big Ten and advance in the post season.

24. If you’re looking for more of an independent that doesn’t play in one of the major conferences, be on the lookout for XAVIER (30-7). Led by 6-8 junior Derrick Brown (10.9 ppg./6.5 rpg.) and 6-6 senior C. J. Anderson (10.7 ppg./5.9 rpg.) and 6-9 senior Jason Love (6 ppg./5.4 rpg.) the Minutemen have some solid leadership returning. The excitement in Cincinnati, however, is surrounding their four freshman guards and their new 7-0 freshman center. Xavier may take some hits early on, but If the kids can mature and contribute, Xavier may be a dangerous team come NCAA tournament time.

25. It’s been a long dry spell in the desert, but hopes are high this season for the Rebels of UNLV (27-8). Hoping to return the program to the NCAA title runs and golden days of the program are key returning players Wink Adams, a 6-0 senior (16.9 ppg./4 rpg./3 apg./46% 3FG), Joe Darger, a 6-7 senior (11.3 ppg./4.5 rpg./37% 3FG), Rene Rougeau, a 6-6 senior (9 ppg./6.2 rpg.) and Matt Shaw, a 6-8 junior (6.9 ppg./4 rpg.). The Rebels still like to push tempo and use their quickness to force turnovers as in years past, but will need to focus on doing a better job on the boards if they are to cause unrest at the national level.

1. CONNECTICUT (36-2) returns every key supporter from last year, led Player of the Year candidate Maya Moore, a 6-1 forward (17,8 ppg./7.6 rpg./3 apg./63 steals, 59 blocks)and 6-4 junior center Tina Charles (14.2 ppg./9.2 rpg./68 blocks) who continues to work her way out of Coach Geno Auriemma’s doghouse. The heart and soul the Huskies is 5-7 senior point guard Renee Montgomery (14.1 ppg./3.9 apg./2.6 rpg/ 1.9 spg.), who will be supported by 5-11 freshman guard Caroline Doty and Kalana Greene, a 5-10 junior. Injuries hampered the Huskies last year, and if they can avoid that pitfall, they will be celebrating with a return to the white house to meet a new president as the nation’s best.

2. Coach Joanne P. McCallie’s first season at DUKE (25-10) opened to mixed reviews last season, and if Duke doesn’t improve this year, her ratings in the polls will fall even further. An experienced squad with talent and balance across the board returns. The Blue Devils will be looking for redemption behind a trio of seniors: Chante Black, a 6-5 center (14.1 ppg./7.1 rpg./2.2 bpg.), Carrem Gay, a 6-2 forward (6.6 ppg.) and Abby Waner, a 5-10 guard (10.3 ppg./3.7 apg./3.6 rpg.). Joy Cheek (9.5 ppg.), Jasmine Thomas (7.9 ppg.) and 6-5 Krystal Thomas are ready to go. The biggest question mark surrounding the Devils is if the team as a whole (and Waner individually) can regain their confidence.

3. STANFORD (35-4) finally had the post season run they had been hoping for since their last national title (1992). The loss of Candice Wiggins puts play at the forefront led by 6-4 junior Jayne Appel (15 ppg./8.8 rpg./2.2 bpg.) and 6-4 sophomore Kayla Pedersen (12.6 ppg./8.4 rpg.). JJ Hones, a 5-10 junior (6.6 ppg./3.2 apg.), Roz Gold-Onwude, a 5-9 junior (5 ppg.), Jillian Harmon, a 6-1 senior (6.2 ppg./4.8 rpg.) and Jeanette Pohlen, a 6-0 sophomore (4.6 ppg.) were clutch in spurring last years runner-up finish. Unlike the Democrats or Republicans, Tara VanDerveer gets a program defining player every four years, and the latest version is 6-2 Nneka Ogwumike – the early favorite for national Freshman of the Year.

4. The CALIFORNIA Golden Bears (27-7) have escalated their play and expectations since this year’s group of seniors landed in Berkeley four years ago. The inside game is powered by the play of former PAC-10 POY Devanei Hampton, a 6-3 senior (13.5 ppg./8 rpg.) and underrated Ashley Walker, a 6-1 senior (15.3 ppg./9.3 rpg.). Alexis Gray-Lawson, a 5-8 junior (11.5 ppg./3.8 rpg./2.5 apg./40% from behind the arc), Lauren Greif, a 5-10 junior and Natasha Vital, a 5-8 junior (7.8 ppg./4.2 apg./3.2 rpg.) return as starting guards and have been critical in the Bear’s resurgence in the polls, and will need to continue that again this year. Hampton needs to elevate her play during big games and carry this squad.

5. Similar to Tennessee and LSU, RUTGERS (27-7) will lean heavily on their newcomers. However, the Scarlet Knights do return a few starters: Epiphanny Prince, a 5-9 junior (13.8 ppg./5.2 rpg./2.8 apg.), Kia Vaughn, a 6-4 senior (10 ppg./8.3 rpg.) and Heather Zurich, a 6-1 senior (4.6 ppg.). Also returning is Rashidat Junaid, a 6-4 junior (4.7 ppg.) also returns to help the post game. The newcomers are ultra athletic, talented and quick. Look for 5-11 April Sykes, 5-11 Jasmine Dixon and 6-2 Brooklyn Pope to either start or get major minutes for Coach C. Vivian Stringer as the Knights make blue and red opponents alike see Scarlet.

6. If any team in the country sees a significant rise in the polls this season, is should be PURDUE (19-15). Coach Sharon Versyp regains the services of 6-2 senior forward Lyndsay Wisdom-Hylton (14.8 ppg./8.2 rpg. in 2006-07) and Jodi Howell, a 5-11 junior (6.8 ppg./41% 3FG in 2006-07) – two experienced players who missed last season because of injuries. Point guard FahKara Malone, a 5-3 junior (10 ppg./3.9 apg./2.1 rpg./2.5 spg.) ignites the offense while Danielle Campbell, a 6-4 senior (12.2 ppg./7.2 rpg./66 blocks) and Natasha Bogdanova, a 6-4 senior (6.4 ppg./5.3 rpg.) are solid on the front line. Lakisha Freeman, a 6-1 senior (11.9 ppg./5.9 rpg.) adds punch. With most of the youthful Big Ten in transition, look for the Boilers to surprise their conference and national foes.

7. The defending national champion TENNESSEE Volunteers (36-2) lost their entire starting line-up from last season’s national championship game roster and have only one senior, 6-2 Alex Fuller (6.1 ppg./3.1 rpg.). Sophomore Angie Bjorklund, a 6-0 sophomore (8.4 ppg./3.2 rpg./37%3FG) and Vicki Baugh (5.3 ppg./4 rpg.) will have to adjust from rookies to vets. Lady Vol ticket features a large group of freshmen who the Vols are banking on to have an immediate impact: 6-6 Kelley Cain, 6-3 Glory Johnson, 6-2 Shekinna Stricklen, 6-3 Alyssia Brewer, 6-1 Amber Gray, and 6-1 Alicia Manning. This talented group of freshmen carry the fate of the Vols.

8. MARYLAND (33-4) Coach Brenda Frese lost a ton inside last year, and though she returns two of the best players in the country, there is much to prove in the post. Kristi Toliver, a 5-8 senior (17.1 ppg./7.2 apg./3.4 rpg./37% 3FG) is the most clutch player in the country, while Marissa Coleman, a 6-1 senior (16.1 ppg./7.4 rpg./2.9 apg.) is one of the most athletic. Behind these two, the Terps will hold their own in most games. Marah Strickland, a 6-0 sophomore (8.5 ppg./3.3 rpg.), Drey Mingo, a 6-2 sophomore (2.9 ppg.) and Sade Wiley-Gatewood, a 5-8 senior must step up. Crucial to capturing ACC crown will be the development of their young players. Watch for Lynette Kizer, a 6-4 freshman and Anjale Barrett, a 5-9 freshman to get minutes.

9. The LOUISVILLE Cardinal (26-10) have the best player in the country in 6-1 senior forward Angel McCoughtry (23.8 ppg./8.9 rpg./4.1 spg.). The Cardinals had one of the strongest final runs of any team in the country last year – making the Big East Conference final and then narrowly losing to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinals were supposed to return one of the best frontcourts in the country, until 6-3 senior Chauntise Wright tore her ACL. Still, Candyce Bingham, a 6-0 senior (13.8 ppg./7.7 rpg./2.8 apg.) is a below the radar player. 5-10 Brandie Radde (8 ppg./2.6 rpg./35% 3FG), Keshia Hines, a 6-2 sophomore (5.7 ppg./4.3 rpg.) and Tiera Stephens, a 5-7 freshman will be vital in making another year-end push.

10. The Tar Heels of NORTH CAROLINA (33-3) return several key players, led by Rashanda McCants a 6-2 senior (15.8 ppg./6.6 rpg.), Alex Miller, a 5-6 senior, Jessica Breland, a 6-3 junior (10.6 ppg./7.1 rpg.), Cetera DeGraffenried, a 5-6 sophomore (11.6 ppg./3.5 apg.) and Italee Lucas, a 5-6 sophomore (5.2 ppg.). The inside game needs some re-tooling, and Coach Sylvia Hatchell is hoping that 6-5 freshman Chay Shegog can progress quickly. The Heels have experienced guards, scoring options and tons of athleticism. So the question mark is regarding leadership -if UNC can find a leader they will make another push for the final four.

11. In a conference loaded with talented teams, BAYLOR (25-7) features some of the most talented and experienced players not just in their conference, but in the country. Returning are Jhasmin Player, a 5-10 senior (12.2 rpg./6 rpg./3.2 apg.), Rachel Alison, a 6-1 senior (13.1 ppg./8.5 rpg.), Jessica Morrow, a 6-2 senior (11.7 ppg./4.1 rpg./2.4 apg.35% 3FG), Danielle Wilson, a 6-3 junior (10.4 ppg./6.8 rpg./80 blocks) and Melissa Jones, a 5-10 sophomore. Alison and Wilson will bang inside, while Morrow lights it up from outside and Player controls tempo. Coach Kim Mulkey’s greatest recruit comes in the form of former Louisiana Tech Chief and newly hired Baylor Assistant Coach Leon Barmore, whose contributions will pay dividends.

12. Courtney Paris, (18.6 ppg./15 rpg./3.6 bpg.), a 6-4 senior from OKLAHOMA (22-9) is one of the most dominating pure posts in the history of Women’s College Basketball, but she is surrounded by questions from every angle. The loss of Jenna Plumley (ball handler and outside shooter who made more than 50% of OU’s 3-point field goals) and poor outside shooting will put term limits on how far the Sooners can advance until answers are found. Look for Ashley Paris a 6-2 senior, (11.3 ppg./7.9 rpg.), Danielle Robinson, a 5-9 sophomore (12.2 ppg./4 apg./2.9 rpg.), Amanda Thompson, a 6-1 junior (8.9 ppg./6.5 rpg.) and Nyeshia Stevenson, a 5-9 junior (6.7 ppg.) to provide support, but at one of the guards has to consistently score from outside.

13. The ARIZONA STATE (22-11) Sun Devils have been one of the most consistent teams over the last several years. Coach Charli Turner-Thorne’s squad plays solid defense and up-tempo defense, with an emphasis on team basketball. This year’s squad includes: Lauren Lacey, a 6-3 senior (12.6 ppg./5.7 rpg.), Sybil Dosty, a 6-3 senior (8 ppg./6.4 rpg), Briann January, a 5-8 junior (11.3 ppg./4.3 apg./3 rpg.), Danielle Orsillio, a 5-9 senior, Kristen Thompson, a 6-6 junior and Dymond Simon, a 5-5 junior. Lacey and Dosty are veteran posts; January and Simon are fearless and quick; Orsillio has a scoring mentality. A breakthrough win could bolster ASU from a pack of contenders.

14. At VANDERBILT (25-9), the Commodores have an immediate advantage in the SEC – experience. Christina Wirth, a 6-2 senior (13.1 ppg./5 rpg./2.5 apg./42% 3FG), Jennifer Risper, a 5-9 senior (9.5 ppg./6.3 rpg./2.6 apg.), Jessica Mooney, a 5-8 junior (8.7 ppg./2.4 rpg.), Meredith Marsh, a 5-9 junior (9 ppg./2.5 rpg./37% 3FG)and Hannah Tuomi, a 6-0 sophomore (5.4 ppg./3.8 rpg.) all started several games at some point during last year. While experience and perimeter play are pluses, post play and rebounding (a must when playing Tennessee and LSU) are question marks as Vandy simply doesn’t have much size. Pollsters like the ‘Dores to win the SEC, which is a possibility, but they must hold their own on the glass.

15. Playing in the tough ACC, FLORIDA STATE (19-14) always seems to be the independent outsider just a tier below the conference heavyweights. This year, watch for the Seminoles to be among the challengers for the title. Tanae Davis-Cain, a 6-0 senior (15 ppg./4.6 rpg.), Mara Freshour, a 6-1 senior (12.7 ppg./5 rpg./2.2 apg), Alysha Harvin, a 5-10 senior (8.3 ppg./3.7 rpg.) and Angel Gray, a 5-9 senior all return to give FSU terrific experience and talent. 6-4 junior center Jacinta Monroe (10.2 ppg./6.2 rpg.) will hold down the middle, with help from Cierra Bravard, a 6-4 freshman and Cayla Moore, a 6-2 sophomore.

16. IOWA STATE (21-13) rebounded nicely after losing two starters to injury last year. This year, Nicky Weiben, a 6-4 senior (12.7 ppg./5.6 rpg.) and Toccara Ross, a 6-0 senior are back. Add Heather Ezell, a 5-9 senior (10.5 ppg./3.1 rpg./3 apg.), Alison Lacey, a 6-0 junior (14.2 ppg./4.1 apg./3.8 rpg.), Jocelyn Anderson, a 6-4 senior (6.9 ppg./5.3 rpg.) and 6-1 forward Kelsey Bolte (10.3 ppg./5.5 rpg.) to the mix, and you’ve got another team included in the great debate as to who will win the Big Twelve Conference. The Cyclones have great leadership and experience and they play patented ISU basketball. Barring injury, the Cyclones could surprise.

17. The AUBURN Tigers (20-12) return one of the best players in the SEC in 6-4 senior guard/forward DeWanna Bonner (18.4 ppg./10 rpg./2.1 apg.). Also returning are the best group of guards in the conference: Whitney Boddie, a 5-9 senior (10.6 ppg./6.4 rpg./5.8 apg.), Sherell Hobbs, a 5-11 senior (13.1 ppg./5.7 rpg.) and Alli Smalley, a 5-8 sophomore (10.7 ppg./2.9 rpg./2.8 apg.). KeKe Carrier, a 6-7 junior is the only true low post player on the roster, so Nell Fortner has decided to run a much more up-tempo game in place. Watch for the Tigers to increase their scoring average and attempt to out distance their opponents.

18. Coach Gail Goestenkors continues the turnaround at TEXAS (22-13). The renewed excitement and improvement should continue behind the play of Carla Cortijo, a 5-7 senior (10.1 ppg./3 rpg./4.9 apg.), Brittainey Raven, a 6-0 junior (15.2 ppg./4.3 rpg./2.9 apg.), Ashley Lindsay, a 6-4 senior (11 ppg./6.7 rpg./2.7 bpg.), Earnesia Williams, a 6-1 senior (7.9 ppg./4.3 rpg) and Kathleen Nash, a 6-2 sophomore (8.3 ppg./6.3 rpg./30% 3FG). The Longhorns could an even bigger boost from Erika Arriaran, a 5-10 junior and former high school All-American, who went down in the middle of the 2007 season with an injury. Watch for the ‘Horns to continue their national rise in the polls.

19. OHIO STATE (22-9) will again count heavily on the inside play of Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Year, Jantel Lavendar, a 6-4 sophomore (17.6 ppg./9.9 rpg./51% FG). Lavendar continues the line of dominating post players coached by Jim Foster. The big need for the Buckeyes is the consistent establishment of outside shooting and having a point guard who can be an offensive threat. Ashlee Trebilcock, a 5-10 senior (9.6 ppg./2.3 rpg./2.2 apg./35% 3FG) will help the outside game, and 6-0 Star Allen (8.2 ppg./6.7 rpg.) will help on the glass. Hopes appear to lye with Shavelle Little, a 5-9 junior (4.7 ppg./2.7 apg.) and Samantha Prahalis, a 5-7 freshman. If one (or both) of them can be depended on, the Bucks will challenge in for the Big Ten title.

20. In Athens, the GEORGIA Bulldogs (23-10) lost one of the best players in program history in Tasha Humphrey. However, all is not lost as 5-6 junior point guard Ashley Houts (11.7 ppg./2.8 rpg./5.2 apg.) and 6-5 junior center Angel Robinson (9.9 ppg./8.4 rpg.) return to lead the ‘Dawgs back in the conference race. Coach Andy Landers should have a more balanced squad, but not as much depth in years past. Angela Puleo, a 5-8 sophomore (8.2 ppg./35% 3FG) and Porsha Phillips, a 6-2 sophomore transfer from LSU and Jasmine Lee, a 6-2 sophomore will all play larger rolls and watch for ultra athletic Christy Marshall (6.5 ppg./3.1 rpg.) to carry more of an offensive load.

21. Debbie Ryan’s VIRGINIA Cavaliers (24-10) return a loaded squad who may be one of the surprise teams in the country. The front court is balanced with 6-0 Monica Wright (17.6 ppg./5 rpg./2.5 apg.), Lyndra Littles, a 6-1 senior (16.8 ppg./7.3 rpg.) and Aisha Mohammed, a 6-3 senior (13.1 ppg./9.2 rpg.) returning. The backcourt was given some devastating news when 5-8 Paulisha Kellum (9 ppg./3.2 rpg./2.4 apg.) went down with a knee injury. Enonge Stovall 5-11 junior (4.3 ppg./3.4 rpg.) and Ariana Moorer will have to step up. If the Ryan can delegate backcourt responsibilities to reliable candidates, the Cavs will go far.

22. Andrea Riley (23.1 ppg./3.7 rpg./4.1 apg.), a 5-5 junior guard from OKLAHOMA STATE (27-8), is one of the best players in the country (with one of the biggest attitudes). Riley’s feistiness alone would challenge the rest of the Big Twelve, but she’s not alone - Shaunte Smith, a 6-0 senior (9.3 ppg./9 rpg.) is an underrated forward, while Taylor Hardemon, a 5-10 senior, is a solid perimeter threat. 6-1 senior Shyvon Spears (2.2 ppg./3.8 rpg) will help inside. The x-factor for the Cowgirls is Megan Byford, a 6-2 junior (2.7 ppg./2.8 rpg.). If Byford can be a consistent all-court presence, the Cowgirls will be a serious threat to win the conference and challenge for national attention in the polls.

23. NOTRE DAME (25-9) doesn’t have a standout out player, so look for a balanced, democratic attack from the Irish. Lindsay Schrader, a 6-0 senior (10.3 ppg./6.2 rpg) has been a constant since her freshman year, while Ashley Barlow, a 5-11 junior (12.1 ppg./4.7 rpg.), returns to the starting line-up. Inside, 6-2 sophomore Devereaux Peters (9 ppg./5.6 rpg.) returns after a great rookie year (before going down with a knee injury), while 6-4 Erica Williamson (6.4 ppg./4.4 rpg.) and 6-1 Becca Bruszewski (5 ppg.) help hold down the frontcourt. Brittany Mallory, a 5-10 sophomore (6.3 ppg.) and Melissa Lechlitner, a 5-7 junior (5.5 ppg.) will add scoring and ball handling to guard positions.

24. A relative independent from the traditional power conferences has been XAVIER (24-9), and though they lost 6-5 All-American Amber Harris (15.3 ppg./8.9 rpg./2.8 bpg.), they return some quality talent. Ta’Shia Phillips, a 6-6 sophomore (14 ppg./11.2 rpg.) returns at center, while 5-11 senior Tudy Reed (7.6 ppg./4.5 rpg.), 5-7 senior Jerri Taylor (11.2 ppg./40% 3FG) and Special Jennings return in the backcourt. Rutgers transfer Dee Dee Jernigan, a 6-0 junior, makes her long awaited debut. While Harris’ injury is serious, there is early speculation that she could return in for the Atlantic-10 and NCAA tournaments. If she does, the Musketeers will be a quiet contender.

25. KANSAS STATE (22-10) is yet another Big Twelve team that will challenge nationally. Shalee Lehning, a 5-9 senior (11.3 ppg./7.6 rpg./6.2 apg.) is a complete guard and is backed up by 5-10 running mate Kari Kincaid (5.3 ppg.). A trio of experienced 6-2 seniors return to the Wildcat frontcourt: center Marlie Gipson (11.7 ppg./7.5 rpg.), forward Ashley Sweat (11.2 ppg./3.4 rpg.) and forward Danielle Zanotti. The challenge for K-State and Coach Deb Patterson is developing their young bench to provide quality minutes in what will be the toughest and most competitive conference in the country.

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