A break from tradition Women's basketball: A couple of new coaches, an early upset of defending champ UConn and a shift in the balance of power add up to a season that promises it will be anything but routine.


It seems that in the world of women's basketball, each day brings a new set of sensations and experiences.

Just this week, Connecticut, which ran the table last year to a perfect season and its first national championship, was introduced to something quite out of the ordinary: a loss.

The Huskies' 35-game winning streak ended abruptly in the season opener, when Louisiana Tech pulled out an 83-81, overtime win.

"The kids are stung because it's a different feeling than what they've had. You don't know how to behave or act, but it's OK," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.

Connecticut's win over powerhouse Tennessee turned the entire sport on its ear, giving the Northeast, where the nation's media moguls dwell, a reason to pay attention to women's basketball for the first time since the days of the Mighty Macs of Immaculata (Pa.) in the mid-1970s.

The Huskies' triumph prompted two networks, ESPN and Prime, to offer national games of the week. ESPN went a step further, obtaining the rights to the entire NCAA tournament and the Final Four, giving the game the kind of exposure it's never had.

Shortly thereafter, Vivian Stringer, one of women's basketball's more accomplished coaches, signed to leave Iowa for Rutgers, where she'll be paid an estimated $300,000 a year, putting her salary in line with many of the nation's men's coaches.

The new theme even extends to the court, where the last three national champions (Texas Tech, North Carolina and Connecticut) were first-time winners.

In a change from the pattern of women's basketball, in which four or five teams -- usually from the Southeastern Conference -- ruled, a list of 10 to 13 legitimate national title contenders could be drawn up.

As the season begins in earnest this weekend, here's a look at

the contenders and exciting players by region:


Teams in the hunt: The Huskies lost national Player of the Year Rebecca Lobo to graduation and the U.S. national team, but with two preseason All-Americans, point guard Jennifer Rizzotti and center Kara Wolters, Connecticut could be on its way to Charlotte, N.C., the site of the Final Four.

Meanwhile, Virginia, with all starters returning to a squad that finished the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season unbeaten last season, plus two prized front court recruits, should have its best chance at a national championship since its three straight Final Four trips in the early 1990s. North Carolina State has its best team in 10 years and a great young center in sophomore Chasity Melvin, the ACC Rookie of the Year last season.

Player to watch: Virginia forward Wendy Palmer, who finished just behind Rizzotti in preseason All-America balloting, is the key to the Cavaliers' season. Virginia likely will power through the ACC, and with the East Regional on its home court, should get to the Final Four. But, it cannot win a championship unless Palmer can put aside the aching in her knees and take the Cavaliers along for the ride.


Teams in the hunt: History has taught that the likely champion will come from this region, and the strongest set of candidates for 1995-96 comes from here.

Picking a winner from the SEC could be difficult. Tennessee and Georgia (which returns all starters) were Final Four teams a season ago, Vanderbilt narrowly missed getting to Minneapolis and Arkansas got nipped in the preseason National Invitation Tournament final Tuesday.

The best team in the region, however, might be Louisiana Tech, which has the nation's best backcourt in Debra Williams, who hit the winning layup Sunday to beat Connecticut, and preseason All-American Vickie Johnson.

Player to watch: Georgia junior La'Keshia Frett was the most sought-after high school player in the country three years ago, and she displayed flashes of that promise. At 6 feet 3, she's big enough to play in the post, but has the speed and outside touch of a guard.


Teams in the hunt: The field here is wide-open, with a number of teams with enough flaws to question their title hopes, but enough talent to make things uncomfortable for those at the top.

Texas Tech lost four letter winners from a team that reached the Mideast Regional final, but has one of the nation's most underrated coaches, Marsha Sharp, and a solid returning core. Stringer left a talented group of recruits at Iowa, which could challenge Purdue and Penn State for the Big Ten. The sleeper team, though, could be Colorado, which won the preseason NIT on the road Tuesday.

Player to watch: Because of her school's relative obscurity, DePaul senior forward Latasha Byears hardly has been seen or received proper attention, but her 26-point, 10-rebound averages tops among returning players in the nation, should move her front and center for Player of the Year honors.


Teams in the hunt: This is easily the weakest region in the country, and the only question out West is whether the absence of Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, on a year's sabbatical to coach the Olympic team, will keep the Cardinal from another trip to the Final Four. No one in the West has Stanford's depth, though Southern California could make things interesting, now that Cheryl Miller has turned over the coaching to ace recruiter Fred Williams.

Players to watch: Stanford forwards Kate Starbird and Kristin Folkl are versatile players, who like Frett, can play inside and out. Folkl, a world-class volleyball player, may not be available until after that season is completed or may redshirt to try out for the Olympic team. Starbird should be able to take up the slack.

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