Historically, it has been harder to find guests on the Jerry Springer show who have self-respect or people who have emerged from a Pauly Shore movie without a paper bag on their heads than to find new members of the women's college basketball elite.
For the most part, it has been the usual suspects -- Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Stanford, Connecticut, Virginia and Georgia -- to name some of the precious few, usually standing in the way of admission. And even when you learn the secret handshake for admission to the club, it can be even more difficult to stay there.
"It's easier to get kids to believe in building a new program than to get them into something that's moving up," said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, who has taken her team to three straight NCAA tournaments and appearances in two of the last three Atlantic Coast Conference tournament finals.
"Once upon a time, I could catch kids' attention by asking them to be a part of a new winning tradition. That was an exciting time, but I'm not talking to kids about that now. Now, I'm talking about winning the ACC championship or going to the Final Four."
Florida's Carol Ross can identify with Goestenkors. The Lady Gators have knocked heads in the Southeastern Conference, traditionally the nation's best women's conference, for years with little to show for it.
That is, until last season, when their 24-9 record took them farther than ever, with a third-place league finish, a five-point loss in the SEC tournament final and a first berth in the Elite Eight. Florida lost out on a trip to the Final Four in a two-point loss to eventual national runner-up Old Dominion in the Mideast Regional final.
But now, with last season's success as a backdrop and with four returning starters, the pressure to maintain and to move forward are palpable.
"If you look at the expectations from the outside, they're growing by leaps and bounds, but that's all right with us, because we're not where we want to be and we want the pressure, both from the outside and within," said Ross.
Those expectations may not get fulfilled, because, as usual, Tennessee stands in the way. The Lady Vols won their second straight national championship and their fourth and most improbable title in the past 10 years last March and are the overwhelming favorites to become the first NCAA women's team to win three straight.
Tennessee (29-10 in 1996-97) returns three starters from its title team and has what is being called the most talented recruiting class in women's basketball history, led by 6-foot-1 forward Tamika Catchings, the daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings.
Most importantly, the Lady Vols, the overwhelming choice for the top spot in the Associated Press preseason Top 25, capturing 35 first-place votes, have Chamique Holdsclaw, a 6-2 junior who led the SEC in scoring and was second in rebounding last season.
Holdsclaw, widely acclaimed as the best player in the game and the preseason choice as national Player of the Year, has two national titles in her first two years and is determined to get more.
"I want to do something no one has ever done. We want to be the first team in history to win three, maybe four in a row. We definitely have the talent. We just have to put it together," Holdsclaw said.
While the Lady Vols may be thin up front, save for Holdsclaw, no one appears to have the firepower, for now, to match Tennes- see's talent.
That is, except for No. 2 Louisiana Tech, which returns all five starters from a 1996-97 team that was eliminated by Florida in the regional semifinals. The Lady Techsters (31-4), who got the other five first-place votes, have senior center Alisa Burras, the best low-post player in college.
Louisiana Tech will travel to Knoxville, Tenn., next Friday for a season opener that could be the best regular-season game of the year, men's or women's.
From those titans, the drop-off is sizable. For example, third-ranked Old Dominion, which lost to Tennessee in the championship game, has the flashiest player in college, 5-11 point guard Ticha Penicheiro, who was granted a fourth year of eligibility under a new rule that allows partial qualifiers who complete their course work in four years to get back the year taken from them as freshmen.
However, the Lady Monarchs are thin up front, and won't have the element of surprise from last season, when they returned to national prominence.
No. 4 Stanford, which advanced to its third straight Final Four last season, is talented but very young, and North Carolina and Connecticut, the previous two national champions before Tennessee, will have to overcome early season injuries and ailments.
What all teams will have to cope with is the most significant rule change of the season, which incorporates the rule in the men's game that sends teams to the foul line for two shots after the ninth team foul of the half.
The change allegedly was made to reduce supposed confusion among fans of men's basketball, who didn't understand why the women continued to shoot the one-and-one after nine fouls.
"The men don't even like it," Goestenkors said of the two-shot rule. "It's not going to change any strategy. If we're behind, we're still going to foul. I'm shocked. We were all shocked."
Top 10 stories
1. Can Tennessee three-peat?: No women's team has ever won three straight NCAA titles, but no women's team has ever been as talented as the Lady Vols.
2. Hobbling along: With players like Jessica Gaspar (North Carolina), Mahogany Hudson (Florida), Monick Foote (Virginia), Shea Ralph and Nykesha Sales (Connecticut) and Keisha Brown and Signe Antvorskov (Georgia) all missing some time early in the season with injuries and ailments, some of the nation's powers may be slow out of the gate.
3. Carbon copy: This year, the women's game will bring over the rule from the men's game that gives two foul shots after the ninth team foul of the half to an aggrieved team. Some coaches are already protesting.
4. Follow the bouncing balls: Stanford's Kristin Folkl will join the basketball team after volleyball, and is All-America caliber in both sports.
5. Running away: On the other side, North Carolina's Marion Jones, a potential Player of the Year candidate, passed up her senior year to run track, where she won gold at the world championships this summer in the 100 meters.
6. Calling Bill Musselman: Coach Chris Gobrecht inherits the Southern California program, her third team in three years, following Washington and Florida State. Likewise, the Seminoles welcome Sue Semrau, their third coach in as many years.
7. End is in sight?: Virginia has finished first or second in the ACC in each of the last nine years. Stanford has won 45 straight Pac-10 games and 48 consecutive home contests. All three runs could come to an end this year.
8. The league to beat: Save for 1992, the SEC has had at least one team in each of the 16 NCAA Final Fours. That trend should continue this year.
9. Knocking on history's door: Texas' Jody Conradt is three wins away from becoming the first women's coach to record 700 wins. Conradt's record is 697-195 (.781 winning percentage) in 28 seasons.
10. The foreign connection: Besides Old Dominion guard Ticha Penicheiro (Portugal), Georgia center Elena Vishniakova (Russia), GW guards Noelia Gomez and Elisa Lopez (Spain), Tulane forward Alexandra Kiel (Germany) and Connecticut center Kelley Schmacher (Canada) should provide their teams with quality minutes this year.
Games to watch
1. Louisiana Tech at Tennessee, Nov. 21: The Lady Techsters' season opener and a potential national title game preview.
2. Tennessee at Stanford, Nov. 28: Game was moved from Maples Pavilion to San Jose Arena in order to handle an expected crowd of 15,000.
3. Stanford vs. Connecticut, Dec. 21: Neutral-site game (at Orlando Arena); should be a good test of opposite-coast powers.
4. Stanford at Arizona, Jan. 12: Rising Wildcats appear to be best Pac-10 challenger to the Cardinal, and this game could prove it.
5. Old Dominion at Connecticut, Jan. 19: The two likely candidates for the No. 1 East seed will go head-to-head in a nationally televised contest.
8. Old Dominion at Tennessee, Feb. 7: Rematch of last year's championship-game teams.
9. North Carolina at Duke, Feb. 12: May decide top seed in ACC tournament.
Players to watch
1. Chamique Holdsclaw, junior forward, Tennessee: May already the best woman to play the game, with a guard's quickness and a center's power in a forward's frame.
2. Ticha Penicheiro, senior guard, Old Dominion: NCAA rules quirk gives best point guard in college another chance at a title.
3. Tracy Reid, senior forward, North Carolina: olina: Undersized (5-10), but a ferocious rebounder.
4. Alisa Burras, senior center, Louisiana Tech: The best center in college and the key to the Lady Techsters' title hopes.
5. Nykesha Sales, senior guard, Connecticut: cut: Top all-around player who will be slowed early by mononucleosis.
6. Dominique Canty, junior guard, Alabama: bama: Fine offensive player who likes to crash the boards (7.5 rebounds per game in 1996-97.
7. Murriel Page, senior center, Florida: Thin, but deceptively strong and a good perimeter shooter.
8. Alicia Thompson, senior forward, Texas Tech: One of the nation's most underrated frontcourt players.
9. Olympia Scott, senior center, Stanford: Good quickness, but needs to get stronger for NCAA tournament.
10. Tamika Catchings, freshman guard/forward, Tennessee, and Nikki Teasley, freshman guard, North Carolina: Should vie for national Freshman of the Year honors.
Pub Date: 11/14/97