In October, the women's college basketball season seemed like a foregone conclusion, just as it had the year before. The three-time defending champion Tennessee Lady Vols were returning all five starters from last year's unbeaten team.
By Nov. 15, when Purdue ended Tennessee's 45-game winning streak, there was hope that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year that someone other than the Lady Vols wins the title.
And now, with less than a month to go in the regular season, things are back to normal, as Tennessee has returned to form, with an 18-game winning streak, including victories over once and former Top 10 teams Louisiana Tech, Duke, UCLA, Connecticut, Georgia (twice) and Old Dominion.
The air of invincibility is about the only certain thing surrounding women's basketball as it makes the turn toward the Final Four in San Jose, Calif., at the end of next month.
Here's a look at how the top 16 seeds might play out when the field is announced March 7.
East (Greensboro, N.C.) : Tennessee, Old Dominion, Virginia Tech, Iowa State.
Midwest (Normal, Ill.): Purdue, Connecticut or Notre Dame, Georgia, Rutgers.
West (Los Angeles): Louisiana Tech, UCLA, Colorado State, Louisiana State.
Three of the No. 1 seeds are virtually etched in stone. The Lady Vols, Purdue and Louisiana Tech are running away with their respective conferences and have enough big wins over other Top 5 opponents to virtually guarantee that they'll get top seeds.
Their placements at regional sites obviously could change, but because the tournament committee must also consider attendance as well as the team's performance, it seems a fair bet that Tennessee will head to Greensboro to help sell some tickets in the Coliseum, which will be configured for 11,000 spectators, with Purdue going to Cincinnati or Normal.
Connecticut looked like a lock for the other No. 1 seed a few weeks ago, but injuries to three starters and losses to Tennessee and Boston College have made things precarious for the Huskies. Most likely, the winner of the Big East tournament, either Connecticut or Notre Dame, will grab the last top seed, with the loser getting a No. 2.
Duke, Old Dominion, Virginia Tech and UCLA appear to be the other strong contenders for high seeds. The Blue Devils, after a slow, injury-riddled start, have romped through the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the league's current fifth-place status in the RPI rankings won't help, and Duke probably will need to run the table in the regular season and the tournament, which would be a first in league history.
Old Dominion and Virginia Tech, meanwhile, have supplanted Virginia as the dominant basketball powers in that state. The Lady Monarchs have a critical nonconference matchup with Connecticut next weekend, while the Hokies, who were the last unbeaten Division I school until last week's loss to Xavier, may need to sweep the weak Atlantic 10 to get a No. 2 seed.
UCLA leads the Pac-10, but losses to Tennessee, Duke and Connecticut may cost it a No. 1 seed. Still, with the West Regional across town at the L.A. Sports Arena, UCLA could have a home-court advantage to the Final Four.
A new Sun Devil
Arizona State is struggling to get to .500 overall and probably will finish in the lower half of the Pac-10 standings, but it appears it will be a fruitful season for coach Charli Turner-Thorne.
Turner-Thorne, 32, and her husband are expecting their first child, and her due date is tomorrow. The third-year coach has been patrolling the sideline during her pregnancy, but she missed last weekend's games in the San Francisco Bay area because she was unable to fly.
Alas, Turner-Thorne won't be able to someday coach her bundle of joy to a women's national title, as she is expecting a boy.
The race to 800
Quick quiz: Name the women's program with 800 wins in its history.
It is a trick question. No school has reached that plateau, but two are close.
The obvious answer would have been Tennessee, which has 777 wins after last night's 96-58 victory over Mississippi and surely will hit the mark next season.
But Division III Elizabethtown (Pa.) would stump all but the most serious basketball fans. The Blue Jays have collected 798 wins in 71 years, with two national championships to boot, and could reach 800 next week.
Elizabethtown coach Yvonne Kauffman said she learned of the milestone from sports information director Matt Daskivich, who looked into the program's record only after doing research on the soccer program.
"Something you've been doing all along becomes a pride thing," said Kauffman, who is 521-164 in 29 seasons, including 17-1 this season. "I was very surprised. You don't envision yourself doing something ahead of a school like Tennessee."
Pub Date: 2/05/99