Nation's elite: more of same

If you're wondering which teams will meet in the women's Final Four in St. Louis, a natural starting point would be the four who finished 2008 in Tampa, Fla., where Tennessee beat Stanford in the national championship game.

Women's basketball, you see, is an active recycler. For the past eight seasons, at least one Final Four team has made it back the next year, with two or more teams returning to the national semifinals five times in that span. The men went four years from 2003 to 2006 with 16 different teams in the Final Four.


The traditional women's powers could easily finish the season as Arch rivals: Connecticut is a resounding No. 1 in the preseason polls, returning two of the game's most dominant players in forward Maya Moore and center Tina Charles. Next is Stanford, which returns a similar 1-2 punch in center Jayne Appel and forward Kayla Pedersen but moves on without All-America guard Candice Wiggins.

"Being ranked in November isn't the goal of this program," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who earned his first preseason No. 1 in four years. "It's winning in April that we focus on."


A rematch of last season's title game between Tennessee and Stanford is entirely possible, though that has happened only once (Connecticut and Tennessee in 2004) since the NCAA tournament began in 1982.

Stepping in for Wiggins won't be easy, but Stanford has a standout freshman in Nneka Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 power forward from Texas.

"She doesn't have to come in and be Candice. She's got to be Nneka," coach Tara VanDerveer told the San Francisco Chronicle. "She will stamp this team. She's someone who's a difference-maker, no doubt."

And if there's life after Candice at Stanford, there also could be life after Candace Parker at Tennessee, which lost five starters, including the top pick in the WNBA draft, but has legendary coach Pat Summitt back with a young but talented lineup.

Summitt saw four players go in the WNBA's top 16 picks, led by Parker and guard Alexis Hornbuckle. Want a sign the Lady Vols aren't leaving the national elite? On Thursday they scored 135 in an exhibition win over Carson-Newman, with freshmen accounting for 121 points.

"We're going to have to grow up in a hurry," Summitt said of her youngest team in 34 seasons of coaching. "There's something to be said for having a young team. It certainly fires me up. I get excited and I look forward to practice every day."

There's a larger challenge awaiting LSU's Van Chancellor, whose Tigers have made four straight Final Fours but lost all five starters from last season. Ranked sixth at the end of last season, they open this year ranked 24th, destined for a rebuilding season.

Who, then, is in the best position to replace LSU in the Final Four lineup? Start with Rutgers and Maryland, which lost in the regional finals. Rutgers has a deep freshman class for coach C. Vivian Stringer, while Maryland has seniors Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman, who were freshmen when the Terrapins won a national title in 2006.


Connecticut is an overwhelming No. 1, even though the nation's consensus top recruit, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, abruptly left the Huskies after two days of classes in the summer, citing a loss of passion for the sport; she played volleyball at Delaware as a walk-on in the fall.

Auriemma still has three players - Moore, Charles and guard Renee Montgomery - good enough to make the preseason Wooden Award list of 30 national Player of the Year candidates. He'll still have impact freshmen, too, such as guards Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes.

All the favorites have capable challengers in their conferences. Is this the year California gets past Stanford in the Pacific-10? Could Louisville break through the 1-2 dominance of Connecticut and Rutgers in the Big East? Could Virginia emerge from the powerhouse shadows in the Atlantic Coast Conference, or Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference?