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Summitt hopes new season will be about hoops

- Associated Press - Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pat Summitt wants her 38th season at Tennessee to be all about the Lady Vols and not her public battle with dementia.

Considering what the Hall of Fame coach means to so many, it may be difficult for her to fully get her wish.

"That's what I want to talk about, basketball, not dementia," Summitt said. "I don't want a pity party, because it is what it is."

Summitt is sure to get rousing ovations of support when the Lady Vols are on the road, not to mention when they play at home beginning with Sunday's opener against Pepperdine.

The women's basketball season starts Friday for 14 of the preseason Top 25, including No. 1 Baylor and Brittney Griner. It ends in Denver _ the first time the Final Four will be held in the Mountain time zone.

Tennessee is clearly the sentimental choice to make it there and her Lady Vols players seem focused to win a ninth national championship for their coach.

"She's taking care of me as far as making me become a better person, a better athlete," Tennessee sophomore Meighan Simmons said. "I feel like now it's our turn to return a favor to her."

To reach Denver, the Lady Vols will have to end a three-year Final Four drought _ long by Rocky Top standards. This talented group of seniors, led by preseason All-America Shekinna Stricklen, is trying to avoid being the first Tennessee class to not make the Final Four in their careers.

The class of 1995 came the closest, as they didn't reach it until their senior season when they fell to Connecticut _ the first of Geno Auriemma's seven titles.

UConn's group this year is still a major contender despite the graduation of four-time All-America Maya Moore. Auriemma is happy to head into a season and not have to talk about streaks any more after the Huskies' NCAA record 90-game run came to an end last season.

"Could you imagine if they had kept that thing going?" Auriemma said. "It would have been so unfair to this new group to have to worry about that. Now we can just focus on basketball."

Auriemma has a talented freshmen class to complement the four returning starters, and a fifth straight trip to the Final Four isn't out of the question. He feels, for the first time in a few years, there's no obvious favorite to win it all.

"Clearly Baylor, Tennessee, and Notre Dame all have a lot of talent back," Auriemma said. "But everyone has some question marks. It will make the regular season more interesting and exciting."

It's already the first time in five years that neither UConn or Tennessee sits atop the preseason Top 25 poll. That honor falls on Baylor. The Lady Bears are led by junior phenom Griner. The 6-foot-8 star worked hard in the offseason to improve her game, spending 12 days with the U.S. women's national team, which is coached by Auriemma.

"She is definitely a unique talent," he said. "She's so hard to guard in so many ways, and she's just beginning to tap her ability."

Baylor has a tough schedule early with a potential matchup against No. 2 Notre Dame in the Preseason WNIT final in mid-November. The Lady Bears also play the Lady Vols and Huskies before the New Year. With Griner, coach Kim Mulkey feels her squad is ready.

"If you have a team capable of playing them, go play them," Mulkey said. "This schedule's extremely tough _ the toughest since I've been at Baylor."

One team that Mulkey won't play after this season is Texas A&M. The defending national champions are the biggest name in women's basketball to change conferences, with the Aggies heading to the SEC next season.

Mulkey said at the Big 12 media day that she won't play them anymore. That's unfortunate given the two rivals had four riveting games last season, including a NCAA regional final game that drew more than 11,500 fans.

The Pac-10 has undergone a major change this season, growing to the Pac-12 with the addition of Colorado and Utah. The new conference name probably won't effect the standings much as Stanford is the favorite to win its 12th straight league title.

Stanford will be looking to tie Connecticut and LSU with a fifth straight trip to the Final Four. The Cardinal have made it to the title game twice and lost in the semis twice.

While Stanford has been a Final Four mainstain the last few years, the Big Ten has been absent. No team from the conference has made the national semifinals since Michigan State lost to Baylor in the 2005 title game. It's the longest drought of any of the six major conferences.

Notre Dame fell just short of winning its second national championship last season, losing to Texas A&M in the title game. The Irish became the first team to beat both Tennessee and UConn in the same NCAA tournament.

Sensational junior guard Skylar Diggins became a fresh face for the sport during the Irish's tournament run, gaining nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter.

With Diggins return along with stars Devereaux Peters and Natalie Novosel, Notre Dame was picked to win the Big East for the first time in a decade.

The Fighting Irish have bigger goals in mind.

"It definitely still hurts," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I think that when we look at the last game, we decided then that we had to get ready for next year. We've got some unfinished business is the way we're looking at it. It's a different type of chip on our shoulder."

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Follow Doug Feinberg at http://twitter.com/dougfeinberg.

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