- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The ACC has become the new bully in women’s basketball.

With all due respect to the once-dominant SEC and Big East, it’s tough to argue with a conference that put three teams in the Final Four and produced the national champion in Maryland.

“There is a lot of debate, but I don’t think anyone after last year would argue with you who the best conference in the country is,” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “I haven’t had anyone disagree, and I’ve had people think it’s better this year.”

Even though it seems the top few conferences have dominated play recently, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt feels the game has grown in the last few years and more teams have a chance to win it all in Cleveland this April.

“The whole landscape has changed. If you go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was dominated by Louisiana Tech and Southern Cal,” Summitt said. “You look at how the game has changed now and there is more parity in the women’s game. Any of our top 20 or 25 could win the title.”

However, with all five starters back, including preseason All-America Crystal Langhorne, a top recruiting class and a key transfer, top-ranked Maryland is clearly the favorite. The Terps will try to become just the fourth team to repeat as national champions, joining Connecticut, Tennessee and USC.

“We’re fortunate because we have tremendous leadership in our junior and senior classes,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “The additional players we have brought in has enhanced the group of players we have. We do feel like we’ll be a lot stronger and have a lot more depth in our guard positions.”

All that stood between Ivory Latta and No. 2 North Carolina and an unbeaten season was Maryland. The Tar Heels finished the season 33-2 — 1-2 against Maryland and 32-0 against the rest of college basketball.

North Carolina was ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history and reached the Final Four for the first time since it won the ‘94 title.

Duke has the extended success under coach Gail Goestenkors but the Terrapins kept them from cutting down any nets last season as well. First it was a win over Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals that snapped a 14-game losing streak to the Blue Devils. Then Maryland rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit in the national championship game to beat Duke 78-75 in overtime.

“We know what happened last year. We had a great season,” said Goestenkors, whose team has been to three Final Fours since 2002. “Most people would be happy to get to the championship game. We’re not. … We used it as motivation to continue to improve.”

There is a lot of talent outside the ACC, with No. 4 Stanford hoping to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1997. The Cardinal have won a school-record six straight conference titles and are favored to capture a seventh this season.

It’s also tough to count out perennial contenders Connecticut and Tennessee. Connecticut hasn’t been to the Final Four since winning the last of its three straight titles in 2004 and the Huskies lost their top two scorers from last season’s team that reached the final eight. But Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma has faith in his young backcourt of Renee Montgomery and Mel Thomas.

Tennessee hasn’t won a national title since claiming its sixth in 1998. But Summitt has one of the most dynamic players in the country in Candace Parker. She spent her summer as the only college player on the USA national team, which won a bronze medal in the World Championships in Brazil.

Georgia may be hard pressed early in the season as the ninth-ranked Bulldogs will be without star Tasha Humphrey for the first six games after she was charged with underage possession of alcohol. Humphrey averaged 20.1 points and 9.1 rebounds last season, and will miss key games against Stanford and Rutgers.

Third-ranked Oklahoma will look to build upon last season’s 16-0 record in the Big 12, which for the first time no longer has Marsha Sharp at the helm of Texas Tech. She retired at the end of last season after 24 years and was replaced by former Purdue coach Kristy Curry. The Sooners return all five starters, including sensational sophomore center Courtney Paris — the first NCAA women’s player with 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in a season — and hope for a longer postseason run.


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