In addition, the rise of Arizona State and USC as legitimate challengers to Stanford's long-held Pac-10 throne appears to be only the beginning. California and Oregon State both brought in new coaches with excellent pedigrees, and UCLA's Kathy Olivier will be coaching with a sense of urgency, as the pressure is on her to have her record match her talent.
Of course, there are still questions about old standbys Washington and Oregon, plus the tragic loss of Shawntinice Polk at Arizona, and it's hard to see how Washington State will ever climb out of the mire. But the general trend in the Pac-10 is clear, and it's good news for the league -- if not Stanford's continued dominance.
1. Stanford (32-3, 17-1 in the Pac-10): The Pac-10 has been Stanford's private little sandbox for what seems like forever, and though the Cardinal are still clearly the top team in the league, their playground is under assault. Luckily, they have one of the best players in the country, Candice Wiggins, to hold off the hordes, as well as two good to excellent post players in 6-3 Brooke Smith and 6-5 Kristen Newlin.
The question, though, is how to replace all those senior guards -- sophomore Cissy Pierce was the prime candidate. She's hurt (though she'll be back by the time the games start), so Stanford hopes are focusing on freshman Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. If she can't deal as a freshman, though, then junior Clare Bodensteiner is going to have to return in style after a redshirt season. Still, Tara VanDerveer isn't going to allow much of a dropoff, and she'll get all there is to get out of people like Krista Rappahahn and frosh Jillian Harmon. Expect another Pac-10 crown, but don't expect it to be easy.
2. Arizona State (24-19, 12-6): Can ASU challenge Stanford for the conference crown? The answer is Noe, as in Jill Noe. It's been a few years for Noe who followed up her Pac-10 All-Freshman selection with two ACL tears. If she can recapture some of her scoring skills from before the injuries, the loss of Kylan Loney, the team's primary ballhandler and third leading scorer, won't be quite as devastating.
The Sun Devils have a quite a bit coming back, including their top two scorers in Emily Westerberg and Kristen Kovesdy. They also return their leading rebounder, and have strengthened their front line with their freshman class adding 6-6 post Kirsten Thompson, a McDonald's All-American.
They should have chemistry on their side but they don't have a ton of experience at the game's most important position, point guard. Replacing Loney will be sophomore Reagan Pariseau, who was the backup last season but played nearly 19 minutes per game. Behind her will be another member of the freshman class that coach Charli Turner-Thorne named "the Incredibles", Briann January, who was one of the best point guards in her class. Unheralded freshman Danielle Orsillo, who led the state of California in scoring her last two years in high school, could also add firepower.
3. USC (20-11, 12-6): All agreed it was a magical season for the Women of Troy -- but everyone also knows that magic, like lightning, doesn't stick around long. So the challenge for Mark Trakh and his horde of interchangeable parts (nine players averaged between five and 10 points a game) is to somehow call down the thunder again.
Everyone's back, and there are only two frosh, so there will be some continuity, but then again the Trojans were outshot substantially (42.5% to 38.4%). They made up for that with solid rebounding and exceptional defense (+106 in turnovers), but they also won't take anyone by surprise this season. Perhaps the key to the season will be the improvement of sophomore point guard Camille LeNoir, who didn't shoot well and turned the ball over too much in her first year. But if she plays under more control, she could be the catalyst for an even better USC season in '05-06. If she doesn't, though, the Trojans could fall back to the pack.
4. UCLA (16-12, 10-8): There's no doubt that when Nikki Blue, Noelle Quinn and Lisa Willis are at the top of the their games UCLA can play with anyone. But the Bruins lost five of their last six as injuries took their toll -- and there's still not much in the paint. Lindsey Pluimer is 6-4, but she went to the free-throw line just 54 times in 891 minutes (while noted three-point gunner Willis got to the line 86 times in 966 minutes).
There's hope that 6-2 Julia Pitts can stay healthy and at least provide a defensive presence inside, but the Bruins are going to rise and fall on their trio of guards. If all are healthy, expect better than 16-12, but Kathy Olivier's coaching has never been compared to Geno's, so a challenge to Stanford is unlikely. Of course, if UCLA doesn't start harnessing all that talent, Olivier may join the recent exodus of Pac-10 coaches at season's end. By all accounts, Olivier is popular with her players, so maybe that will inspire UCLA to the consistent effort that has escaped the Bruins in recent seasons. And of course, it wouldn't hurt to be injury-free either.
5. Oregon (21-10, 12-6): The Ducks pride themselves on being a blue collar, defensive-minded team -- and they better be after losing their top two scorers in Catherine Kraayveld and Andrea Bills. Those two also happen to be their leading rebounders and shotblockers. They do, however, return one of their better defenders in 6-0 guard Kedzie Gunderson, who missed last season with an ACL tear. Their offense will need a boost from behind the arc and that could come from senior guard Chelsea Wagner, who was shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range until a knee injury cut her season short last year. The Ducks also need Brandi Davis to have a great senior season to make up for the scoring loss.
The Ducks have only one new freshman, so they will need to continue their hard-nosed defensive style, and all the returning players are going to need to step up for the Ducks to stay in the top half of the conference. They have a balanced attack and have some good shooters, but their season and a chance to get back into the NCAA tournament and follow up last year's upset of TCU in the Big Dance is going to depend on how disruptive their defense will be.
6. Washington (14-16, 9-9): If experience counts, the Dawgs are going to be better than most expect this year. Everyone is back and. more importantly. healthy. Senior guard Kristen O'Neill has just enjoyedthe first offseason in her Husky career in which she was healthy for its duration, and able to put a great deal of work in. Coach June Daugherty should also be able to get this team off to a fast start, as the struggles of putting in a new offense last year will not reoccur.
The Huskies had a so-so overall record but their non-conference schedule last year was tough, before going .500 in conference play. What they need to improve is the scoring impact from their top two seniors, Kayla Burt and O'Neill. Both hovered in the nine- to ten-points per game range, along with junior guard Cameo Hicks. If they can step their presence up with the better understanding of the offense perhaps they can overcome their lack of interior defensive prowess, as the league doesn't have much for superior inside offensive player outside of Brooke Smith. Look for the Huskies to be better than last year, whether their record reflects it or not.
7. Arizona (20-12, 11-7): The shadow will linger over the Wildcat program all season, as the sudden death of Shawntinice Polk will be all but impossible for players, coaches and fans to forget. It seems almost disrespectful to assess the impact of her death on the team's chances, but that too can't be ignored, as Polkey was the team's top returning scorer, rebounder and shotblocker, and was the second-leading returner in steals and assists.
DeeDee Wheeler graduated, taking with her 17.9 ppg and 4.3 apg, which leaves Joan Bonvincini's cupboard pretty bare. A trio of returning guards -- Natalie Jones, Jessica Arnold and Ashley Whisonant -- will lead the way, but the most important component may be post Shannon Hobson, who's the only player taller than 6-1 and one of two non-freshmen who top six feet. Bonvincini has averaged more than 18 wins a year in her time at Arizona, and the last time the Wildcats won fewer than 20 games was 2001-02. They won't win 20 this year, and 18 would be an exceptional effort. Regardless of what happens on the court, though, it's going to be a sad season.
8. California (11-18, 4-14): It's not about what happened, it's about what will happen. The Golden Bears have a brand new coach (Joanne Boyle, late of Richmond) and their first two McDonald's All- Americans in local girls Devenai Hampton (6-3 and mobile) and Alexis Gray-Lawson (5-7 and clutch). Six-three post Jessica Lawson, who would have been a perfect complement to Hampton, tore her ACL last week and will miss the season, which means the collection of decent frosh and borderline Pac-10 talent must try to help the two heralded recruits elevate the program.
Boyle, though, has energized the Bears, and Hampton and Gray-Lawson are the kinds of players to build around. The schedule is dotted with teams like Radford, South Carolina State and UC Davis, so there should be some wins -- though they may be hard to come by in the Pac-10. The backcourt will be shaky and the outside shooting suspect but Hampton has the capability to take over games, even at this level. Whether she will do so as a freshman is hard to say, but better days are coming in Berkeley.
9. Washington State (6-22, 2-16): The Cougs return their top three scorers and are looking to battle it out with Cal, Arizona, OSU and Washington for spots in the Pac-10 tournament. The Cougars will lean on Kate Benz, who as a sophomore earned honorable mention all-Pac-10 honors. Benz and junior guard Adriane Ferguson both nearly averaged a double-double and they will need that and senior Charmaine Jones to step up if they are going to get into the top eight to make the tournament.
WSU may also get some interior help from incoming freshman post Ebonee Coates. The 6-4 Coates has the size an athleticism to help the Cougars. They also add more size in Santa Rosa JC transfer Sabrina Shired in the post. Shired stands at 6-4 and after redshirting, will join Coates, and guards Katie Appleton and Amanda DuRocher to a solid recruiting class for the Cougars.
10. Oregon State (6-23, 1-17): Can first year head coach LaVonda Wagner get more out of the returning Beavers to improve on their conference record?She has earned acclaim for her recruiting successes at Duke but will come into this season with the former staff's recruits -- which include Kim Butler, Mandy Close, Anita Rivera, Karen Vickery and Ebony Young, who should help in the experience category.
Naturally, Harper wants her Beavers to compete this year, but success may be simply getting in to the conference tournament. With the loss of Shannon Howell, the pressure to score is going to be increased on all the returners, especially 6-1 forward Kim Butler, who averaged 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in her first year at OSU after transferring from Santa Clara. Now the number one option, she will look for senior guard Mandy Close to keep defenses from keying on her. New system, new coach and losing the leading scorer to graduation might add up to a rough season, but given some time, Wagner should get the OSU program out of the cellar. It probably just won't happen this year.
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