Will The Empire Strike Back?

With its third consecutive national championship, UConn has clearly established itself as the preeminent program in college basketball, a spot Tennessee held with distinction during its three-year reign from 1996-98 and again in the span from 1987 to 1991 when the Lady Vols won three titles in five years.

Despite their recent dominance, which includes six straight wins over UT, the Lady Huskies are now dealing with a role reversal which requires that they stay on top to meet expectations. That figures to be a much tougher proposition as Pat Summitt can certainly attest. With the loss of key personnel the chemistry of each edition changes and the balance of talent can swing on the hinge of a knee joint.

That may have been the case this year when the loss of point guard Loree Moore greatly impacted Tennessee's ability to attack on offense and pressure the ball on defense. Tennessee did a commendable job of adjusting to her loss and may have overachieved by reaching the finals. Put Moore in the lineup with her ability to break the defense down on the dribble or to match up with quick point guards on defense and you have a much better, deeper, more versatile team which is particularly important in tournament play where guards often rule.

It's reasonable to suggest UT would not have had to go to the wire three times or that it would have been better able to breach gaps in UConn's zone. Whether the Lady Vols would have pulled the upset is another matter since there were more talented UT teams that didn't play as competitive against UConn.

Bottom line: It's a new day in what is rapidly becoming one of the great rivalries in collegiate sports. Undoubtedly, the onus is on Tennessee to reestablish a competitive balance against UConn, but with Diana Taurasi irrevocably transformed to a mere spectator, you've got to like their chances.

More exciting than what the Lady Huskies lose is what the Lady Vols gain. Candance Parker is the nation's No. 1 prospect in what is generally regarded as the best class of prospects in the history of women's college basketball. The 6-foot-3 Parker is a female Magic Johnson able to shoot, pass, dribble, run the floor and slam dunk with the best of them. A hit since the first day she stepped on the high school hardwood scene, Parker averaged 21 points per game as a freshman and 22.3 points and 15 rebound per game as a sophomore. As a junior she averaged 24.1 points, 14.5 rebounds and four blocks per game, earning Naismith High School Player of the Year honors as well as being selected USA Today Player of the Year and first team Parade All-American. Parker showed no ill effects from offseason knee surgery while winning the dunk competition during last week's McDonald's All-Star game.

Add two other first team high school all-Americans in No. 1 point guard Sade Wiley-Gatewood of Lynnwood, Calif., and No. 1 shooting guard Alexis Hornbuckle of Charleston, W. Va., and it's clear the Lady Vols have a awesome array of offensive weapons to unleash on opponents. Then there are a trio of Parade All-American post players — Nkolika Anosike, 6-4, from Staten Island, N.Y., Alex Fuller,6-3, from Shelbyville, Tenn., and Sybil Dosty, 6-3 from Tucson, Ariz. — who can provide points in the paint and pound the boards in waves.

Tennessee also returns has an outstanding nucleus of players in Shanna Zolman, Shyra Ely, Sidney Spencer, Brittany Jackson, Loree Moore, Tye'sha Fluker and Dominique Redding. Those seven players alone would comprise a solid team that could develop into a title contender depending on the development of a couple of the younger players.

The challenge for coach Summitt is to blend the rookies and veterans into a harmonious and highly-efficient squad while developing a nine- to ten-player rotation that maximizes her strategic flexibility. The potential to achieve that objective appears very positive. The older players will welcome the influx of talent that can turn the tide against UConn while the younger players will benefit from not being rushed into service before they've acclimated to UT's system.

Of course, UConn also has an excellent core of returning talent that is tournament tested and proven tough. The Lady Huskies, whose name Jay Leno said "sounds like a plus size at Lane Bryant's," also has an impressive incoming class so the task will be considerable. That's especially true when you consider that there are more good women's teams every year and the NCAA format has changed to reflect that balance and the public's increased interest in the game.

That increase in exposure and popularity is due in no small measure to the competition between UConn and Tennessee. For the series to go to the next level and take the women's game with it the program UConn's Geno Auriemma calls the "Evil Empire" must strike back.

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