After last season, when Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, led largely by freshmen and sophomores, went 39-0 and won its third consecutive NCAA championship, it looked as if the only question for this season was who would finish second at San Jose’s 1999 Final Four.
Hold the phone.
Let’s wait until Jan. 10 on that.
That’s when Pat Summitt’s team plays at Connecticut, a matchup suddenly shaping up as a season-turner.
As the shock of Purdue’s 78-68 upset of Tennessee last Sunday subsides, it appears that three teams, not one, are in the hunt for the 1998-99 national championship.
You start with Tennessee, because they’ve done this six times in the last 12 years--including the last three--and you cut the Lady Vols some slack for losing Sunday at Purdue. After all, after 46 consecutive victories, who can blame a bunch of sophomores for thinking all they had to do was show up?
But count on this: It was a lesson learned.
“We got exactly what we deserved,” Summitt said Sunday.
“I saw it coming. We were at [Purdue’s] mercy. We never affected them at all defensively. I’ll be interested to see how my team responds to this. This is a young group that hasn’t been down this road before.”
So all may be well, after all, in Meekdom. Meek I is 6-foot-2 senior Chamique Holdsclaw, maybe the best ever in the women’s game. Meek II is 6-1 Tamika Catchings, daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings. Meek III is 5-10 Semeka Randall, arguably the best defender in her sport.
Holdsclaw and 5-10 senior point guard Kellie Jolly can become the first NCAA players, men or women, to win the national title four straight seasons. Freshmen were ineligible for varsity play in the days of UCLA’s men’s domination.
The dynasty that Summitt--now in her 25th season--has built also is showing a profit.
The Lady Vols finished in the black last year for the first time, revenue exceeding expenses by $405,000.
Connecticut certainly looked like a contender last weekend in San Jose, burying Duke and Arkansas in the Four in the Fall tournament.
Purdue played a defensive gem against Tennessee, picking up Summitt’s guards as soon they touched the ball and not allowing a single meaningful run by the Tennessee offense.
Purdue’s coach is Carolyn Peck, who in the summer moves up to the WNBA to coach expansion Orlando. But she’s not leaving town until she plays this one out.
All five starters return from a 23-10 team, plus two high school All-Americans have been added, 5-7 Kelly Komara and 6-5 Mary Jo Noon. Sophomore wing Katie Douglas was a force in the win over Tennessee.
Lying in wait in the early going is Leon Barmore’s Louisiana Tech team, 31-4 a year ago and ranked second in every major preseason poll.
Louisiana Tech has everyone back from the team that went to the NCAA title game, plus a great freshman class. But it carries this baggage: The Lady Techsters lost in the regular season to Tennessee, 75-61, and again in the NCAA title game, 93-75.
Barmore meets Summitt again in Ruston, La., and also plays host to Connecticut Jan. 18. The best of the rest are Kansas, George Washington, Georgia, Texas Tech, Old Dominion, Rutgers and Virginia.
Stanford? How the mighty have fallen. Tara VanDerveer lost major assets to graduation--Kristin Folkl, Olympia Scott, Heather Owen and Vanessa Nygard.
VanDerveer recruited a brilliant freshman wing, 6-2 Lindsey Yamasaki from Oregon City, Ore., and 6-6 sophomore Carolyn Moos is considerably improved over her disappointing freshman season. But Stanford is soft at the guards.
So figure UCLA as having a decent chance to unseat the Cardinal as Pacific 10 champion.
The NCAA regional tournaments are at the Los Angeles Sports Arena March 20-22, Greensboro, N.C.; University of Cincinnati, and Illinois State University at Normal, Ill.
The Final Four is March 26-28 at San Jose Arena.