The 2003-04 women's season could be one of the most competitive in memory. Only three Pacific 10 teams, Arizona, Stanford and Washington, made it into the NCAA tournament last spring, and although the conference tournament champion is assured a spot, at-large bids this season could be harder to come by.
USC last appeared in the tournament in 1997 and UCLA in 2000.
UCLA , which was 18-11 overall and fourth in the Pac-10 last season, thought it had a good shot at getting an at-large NCAA bid, to the point of turning down an offer from the WNIT. Instead, the Bruins were jilted by the NCAA selection committee, and for the third straight season, missed out on postseason play.
If Coach Kathy Olivier is feeling any pressure to end that streak, though, she is not showing it.
"There is always pressure to win at UCLA," Olivier said. "As a coach, that's all you think about. And three years is a long time not to be in a [postseason] tournament. But I also think we're on the upswing."
The Bruins, who open the season at home Sunday against UNLV, have 10 players back, three of them starters, including All-Pac-10 guard Nikki Blue (16.6 points), and welcome a respected freshman class led by guard-forward Noelle Quinn, a Parade All-American whose Torrance Bishop Montgomery team won four consecutive state titles.
But there are holes to fill.
The biggest one was left by Michelle Greco, two-time conference scoring champion who graduated.
"The hardest thing about not having Michelle is, you always knew what you were going to get," Olivier said. " ... It's always comforting to know you would get points from somewhere."
Blue will get her points, but another consistent, go-to scorer must emerge.
More important, however, is rebounding. The Bruins were seventh in the conference at 36.6 per game, and last in rebounds allowed at 42.2.
That makes UCLA's averaging 73 points all the more remarkable. The Bruins made up for the lack of rebounding by averaging nearly seven fewer turnovers than their opponents, and, with a full-court pressure defense, led the conference in steals at 13.1. But opponents have had time to develop countermoves to that defense.
To compete against Stanford, Texas and Ohio State, all on its schedule, UCLA needs sophomore forward Julia Pitts, an excellent rebounder, back at full strength, and its post players willing to battle for the ball. Pitts tore two knee ligaments against Baylor in December.
Just as crucial, Blue will have to be a steady leader, something not often asked of sophomores.
While UCLA was enjoying its best season since 1999, the Trojans were playing a brutal schedule with a limited roster. Coach Chris Gobrecht never had more than 10 players available and sometimes had to go with eight or nine.
USC was crushed in early losses to Notre Dame, Tennessee and Connecticut, and by the time Pac-10 play began, the Trojans already were beaten down. They lost six of their first seven conference games and, despite an upset of Stanford, stumbled to a 14-17 record overall and a tie for fifth in the Pac-10.
Gobrecht hit the recruiting trail hard and came away with a solid class. She added seven freshmen, most notably Eshaya Murphy of Montclair Prep, Markisha Lea of Riverside Martin Luther King and Chloe Kerr of Bolingbrook, Ill. The Trojan bench will be young, but at least there is depth.
"Already in practice, we're not as tired because we don't have to do as many reps," said Ebony Hoffman, one of four seniors and seven returning players.
USC, which opens the season tonight at New Mexico, still has some rough spots to smooth. Senior guard Jessica Cheeks, who was suspended for the final 10 games last season to concentrate on academics, won't return until Dec. 19. Aisha Hollans won't return at all, having been dismissed from the team before transferring to Long Beach State. Senior guard Rometra Craig's desire to score often obscured her athletic gifts, and junior 6-5 center Kim Gibson (3.3 points, 2.4 rebounds) has yet to live up to her potential.
The schedule is only a little less difficult than last season's. Connecticut is still there. So are Notre Dame, Colorado and New Mexico.
Gobrecht, though, is optimistic.
"I do like this basketball team," she said. "I like the way the returning players are working so hard to be better for us to compete at the level we want. I love the enthusiasm of the young kids. It's a tremendous environment in the gym. And I believe this team can do some things. I feel as good about this team as any I've had since I've been at USC."
That should come as good news to Hoffman (16.3 points, 9.8 rebounds). This will be her last chance to play in the NCAA tournament, something she craves.
"I want to say I played at least one game in the tournament," Hoffman said. "If we lose by 40 or win by 50 -- and hopefully we win -- I just want to be in the tournament. Because I've done everything else."