How well did we predict the fates of the most highly regarded teams at the start of the 2008-2009 season? Did each exceed, fall below or come close to living up to the various expectations through February 1? As things stand now, are they still on track for the Sweet Sixteen?
The list of teams discussed back in November serves as the basis for this analysis, as opposed to starting with the current top 25.
The clear favorite
1. UCONN – Maya Moore will lead and the rest shall follow. The roster is loaded with WNBA draft picks but perhaps only eight deep. Thus, a repetition of last year’s ACL outbreak could put a big dent in their chances.”
Update – Exceeded expectations: The Huskies haven’t just been number one but really one and two as no opponent has been within 10 points at game’s end. Playing no more than seven, depth could yet become an issue. With three lottery-jackpot starters, Geno has made do around them. Given the remaining schedule, Connecticut should go into the post-season undefeated, barring further injury or a desire to shake the team up by taking an “L.” Even if they do win out, I do not see them as the best ever, just best in a down year.
Rest of Top (Dare not say "Final" at this point) Four
2. OKLAHOMA – If Sherri Coale can’t get the now-senior Paris twins to the Final Four, it will be used against her in recruiting. Key will be improved perimeter shooting.”
Update – On target: At the moment this appears to be accurate as the Sooners are second in both polls. Still, let’s not forget OU lost to North Carolina at home, be it only by one, and got pummeled in Storrs. The Sooners are better than last year for three reasons. They have two outside shooters in junior Nyeshia Stevenson and freshman Whitney Hand. Point guard Danielle Robinson is now a sophomore and Ashley Paris is having more games where her contribution is significant.
3. RUTGERS - Look for a big year from Epiphanny Prince. With a lot of talented frosh, expect bumps but they start with more experience (in Prince and Kia Vaughn) than other freshman-laden teams.”
Update - Well below expectations: Coach C. Vivian Stringer has looked perplexed as only Epiphanny Prince has been consistent offensively. Having dropped out of the polls, the Scarlet Knights looked like they may be starting to turn the corner after their recent road win over Notre Dame, only to lose the next one at home against South Florida. Their heralded freshman class has not blossomed as yet. In spite of the most recent setback, I’m buying a few Rutgers shares as I can’t see this stock dropping much lower.
4. NORTH CAROLINA – Word out of Chapel Hill is the Tar Heels will go smaller and be faster (if possible). With the top of the ACC perhaps down a tad but still very strong, another team from that conference or elsewhere could wind up here.”
Update - Slightly below expectations: The Tar Heels looked up to billing until the recent three-game skid that took them out of the top 5. Rebounding seemed to be the key issue in those setbacks. Regardless, this is a potential Final Four team. Jessica Breland (6-3, JR, F) will be a high pick in next year’s WNBA Draft. Cetera DeGraffenreid (5-6, SO) is one of the top underclass point guards in the game.
More of a Potential Elite 8
5. DUKE – Only a slasher is missing by position. Team chemistry is another question but they are deep and more likely than most to still prosper after a serious injury.”
Update – About on target: The Blue Devils had but one blemish (a loss to Hartford) until their recent upset in Tallahassee. They try to jam the ball down your throat in a slow, methodical way. Only Chante Black (6-5, SR, C) is averaging double figures on a physical and athletic team that is all about defense. Watching them lose in Tallahassee, I was impressed with the number of competent players off the bench as well as by the relentless D. In spite of the loss, the Blue Devils controlled most of the game prior to the OT session. Yes, they will likely drop from the AP3/ESPN6 ranking, but still, I am not a seller.
6. AUBURN – Start with DeWanna Bonner, the SEC Pre-season Player of the Year. The return of point guard Whitney Boddie is most critical as the team faltered badly from her absence in January and February. Post KeKe Carrier is back minus a lot of excess weight and at 6-7 should help against certain match-ups. Most have the Tigers third in the SEC pecking order. Call this our long-shot pick!
Update – Target exceeded, but watch out: I had the Tigers much higher than everybody else. Despite getting to watch three of their victories in person, including the home win over Tennessee, I sold my remaining shares in the Tigers, taking my profits, as I sensed the next move was to be down from their most recent Top Five perch. It came sooner than expected with a road loss to Georgia. Why have I soured on the Tigers when most were finally tuning in to the merits of this team? Auburn’s interior defense is not that strong, badly wounded by the loss of Jordon Greenleaf (6-1, JR, F/C), their best post defender, after the Ohio State win. Depth is very limited and no bench is being developed as Coach Nell Fortner rides her senior-laden starters. Auburn may yet win the very down SEC regular season but the Tigers are vulnerable on the road. Their best wins have all been at home. Individually, Bonner and Boddie have not disappointed. Interesting trivia: The Tigers are the only ranked team to have all starters from their home state (Alabama).
7. TENNESSEE – Obviously, this team is loaded for the future but lacks experience for this year and that should count for something. It would not be surprising to see them win the SEC Tournament even if they fall short in the regular season as predicted here.”
Update – Well below expectations: I can’t say I wasn’t warned. In Los Angeles last summer, Coach Pat Summitt picked her squad fourth in the SEC when I asked her about the upcoming season. When I told her I had Auburn first, she didn’t raise an eyebrow. Currently ranked in the mid-teens, the Baby Vols spend too much time making unforced errors, thus helping to beat themselves. Tall and broad shouldered (except for 5-2 freshman point guard Briana Bass), this is one of the best-built group of players that you are going to see. Besides experience, they need help at the point. Due to chronically bad knees, projected starter Cait McMahan (5-4, SO, PG) has stopped playing for at least this season, leaving Bass as the only true point. Shekinna Stricklen (6-2, G/F) may be the best freshman in Division I and Glory Johnson (6-3, 4F) is not far behind. Despite their inexperience, I would be a buyer of Lady Vol stock, planning not to sell until late next season. In the short term, however, the ride is likely to continue to be bumpy.
8. STANFORD - The big question is how the front line talent of Jane Appel, Kayla Pedersen and rookie Nnemkadi Ogwumike will be fit together. Bet Pedersen gets the heavier reduction in time. None is really a perimeter player. The Cardinal has a lot of good perimeter players on the squad but no Candice Wiggins.”
Update – About on target: The killer injury this season has been the loss of J.J. Hones (5-10, JR, PG) which has left the back shaky at times. So far Kayla Pedersen (6-4, SO, F) is getting more time than the highly touted freshman Ogwumike (6-2, F). At times, Pedersen is playing as a tall wing (think Sidney Spencer of the Sparks). Perhaps the biggest blow to Stanford’s future occurred when Top Five national recruit Skylar Diggins (5-8, G) decided to stay home in South Bend and attend Notre Dame. Recently ranked AP9/ESPN8, I rate Stanford stock a hold for now.
The Rest of the Potential Sweet 16 (”Most have Maryland higher and Auburn lower. Only time will tell …”)
9. VIRGINIA – Look for Monica Wright as ACC Player of the Year. Aisha Mohammed may be the top post in that league. The biggest question will be holding the point together but reports indicate frosh Ariana Moorer will be adequate.”
Update - Below my expectations but about on target elsewhere: I was higher on the Cavs than most pre-season prognosticators. A constant series of player suspensions and injuries has not helped. In Charlottesville, it is the Big Three--Monica Wright (5-11, JR, G); Lyndra Littles (6-1, SR, F); and Aisha Mohammed (6-3, SR, C)--who carry the load. Point guard has been by committee after expected starter Paulisha Kellum (5-8, JR) was lost to the dreaded knee injury prior to the season. Ranked in the upper teens, the Cavs should move up after their home win over Maryland. The lack of consistent production beyond their three stars will probably keep them from getting further than a Sweet Sixteen berth in the Big Dance.
10. VANDERBILT – The ‘Dores were the pre-season pick to win the SEC but size remains a question. In 2007-08, they were tougher than I can remember. Rarely should one pick them to beat the Lady Vols but my crystal ball sees one ‘W’ for them this season.”
Update – Below expectations: At least you can check off that win over Tennessee I predicted in November. Besides that, however, the Commodores have taken losses to several unranked teams and were recently ranked in the low twenties. The problems include a lack of size and consistent scoring from their guards. When your second leading rebounder is 5-9 (senior Jennifer Risper), it can lead to problems. The main inside threat is Hannah Tuomi (6-0, SO, C) who at least is strongly built. Their other effective tall player Christina Wirth (6-1, SR) is really a wing. No other players are averaging in double digits. Of their five losses, four have been on the road. Getting the right match-ups will be critical for Vanderbilt to get past the NCAA round of 32.
11. TEXAS – The talented Horns just seemed to be missing ‘something’ last year. With a year under Coach G, expect better things to come.”
Update - Below my expectations but about on target elsewhere: The Longhorns hover in the mid-teens in the national polls. This team is better than last year as was expected, just not quite up to what this humble scribe expected. The roster is filled with high level-recruits and is significantly deeper than last year. The biggest problem is that nobody has stepped up to be an All American-level player and the seniors on the team in particular have not raised their games. Most would have expected Brittainey Raven (6-0, JR, G) to be their “special” player but it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, the ‘Horns are currently being led in scoring by the less heralded Kathleen Nash (6-2, SO, 3F). Raven’s production has slumped to below 10 ppg during conference play, one reason for Texas’s recent skid. Ashleigh Fontenette (5-8, G) has been their best freshman of late. I still predict a Sweet 16 finish.
12. MARYLAND – The perimeter is back but the posts are gone replaced by talented but much less experienced troops. Look for another good year by the Beltway but perhaps not up to the pre-season expectations of most.”
Update - Close to my expectations but slightly below those of others: The Terrapins started out as high as Number Five in many pre-season polls but quickly dropped after their loss to TCU. Their best win to date occurred recently over North Carolina. Losses seem to stem more from a lack of defense than anything else. Seniors Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver will both be high first-round WNBA draft picks but both are at times defensively suspect. Lynetta Kizer (6-4, C) may be the top freshman in the ACC and Demauria Liles (6-1, JR, 4F) is a quality junior college transfer. Both now appear to be fitting into the offense. If you check the roster, you will find that this team has more significant players that grew up within an hour of the campus than most. Credit that to superior high school basketball in the Metro DC area. The Terrapins have enough talent to send their seniors out with a second Final Four appearance but probably won’t unless the defense tightens up. Rate this stock a hold at this time.
13. CAL – Depth and not playing smart at times have been issues for a club that returns its prime players. The health of Devanei Hampton’s knees is another question.”
Update – Above my expectations but about on target elsewhere: The Bears are still in the Top 10 where most had them pre-season. Their meltdown in blowing a 26-point lead to Oklahoma indicates that the problem I originally pointed out is still an issue. In watching Cal on Saturday playing home versus USC, managing a lead was still an issue. The good news is that Devanei Hampton (6-3, SR, F/C) appears to be moving and playing better. At her best, she appeared to be a first-round WNBA draft pick, now likely somewhat lower. Cal has picked up more depth with the return from recent injury of Rama N’diaye (6-5, JR, C/F) and the development of freshman Casey Morris (5-9, G). While the Golden Bears could reach the Final Four, their continued failure to take care of the ball and questionable shot selection under pressure must be addressed. Cal should make the Sweet 16 but this is a stock I could not buy at its current Top-Ten price.
14. TEXAS A&M - With key players gone to the WNBA, injured returnees and newcomers must step up. Play at point guard, where projected starter Sidney Colson is still recovering from knee surgery (due back sometime this season), is a question.”
Update - Above my expectations but about on target elsewhere: The Aggies were between Seven and 10 in most of the very early polls and are still in that neighborhood after a stint in the Top Five. As discussed previously, they rely on defense to keep them in the game with almost no offense from the low post. Only in losses to Baylor and Oklahoma have they allowed the opponent to score over 60 points. The additions of Tyra White (6-0, FR, G) and Tanisha Smith (6-0, JR, F/G) have made up for many of the losses to graduation. The point guard play is the area where the Aggies are behind last year as the two Sidneys--Colson (5-8, SO) and Carter (5-6, FR)--have not made up for the loss of A’quonesia Franklin now with Sacramento in the WNBA. Rate the stock as a hold as a probable Sweet 16 participant.
15. PURDUE – The Boilers have injured players Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Jodi Howell back to go with an experienced group from last season.”
Update – Well below my expectations but about on target elsewhere: So far the Boilermakers have let me down. Yes, they broke into the rankings, getting as high as AP-17 on December 1, but then they headed south. Currently, they are not close to being ranked, having received no votes in either the AP or the ESPN poll in late January. Granted, the loss of point guard FahKara Malone (5-3, JR) set them back in the last few weeks. Still, other players have not stepped up enough. Seniors Lindsay Wysdom-Hylton (6-2, 4F) and Lakisha Freeman (6-1, 3F) are having good years, but other players have failed to fill the gaps in the losses. Freshman Brittany Rayburn (6-0, G) has helped the Boilermakers win several games, most notably over Texas, but takes the third most shots while connecting on fewer than 40% from the field.
16. ARIZONA STATE – The ‘hockey team’ (my nickname due to their rapid substitution pattern) should again be competitive in the Pac, particularly with so many upper class players. Will a star emerge or just more of the ‘team effect?’”
Update - Below expectations: The Sun Devils were expected to be in the Top 15-20 category nationally, but have not measured up. Four of their six losses have been by five points or less, but their only win over a team that has been ranked this year came at home against Xavier. Other than a loss at Nebraska, they have performed pretty much as current rankings would dictate, beating those behind them and losing to those ahead of them. ASU scoring is led by its guards--Briann January (5-8, SR) and Dymon Simond (5-5, JR). Both are quality Division I players, but I would not say threatening All-American level. January will likely be drafted by the WNBA this spring. The Sun Devils still try to wear the opponent down with frequent substitutions. If the bracket breaks just right, I could still see them in the Sweet 16, but at this time can’t be considered a favorite to get there.
BAYLOR – Will this year be special or just be remembered as the year before Brittany Griner came to Waco? Return of Jhasmin Player (back from late season injury of last year) could be the key.”
Update – Exceeded expectations: The Lady Bears were not expected to be a Top 10 team, but had moved all the way up to ESPN-3 until their home losses to Oklahoma and Texas. This is a hard-nosed, physical team, but not an exceptionally talented one offensively. Danielle Wilson (6-3, JR, C), best known for shot blocking, leads the Bears in scoring and held her own in the Oklahoma game. Transfer Morghan Medlock (6-1, JR, F) gives them a player of starter quality off the bench. Melissa Jones (5-10, G) appears improved in her sophomore year. Point guard play--Kelli Griffin (5-8, SO) backed up by off-guard 5-10 Jhasmin Player--may be the area needing most improvement to reach beyond the Sweet 16. With super recruit Brittney Griner due in Waco next year, expect to see a lot of Baylor games on national television in the future.
FLORIDA STATE – I watch this team a lot (living just north of Tallahassee). The starting five are as solid as I can remember for a Seminole squad with all able to score in double figures. Back-up point and scoring off the bench remain questions.”
Update – About on my target by but above the expectations of others: The Seminoles started out making my preseason analysis look bad with non-conference losses to Florida (doesn’t look so bad now), Valparaiso and Washington (one of the worst in the Pac 10). Then they turned things around, losing by a mere dozen to Connecticut, and have since notched wins over Texas A&M, Virginia and Duke, the last two both in OT. As a result, Florida State was most recently ranked AP-18/ESPN-20. The coaches point to better role definition, and I will point to better point guard play by Courtney Ward (5-7, SO) who was benched earlier this year when things were not going so well. Mark down Jacinta Monroe (6-4, JR, C/F) as a WNBA draft pick next year. The ‘Noles' balanced offense walks a fine line between success and failure. Don’t be surprised by either an Elite 8 appearance or an early knock out from the Round of 32. Perhaps as much as any team this year, Florida State typifies the statement that anything is possible (good or bad) and you had better play this season one possession at a time.
IOWA STATE – Last year, the Cyclones made the NCAA tournament minus its starting PF (Toccara Ross) & C (Nicky Wieben). Both should be back this year plus the bomb squad making them the best in the northern portion (not really a separate division in this sport) of the Big 12.”
Update - About on my target but slightly above the expectations of others: The Cyclones were unranked by most in the pre-season but have been in (mostly the 20s) and out of polls most of the year. They shoot the three-ball a lot and try to defend the inside with fewer athletes than most quality teams, playing more man than you would expect. Having the best fan support in the Big 12 (Iowa State brought the most fans to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City last spring), they are unbeaten at home so far this season. In the past, the Cyclones have struggled against athletic opponents in the post-season. Don’t be surprised at another first round post-season win, but beyond that, the match-up will probably have a big say in their chances for success.
LOUISVILLE – Loss to injury of their biggest inside player Chauntise Wright should hurt their results but they still have Angel McCoughtry, a possible #1 pick in next April’s WNBA Draft.”
Update – Above my expectations but about on target elsewhere): The Cardinals, currently hovering around Number 10 in the national polls, did not play one of the stronger non-conference schedules. Their best wins have been over Middle Tennessee, Utah and Xavier until the win over Rutgers who has stumbled quite often this season. In their recent 81-49 victory over Providence, All-American Angel McCoughtry had 43 points. Nobody else reached double figures. Candyce Bingham (6-1, SR, 4F) is the only other Cardinal averaging double figures. Louisville should get a high enough seed to make the Sweet 16.
NOTRE DAME – The Irish will use a balanced attack to make up for Charel Allen, who graduated into the WNBA. A good team searching for a star?”
Update – Above my expectations but about on target elsewhere: The Fighting Irish rose as high as AP-10/ESPN-4 in the January 12 polls, but after recent losses have moved closer to pre-season expectations (AP-16/ESPN-14). What this is saying is that the coaches (ESPN) think this team is better than the writers (AP) believe it to be. The team’s stats show balanced scoring. Going into the season, the Irish's biggest strength was projected to be their depth. That took two hits with losses of sophomores Devereaux Peters (6-2, 4F) and Brittany Mallory (5-10, G) to the dreaded knee injury. Notre Dame still has a competent squad but no All-American-level players. Depending on bracketing, expect the Irish to win one or two NCAA Tournament games.
OHIO STATE – Jantel Lavender is back after a super frosh campaign. Key will be the addition of rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis and return of forward Star Allen, who sat out most of the second half of last season to work on academics.”
Update – Slightly above expectations: The Buckeyes were expected to be in the high teens going into the season but most recently were AP-15/ESPN-14. Leading the Big Ten, the strength of the team is up the middle with Jantel Lavender (6-4, SO, C) and Star Allen (5-11, SR, 4F) along with freshman point guard Samantha Prahalis (5-7) who constantly makes things happen—at times for the good (happily, for the Buckeyes, more often) and at times for the worse, as she is a high risk taker.
OKLAHOMA STATE – Andrea Riley is back to make a run for conference player of the year where Courtney Paris is favored. The support crew is different. Will Danielle Green be missed?”
Update - About on my target but below the expectations of others: The Cowgirls were AP-14/ESPN-15 pre-season. Currently they are just barely receiving votes in both polls. Sometimes Andrea Riley (5-5, JR) plays on the edge of control and sometimes she is out of control as OSU’s point guard and attack force rolled into one. Regardless, she needs more help if the Cowgirls are to repeat last year’s Sweet Sixteen success. Danielle Green (from last year’s team) is missed.
Hitting the Spotlight Since November
Update: The Lady Gators were picked to finish Number Six in the SEC. They opened the season losing to Florida Gulf Coast who just last season moved up to Division 1. Since that setback, Florida has gone 20-1, losing only at Auburn. During their run, the Gators chalked up victories over Florida State, Arizona State and Pitt, all of which have been ranked this year. As a result, Florida was recently ranked AP-12/ESPN-16. This is a typical case of seniors stepping up to take possession of their team. Marshae Dotson (5-11, 4F) and Sha Brooks (5-7, G) are the only Lady Gators in double figures. Brooks’s motto is “when in doubt attack the basket.” Dotson has a similar mentality in the paint. An interesting story involves walk-on Steffi Sorensen (5-10, JR, G), now on scholarship. Starting her college career as a Division 2 player at the above-mentioned Florida Gulf Coast, she transferred to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville for her sophomore year. Not receiving a scholarship offer she was satisfied with after completing her JUCO career, she decided to walk on with the cross-town Lady Gators, already rich in three-point shooters. Sorensen won the starting job. Through 22 games she is the team’s leading long-ball shooter and averages over 28 minutes per game. This club’s ranks are relatively thin. They are, however, a legitimate Sweet 16 candidate depending on their bracket.
Update: The Musketeers have been in and out of the polls this season. Currently, the club, led by Ta’Shia Phillips (6-6, SO, C), is undefeated in Atlantic 10 play. If Amber Harris (6-5, JR, 4F), rumored to be possibly coming back from a knee injury, is ready in March, this Cincinnati-based team could be a dangerous NCAA opponent. Why they would take away her red-shirt year is simple. Harris will be a very high WNBA draft pick and will have instant earning power in Euro-ball. The smart money says she would leave school after the 2009-2010 season anyway. Why not give it a go now if she is medically cleared come March?
Update: The Wildcats most recently were ranked AP-14/ESPN-12. They have played a very weak schedule (where did some of those opponents come from?) prior to Big 12 Conference play where they have split with Iowa State and lost to Oklahoma on the road. Shalee Lehning (5-9, SR, PG) is one of the best at her position in the country but the team as a whole lacks depth and size. Their scores tend to be low, as they walk the ball up the court to minimize possessions. Unless they get a tremendous NCAA seed, don’t expect the Wildcats to go past the Round of 32 in the Big Dance.
It’s a year of parity/mediocrity in D1 ball. Beyond Connecticut (assuming no further significant injuries), don’t count on anything. Rutgers currently wins the prize for falling farthest short of expectations to date. Florida is the biggest surprise in my book on the positive side. I like the ACC as the conference with the best chance to put multiple teams in the Elite 8 – it even has a shot to put more than one in the Final Four.