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SEC preview: The Vanderbilt Commodores

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today begins Southeastern Conference coverage, with the Vanderbilt Commodores.

If last year was a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt, as many said, then they did well. SEC coaches and media members last week tabbed the Commodores as this year’s conference champions, topping Tennessee by 12 points and second runner-up Auburn by 27.

Yet, in an ESPN poll just released today, Vanderbilt is picked to finish 12th (while Tennessee is seventh – http://sports.espn.go.com/ncw/rankings?poll=1). Whichever the case ends up being, the word is out that the Commodores will be in the running.

Much of this is due to what the Vandy coaching staff refers to as “the two-headed monster” of guards Jence Rhoads, a sophomore, and junior Jessica Mooney. Rhoads started her team’s final 21 games last season and earned SEC all-freshmen honors, while Mooney was named the conference’s sixth woman of the year. Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said the combination is dangerous because Mooney allows Vandy to “wear down other teams while we have fresh legs.”

In that case, maybe the Commodores have a six-headed monster. After graduating three all-conference seniors in 2007, last year’s team featured one senior and several underclasswomen. This year, all five starters, plus Mooney, return.

“We’ve never had that here,” Balcomb said. “We’ve been graduating our leading scorer almost every year – usually more.”

Last year’s scoring leader was forward/center Christina Wirth. Along with fellow senior guard Jennifer Risper, Vanderbilt’s second-leading scorer, the two are poised to lead the team. Balcomb said both are well-conditioned, and their “mental toughness” will lead a group that includes four sophomores and two freshmen.

Other returning starters are guards Merideth Marsh and Rhoads, and forward Hannah Tuomi. Marsh, a junior, played point guard in high school, but moved to shooting guard with the arrival of Rhoads last year. Balcomb was pleased with Marsh’s work at the 2, and will keep her there.

The coach also indicated she will rely heavily on the bench this season for paint play – specifically, forwards Amber Norton, Rebecca Silinski and Amy Malo. The latter two have battled injuries the last couple years, but are ready to make a contribution.

Vandy’s two new freshmen are Tia Gibbs from Louisville, KY and Jordan Coleman of Orlando, FL. Gibbs lead her team to a state championship last year, and was named Ms. Kentucky Basketball. Coleman won all-state honors in both track and basketball.

The Commodores get their start tomorrow with a home exhibition game against Tusculum. After a second pre-season game, their schedule gets brutal.

In November, they face Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, East Tennessee State and Michigan. A California trip will take them to Cal State Fullerton (I’m going to that one) and UC Riverside in December. After that, they go home to face Liberty and Notre Dame at the end of the month. The team will play their home games on a brand-new floor.

“Last season, we started what I thought was our best defensive team since I’ve been here, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what we are capable of defensively this year,” Balcomb said.

The Sparks introduce “Fantourage”

Last night the LA Sparks introduced their new promotional “Fantourage” program to a group of about 25 hardcore fans at a downtown restaurant. Of course, I was there.

Fantourage is a marketing program that puts fans to work helping to find new season ticket holders for the coming season. It was piloted by the Atlanta Dream, according to Sparks Account Executive Erica Pacheco. The goal of the new franchise was to sell 300 season ticket packages; they sold 364. The Dream office wasn’t answering their phone this morning for comment.

Besides the Sparks this year, the New York, Minnesota and Washington D.C. franchises are also launching Fantourage-type programs, Pacheco said. But Sparks staffers want their effort to top them all.

“We want to compete with them,” Pacheco told fans last night.

Fans arriving last night walked into the patio/event area were greeted by the entire Sparks sales staff – and a boa-clad Coach Michael Cooper – taking their pictures, as if fans were the stars and the Sparks staffers, the paparazzi. Fans received an information packet, and the mingling began.

I introduced myself to the new Sparks president, Kristin Bernert. I heard about her hiring last week and was intrigued, because the Sparks haven’t had a president before. I asked Bernert what the difference between her and General Manager Penny Toler would be, and Bernert said Toler would handle basketball operations while she focused more on the business side of the Sparks.

I really liked Bernert. Besides being friendly, she seemed like a straight shooter. I asked her if she was from New York, and sure enough, she was. From 2005 to the present, she had been vice president of team business development for the WNBA, and before that, she was VP of business operations for the Detroit Shock. Fans gently gave her a bad time about that job.

A few minutes after our conversation, the introductions began. Co-owner Kathy Goodman was her usual wisecracking self, commenting that this was “the first day that it had gotten below 140 degrees in Los Angeles.”

Bernert made a strong impression, asking fans why they were Sparks fans. Five people spoke. They mentioned the friendships they’d made with the people in their section, the “love affair” they had with the players, the coaches and the staff, and how much fun they had going to games. I spoke up and mentioned that fans appreciate the opportunities they have to interact with the players and “watch” them in action, i.e. at SEC Night, Trader Joe’s, and other places.

Cooper took his turn at the mike, still wearing the red boa. Among other things, he told fans that they had a love affair with them back. We also found out before the night was over that Cooper loves to bang the office gong when a sale is made.

I must say, I love Cooper as a person. He’s sweet, friendly, and incredibly silly. He’s always messing with fans in a good-natured and funny way. I asked the staff if he’s always like that, and they smiled and nodded.

Cooper and I have been on a first-name basis since the Sparks camp in August, when he asked my opinions. Last night he gave me a hug and told my daughter from another mother, who came with me, that I was his assistant coach but just didn’t know it yet. I told him he looked fly in the boa.

Sparks forward Jessica Moore was also on hand, and thanked fans for coming. She also stuck around a little bit afterwards to talk.

After all the account representatives were introduced, Pacheco walked us through our instruction packet. It outlined how we should represent the Sparks, what to tell prospective ticket buyers and how to host sign-up parties. We also learned about the perks we could get, and they’re really an incentive, to say the least.

I’m not sure how many season ticket packages I can sell (I’ve already sold one), but I’m going to try. There’s nothing to lose here, and everything to gain in this win-win for the Sparks and us hardcore fans. After all, word of mouth has been one of the best selling methods for decades. I want to beat the fans of other WNBA teams in this effort.

As a postscript, both Goodman and Cooper took the blame for the second-game semifinals loss against San Antonio. Each said they had already projected past that 1.3 seconds and a few minutes into the future, as if the Sparks had already won.

“I’m going to live in the moment now,” Goodman said, and Cooper echoed the statement a few minutes later.

all the news that’s fit to print

Coach Nikki Caldwell held her first press conference today as the head of the UCLA program. Watching the interview, her confidence comes through. I can’t wait to see the team play! Four days and counting. Here’s the link to the interview:

http://uclabruins.cstv.com/sports/w-baskbl/ucla-w-baskbl-body.html

____________________

Unfortunately, the news was not as good up north at Cal, where senior Devanei Hampton has been sidelined for 12 days after her healing knee flared up:

STANFORD, Calif.: California center Devanei Hampton, the 2007 Pac-10 Player of the Year, is being held out of practice probably until at least next Tuesday because of a setback with her surgically repaired right knee.
The 6-foot-3 senior underwent a knee operation at the start of last season and then another procedure this past offseason to clean it out. Since official practices began Oct. 17, she had been experiencing regular swelling that kept her out of some drills, coach Joanne Boyle said Tuesday during a media day for the Cal and Stanford programs.
Last week, Cal athletic trainers decided to hold Hampton out of practice for 10 to 12 days, which will take her to about next Tuesday. She also received a cortisone shot in the knee.

Here’s the link to the entire story, by the Associated Press:

http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/10/28/sports/BKW-California-Injuries.php

As the owner of a knee with tendinitis, I really sympathize, and I wish Hampton a complete and quick recovery.

____________________

Finally, there was the cutest picture from yesterday’s Lady Vol practice. Not sure what’s going on here, but someone on “the Summitt” board suggested that Vicki Baugh was carrying freshman Briana Bass to her team after scrimmage teams had been picked. Whatever the case, the reports seem to be true that this team is already pretty dang close for the amount of time they’ve been together. This is good news!

And this is adorable:

Bass carried by Baugh

Bass really reminds us Tennessee fans of Shannon Bobbitt. Hopefully she can bring the same kind of energy. I want this team to start bringing home some championships soon.

She’s baaaaaaack!

Guess who showed up to practice in Knox Vegas today?

she's baaaaack!

Candace told the media she’s enjoying her time off, hasn’t touched a ball in a month, and she seemed happy and relaxed. She wouldn’t comment on her shoulder, but spent some time with Vicki Baugh, above, whom she is close to. (Baugh seems to be recovering well from her ACL tear, by the way).

Cappie Pondexter and some other former Scarlet Knights go back to visit their old school, too. It says a lot about the coaches and the programs they create when players go out of their way to come back and visit. It’s heart-warming.

And it’s great to see Candace with such a big smile on her face. I’m so happy she’s getting a chance to rest.

Big East preview: Rutgers

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Right now it’s time to look at Rutgers, of the Big East Conference.

My girl Rebecca, a complete basketball head from Queens, went to the Scarlet Knights’ “meet the team” event last Sunday. I’m all about live reports, so I wanted her to tell me what went down.

She said the event started by everyone introducing themselves, after which Coach C. Vivian Stringer talked a little bit. Then they began an open practice.

After team stretching, they began to run drills. Rebecca said there was “lots of weaving,” and that Stringer was “fit to be tied” when her team missed maybe four of the first seven lay-ups in one drill. But they got it together quickly.

The Scarlet Knights ran 4-on-2 breaks, which Rebecca found exciting, and she thought their defensive plays were brilliant. Senior Heather Zurich had an exceptional block on one play – a complete put-back. So it looks like defense will be on tap this year. But Rebecca said some players were perhaps a little eager, coming close to side-tackling their teammates.

It’s still early, and I’m sure Stringer will iron it out. The Hall of Fame coach is pretty good at that.

What I thought was amusing was that when everyone split up to sign autographs, Stringer had the longest line. That’s what happens when a longtime coach sees her floor leaders graduate and releases her autobiography in the same year.

But the lack of recognition issue will work itself out too. This beast of a group of freshmen (third-best recruiting class in the nation last year) will leave its legacy – mark my words. And I don’t think they’ll waste much time getting to it.

To be sure, Rutgers will miss Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson this year. Avajon, selected fifth in the 2008 WNBA draft, lead the Scarlet Knights in assists and was second in scoring last year. Carson, drafted seventh, was the Big East’s defensive player of the year for three consecutive seasons.

The other three starters are still around, however.

Besides being her team’s leading scorer, junior guard Epiphany Prince averaged 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game last year. She was named to the all-Big East first team. Senior Center Kia Vaughn is fourth on Rutgers’ all-time blocks list, and has also lead the team in rebounds for three straight years. Zurich, another senior, switched to the four-spot two years ago but will return to the small forward position this year, which the school says is her “natural position.”

Other key returnees are junior guard Brittany Ray, who hit 31 3-point shots last year, and Myia McCurdy, who tore her ACL in the Notre Dame game Feb. 29, ending her season.

As for the five freshmen, their resumes already read long.

Nikki Speed of Pasadena, CA and Brooklyn Pope of Fort Worth, TX were co-MVPs of last year’s McDonald’s All-American team. Jasmine Dixon of Long Beach, CA was also an All-American, was Gatorade’s player of the year for her state, and was named to USA Today’s all-USA first team. Mississippi’s April Sykes was her state’s Gatorade player of the year, was on Parade Magazine’s All-America first team with Dixon, and was on USA Today’s second team. Chelsey Lee of Miami, FL was an All-American.

Three of the freshmen were also ranked in the top 10 nationwide by hoopgurlz.com: Sykes was second; Dixon seventh and Pope, ninth.

Kinda puts a whole new spin on the word “reload,” doesn’t it?

Dixon is the only freshmen I’ve seen play. She and her Long Beach Poly team went up against the team I was coaching with last year several times. Dixon is the truth – a complete player. She’s a nice kid, too, and really goes after opportunities.

Rebecca said Dixon was looking good last Sunday, and I’m not surprised. The only thing that would surprise me is if she didn’t end up in the first round of the WNBA draft in 2012. I have no doubt that the other newcomers will stack up the same way.

Like their friendly orange rivals to the south, Rutgers will be rebuilding/reloading this year. Stringer will have her hands full, but no doubt, she will shape a brilliant team. After reading her autobiography “Standing Tall” this summer, I don’t think there’s anything she can’t handle.

The Scarlet Knights were ranked fifth on Lindy’s pre-season poll and eleventh on Athlon’s. They play their first game – an exhibition against Operation Athlete – at home Nov. 4.

Pac-10 preview: The Northern California schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today, the final installment in the Pac-10 previews: the California Bears and the Stanford Cardinal.

Those looking for new blood at the top of the Pac-10 conference this year are out of luck.

That’s because both the California Bears and the Stanford Cardinal return virtually the same powerhouse teams that went to the NCAA second round and finished National runner-up, respectively, in 2007-08.

Cal, under fourth-year coach Joanne Boyle, return all five starters, including All-Pac-10 first team choices Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton. Only bench player Krista Foster is lost from last year.

Of course Stanford graduated All-American Candice Wiggins in 2008, and bench player Cissy Pierce is also gone. But four starters return, and one promising newcomer arrived with world-class credentials already in her pocket.

Pac-10 coaches picked Stanford to win its ninth consecutive conference title this year, but Cal was picked to finish second in the NCAA in Athlon’s pre-season poll and third by USA Today.
It’s going to be a fierce battle in Northern California for the top spot.

Boyle, who came to Cal from Richmond, wasted no time in taking a once-obscure program to the top of the list. She was named Pac-10 coach of the year in 2006-07, and that spring hired Stanford assistant coach Charmin Smith away from her alma mater and Tara VanDerveer, who has headed that program for 22 years.

Walker and Hampton, both forwards/centers, last year averaged 15.3 ppg and 9.3 rpg and 13.5 ppg and 8 rpg, respectively. Senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, an all Pac-10 second team selection, averaged 11.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg. Joining them in the back court are junior guards Natasha Vital and Lauren Greif.

New Bears this year are two guards: Angelei Aguirre of White Plains, NY and Casey Morris of Piedmont, CA.

Scout.com called Morris, who played with Ashley and Courtney Paris at Piedmont High School, “a shifty point guard with the ability to create shots for herself and for her teammates. Considered by most the top ’08 point guard in California.” As a junior, she averaged 21 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals per game, which sounds like a complete player to me. I look forward to seeing her on the court.

Stanford will see the return of formidable forwards Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen, who as underclasswomen last year, lead their team to the Big Dance with teammate Wiggins. Appel averaged 15 ppg and 8.8 rpg and Pedersen, 12.6 and 8.8.

Junior guard JJ Hones, senior forward Jillian Harmon and sophomore guard Jeanette Pohlen are other top returning players. Junior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude is redshirting again this season, after redshirting the 2006-07 season with a knee injury. Melanie Murphy and Michelle Harrison are both also redshirting a second consecutive year this year with knee injuries.

The Cardinal have four freshmen this year, but perhaps most intriguing is Nneka Ogwumike of Cypress-Fairbanks High School in Cypress, TX. She lead her team to a state 5A championship last year. Then in July, Ogwumike lead the USA’s under-18 team to a gold medal at the FIBA world championships in Argentina, and was named tournament MVP.

Scout.com characterized Ogwumike as having great hands and great athleticism. “Her leaping ability, hang time and balance along with her great hands make her impossible to front without committing two players to her defensively. She can receive the ball in so many places and finish in a single, fluid motion. She is a handful inside. She can step out and shoot the three as well, and block shots and rebounds very well. Her next step is more with her back to the basket when people stop fronting her,” Scout wrote.

I sincerely hope that Cal-Stanford matchups are televised this season.

Whew! USC’s Parker is OK

The news this morning wasn’t good – senior center Nadia Parker was hit by a car yesterday when riding her bicycle on campus. She was thrown off the bike and onto the hood of the car, smashing the windshield. It doesn’t get much more scary than that. (http://dailytrojan.com/news/student_hit_by_car_near_campus)

But thankfully, Parker’s arm isn’t broken, said USC women’s basketball spokeswoman Darcy Couch.

Couch said Parker, who lead the team in points and rebounds last season, has “cuts, bruises and a lot of soreness.” Parker may miss the team’s first exhibition game, but her injuries are not season-ending, according to Couch.

I’m very glad to hear this. For a team that just lost two players to ACL tears this year, losing a starter would be thoroughly miserable.

Pac-10 preview: The Washington schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. This evening, the spotlight shines on the Washington universities.

Washington state Pac-10 schools have taken recycling to a whole other level.

June Daugherty was fired from the University of Washington in March, 2007, and was promptly hired by rival Washington State University. Besides retaining her husband as assistant coach, Daugherty also hired two Seattle-area coaches to help her work with players.

Tia Jackson, former assistant to Gail Goestenkors at Duke, was hired by the UW in April, 2007. She has brought aboard former Husky player Loree Payne (2003) as an assistant coach, as well as former Oregon State University head coach Judy Spoelstra (fired by that school in 2005).

The first year for both coaches was rough.

A month after being hired, Daugherty went into cardiac arrest in front of a hospital. It took doctors 14 attempts to revive her. That year, she coached her sometimes struggling team to a 5-25 record, finishing last in the Pac-10.

Jackson, in her first head coaching gig, was left with a freshmen class that had been recruited by Daugherty. Four out of six of them didn’t want to stay and work with the new coach; one tried to rescind her letter of intent right away, but the UW refused.

So there was an undercurrent of discontent from the get-go. That, combined with what UW fans called Jackson’s heavy-handed tactics in her first year, resulted in what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called a “stormy” season for the Huskies. And when the year was over, all four discontented freshmen had left the school. The team finished sixth in the conference, with a 13-18 record.

“I thought I was extremely patient last year,” Jackson told the P-I. “I really have to exercise that patience this year……Last year we had 14 players and they were all new, but so was I and so was the system, so everyone was kind of like deer in headlights.” (1)

One thing the two coaches do have in common this year is they both have rosters stacked with newcomers: five freshmen and two junior college transfers for Jackson, and seven freshmen for Daugherty, to be exact. Both coaches are getting their feet underneath them, and Daugherty, in particular, has a big goal.

“I intend to turn WSU into a powerhouse for women’s basketball,” she told parents and coaches at the team banquet of one of her LA recruits last spring.

It would be cool if she does indeed do that. I want Oregon schools to rise up, and I feel the same way about Washington schools. It would be nice to see the Northwest on the Pac-10 map for a change.

Jackson is left with one returning starter in junior Sami Whitcomb, as two seniors and two of the freshmen that left comprised the rest of the lineup. Five bench players return, as does Seattle’s own Mackenzie Argens, whose freshmen season ended early last year with injury.

The new players hail from all over the U.S. and include one Australian guard, freshmen Nicole Romeo. The JC transfers are Christina Rozier, from Miama, FL and Lydia Young of Detroit. Another Seattle player, Regina Rogers, will sit out this season after transferring from UCLA after her freshman season.

Daugherty, with the help of assistant coach Brian Holsinger, recruited the 16th best class in the nation last year. The group features a trio of California guards who were playing well past the end of the regular season last year, if you know what I mean.

April Cook, 5-8, helped her Long Beach Poly team win its third straight state championship in March, capping off a brilliant career. Cook’s Jackrabbits beat 5-10 Jazmine Perkins and her Berkeley High School team, which was state runner-up for the second year in a row. In the semi-finals, Poly almost lost to Narbonne High School in a dramatic game that featured dynamic Gauchos point guard Danielle LeNoir, 5-6. LeNoir’s sister, Camille, is the starting point guard for USC.

The other freshmen are Katie Grad of Auburn, Washington; Jessica Oestreicher of Shasta Lake, CA; Rosie Tarnowski of Philadelphia, PA; and Lexie Pettersen of Spokane, WA. Three seniors, one junior and three sophomores return.

UW fans who long complained that Daugherty let local talent leave the state will be pleased at the eight Washington players on this year’s roster. Long-suffering WSU fans will be happy at the infusion of talent on the Cougars’ roster, and at their new coach’s enthusiasm.

I look forward to seeing both teams, because of the great potential of each. But I anticipate one showdown in particular: the one between the LeNoir sisters on Jan. 24, 2009, at the Galen Center in Los Angeles. I am already planning to give away my UCLA ticket for that night so I can go to that game instead. You don’t usually see that much basketball talent in one family, so it should be interesting, to say the least.

1. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/cbasketball/383762_uwom17.html

Pac-10 preview: The Southern California schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today’s column features Pac-10 Conference rivals the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The sneakers have barely begun to squeak on the floors of the two Southern California powerhouse schools, but the women’s basketball teams at both institutions have already seen some drama.

Not one but two Trojan players – both high school All-Americans – were lost last week to repeat ACL tears. Stefanie Gilbreath, who sat out her freshman year in 2007-2008 with a torn right ACL, sustained the same injury to the same knee, and will miss this season. Jacki Gemelos has already sat out two seasons from ACL tears in her right knee. Last week she tore the ligament in her left knee, and damaged cartilage.

“You shake your head and wonder why this kind of thing happens to good kids,” Coach Mark Trakh said of his injury-prone team. “But both are great kids, and both are looking to come back and have great years next year.”

Across town, there were a few reverberations when UCLA fired longtime coach Kathy Oliver last spring, and hired the University of Tennessee’s brilliant assistant coach Nikki Caldwell as her replacement. Two players chose not to return: Regina Rogers and Alexis Oliver, the former coach’s daughter. Star forward Lindsey Pluimer graduated.

The show must go on, of course, and despite the setbacks, the seasons of both teams have much potential.

USC will be lead by senior guards Camille LeNoir and Brynn Cameron – players who each had to redshirt the 2006-2007 season, and are back for a fifth year to have their senior season. Center Nadia Parker, a true senior, will fill in the third lead role for the team.

As a graduate of Narbonne High School, LeNoir is descended from basketball royalty, and unsurprisingly is an electric player. She returned to her starting role as point guard last year by leading the team in assists, steals, and becoming the second-leading scorer. She made 40 3-point shots during the season, and was named to the all-Pac 10 third team.

Parker, from Washington state, was her team’s scoring, rebounding and blocks leader last year, and was named to the all Pac-10 second team. She was also named Pac-10 player of the week last November.

Other key players back for the Trojans this year are junior guard Heather Oliver, sophomore center Kari LaPlante and junior forward Hailey Dunham.

Newcomers include Ashley Corral, a Washington state guard who will be LeNoir’s back up at point; Briana Gilbreath (Stefanie’s sister), a guard; Michelle Jenkins, an Oregon forward; Taylor Lord, a forward from California; and Daniela Roark, a junior who sat out last year after transferring from Fordham University.

Trakh, entering his fifth season as coach, said he has new goals for the team this year – some of which are tied into the possibility that USC could host the Pac-10 tournament and/or rounds 1 and 2 of the NCAA western regional tournament next year.

“Our goal is to win over 20 games, reach the sweet sixteen and sell out those NCAA games at the Galen Center,” he said. “The future looks great. We’ve just got to get out there and play exciting basketball.”

One intriguing footnote to this year’s Trojan team is the mysterious transfer of junior guard Morghan Medlock to Baylor University. Medlock, also a Narbonne graduate, is widely regarded as the player who triggered the 2006 firing of James Anderson, the longtime coach at the school which has produced numerous key collegiate and WNBA players.

Medlock played two seasons for USC. But early last May, Baylor announced she had signed to play there and would begin classes in June. I have searched the web, and have not found any evidence that USC ever acknowledged the transfer. I’ve also asked local Southern California sources for information, but no one seems to know anything. Neither school has given a reason why Medlock moved.

An All-American in her senior year, Medlock averaged 22 points and 15 rebounds per game, but 6.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in an average 19 minutes of play at USC.

At UCLA, Caldwell brings an impressive resume to a team that returns 10 letterwinners, including four starters.

Caldwell, a 1994 Tennessee graduate, won a national championship as a freshmen and worked briefly as an assistant coach to Pat Summitt in 1999. Caldwell was assisstant at Virginia from 2000-2002 before returning to work with Summitt in 2003. Caldwell’s teams have posted a 404-76 record and have appeared in the NCAA tournament each season, winning three national championships.

Two of Caldwell’s assistant coaches also have Tennessee connections. Tasha Butts, a 2004 UT graduate, was an assistant coach at Duquesne University last year. Tony Perotti, most recently from Northern Arizona University, used to run summer camps for the Lady Vols and is also a Tennessee graduate. The third coach, Stacie Terry, has been assistant coach at four schools, including the University of Southern Mississippi last year.

Returning starters include junior guard Erica Tukiainen, junior center Moniquee Alexander, sophomore forward Nina Earl and sophomore guard Doreena Campbell. Stars off the bench who will be back are sophomore guard Darxia Morris and senior guard Tierra Henderson.

The Bruins’ two new recruits, both from the Los Angeles area, are generating a lot of buzz among fans.

Antonye Nyinifa comes from Redondo Beach High School in Torrance, where she averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds per game as a senior. She helped her team win the title for its division that year, and was named co-player of the year in the Southern Section. Nyinifa received such awards throughout her high school career, and was regarded as one of the top 10 guard recruits in the nation.

Rebekah Gardner hails from Ayala High School in Fontana, where she was also co-player of the year in her division. As a junior, she helped lead her team to the division title, and last year averaged 19.7 points, 8 rebounds. 3.9 steals and 3 assists per game. As a sophomore, she averaged 28.7 points per game.

Besides keeping an eye on the two freshmen, I’m going to be watching Morris and sophomore forward Christina Nzekwe this year. I went to several UCLA games last year and saw potential in Morris, as I did with Nzekwe.

In the case of Christina, though, I’m also pulling for her because I coached her in track when she was a high school freshman. She has a lot of athletic ability and needs the right basketball coach to teach her more and help refine her game. This is yet another reason I’m very glad Caldwell is there now, because she is a teacher. Christina is also a hard worker and a nice kid, so I hope she has a break out year.

Caldwell has been working hard to promote her team. She made an apperance at several Los Angeles Sparks games and events this summer. At “University of Tennessee Night,” Caldwell sat alongside Coach Pat Summitt and Assistant Coach Holly Warlick during the game. At a post-game function, Caldwell passed out game schedule cards and talked with fans. The Sparks organization also made several UCLA promotional announcements during the UT night game.

But what won me over was an encounter I had with Caldwell and Butts in the Staples Center restroom back on June 22. It was halftime and I was standing at the back of the line, which goes around the corner. About five women ahead of me, right at the corner, was a familiar figure. I leaned out twice to make sure it was her, and then I walked up to her and asked, “aren’t you Coach Caldwell?”

She was very nice, and didn’t seem to think anything of talking to me as I creeped forward in the line with her. We had a fun conversation about her team, the Sparks, and Tennessee. As it was almost her turn, Butts came out of a stall and Caldwell pointed to her. She ducked in to use the facility and I ended up talking to Butts, who was equally enthusiastic. I remember telling Butts about my dilemma in being a fan of the Sparks, whom I used to loathe.

“And I think, ‘what are you doing?’ But -“

“But it’s Tennessee,” Butts said, finishing my sentence correctly.

“But it’s Tennessee!” I said.

Then after that, Candace Parker threw one down for the first time in her professional career.

Butts remembered me at the UT Night after party. I told her my friend and I had bought season tickets and would be sitting right behind the Bruin bench. She smiled and said, “OK, since you’re sitting so close, that’ll be part of my pre-game ritual – I’ll come out and slap your hand.” Then we practiced one.

I don’t know if she really meant it, but it was really cute that she said that in the first place.

Both USC and UCLA begin the season two weeks from tomorrow with exhibition games.

Those games can’t happen fast enough.

It’s on like donkey kong

Today is the first official day of basketball practice for Division I colleges, as per NCAA rules. In a half hour here on the west coast, some colleges, including USC, will have a “midnight madness” practice. Two weeks from Sunday is the first game for Pac-10 teams, and my first chance to use one of my Bruin season tickets.

What a relief. I am jonesin’ for some hoops. The NCAA website says, “only five months ’til March,” but hey – I say don’t wish it away. These are some of the best months of the year.

Here’s Duke’s write-up:

http://www.goduke.com/ViewArticle.dbml?SPSID=22760&SPID=1846&DB_OEM_ID=4200&ATCLID=1606069

Tennessee didn’t waste any time, rolling out with the male practice team. Glory Johnson’s arms are ridiculous:

http://www.utladyvols.com/photogallery/gallery_index.html?school=tennw&sport=w-baskbl&

Oklahoma’s first practice left Coach Sherri Coale happy:

http://www.soonersports.com/sports/w-baskbl/spec-rel/101708aab.html

And though they aren’t ranked, I hope Louisiana Tech will be again soon. I am pulling for Associate Head Coach Teresa Weatherspoon and the rest of the staff to help the Techsters return to their glory days.

Let the games begin!