November 09, 2004

Tennessee starts No. 1 for 11th time

Tennessee is no longer chasing Connecticut. The Lady Vols are back on top.

Pat Summitt's team took the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press' preseason women's basketball poll Monday, the 11th time it has started the season atop the rankings -- and first since 1998.

The Lady Vols received 20 of 45 first-place votes from a national media panel to edge Texas, Southeastern Conference rival LSU and three-time defending NCAA champion UConn for No. 1.

``I was a little surprised, based on the players we lost and the fact that only three of our freshmen are healthy right now,'' Summitt said. ``But as I told our team, it certainly is a compliment to them and how they finished last year and also to our newcomers.''

Tennessee had 1,085 points in the voting, while Texas had 1,056, three more than LSU. Connecticut was fourth with 1,017.

Texas had seven first-place votes, LSU 12, and UConn six.

Tennessee returns starters Shanna Zolman, Loree Moore and Shyra Ely, plus four other veterans, from a 31-4 team that lost to Connecticut in the national championship game in April.

As if that weren't enough, Summitt signed the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, including the No. 1 prospect, Candace Parker. But Parker and two other freshmen, Alex Fuller and Sade Wiley-Gatewood, are injured. Fuller is out for the season.

Still, the Lady Vols have three other talented newcomers. They'll be needed because Summitt has put together another brutal nonconference schedule that includes seven teams from the preseason Top 25.

``I've turned to this veteran group to really help us through the process of teaching our freshmen,'' said Summitt, who has six NCAA titles. ``Our expectations are always high here. As veterans and as leaders, they have to raise the bar for the younger players.''

Connecticut led the first poll in four of the previous five seasons and will try to become the first school to win four straight NCAA women's basketball titles.

But the Huskies had a major loss with the graduations of superstar Diana Taurasi and point guard Maria Conlon. Coach Geno Auriemma is hardly without talent, though, because standouts Ann Strother, Barbara Turner and Jessica Moore all are back.

Texas returns four starters after tying Kansas State for the Big 12 championship last season. LSU has a star in Seimone Augustus and a new coach in Pokey Chatman, who filled in for the ailing Sue Gunter last season and took the Lady Tigers to the Final Four for the first time.

Chatman got the job on a permanent basis when Gunter retired in April.

A third SEC team, Georgia, was ranked fifth, followed by Duke, Stanford, Baylor and North Carolina. Ohio State and Notre Dame tied for 10th.

Then it was Texas Tech in 12th, and Vanderbilt 13th, followed by Minnesota, Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers, Boston College, Kansas State and DePaul.

Penn State, Oklahoma, Maryland, Arizona and Louisiana Tech held the final five places.

``I don't think there's much difference in the top teams,'' Summitt said. ``I think you could look at the top five and say on a given night, any team can win. It probably goes even deeper than that.''

Every team in the Top 25 except Maryland was ranked last season. Maryland made the AP poll for the first time since the week of Nov. 19, 2001.

The No. 25 ranking for Louisiana Tech was the lowest for the Lady Techsters since the 1991-92 season, when they were unranked in the final 16 polls.

Some early games could cause an immediate shuffling in the poll.

In a doubleheader at Austin, Texas, on Sunday, Texas meets Penn State, and LSU takes on Baylor. LSU also has to play two games before that, Minnesota has a challenging game against UNLV, and Duke, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Arizona all are in the preseason WNIT starting Friday.

Steelers are looking super, but it's only midseason

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to be looked upon merely as legitimate playoff contenders after going 6-10 last season. Consecutive victories over the previously unbeaten Patriots and Eagles have them looking much, much better then that.

How about the best team in football and the midseason favorite to win the Super Bowl? The Steelers (7-1) could legitimately argue Monday they are exactly that as they began preparing to take a six-game winning streak into Cleveland on Sunday.

``We're pretty good,'' wide receiver Hines Ward said. ``To be halfway through the year 7-1, nobody ever thought we'd be in that position. The sky's the limit with this football team.''

They wouldn't have been accorded such status only two weeks ago, when they had yet to beat a winning team, but that was before they took out what arguably were the NFL's two best teams so easily that it surprised even them. They led both teams 21-3 before beating the Patriots 34-20 and the Eagles 27-3 in performances so one-sided they brought back memories of the four-time Super Bowl champions of the 1970s.

Even those Steelers were impressed by the remarkable turnaround going on now in the city where many of them still reside, with former safety Mike Wagner saying before a 1979 Steelers reunion Sunday, ``I think this team they have now could compete for a couple of championships.''

And not even the 1970s Steelers defeated unbeaten teams on consecutive weeks so late into a season as these Steelers did -- a history-making first -- though, as center Jeff Hartings said, it took a fortunate bit of scheduling for that to occur.

No matter, it's obvious that a city that never needs much of an excuse to get excited about the Steelers is already thinking playoff run. The Steelers have drawn the two largest crowds in their history in the last two weeks, and linebacker Joey Porter said there's more than post election talk in the air right now.

``The buzz is definitely back,'' he said. ``The whole city is just ecstatic right now.''

It's not just because of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has yet to lose an NFL start, or running back Duce Staley or left guard Alan Faneca or linebacker James Farrior, all of whom are enjoying exceptional seasons.

So far, the Steelers have yet to exhibit a significant weakness, though kicker Jeff Reed is occasionally erratic. The running game that was the NFL's second-worst a season ago now leads the league, just as it did in 2001. A blitz-heavy defense that has regained the aggressiveness it lacked last season is No. 2, allowing only seven touchdowns in the last five games. An injury-free offensive line clearly has been the league's best. And Roethlisberger, who is playing more like a six-year pro than a six-game one, is the NFL's No. 5 passer.

Eagles receiver Terrell Owens, held to 53 yards receiving Sunday, wouldn't be surprised to find Pittsburgh on the opposing sidelines if Philadelphia reaches the Super Bowl.

All of which means ...

``The red dot's on us now,'' Porter said. ``We've beaten the two teams that you guys (the media) said were the best teams. Now the red dot switches to us.''

This is the first time since 1978, the third of the Steelers' four Super Bowl championship seasons, that they have been 7-1 at midseason. They were 6-2 three years ago, when they finished 13-3 before being upset at home by New England in the AFC championship game. Their 1995 team that lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl in January 1996 was 4-4.

With half a season remaining -- and five of those eight games on the road -- Hartings hopes players and fans alike remember how the 2001 team was viewed as a Super Bowl team for weeks, only to lose to New England as a nine-point favorite.

``Those of us who were on that team -- and there's a lot of us here -- realize it's not over until you reach your goal,'' he said.

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