July 20, 2007

MVP candidate Catchings says Fever like '98 Tennessee team

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tamika Catchings compares the talent of her Indiana Fever team to the 1998 Tennessee national champions.

Catchings' Lady Vols went 39-0 and had fun doing it. The Vols carried a swagger every time they stepped on the floor, a confidence Catchings senses from her Indiana teammates.

"This team is the most complete team I've ever played on," Catchings said. "We have an opportunity to really be a great team. It's fun to be out on the court sometimes and see how great we can be."

As the WNBA begins the second half of the season after the All-Star game, the Fever boasts a league-best 15-4 record and Catchings is considered a front-runner for MVP.

The 27-year-old forward finished in the top three in MVP balloting four times in five years, all with the Fever. She didn't finish higher, partly because her team struggled, but now coaches think she has a better shot at the league's top honor.

"She plays hard every night, whether they are 20 points up or 20 points down," New York coach Pat Coyle said after a loss at Indiana on Thursday. "She also has skill and athleticism."

Catchings ranks 12th in scoring with 16.5 points per game but leads the league in steals (3.2) and is third in rebounding (8.8), fifth in assists (4.5) and eighth in blocks (1.2) this season.

"She could probably play any position, even point guard if they asked her," Chicago coach Bo Overton said, noting Catchings' career-high 11 assists in a win over the Sky on July 8.

Indiana coach Brian Winters said Catchings can have an off night shooting and still dominate a game.

"No matter what she shoots from the floor, she does so many things to help you," he said. "She guards the best player on the other team. She can guard everybody."

Catchings has been the defensive player of the year the past two seasons and could win that award again. She was the leading vote-getter for Sunday's All-Star game, finishing with 15 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as the East beat the West 103-99. She's also been Eastern Conference player of the week twice this season.

Catchings said winning the league MVP award would be an accomplishment, but it's not her goal.

"The only time I think about it, really, is when people ask me about it," she said. "For the most part, the biggest thing I want is a championship."

Catchings has plenty of help in that quest. She's surrounded by All-Stars, including guard Anna DeForge, center Tammy Sutton-Brown, and forward Tamika Whitmore. Tully Bevilaqua, who made the all-defense team last year, rounds out the starting five.

Guards Tan White and Sheri Sam sit on one of the league's deepest benches.

White averages 10.2 points, more than most of the league's starters. Sam started almost every game of her eight-year career with five teams before accepting a reserve role with the Fever.

But Catchings said the Fever players -- much like that great Tennessee squad -- have bought into a plan and are focused on winning, not individual awards.

"It's definitely a blessing not to have to worry about that," she said. "I'm sure some people were like, 'There might be egos, there might be too many great players on one team.' I give credit to a lot of these players that have come in here, to be able to figure out their roles and fit into this system."

She hopes team depth translates to the ultimate prize -- not the MVP award -- a ring. For that to happen, her teammates will need to stay the course.

"If we can continue to buy into us winning a championship, then the egos will be set aside," Catchings said.

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