Watching the players from Georgia and Alabama glide across his television screen, Arkansas women’s basketball coach Gary Blair got so nervous he almost turned off the set.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Blair said. “We’re not ready for either one yet and on Jan. 5, we have to be ready to play Alabama.”
This was the coach of the nation’s No. 8-ranked team talking, a team that’s 10-1 and playing well. But the game he was watching showed him the kind of imposing talent his team will be facing once Southeastern Conference play begins.
“I got pumped up,” Blair said. “Here I was in the middle of finals and the next day, we had our longest workout of the year. It went on forever. The kids started looking at me like, what’s wrong? I started playing in fear. We’ve got to get good in a hurry.”
Blair’s concerns are being shared across the country as the new calendar year approaches and teams start gearing up for conference play. It’s the meat of the schedule, the part that determines if there will be postseason or merely dreams of next season.
With seven teams in the Top 25, the SEC again appears to be the nation’s strongest conference. But there will be plenty of competition elsewhere, too.
The Big Ten seems to have rebounded after a down year and has five nationally ranked teams, plus another that’s riding a ninegame winning streak. Colorado probably won’t skate through the Big Eight the way it did last season, Virginia will be hard pressed to go unbeaten in the ACC again and the addition of Notre Dame, Rutgers and West Virginia adds a new twist to the Big East, although Connecticut should prevail again.
As teams toe the line for the start of conference races, early returns have shown that No. 2 Connecticut, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Stanford and No. 9 Colorado all will be strong again despite suffering key losses from last season.
Top-ranked Louisiana Tech and No. 3 Vanderbilt, both loaded with veterans, have lived up to their preseason billing and go into the Christmas weekend undefeated, Tech at 9-0 and Vandy at 6-0.
Oddly, two other teams that were loaded - No. 6 Virginia and No. 10 Georgia - have lost twice already, although Virginia beating Georgia accounted for one of those losses. Both have all five starters back.
It’s going to be a while before any type of national championship picture comes into focus, but it will be interesting to watch it happen.
“I don’t know who is going to win, who is going to get to the Final Four,” Blair said. “Talentwise, Louisiana Tech, Connecticut, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Virginia and Stanford - those seven programs are just loaded. But I don’t think your Final Four necessarily come from those seven.
“At least one team, maybe two, could come out of that pack of Colorado, Texas Tech, North Carolina State, Auburn or whatever, because competition is just going to make you better. If you just chose the best seven as far as talent, it’s those seven. But on paper, my Dallas Cowboys weren’t supposed to lose to Philadelphia. Paper isn’t going to win games.”
Connecticut is proving it can get along without Rebecca Lobo. After losing to Louisiana Tech in overtime in the season opener, the Huskies have won nine straight after Friday’s 84-65 victory over Rhode Island and had an average victory margin of 21 points.
Freshman sensation Chamique Holdsclaw, who’s averaging 16 points a game, has helped ease the loss of All-Americans Nikki McCray and Dana Johnson at Tennessee. The Lady Vols won their first eight games - five against ranked teams - before getting bounced at Stanford 90-72.
That victory seemed to assure that Stanford would be just fine despite losing coach Tara VanDerveer to the U.S. national team. The Cardinal have won six straight since getting upset by Massachusetts in its opener.
Colorado appears to be surviving the loss of All-American point guard Shelley Sheetz and leading scorer Isabelle Fijalkowski. The Buffaloes are 11-2 after a 68-55 Friday night win over Montana State - the same record they had after 13 games last season.
But another 14-0 Big Eight record might be asking too much. No. 21 Oklahoma State is better, Kansas is talented and Iowa State is off to a stunning 9-0 start after winning just eight games each of the last two seasons.
No. 11 Iowa has rebounded from an 11-17 record and the loss of coach Vivian Stringer to Rutgers to help strengthen the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have lost only to Georgia and already have beaten three of the teams that defeated them last season.
League rivals Penn State (7), Purdue (12) and Wisconsin (17) have been in the Top 25 with Iowa all season and Northwestern joined at No. 25 last week. Unranked Indiana has won nine straight after a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, and Illinois (5-4) already has shown signs of improvement under first-year coach Theresa Grentz, whose departure from Rutgers left the opening for Stringer.
Stringer’s new team is just 3-5 but has a victory over Penn State.
The SEC has Alabama (18), Mississippi (20) and Florida (23) in the Top 25 along with Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. And while neither is ranked, LSU of the SEC is unbeaten and Auburn has lost only once.
Georgia lost two of its first four games despite returning everyone from its 1995 Final Four team, but the Lady Bulldogs seem to be finding their stride now. They beat Alabama in the TV game that Blair saw and easily handled Iowa, 79-52.
Injuries slowed Virginia early, including a sore knee that has nagged preseason All-American Wendy Palmer. But the losses were to outstanding teams, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, and the Cavaliers should be in good shape heading into an ACC race that will send them against improved teams from No. 13 North Carolina State and No. 16 Duke.
One Virginia game produced an early candidate for best quote. After watching her team make just 8 of 44 shots in an 81-20 loss at Virginia, Northeastern coach Joy Malchodi remarked, “If we had made our easy shots and our free throws, we could have scored 30.”