In women's college basketball, unlike the men's game, the best teams often remain on top for several years at a time.

Defending NCAA champion Tennessee, Texas, Long Beach State and Louisiana Tech -- last year's Final Four -- figure to challenge again for the national title. Auburn, with Vickie Orr, regarded by many as the nation's best player, also will be strong.

"I think the top four teams that stand out above us are Texas, Auburn, Tennessee and Long Beach State," Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore said. "I don't think any other teams have as much talent and experience as those four teams.

"If they play the game the way they should, without injuries, I think the rest of us will be playing for fifth on down."

Texas Coach Jodi Conradt is partial to Tennessee.

"In my mind, if you win a national championship, you hold that title until somebody knocks you off," she said. "Tennessee sits there and they have to get the nod for favorite."

Conradt also listed Auburn and Long Beach State, with Iowa, Old Dominion and Georgia near the elite level.

"I have even more respect today than I did yesterday for Long Beach State," she said of the 49ers, who averaged 95.8 points a game last year. "They are an explosive team."

And what about Texas, which returns four starters but loses star Andrea Lloyd?

"We have the potential to be a good team," Conradt said. " . . . We only lose one player, but that one player is irreplaceable. With Andrea Lloyd, Texas lost eight games in four years. No one can boast of that type of record."

Tennessee will be without forward Karla Horton, who was married last summer and won't return. Another forward, Carla McGhee, was injured in an auto accident and might miss the whole season.

"I feel very good about us although we did lose key players," Volunteers Coach Pat Head Summit said. "I think the competition in the Southeastern Conference has been very good for us in preparing us for the playoffs."

In the past two years, freshman have led their teams to the NCAA title. In 1986, Clarissa Davis brought Texas the championship and earned tournament most valuable player honors. Last season, MVP Tonya Edwards helped Summit get her first title in eight trips to the Final Four.

If a freshman goes on to be MVP this season, it might be Terri Mann of Western Kentucky. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder led her high school team to a four-year record of 122-1 and is second only to Cheryl Miller on California's all-time girls prep scoring list.

Among upperclassmen, Orr, Davis and Penny Toler of Long Beach State are among the best.

There has been one major rule change this year -- the addition of the three-point shot. The line will be 19 feet 9 inches away, the same distance as in the men's college game.

"It's going to change the game," Conradt said. "I know that first hand from having coached in the Pan American Games this year. It changes your whole thinking defensively. It makes you wake up in a cold sweat and it's going to shorten a lot of coaching careers."

Regardless of what the coaches think, the players love the shot.

"That line on the floor is just like the mountain," Conradt said. "They have to climb it and they have to shoot behind it. At the beginning of practice, they're all shooting behind the three-point line, even my 6-8 player."