It took just three weeks last season for the Virginia women's basketball team to debunk virtually all the myths that had impeded its growth. Now the only remaining obstacle is a national championship, which a year ago seemed a dream.

Before the Cavaliers' breathtaking trip through the postseason and into the Final Four last season, there were doubts the program could achieve the greatness that had previously been reserved for Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana Tech and Auburn. Now there seem to be no barriers for Virginia, which has been ranked No. 1 in preseason by Dick Vitale's basketball magazine, Sports Illustrated and USA Today and No. 3 by Street & Smith's. But as much as Coach Debbie Ryan would like to return to the Final Four, it's not an obsession for her.

"If {the Final Four} doesn't happen, what are you going to do about it?" said Ryan, whose team lost to eventual champion Stanford, 75-66, in last year's semifinals. "I'm not going to get too hyper about that. Who says this year is going to unfold as expected? It never happens the way you think it's going to happen because we're human. That's what makes it all kind of neat."

Although the Cavaliers are predicted to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, they will have stiff competition from Chris Weller's always-dangerous Maryland squad and nationally ranked North Carolina State and Clemson.

Locally, second-year coaches Jeff Thatcher (American) and Joe McKeown (George Washington) will try to continue rebuilding their teams, while a pair of veteran coaches -- Howard's Sanya Tyler and George Mason's Jim Lewis -- return solid bases in increasingly tough conferences. Georgetown's Patrick Knapp hopes to upgrade the Hoyas' offense while gaining long-sought respectability in the Big East.

Despite Virginia's success under Ryan, it had never won the ACC tournament or been to a Final Four before last season. The Cavaliers had also become a perennial victim of Tennessee, which had knocked them out of the NCAA tournament four of the previous five years. But with stunning suddenness, they took care of all three, winning the ACC tournament on March 5 and upsetting Tennessee to advance to the Final Four on March 24.

"I really never felt my career was lacking anything," said Ryan, who is 270-119 in 13 seasons. "I never thought I had to get to a certain point. I would like to win a national championship, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to feel like my career was a waste."

The Cavaliers (29-6, 11-3), who lost two part-time seniors from last season, are led by the backcourt tandem of juniors Dawn Staley and Tammi Reiss. Kodak all-American Staley (17.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.4 apg) takes care of the flash, using her quickness and court sense to open up the offense. Second-team all-ACC selection Reiss (15.3 ppg, 3.0 apg) isn't as fast, but she's consistent, and accurate when it counts most.

Up front, Ryan can go to her 6-foot-5 sophomore identical twins, Heather and Heidi Burge, or senior Tekshia Ward. The graduation of starter Fran Scott left a hole at small forward, but Ryan had an easy answer in Tonya Cardoza, who returned to the team after a one-year academic suspension. The 5-10 senior averaged 18.2 points and 6.2 rebounds two years ago, and she gives the Cavaliers an even stronger lineup than they had last season.

Among those trying to get past Virginia will be Maryland, which lost to Providence in the second round of the last year's NCAA tournament. The Terrapins (19-11, 7-7) lost smooth center Christy Winters and defensive specialist Subrena Rivers, which puts added pressure on senior Carla Holmes, coming off a disappointing junior season.

"She really seems pretty focused on having a really good year," said Weller, who picked up her 300th career victory last season. "Hopefully, she can provide that leadership on the court."

Maryland returns three young talents in junior forward Dafne Lee, sophomore center Jessie Hicks and sophomore guard Estelle Christy, but it lost another when guard Terri Bradley dropped out of school. Weller may have found a replacement in 5-10 freshman Aluma Goren, who spent the last five years on the Israeli National Team.

If nothing else, the addition of Goren, transfer Ana Marjanovic and freshmen Bonnie Rimkus and Monica Adams gives Weller something she hasn't had in years: depth.

Richmond dethroned perennial champion James Madison in the Colonial Athletic Association last season, and with powerhouse Old Dominion coming on board next season, it's becoming harder for schools like American and George Mason to keep up. The Eagles (9-19, 3-9) haven't been helped by an untoward series of injuries that, at one point, had them down to four healthy players.

"I told the players if we can get through something like this, we can get through a whole lot more," Thatcher said.

George Mason's Lewis has more reason to be excited, as he returns his top three scorers and adds high school all-American Nikki Hilton. The balanced Patriots (13-16, 7-7) can go to Jerolyn Weathersby and Karen Bruining inside.

George Washington (14-14, 8-10) still is looking to break into the upper echelon of the Atlantic 10, currently occupied by St. Joseph's, Penn State and Rutgers. The Colonials lost offense and leadership when guard Karin Vadelund graduated, but the remaining four starters return.

Georgetown (13-14, 5-11) also has been fighting an uphill battle in the Big East, but Knapp is starting to assemble a cast that -- if nothing else -- can run with the top teams in the league. With quality athletes such as sophomore Kris Witfill and Leni Wilson and freshman Nadira Ricks, Knapp hopes to speed up a Hoyas offense that shot just 40 percent last season.

It's no surprise to anyone that Howard (18-12, 10-4) will be in the thick of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference race, but the quick improvement of Coppin State and North Carolina A&T had added some spice to a conference the Bison once dominated. With forwards Karen Wilkins and Rosalyn Evans and guard Felicia Oliver, Tyler is confident her up-tempo style will work.