The latest foray into professional women's basketball in the United States is two weeks away from making its debut, yet many purists of the game are far from excited.

The Liberty Basketball Association, a women's league slated to begin play in December, will make its debut live on ESPN on Feb. 18, when a team of all-stars will take on the Detroit Dazzlers in Auburn Hills, Mich.

But one of the league's features has raised some eyebrows. Unlike previous women's leagues, the LBA has decided to alter one of the game's supposedly sacred rules: lowering the baskets from 10 feet to 9-2.

"Play above the rim excites fans," said LBA Executive Director Doug Verb. "LBA action will be closer in style to men's basketball than to NCAA women's basketball."

The six-team league, with teams in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and another undetermined city, is hoping that dunks and alley-oops can attract fans who have otherwise ignored the women's game. The 9-2 hoop, which was selected after the league found that women are 92 percent as tall as men, is expected to significantly alter the tempo of the game.

Coaches like George Washington University's Joe McKeown, however, aren't enthralled by the idea.

"I don't agree with lowering the baskets," McKeown said. "What you're doing is admitting, 'Well, in order to succeed, we have to go to lower baskets.' I don't think you should have to admit that."

But for many women's players -- who have had to go to Europe to play professionally -- the chance to play in the United States is tempting. The LBA signed its first four players Monday, all former collegiate stars: Ohio State's Tracey Hall, Auburn's Linda Godby, Tennessee's Tonya Edwards and Ohio State's Nikita Lowry. National Power Shift

Continuing the trend of recent years, the balance of power in women's basketball has continued to shift this season, a development looked upon positively by most.

As the pool of high school talent expands, more good players are entering the collegiate ranks, which allows more talent to filter down to the smaller Division I programs. As a result, those schools are starting to provide legitimate competition to national powerhouses. The recent unparalleled success at George Washington is a prime example.

On the other end of the spectrum, the game's traditional powers have begun to slip a bit. For years, Louisiana Tech, Texas, Tennessee and Auburn were among the handful of programs that dominated the sport. This year, the Volunteers are ranked fifth and the Tigers seventh, but the 15th-ranked Longhorns had a long string of top 10 appearances end earlier this season, as did the Lady Techsters, who recently suffered only the second two-game losing streak in the program's history and now are out of the top 25. Louisiana Tech received 13 votes in Monday's poll; George Washington received 11.

Programs like Stanford, Virginia, Purdue and Penn State have moved into the nation's elite class. Conferences that had previously been unable to field Final Four contenders are starting to do so.

This week, all 64 first-place votes in the Associated Press poll went to teams east of the Mississippi, with Virginia taking 61, Georgia two and Penn State one. Local Milestones

Johns Hopkins guard Juliane Rolapp became the Blue Jays' all-time leading scorer in a game against Widener on Jan. 22, passing Dawn Richards's mark of 1,065. Rolapp, a Bullis graduate, now has 1,105 points for the 13-4 Blue Jays and is averaging 18.9 points, 3.3 assists and 2.7 steals. . . .

American junior Felicia Young scored her 1,000th career point against Richmond on Jan. 12, and is on pace to become the school's all-time leading scorer. . . .

James Madison's Paula Schuler (Robinson High) is 10th in the Colonial Athletic Association in scoring (12.9), fifth in field goal percentage (.450), third in free throw percentage (.776), fifth in assists (3.3) and first in three-point accuracy (.483). Richmond's Amy Mallon (Mount Hebron) is ninth in scoring (12.9), eighth in field goal percentage (.442), second in assists (4.1) and sixth in rebounds (7.4). Schuler and Mallon are legitimate candidates for the all-CAA team. Other locals among league leaders include the Spiders' Julie Scherbenske (Stuart), who is third in assists (3.7) and American's Karen Jenkins (Lake Braddock), second in steals (2.3). . . . Former Maryland center Christy Winters, the school's second all-time leading scorer and fourth-leading rebounder, has signed a contract to play professionally in Italy. The 6-3 Winters will play for Pamela Sud in the country's A league. . . .

The success of top-ranked Virginia this season has pushed Coach Debbie Ryan's career winning percentage above .700. Ryan, in her 14th season, has a record of 290-120 (.707 percent). That means three ACC coaches are above .700: Ryan, Maryland's Chris Weller (324-134, .707) and North Carolina State's Kay Yow (415-140, .748).