-- The 2003 edition of the NCAA Women's Final Four has all of the usual fanfare. The brightest stars of the college game will be showcased, the game's winningest coaches are on tap, and another record-breaking crowd is expected.
The one thing missing at the Georgia Dome, something that has been a factor almost every year since the women's tournament began 21 years ago, is predictability.
Unlike past seasons, when champions were all but crowned before the semifinals began, observers say this Final Four is a toss-up. At some point this season, each of the four contenders -- Connecticut, Duke, Tennessee and Texas -- could claim that it was playing the best basketball of any team in the country.
Duke and Tennessee begin the national semifinal action at 7 p.m. Sunday, followed by Connecticut and Texas at approximately 9:30 p.m.
"This year, I don't think it's a clear-cut situation here," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, who has won six national championships, the most recent being three straight from 1996 to '98. "I think you have four teams, and I think each of those would have an opportunity, or a legitimate shot, at taking home the national championship trophy. From that standpoint, I think things have changed a little bit this year."
Last season Connecticut brought a 37-0 record into the national semifinals, boasted four senior starters who later were picked in the top 10 of the WNBA draft, and won its second title in three years.
This year's Connecticut team -- even with its 35-1 record -- is more vulnerable. The Huskies have no seniors, start two freshmen and have a third freshman who gets considerable playing time. The only returning player who contributed heavily to last season's championship is junior forward Diana Taurasi, the Associated Press and Naismith national player of the year.
"Can tradition help us this weekend? I don't think so," said Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, who ranks second among active head coaches with an .834 winning percentage and is one victory shy of 500. "I think my kids are going to be just as nervous the first five minutes of the game as [Texas Coach Jody Conradt's] kids. Can tradition help us if there is five minutes left in the game and the score is tied? Only if Diana has the ball. Then our tradition will help us a lot."
The Huskies' semifinal opponent, Texas, was the only No. 2 seed to emerge from the regional championships. Unlike the other three teams, which all made the Final Four a year ago, the Longhorns are making their first appearance at the event since 1987.
Texas (29-5) has the most losses of any of the Final Four entrants, but it also is the hottest team in the field, entering with a nation-best 17-game win streak.
Led by sophomore forward Heather Schreiber and junior center Stacy Stephens, Texas dominated top-seeded Louisiana State in the regional semifinal, 78-60. The Longhorns now must find a way to slow Taurasi.
"We will guard her with any number of people with a purpose of trying to keep her from running away with the game," said Conradt, whose 817 career victories rank second only to Summitt (820). "That won't be holding her scoreless, it will be trying to keep her from controlling everything that their team does. . . . It's not the kind of thing that we're going to expect anyone to handle that assignment for 40 minutes."
Tennessee (32-4) will have to find a way to slow Duke all-American guard Alana Beard, who accounted for 22 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in the Blue Devils' 76-55 November blowout of the Volunteers. Duke (35-1), which also boasts all-America junior forward Iciss Tillis, lost only to Connecticut this season. The Blue Devils struggled late, however, challenged by Georgia and Texas Tech in regional play before advancing.
"I will say this about Duke: It's called survive and advance in the postseason," Summitt said. "A lot of people said, 'Well, they should have lost' or 'They could have lost', and all I say is they didn't."
Tennessee fell to all three of its Final Four competitors during the regular season, losing by one point to both Texas and Connecticut in addition to the Duke loss.
But the Volunteers bring the most experience, with Summitt leading from the bench and all-American senior guard Kara Lawson, a four-year starter from West Springfield High School, running the show on the floor.
"All I know," Auriemma said, "is this tournament should be something to watch."