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PHILADELPHIA - The NCAA is celebrating its silver anniversary of women's sports sponsorship.
However, the 25th season of NCAA women's basketball is expected to harvest much that is pure gold.
Players who once fought for national titles are becoming the new generation of successful coaches.
Kim Mulkey-Robertson, who played on the first NCAA championship team, at Louisiana Tech in 1982, became the first to also lead a team to a national crown from the bench when Baylor beat Michigan State in Indianapolis last spring.
Joanne P. McCallie, coach of the runner-up Spartans, was a star at Northwestern.
Dawn Staley, a two-time national player of the year at Virginia in the early 1990s, made good on her vision for Temple when the Owls cracked the Associated Press women's poll for the first time in her fifth season.
The old-timers have not faded, however.
No. 2 Tennessee, under Pat Summitt, will make a serious challenge for a seventh title now that freshman sensation Candace Parker is ready to make her collegiate debut after being sidelined with knee injuries.
No. 9 Connecticut's run of three straight national crowns and five straight Final Four trips ended last year. But Geno Auriemma's bunch may make that a short absence with the addition of Brittany Hunter, a prominent transfer from Duke.
The Huskies, however, are no longer the Big East favorite. That would be Rutgers, with a No. 5 preseason national ranking under C. Vivian Stringer, who has fifth-year senior Cappie Pondexter back to run the show.
Ohio State, under former St. Joseph's coach Jim Foster, is the Big Ten favorite. Duke, the preseason No. 1, is favored in an Atlantic Coast Conference that also has such powerhouses North Carolina and Maryland.
Stanford is the best of the West under veteran Tara VanDerveer and sophomore star Candice Wiggins.
Senior Seimone Augustus, likely to be the No. 1 pick of the WNBA draft in April, has Louisiana State in contention again after being the national consensus player of the year.
Baylor, the defending NCAA champion and the Big Twelve favorite, will have to deal with Texas and Texas Tech.
"No question it gets tougher every year to put together the NCAA field," said American University athletic director Joni Comstock, the new chairwoman of the women's selection committee. "But for those of us who have been around the game a long time, it is very gratifying to see how it has grown."
(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.