There hasn't been a repeat WNBA champion in a decade, but the Minnesota Lynx feel they could end that trend.
After receiving their championship rings in front of the home crowd, the Lynx open their title defense Sunday with a Western Conference finals rematch against a Phoenix Mercury team moving on without point guard Penny Taylor.
Minnesota swept Atlanta in the WNBA finals in October to claim its first championship, capping a 7-1 run in the playoffs.
The Lynx, who went a league-best 27-7 in the regular season, realize how difficult repeating will be. Los Angeles was the last team to do it in 2001 and '02.
However, in a survey of the league's general managers, 83 percent picked Minnesota to win it all this year, and the Lynx are feeling confident.
"I feel like we're getting so much better if that's even, like, possible," top reserve Candice Wiggins said. "I'm really confident with our team."
Minnesota returns its top nine scorers from 2011, including Seimone Augustus (16.2 points per game), Lindsay Whalen (13.6 ppg) and reigning Rookie of the Year Maya Moore (13.2 ppg).
Coach Cheryl Reeve also was able to convince 41-year-old center Taj McWilliams-Franklin to put off retirement. The Lynx want her to help develop rookie forward Devereaux Peters.
Peters was the third overall pick in the draft out of Notre Dame, where she was the Big East's two-time defensive player of the year. Peters averaged 11.8 points and 9.3 rebounds with the Irish in 2011-12, leading them to the national championship game.
"I see a lot of younger me in her, and I think she can help the Minnesota Lynx for many years down the line," McWilliams-Franklin said.
The Lynx easily got by the Mercury in the conference finals last season, winning 95-67 and 103-86. Augustus averaged 18.5 points and Moore 18.0 in the series.
Two big changes for Minnesota in the offseason were the trades of guard Alexis Hornbuckle and forward Charde Houston to Phoenix for draft picks. Both players came off the bench for the Lynx, but they should see more minutes for the Mercury with Taylor out for the year due to a torn ACL suffered playing overseas in March.
"We got lucky," coach Corey Gaines said. "With Charde and Hornbuckle and the other players, maybe by committee, we can replace some of the things that Penny does."
Taylor averaged 16.7 points and 4.7 assists last season while running the league's highest-scoring offense at 89.0 points per game. Phoenix, though, was swept in the conference finals for a second straight year after winning the title in 2009.
With Taylor out, Gaines said it will be even more critical the team improve defensively after giving up a league-worst 86.0 points per game in 2011.
While replacing Taylor will be difficult, the Mercury can always count on Diana Taurasi, who led the league in scoring last season with 21.6 points per game.
DeWanna Bonner, the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year, is also back, and the team is excited about the potential of rookie Samantha Prhalis, the sixth overall pick in the draft out of Ohio State.
"When you lose a player of that caliber, it takes a toll," Taurasi said of Taylor. "But you have to find a way to bounce back and I think we have a lot of people with high character."