MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Lynx rolled through the regular season a year ago, then kept on cruising through the playoffs to win the club’s first WNBA championship.

The bad news for the rest of the league is they’ve got nearly everyone back and open the new season this weekend as the favorites to win again.

“I do think Minnesota is the team to beat,” Seattle veteran Katie Smith said on a conference call. “They’re the defending champs. They didn’t lose anything, and they still look very good.”

The Lynx lost consecutive games just once while putting up a 27-7 record, and then went 7-1 in the playoffs. With just two new faces, they return with the same starting lineup and most of their key reserves.

Now, Minnesota will be trying to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Los Angeles in 2001-02. Houston won the league’s first four titles from 1997-2000. Detroit (2003, ’06, ’08), Seattle (2004, ’10) and Phoenix (2007, ’09) have also won multiple titles.

“This is a new season, new challenges that we’re going to have to embrace,” said Minnesota’s reigning rookie of the year, Maya Moore. “One of the advantages we have this year is nine people coming back. … So we have that experience from last year, that familiarity with each other.”

The season tips off Friday night when Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks visit Smith, Sue Bird and the Storm. There’s four more games on Saturday, and Minnesota opens at home against Phoenix on Sunday.

In the Eastern Conference, Atlanta is coming off its second straight trip to the WNBA finals, where it was swept in three games again. The Dream have steadily improved in the regular season every year since entering the league in 2008, going from four wins that season, to 14 the following year, 15 in 2010 and 20 last season.

Atlanta will look to draw from its experience the last two years to return to the finals once again and get the title this time.

“Everybody sort of has a mindset that they can win a championship each year,” said Dream star Angel McCoughtry, who narrowly finished second to Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi for the scoring title. “If you didn’t, then there’s a problem. So of course every year you say ‘this is our year, this is our year.’ Every team should think that way.”

Atlanta’s main competition in the East will likely come from Indiana and Connecticut. The Fever have won at least 21 games in six of the last seven seasons, and do-everything star forward Tamika Catchings is healthy again after being limited by a torn plantar fascia in her right foot during the conference finals against the Dream.

The Sun have been on the rise since a roster turnover two years ago left them as one of the youngest teams in the league. They finished 15-2 at home during the season, but struggled to hold late leads on the road.

“For them to make another step in their progress, they’re going to have to become a much better fourth quarter road team,” Connecticut coach Mike Thibault said. “I think that the next level in our maturity is to do that.”

The Lynx’s biggest challenges in the West will likely come from Seattle and Los Angeles, though both will be adjusting to some roster changes.

The Storm were without three-time MVP Lauren Jackson for a 20-game stretch last season while she dealt with a shoulder injury. They still managed to win 21 games and finish second in the West before falling short against Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs.

This year, Seattle won’t have Jackson until after the Olympics while she trains with the Australian national team. However, the Storm — who still have Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright anchoring the backcourt — bolstered their lineup by signing eight-time All-Star Tina Thompson, the only player who has appeared in every season since the league began play in 1997. They also have 6-5 veteran center Ann Wauters.

“We’ve just got to get back to the basics and really hone in on what we’re good at and how we want to play,” Smith said. “And when (Jackson) does get back, that’s just adding another major chunk.”

The Sparks made some more changes as they try to find the right mix around Parker. The first step was hiring former Atlanta assistant Carol Ross as their third coach in less than a year. They then made several roster moves, highlighted by the signing of veteran guard Alana Beard — who missed the last two seasons with Washington due to various injuries — and the selection of No. 1 overall draft pick Nnemkadi Ogwumike.

Phoenix will likely be a playoff contender again, though losing forward Penny Taylor for the season due to an ACL injury will be tough for the team’s high-scoring offense.

For the third straight Olympics, the league will take a monthlong break in mid-July for the Summer Games with many WNBA players representing various countries in London. Play will resume on Aug. 16 for the final 5 1/2 weeks of the season.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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