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By JEFF MEZYDLO, STATS Senior Writer

Despite the loss of one the franchise's top players, the Detroit Shock are poised to again remain atop the Eastern Conference in 2008.

The Shock begin their quest for a third straight conference championship when they open the season at home against the Houston Comets on Saturday afternoon.

Detroit heads into 2008 after coming within one victory from repeating as WNBA champions, but it couldn't hold a 2-1 lead and dropped the best-of-five finals series to Phoenix last summer.

In the offseason, the Shock then traded All-Star forward Swin Cash to Seattle for the No. 4 overall pick in last month's draft which they used to select Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle.

Despite Cash's departure, the rest of the starting lineup from the club that finished 24-10 en route to the league's best regular-season record remains intact with guards Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, plus forwards Kara Braxton and a healthy Cheryl Ford all back.

With Plenette Pierson, last season's WNBA sixth woman of the year, and first-round picks Hornbuckle and Georgia forward Tasha Humphrey also in the mix, Detroit enters the season as the likely favorite in the East.

"The intensity level is definitely going to go up, expectations are going to rise," Hornbuckle told the Shock's official Web site. "So I'm anxious to get on the court and see how that plays out."

Nolan averaged a career-best 16.3 points while shooting 46.0 percent last season, and Smith averaged 13.2 to remain one of the league's best backcourt tandems.

The key for the Shock, though, could be Ford, who averaged 13.0 points and 11.2 rebounds, but played just 15 games in 2007 and underwent offseason knee surgery.

"It's really been a challenge trying to get in shape. I've never been this bad out of shape," said Ford, who expects to be ready for the opener.

Houston, meanwhile, heads into its first contest without three-time MVP Sheryl Swoopes, who signed with Seattle as a free agent after spending each of her previous 10 seasons with the Comets.

With Swoopes out all but three games last season due to a back injury, Houston struggled mightily, losing a franchise-high 10 straight games and finishing 13-21.

Despite suffering its first losing season since 2004, Houston went 5-3 in August and should feel more comfortable in second-year coach Karleen Thompson's system.

The Comets will again be led by five-time All-Star Tina Thompson, who averaged 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists last season.

"Tina is definitely the leader of this team," Karleen Thompson told the Comets' official Web site. "A veteran of her caliber who possesses a great work ethic, both in practices and games, is the best example you can offer younger players."

Forward Michelle Snow (10.8 ppg and 6.8 rpg in 2007) and fifth overall draft pick guard Matee Ajavon from Rutgers hope to be consistent contributors for the Comets, who play four of their first five contests on the road.

Thompson averaged 22.5 points against Detroit as the teams split the two-game season series in 2007 with the visiting club winning both contests.

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