Questions (and UConn as the champ) jump out
Trying to predict the outcome of the postseason without the assistance of the tournament bracket is a little like trying to write down directions to a specific spot in an unfamiliar city without the assistance of a map. You might be able to stumble your way to the general metro area, but good luck guessing your way through the urban maze after that.
So if speculation is the name of the game, we might as well start with a bracket. How would the tournament presented in the latest Bracketology play out? Some questions immediately come to mind on the road to our hypothetical St. Louis.
When is a No. 2 seed not a No. 2 seed?
Call them the seven non-deadly seeds. North Carolina fans can protest all they want that their unbeaten team deserves a place in the conversation with Connecticut, and the good news is the Tar Heels will get a chance to prove it on the court in a few weeks (ESPN2, Jan. 19) in the real world. But in the landscape presented here, Connecticut is operating at a different level than the rest of the competition -- just ask Oklahoma coach Sherri oale, who said as much after her Sooners dropped games against both the Huskies and the Tar Heels.
Geno Auriemma's team might not be unbeatable, but it will be nice not to have to worry about finding UConn's weak links until everyone gathers in St. Louis for the Final Four. And that creates a scenario in which Baylor, despite earning a No. 2 seed, might wish it had slipped down a rung or two to occupy a spot in a regional anywhere besides Trenton, N.J., where UConn looms. Better to be like California, which holds the No. 3 seed behind Texas A&M and Duke in the Oklahoma City Regional, or like Stanford, which is the 3-seed behind Texas and Tennessee in Berkeley, Calif., and was beaten by Baylor earlier this season.
Kim Mulkey's Lady Bears start this tournament in Seattle, about as far removed from either Storrs or Trenton as it's possible to get, but they're undoubtedly unlucky No. 8.
What's the smoothest road to Oklahoma City?
If you hit the highways after a long winter, you're likely to find that potholes and other assorted frost damage have made the route something of an obstacle course. The trip to the Final Four is no different for teams that are weary after their own difficult winters.
Connecticut doesn't have to stray far from the comforts of home with a regional in Trenton (not that the locals tend to greet the Huskies all that warmly when they visit nearby Piscataway to play Rutgers). North Carolina gets an ever shorter commute in the third and fourth rounds in Raleigh.
But Texas A&M wins perhaps the biggest prize of all, if only because it's the hardest to come by. The top teams in the Big 12 undoubtedly feel like they can hold their own against anyone, and even after 2007-08's postseason disappointment, they might prove that's indeed the case. But there's no sense picking needless fights, and that means staying out of regionals that contain Connecticut (as discussed, bad news for Baylor) and North Carolina (sorry, Oklahoma). Even Texas, despite earning a No. 1 seed and avoiding both the Huskies and Tar Heels, isn't looking as good as Gail Goestenkors' clothing line, what with a potential game against hometown Stanford in Berkeley.
All of which leaves Texas A&M sitting pretty in Oklahoma City as the top seed and the closest thing to a home team in the regional, barring an Oklahoma State run. Winning the conference title is nice, but this season it's important for more than just bragging rights.
Is this really the rise of the middle class?
Cinderella didn't arrive at this year's ball in a pumpkin-turned-carriage. She pulled up to valet parking in a sporty Audi A4, a car befitting the upwardly mobile middle class.
Depending on how you classify the Mountain West, mid-major conferences didn't get a single at-large bid in this tournament (not having to play conference tournaments helped). But even if you exclude 7-seed New Mexico and 8-seed TCU from the discussion, five mid-major schools earned the kind of seeds normally reserved for their big-budget peers.
The good news for fans eager to see some new names moving forward in the bracket? Seventh-seeded South Dakota State is a first-round favorite, and 9-seed Marist, 10-seed Gonzaga and 11-seeds Montana and Wisconsin-Green Bay all have legitimate rights to keep their hotel reservations for the entire first weekend of the tournament.
The bad news is that it might actually be less likely for those teams find a way into the Sweet 16. Given the top-heavy nature of women's college basketball, the odds of getting through a No. 5 seed and a No. 4 seed are distinctly better than surviving a second-round test against a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
So who wins it all?
This story isn't so much a compelling mystery with a scintillating plot twist at the end as a recipe for chicken noodle soup -- you pretty much know how it's going to turn out.
The truth is that the most interesting story line might be seeing how the Huskies come up with a way to play the disrespect card that every champion inevitably uses. That's going to be a tougher sell when you carry predictions like Barack Obama carried Illinois.
Like Minnesota a few years ago, Xavier could be an intriguing postseason entry if the Musketeers have Amber Harris back in the lineup after toughing out a regular season without her. Then again, even with Janel McCarville healthy, those Gophers couldn't stop a different group of Huskies, and a second-round game in Storrs is no place for Xavier.
In the Sweet 16, either Kansas State's Shalee Lehning or Maryland's Kristi Toliver could be the kind of point guard a team really needs to survive Connecticut's pressure, but neither seems to have quite enough of a supporting cast around her to take down the top team.
Next is likely either Baylor, a team with the toughness to slow Connecticut's transition game and make the game a battle, or Louisville, for whom a game in Trenton will seem like a dream after having to play yet another Big East tournament in Hartford. But UConn won't face a true challenger until the semifinals, when a team like Texas, Tennessee or Stanford can really hope to match the Huskies player for player in personnel, or at least come close to doing so. And given Texas' inexperience on such a stage, Tennessee's overall inexperience with a roster of freshmen and sophomores and Stanford's depleted backcourt, all have flaws.
As the NCAA would surely love, my guess is that Tennessee will end up being that semifinal opponent for Connecticut in a game that dominates the week in St. Louis. After that, it's on to the winner between Auburn, after its upset win against North Carolina in Raleigh, and the Aggies. The Tigers have the offense to push the Aggies, but shooting sometimes suffers against a big arena's backdrop and always suffers against Gary Blair's team.
But unless Takia Starks has the game of her life from the field, Sydney Colson plays beyond her years at the point and an undersized team finds a way to keep Tina Charles, Maya Moore & Co. off the glass, stopping Connecticut will be just out of reach.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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