- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Admittedly, maybe just a little bit of the bloom went off the rose for Thursday's matchup between No. 1 Tennessee and eighth-ranked Oklahoma in the Women's Final Four city of Tampa, Fla.
The Sooners' 76-66 loss to Maryland on Sunday at the State Farm Tip-Off Classic showed an OU team that is very promising, but also very young. Oklahoma lost six seniors from last season, and has none this year. The Sooners' "elder stateswoman" is Ashley Paris, who gets that distinction by being born a couple minutes before her twin, Courtney.
The Paris sisters, both juniors, have to lead Oklahoma while their teammates develop. And it's a different challenge to have post players as your leaders while guards grow up, as opposed to the other way around.
Now, it's likely that one game of experience against the likes of Maryland seasoned the young Sooners more than a half-dozen games against lesser foes would have. So we may see an OU team that got a little Miracle Grow and will be able to hang with the defending national champions consistently in a way the Sooners weren't able to do against the 2006 champs.
But whether that happens, the focus at Thursday's inaugural ESPNU Invitational (ESPNU, 9:30 p.m. ET) still will be on the CP3 "showdown": Tennessee's Candace Parker and fellow junior Courtney Paris, two extraordinary players who wear jersey No. 3 and came along at the same time. (Well, almost Parker sat out what would have been her freshman season because of a knee injury.)
Paris is a classic center, a player who's going to work the low block relentlessly. Parker is a free-lancer -- 6 feet, 4 inches like Paris, but with an entirely different body type. Parker could roam around the court anywhere she was needed, although power forward is what coach Pat Summitt says ideally suits Parker.
Some believe that versatility from Parker -- that she really can play guard if she has to -- is the trump card in declaring her the top player in college. That it gives her an edge over players firmly rooted at one position such as Paris or LSU center Sylvia Fowles.
But whatever you think in that regard, put it aside to watch OU vs. Tennessee. It's wise to just appreciate both Parker and Paris for their respective strengths.
Parker was the SEC and consensus national player of the year last season, leading Tennessee to the NCAA title. Paris was the Big 12's top player and won AP player of the year honors; her team reached the Sweet 16.
Parker and Paris have played for the U.S. senior national team; Parker, in fact, has already firmly established herself for selection to the Olympic squad next year.
There are some very strong friendships formed through AAU hoops and USA Basketball that survive despite players being at different colleges. Parker and Paris are not close like that, but they certainly get along fine.
"We're very cordial when we see each other," Paris said. "She's cool, and we're good around each other."
So don't expect Parker and Paris to think much, if at all, about Thursday's game -- which will be preceded by No. 9 Duke vs. South Florida (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET) -- being a distinct battle between the two of them. Paris is pre-occupied -- in a good way -- with helping the Sooners develop as a team. She doesn't view herself as just a single-minded force on the court -- and especially not with her sister as a fellow starter. Ashley's 17-point performance against Maryland showed she's quite ready to take more on her shoulders.
And Parker has no need to go out and "prove" anything in games. Like Paris, she's a very cerebral player who understands the team dynamics around her.
So if CP3 in orange and CP3 in crimson aren't trying to make this a mano-a-mano battle, who will be? Well, of course, some of the followers of both programs and their respective conferences.
Like UConn's Diana Taurasi before her, Parker has gotten a lion's share of attention from the media and that gets on some fans' nerves. They think Parker is overhyped because a media "monolith" of reporters and TV folks from across the nation have all somehow banded together and "decided" to make her the game's designated superstar.
I've don't know how anyone really believes this takes place. Jeez, based on my experience, if you put five media people in the same room, you probably couldn't even get them to all 100 percent agree there were five people in the room.
That said, it's not anybody's imagination that athletes in every sport tend to get more publicity when they're located in the Eastern time zone. It's just a product of geography, population base and larger media markets.
But, frankly, if you play for a program that has won seven NCAA titles -- and you were the Final Four MVP for one of them -- of course you're going to get a lot of acclaim. Parker is not undeserving of it. She really is a splendid player, and she has proven that even at a higher level of competition than elite college. She has done it with USA Basketball.
But Paris is also an excellent player, now with 62 consecutive double-doubles. With her size, strength and dedication, she presents a challenge that not very many teams can really answer.
Naturally, the Tennessee and OU faithful will each get behind "their star" in the same way that they're supportive of their teams.
For everyone else, though, just watch to appreciate two vital parts of women's basketball's present and future when CP3 and CP3 are sharing the same court.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.