Commentary

A look at the journey to the 2009 Final Four

Originally Published: October 17, 2008
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Women's college hoops begins its "March to the Arch Part II" in an official sense as practice starts now. So, naturally, it seemed like a good idea to conjure up famous historical figures linked to the Gateway City and use them to illustrate the long paths four teams will need to take to get to St. Louis next spring.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesAfter losing in the national semifinals last season, will Geno Auriemma's UConn team end its 2008-09 expedition in the Show-Me State? Shoshone guide Sacagawea thinks so.

Indeed, why not imagine a kind of basketball "Sacagawea" helping "Lewis and Clark" examine the potential journeys to the 2009 Final Four?

(At least it seemed like a good idea to me while I was avoiding finishing one of my fall home-improvement projects. It worked with Orville and Wilbur Wright a couple of years ago when the Final Four was in Ohio. I did pay a little attention to history class in school. Just don't expect to ever read a column about algebra.)

Now, of course, there aren't that many (or any) similarities between the road to the Final Four and the famed journey of the Corps of Discovery. One takes about six months; the other took more than two years.

Plus, the four parties arriving in St. Louis in April will be eagerly anticipated and expected. Whereas by the time Lewis and Clark made it back to St. Louis from Oregon, many people were pretty surprised to see them. Apparently, cell phone service was notoriously bad in those days, and they had been more or less given up for dead.

And things have improved a fair amount for women in America in the 200-plus years since Sacagawea was an invaluable aid to Lewis and Clark's 1804-06 odyssey. We can do stuff such as vote (hint, people). Also, it's probably not likely that any of us have been sold to a French fur trapper to be one of his wives, as Sacagawea was when she was barely more than a child.

She was the age of today's college players when she traveled as the only female, along with her infant son, in the expedition party with Lewis and Clark, which trekked by boat, on horseback and on foot from modern-day North Dakota (where she joined them) to the Oregon coast and back.

Something, perhaps, for players to consider when they're feeling tired after a hard practice.

Lewis and Clark prepared well for their trip but still needed a lot of help from those who already were more familiar with the territory. Similarly, let's say ol' Meriwether and William did a little studying of the women's hoops landscape but then sought advice about how to map out the 2009 season.

Their exploratory dialogue with Sacagawea -- who you can be sure knows how to navigate an NCAA tournament bracket -- might go something like this:

Lewis & Clark: We know we're going to end up in St. Louis. But where do we start to find out who else might be there?

Sacagawea: Storrs, Conn., would be a great place. A lot of people thought UConn would win it all last season in a showdown with Tennessee in Tampa, Fla. That would have been something else, you know, since their regular-season series, um, ended. But it didn't happen. Stanford beat UConn in the semifinals, then Tennessee beat Stanford for the championship. And I called it.

L&C: You called what?

SAC: The whole thing. You know, I'd been reading Charlie Creme's Bracketology reports all season, and I was really stoked about how well I did with my picks …

L&C: What is this "bracketology"?

SAC: It's a very complicated science that even Thomas Jefferson might have had trouble grasping.

L&C: And what is "stoked"?

SAC: You know, excited. At least we're speaking the same language now. Remember when I'd talk to the Shoshone, then have to say it in Hidatsa to my husband, who'd say it in French to one of your guys, who'd say it in English to you? I'm sure nothing was ever lost in translation.

L&C: All right, while we're on the subject of difficulties in communicating … let's get back to this UConn-Tennessee thing. How come their series ended?

SAC: Well, most people seem to think Tennessee coach Pat Summitt just doesn't like UConn coach Geno Auriemma very much and decided the less she saw of him, the better.

[+] EnlargeBrenda Frese
AP Photo/Nick WassMaryland coach Brenda Frese, who was pregnant with twins during much of last season, will attend all games this season, at home and on the road. Chair not included.

L&C: Kind of like how a lot of the Sioux felt about us joyriding our way along the Missouri River, huh?

SAC: Well, now that you mention it… But the thing is, I have it on good authority that's not why the series ended. In fact, it's a secret plot shared by Pat and Geno. They are totally in cahoots. They are both TV ratings-crazy and figured if they staged this phony war and canceled their regular-season series -- they agreed Pat would be the "bad guy" in it, figuring she's Teflon anyway -- they could get the all-time ratings-buster for their NCAA title-game meeting. They saw it turning into a reality-show deal and everything.

L&C: What happened?

SAC: Apparently, they couldn't persuade Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer to go along with it for the so-called "good of the game." She said, "Are you nuts? The best thing in the world for the game is if a West Coast team finally wins the dang championship again."

L&C: When's the last time that happened?

SAC: About the time I was conversing with my fellow Shoshone to help buy you guys some horses. Just kidding. It was 1992, when Stanford won.

L&C: OK, so you were saying UConn is the favorite again.

SAC: Yeah, the Huskies are well-stocked, and it's reminding everybody of 2002. They lost in the national semifinals in 2001 -- that was the first "March to the Arch," by the way -- and, partially fueled by that disappointment, they did not lose a game in the 2001-02 season.

L&C: What about Tennessee, Stanford and LSU in 2009? Any chance they will get to St. Louis, too, and we will have a repeat of last season's Final Four?

SAC: Considering Tennessee has made so many Final Fours that Summitt might be the next woman on the U.S. dollar coin, following Susan B. Anthony and me, I'd say, "Yep, expect to hear 'Rocky Top' in St. Louis." However, Summitt lost her starting five, led by Candace Parker, so this is a young group … of blue-chip superstars. Let's put it this way: I never plan on Tennessee's not making it.

LSU also lost its entire starting five, so we'll see what kind of hocus-pocus Van Chancellor can come up with this season. It's still a good program, but a sixth Final Four in a row seems like a very tall order.

As for Stanford, it lost Candice Wiggins, but the Cardinal still are projecting as a powerhouse again. So it would be no surprise to see that crew in Kristin Folkl's hometown in April. By the way, while we're talking about the Bay Area, I should mention that Cal should be a national contender, too, and there is a regional in Berkeley. It would be a big breakthrough for "another" Pac-10 team to make the Final Four.

L&C: Think any league has a shot at getting two Final Four teams this season?

SAC: A shot? Sure. The ACC, SEC and Big East all have done it in the past decade … in fact, seven of the past nine years, one league has had two or more representatives in the Final Four. Which brings us back to the Big East.

L&C: Who's the No. 2 team in that league behind UConn? Rutgers and Louisville both will be pretty good, won't they?

SAC: You got it. Not sure what calamity will befall the Scarlet Knights this year, but you know it will be something. They'll get over it, though, and by the end of the season, their highly touted youngsters will finally have a clue what coach C. Vivian Stringer is talking about. And Louisville? Wow, I liked the way that group looked in the NCAA tournament last season.

L&C: How about the ACC?

SAC: You guys are both natives of Virginia, right? In fact, you were born in Charlottesville, weren't you, Meri? The Cavaliers could have one of their best teams in a while. In fact, it will be a lot of the usual suspects in the ACC, even though North Carolina and Maryland lost a lot of talent to graduation.

L&C: The Maryland coach is going to be traveling to all the games this season, right?

SAC: Brenda Frese? Uh-huh. And the twins are already handling some of the opponents' scouts. I heard that North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell demanded at the ACC meetings to be allowed to coach from big, comfortable office chairs on the sideline this year because Brenda got to do it last season. But apparently she was told that only people expecting triplets could do it from now on.

L&C: What about Duke? Lots of talent back, including Chante Black, who returns after sitting out last season with an injury, right? Can the Blue Devils make the Final Four?

SAC: The House that Gail Built was a little divided last season. There were times Abby Waner was wishing she'd done her own Westward Expansion. There definitely was turmoil in Joanne P. McCallie's first season running the Duke ship. If it's all a bit smoother this season, Duke is a threat for Arch Madness. Or … it might not be smoother.

L&C: Speaking of Gail Goestenkors … what are your thoughts on Texas?

SAC: Goestenkors led a somewhat ragtag group of Longhorns to the NCAA tournament last season, and UConn hit them hard with reality in the second round. The Big East did that to much of the Big 12 in that round, as a matter of fact. But Texas will be better and more consistent this season, as would be expected.

L&C: And the rest of the Big 12?

SAC: Courtney and Ashley Paris are seniors, and the question is whether Oklahoma can get consistent enough guard play to help them. The Sooners had a dreadful March last season, including losing to Missouri in the Big 12 tournament. This season, there are some geographical things in OU's favor. The league tournament is in Oklahoma City, as is one of the regionals.

Oklahoma City was host to a regional last season, as well, and the Sooners were placed in that region. But they didn't make it to the Sweet 16, losing to Notre Dame in the second round. If they make it this year -- and admittedly, right now, that's like thinking about looking at the Pacific Ocean when you're still in Omaha, guys -- maybe the almost-home-court advantage will help them to St. Louis.

L&C: But let's not forget there's another threat in Oklahoma, right?

SAC: Exactly. Oklahoma State made a case last season for being placed in the Oklahoma City regional but instead went to New Orleans. So … if the Cowgirls have another good season, maybe they will get that advantage. But there's so much else that can happen in the Big 12. Keep your eye on Baylor, folks. And don't count out Texas A&M.

L&C: While we're in the general neighborhood, do you have anything to say about the Big Ten?

SAC: To look on the bright side, the league probably can't be worse than it was last season. Sometimes it helps to be dealing with lowered expectations. There is some new -- and much-needed -- coaching blood in that league, and let's give those folks a chance to establish themselves.

There was a Big Ten team at the previous Final Four in St. Louis, of course -- Purdue. And I'd guess if any league team was going to do it again, it would be the Boilermakers. But, realistically, don't look at this as being the Big Ten's season to get to that level. It would be nice just to see a little more NCAA tournament progress.

L&C: Any chance a team from the Show-Me State could make it to the Final Four in St. Louis, like what happened with Jackie Stiles' crew in 2001?

SAC: Let me put this diplomatically … absolutely not. Although there is a Stiles sibling, Roxy, playing at what's now Missouri State (minus the Southwest). The fact is, it really doesn't matter who else is at this shindig in St. Louis. Because I'm telling you right now, UConn will win it, or my name's not Sacagawea.

L&C: Actually, we never knew exactly how to spell your name, and scholars still debate what the "right" way is. There's more than one version. So …

SAC: OK, you're right. Maybe nothing is ever for certain. Except I'd sure look into April flights to Lambert Airport if I were living in Connecticut. Then again, if you want to get to St. Louis by canoe or horseback, give me a call. I'm pretty good at that stuff, too.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.