- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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There's really been nothing "easy" about UConn winning the past two NCAA women's basketball titles. It took a lot of hard work for the Huskies to get so good that they often made it look easy through their two undefeated seasons.
That said, if UConn can manage to win a third title in a row, the degree of difficulty attached to this one would appear to be greater than the first two.
After all, in 2009, the Huskies had stars in Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery. Last year, Moore and Charles were still keying UConn's attack as Montgomery moved on to the WNBA.
This year, it has been Moore's team, as Charles moved into the pro ranks. Yet Moore said before the start of this season that she would not try to do too much, because that would be a disservice to her teammates. She felt confident that even the youngest of the Huskies could come in and contribute.
And as we ready for March Madness, once again Moore has proved how wise a player she is. And UConn as a program has shown its resilience no matter what the Huskies have had to face.
Starters Charles and Kalana Greene from last season's team graduated and went to the WNBA. Another starter, Caroline Doty, suffered an ACL injury and missed this season. Freshman Samarie Walker, expected to help fill Charles' shoes, transferred from the program in January. Reserve Heather Buck went on the "injured list" recently.
UConn had its aura of invincibility shaken with a loss at Stanford on Dec. 30. Yet through all of this, the Huskies just banded together even stronger, and will head into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed.
The selection show (ESPN and ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET) almost certainly will hold no surprises in terms of the No. 1 seeds, which are expected to be UConn, Stanford, Baylor and Tennessee.
All four teams won both their league regular-season and tournament titles. The only one of them that lost to a conference foe was Baylor, which fell at Texas Tech in a game that had a lot of emotional overtones.
By Big 12 tournament time, nothing was able to stand in Baylor's way, and now the Lady Bears look to repeat their feat of 2005, when they won the NCAA title in Indianapolis.
UConn and Stanford will both be attempting to advance to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season. Tennessee will try to go back for its 19th trip to the Final Four. If UConn and Tennessee meet at any point in this tournament, it will be the first time since 2007, after which Tennessee coach Pat Summitt ended the teams' regular-season series.
There's a case to be made why any of these four teams, if it reaches Indy, could win the NCAA title. But teams such as Duke and Xavier, which won their respective league tournaments, and Texas A&M, UCLA and Notre Dame, which all were runners-up, also should have something to say about who will be going to Conseco Fieldhouse to end the season.
"I really think there's only a few teams that could win the national championship," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "But I think there's almost 20 teams that could get to the Final Four. You gotta have breaks. You gotta have upsets."
Xavier almost pulled an upset last season over Stanford in the Elite Eight, but Jeanette Pohlen's coast-to-coast layup bailed out the Cardinal and sent them to San Antonio. Pohlen has had a brilliant senior season, being named Pac-10 Player of the Year, but still wants to add a national championship.
That has been elusive for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, who has had a ton of success in the last two decades, but no NCAA title since 1992. Stanford is the only team in the past three seasons to beat UConn, ending the Huskies' 90-game winning streak on Dec. 30.
That loss really didn't rattle the Huskies. Nine days later, they had a close call, winning 79-76 at Notre Dame. Then later in January, Walker left the team. But throughout it all, Moore (22.8 ppg) and Tiffany Hayes (13.9) have shepherded a young group that's gotten superb contributions from freshmen Bria Hartley (12.4) and Stefanie Dolson (10.2).
Speaking of youngsters contributing, Baylor, Tennessee and Stanford also have had rookies come up big this season. For Baylor and Tennessee, it's at guard with two speedsters out of Texas: Odyssey Sims and Meighan Simmons. For Stanford, it's another player from Texas, this one a post: Chiney Ogwumike.
Tennessee and Baylor have the deepest rotations of the projected No. 1 seeds, followed by Stanford. Depth is not a strength for UConn, but the Huskies have won the NCAA title before without a big rotation of players.
UConn will try to match its own run from 2002 to '04 and Tennessee's of 1996 to '98 by winning three titles in a row. Moore, certain to be the No. 1 WNBA draft pick in April, could tie NCAA tournament legends Chamique Holdsclaw of Tennessee and Diana Taurasi of UConn with three national championships.
UConn would not be in this position without Moore and her scoring, rebounding, passing, defense, poise and leadership. But just as she said last fall, it hasn't been all about her. Hayes and Kelly Faris have had to take bigger responsibilities, and Hartley and Dolson had to grow up quickly.
Coach Geno Auriemma and his team also had to navigate their way through all the hype of the winning streak that brought in positive and negative media attention, plus the departure of Walker.
Most would not consider the Huskies an overwhelming favorite to take the title this year in the same way they were the past two seasons. Some of the other squads pose bigger challenges than they did last season.
Yet the Huskies are very strongly in the hunt, and it's not as if anyone's going to be surprised if they're able to pull it off again. That is a testament to how special Moore has been, but also the overall fortitude of this program.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.