Let's not mince words: Connecticut is not the best team in the 2003 women's NCAA Tournament. There are actually at least three teams in the tourney better than the Huskies.
Despite its No. 1 overall seeding, UConn will be fortunate to get past the national semis, and even if the Huskies make the title game they will be likely be outmatched.
|Gwen Jackson was dismal against UConn last time, but might help lift the Lady Vols to victory if they meet again.|
Let's start with the team UConn will probably face if it escapes its weak region and makes it to Atlanta: Tennessee.
UConn supporters will point to the Huskies' win over the Lady Vols on the first Saturday of the year in Hartford. First of all, that was on UConn's home court. A rematch would be played not only on a neutral court, but a neutral court in SEC territory. Tennessee fans would travel to Nepal to flood the streets with orange and sing Rocky Top, but this will be an easy trip. And it's a trip they will almost certainly get to make. Tennessee has all four regional rounds at home, where the Lady Vols are 40-0 in NCAA Tournament games under Pat Summitt. Enough said.
Now look at that UConn win over Tennessee on Jan. 4. Without a desperation Diana Taurasi 3-pointer (actually two if you count the halfcourt heave at the end of the first half), the Huskies lose that game. Taurasi scored 25 points that day, which is typical of her performances against UT. Summitt will be the first to admit Taurasi kills her team, simply because the power guard poses such a matchup problem.
Truth is, Summitt doesn't have anyone who can guard Taurasi. The Lady Vols, however, can double-team No. 3, and although Taurasi has the smarts to pass out of the extra coverage, she doesn't have the talent around her that she did in past years. Says here that Tennessee prevents Taurasi from scoring at all costs in Atlanta, and forces freshman Ann Strother and Wilnett Crockett to beat them.
Ask Taurasi how she did in her first trip to the Final Four. She went 1-for-15 from the field before collapsing on the bench in tears. And all the extra attention Taurasi has received from opposing defenses (read: Villanova) has slowed her down somewhat late in the year. A bet that Taurasi's younger teammates can't carry an extra load in a national semi against a revenge-minded Tennessee is a bet worth making.
|Aiysha Smith and athletic LSU can run with any team, which could spell trouble for UConn.|
Let's turn to a team that beat Tennessee last week: LSU. Start with this fact: LSU has three losses, all of which the Lady Tigers avenged with SEC tourney wins.
Now consider this: UConn (along with Tennessee) has always had the best athletes. Not so anymore. LSU can run with any team, as they proved by destroying the Lady Vols in transition. Temeka Johnson, Aiysha Smith, Doneeka Hodges and superfrosh Seimone Augustus all love to run, and all do it beautifully. UConn has the stunningly buff and wonderfully named Ashley Battle, but Crockett and Maria Conlon are not Svetlana Abrosimova and Sue Bird. If the Tigers can force UConn to run, the Huskies are in trouble.
For some reason, LSU got stuck in a ridiculously stacked region -- with Louisiana Tech, Ohio State, Texas and Stanford (also playing at home in the first four rounds), and Eastern teams notoriously falter in Western venues, but LSU comes from the nation's toughest conference and Sue Gunter's team has the athletes to endure.
Finally we turn from the schools that should have signed Alana Beard to the program that did: Duke. Of course UConn beat the Blue Devils in Cameron back on Feb. 1, but let's take a closer look at that game. First half score: UConn 41, Duke 20. Second half score: Duke 45, UConn 36. If it wasn't for some serious jitters, Duke would have won.
"The end of the game came at the right time for us," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma after the 12-point win. He knew Duke roared back with a 30-11 second-half run. And he knows that in an Atlanta rematch, Beard will not go into the last 10 minutes with only nine points, as she did on Feb. 1. He also knows that Duke will not miss 25 of its first 32 shots and commit 10 first-half turnovers, as it did seven weeks ago in its first match with UConn.
Beard and Co. have been to the Final Four before, and they have more sheer talent than UConn or any other team. If the Devils can remain calm, they will beat UConn.
|Duke's Alana Beard, left, and Iciss Tillis could key a deep Blue Devils' run.|
Now a word about coaching. Let's give Auriemma some credit. (And by the way, is there a more credit-hungry coach in America than Geno Auriemma? Can you imagine Summitt complaining that she doesn't get the respect that an equally-successful men's coach would?) Yes, Auriemma is a Hall of Fame coach. Yes, his triangle offense has turned a bunch of inexperienced freshmen into a winning machine. Yes, you'd probably take him over Gail Goestenkors and Sue Gunter and maybe even Summitt in a title game. But Auriemma's system thrives on motion, hustle and board-crashing. Basically, it's a well-oiled frenzy that usually overwhelms opponents.
But this season is different. Duke, Tennessee, and LSU all have some serious muscle underneath. All three teams can rebound with UConn, and that hasn't been the case in past years. (Tennessee outrebounded UConn in Hartford.) Speed and muscle might be enough to overcome any slight coaching or scheme advantage UConn might have.
And think about this: When was the last time UConn won two tough games in a row? Not since Taurasi has been on campus. Two seasons ago, UConn lost in the semis to Notre Dame. Last season, the Huskies creamed Tennessee in the semi and then beat a determined Oklahoma team for the title. This time, UConn is sure to face more of a Final Four challenge that it has in many years -- maybe ever.
That's if the Huskies get to Atlanta in the first place.
Eric Adelson is a staff writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.