Sunday, March 14, 2004
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
Two days have passed since the bracket was unveiled, but one of the hottest topics hasn't changed: The East is by far the toughest region in this year's bracket.So what does the East's top seed have to do to make it all the way to the Final Four? Let's take a quick look at top-seeded Penn State. 1. What has impressed you most about Penn State so far this season?
That's easy: The Lady Lions' schedule. And the fact they went 9-4 against the RPI's Top 25. There wasn't a weak opponent in Penn State's nonconference slate. Just how strong was it? Seven of the Lady Lions' first eight opponents of the season -- including Texas, LSU, Kansas State, Baylor and Louisiana Tech -- also reached the NCAA Tournament. And that's the way coach Rene Portland wanted it. After losing in the Sweet 16 in the Mideast each of the past two seasons -- to Tennessee last year and to UConn in 2002 -- Portland wanted the Lady Lions to look forward, not backward, and to set high standards for what was to come. Yes, they had made it to the Sweet 16, but what was next? From day one, she wanted their mind set focused on reaching that next level. "I wanted some sort of urgency," Portland explained to me during the Big Ten tournament. "Instead of waiting for what we didn't do, they had to think about opening up with LSU." Can you say, "battle-tested"? 2. What has surprised you most about Penn State?
A few things. First of all, a lot of people think this team is all about Kelly Mazzante. But the Lady Lions really do feature a nice inside-outside balance that's often underrated. Also, Jess Strom's fitness level at the beginning of the season was eye-opening. Strom says she "lost the bag of chips." She also lost about 30 pounds, and it has made a difference. Always a talented point guard, Strom is even better now. In the past she had a knack for getting the ball to the right people, but now she's moving better, playing more efficiently and has just done such a remarkable job.
3. What is Penn State's biggest strength and weakness?
|Kelly Mazzante has better range than anybody in the country, even Diana Taurasi.|
To really be successful this season, Penn State had to have an inside game. And that's where Reicina Russell comes in. The 6-6 freshman center already has broken the rookie record for blocked shots, and has swatted away 78 shots this season. 5. What does Penn State need to do to win the NCAA title?
The Lady Lions' need to keep shooting the basketball -- and those shots need to fall. This season, they've attempted 135 more 3-pointers than their opponents. And when those shots fall, it's hard to keep up. Penn State needs to continue to play aggressive offensively, and of course, they need to believe they can win and emerge from the bracket's toughest region. Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.