Wednesday, March 24, 2004
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
Forty-eight games are in the books. Only 16 teams remain. And be sure to be watching when the regional semifinals open at noon ET Sunday, because Duke vs. Louisiana Tech just might be the best matchup of the Sweet 16.Some early observations from the first two rounds:
Duke vs. Louisiana Tech in the Mideast. Two teams of this caliber sometimes don't meet until the Final Four, so this could be a very challenging test for the top-seeded Blue Devils. Duke is healthy and deep, and Alana Beard and her supporting cast have played some tremendous basketball. Because the WAC doesn't get much respect, the Lady Techsters might have entered the tournament as sort of a mystery. We knew they would be good, but like Stanford, Louisiana Tech got a lower seed than a lot of us expected. But the Lady Techsters have shown all of us just how good they are. Trina Frierson and Amber Obaze are playing very well, and Erica Smith-Taylor has been nearly unstoppable, scoring 59 points so far. These teams are very similar. Both are very athletic, like to push the tempo and run the floor, and boast good inside-outside games. Both squads also generate a lot of points off their defense, so the team that controls the boards might have the edge.
Most impressive players
When some players return from an injury, they are sometimes hesitant or not as fit as they were. That's not the case for Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen, who came back at an extraordinary level. No one was even sure she'd be able to return in time for the tournament, especially since the cast on her shooting hand didn't even come off until the day after Selection Sunday. And yet, the All-American put in a pair of fantastic performances to lead the Gophers to the Sweet 16. Minnesota is a great team, but Whalen makes them a legitimate contender. And what one single player can get the home crowd so riled up? Like all great players, she lifts her game come tournament time. Whalen is a stud. Same goes for Connecticut's Diana Taurasi. I don't care how much her stats were down heading into the NCAA Tournament. So far she's averaging 17.5 points in The Dance and also has been putting on a show. UC Santa Barbara's Lindsay Taylor hasn't received as much national attention as Whalen or Taurasi, but the Gauchos' senior also has been impressive. At 6 feet 8, you expect her to be a presence in the paint. But that long, lanky body is deceiving. She can run the floor, pass effectively and score.
Most impressive team
All 16 squads have earned the right to be here because they've played at a high level. But for as good as top-seeded Tennessee is, the Lady Vols have done some things we didn't expect. Scoring 46 points in the first half against 16th-seeded Colgate is one thing, but scoring 50 against ninth-seeded DePaul was incredible. I never thought I'd see this squad score that many points in a half, and it's no wonder Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said the first half of that game was the Lady Vols' best 20 minutes of the season. As usual, Tennessee is playing great defense. But the difference might be how well Tennessee's bigs are playing. We've come to expect consistency from Shyra Ely, but Ashley Robinson has really stepped up her game. After notching her first double-double of the season -- 13 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in 22 minutes -- against Colgate, Robinson grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds -- including 12 in the first half, which matched DePaul's total at the break -- against the Blue Demons. Brittany Jackson and Shanna Zolman also are playing with supreme confidence. Zolman started 7-for-10, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range, to score 18 points in the first half against DePaul.
Biggest potential for upset
First off, we need to preface this by saying that neither Minnesota nor Stanford are playing like 7 or 6 seeds. At this point, the numbers in front of the team names mean little. That being said, both the Gophers and Cardinal are talented enough to advance to the Elite Eight. And don't underestimate the UConn-UCSB game in the East. A lot of people are writing it off because the Gauchos are the lowest seeded team still playing. Also, the Huskies, who get to play at home in Hartford, Conn., are playing in their 11th straight Sweet 16, while the Gauchos get to fly 3,000 miles for their debut in the regional semifinals. But this has the potential to be a tremendous game. UCSB's Mark French is one of the game's most underrated coaches, and it was surprising to realize the Gauchos hadn't been here before, especially considering the talented players -- such as Stacy Clinesmith and Erin Buescher -- this program has produced and the noise this team tends to make in the NCAA Tournament. UCSB is very fundamental and plays with very good spacing. The Gauchos should stick with their usual game plan against the Huskies, so expect UCSB to establish the inside game early. They must, however, take away UConn's transition game and prevent Taurasi from passing in the open court.
With three stacked powers from the South and the best team on the West Coast, the Midwest is the toughest region. Baylor is playing very well, and its success in the Big 12 tournament gave the Lady Bears a lot of confidence. What's even more impressive is how well Baylor has done without one of its stars, Steffanie Blackmon, who hurt her knee in the Big 12 tournament and was on crutches during the first two rounds.
Final Four forecast
Before the tournament opened, I picked Connecticut (East), Tennessee (Midwest), Duke (Mideast) and Purdue (West), and I'm sticking with those four teams. But it wouldn't totally surprise me if Louisiana Tech sneaks in from the Mideast. 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.