UNC's athleticism tough for anybody to match
A look at how the Cleveland Region shapes up heading into the first round:
PLAYERS IN CLEVELAND
Erlana Larkins, North Carolina
Ivory Latta, North Carolina
Noelle Quinn, UCLA
Candace Parker, Tennessee
Cappie Pondexter, Rutgers
How good is Louisville's Jazz Covington? Wes Unseld is the sort of company she keeps. Last season, Covington became just the fourth Cardinal to reach the 1,000-point plateau as a sophomore -- something only Unseld, Gwen Doyle and Butch Beard have done. This season, Covington came through with an All-Big East worthy performance and tallies about 14 points and seven rebounds per game. She's big and strong, and she has a great face-up game and is a terrific rebounder with great hands.
Covington's ninth-seeded Cardinals play No. 8 seed Vanderbilt on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn. These teams are very similar. They are both well-coached squads that play good half-court offense and get after you defensively. Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb and Louisville's Tom Collen have done great jobs with these programs.
This Texas two-step will actually be played in Trenton, N.J., but 11th-seeded TCU could advance past sixth-seeded Texas A&M. Don't get me wrong. Gary Blair has done a great job getting the Aggies to the tournament. And they're as good as any Texas A&M team in years. But it's the Aggies' first NCAA appearance in 10 years, and for as good as they were in the regular season, keep in mind that freshmen and sophomores are leading the way. Granted, TCU no longer has Sandora Irvin, but the Horned Frogs have a little more postseason experience, with Jeff Mittie leading them to their sixth straight NCAA berth.
In a perfect world, Tennessee would have been the No. 1 in this region by virtue of Pat Summitt's demanding schedule and results. I really thought that despite the four losses, including two to unranked teams, the Lady Vols deserved the No. 1 seed after they beat LSU for the SEC tournament title. Ohio State does deserve a lot of credit for its Big Ten titles and 19 consecutive wins. But that success in the nation's seventh-rated conference didn't translate, in my opinion, into the Buckeyes getting a No. 1 over Tennessee, which seems to have really been penalized for its losses. Summitt never needs more motivation in March, but this certainly has fired up the Lady Vols, who you can never underestimate, from November through April.
First, let's say this: If seeds hold, a Sweet 16 battle between Tennessee and Rutgers could be an incredible contest. They are obviously both Final Four-caliber teams, and they met in last year's Elite Eight, with Tennessee edging Rutgers 59-49. If they meet again, expect another very defensive-oriented game with a close score. With Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter on the floor, we could be in for a LeBron-Carmelo type of shootout. Last season, Pondexter scored 25 points and made nine of the Scarlet Knights' 18 field goals. Shanna Zolman led Tennessee with 16 points, while Nicky Anosike hit 10-of-12 from the foul line and scored 14 points.
Still, only LSU and perhaps Maryland are as athletic as Cleveland's top seed, North Carolina. The Tar Heels already have proven they have the goods to go all the way this year. Junior guard Ivory Latta has answered every critics' questions about whether she can control her team and her emotions and lift the Tar Heels to their second NCAA title.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.