- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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A look at how the Albuquerque Regional shapes up heading into the first round:
Who is the most underrated player?
When Arizona State advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, forwards Emily Westerberg and Kristen Kovesdy quickly caught the nation's eye. And Kylan Loney, of course, also stole headlines before being named to the Tempe Regional's all-tournament team. But now, Reagan Pariseau is running the point for the Sun Devils. After averaging 3.4 points and 1.8 assists in 18.9 minutes per game last season, Pariseau has improved her numbers slightly (4.9 ppg, 2.5 apg) and is consistent in her 26 minutes of action. Westerberg and guard Jill Noe -- another underrated player after sitting out the last two season with anterior cruciate ligament injuries -- both have more total assists, but Pariseau boasts the best assist-to-turnover ratio of the bunch. She also ranks first on the team in 3-point percentage.
What is the best first-round game?
Former Big East foes Notre Dame and Boston College (which made the jump to the ACC this season) clash for the 15th time. Senior guard Megan Duffy, this season's Frances Pomeroy Naismith winner (which honors the nation's top point guard 5-foot-8 or shorter), leads the ninth-seeded Irish, and I can't wait for her to continue to show people how good she is. Unfortunately, when Notre Dame fell out of the Top 25, Duffy's spotlight didn't shine as bright, either. But she's an incredible talent.
These two teams -- who are led by talented coaches in Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw and the eighth-seeded Eagles' Cathy Inglese -- have nearly identical records, with 11 losses apiece. The programs know each other very well. The key for the Irish is to avoid the long scoring droughts that have plagued them this season. They need to find somebody besides Duffy who can consistently score for them.
Notre Dame has won its past 10 NCAA first-round games. Boston College, which is 5-1 in the first round, beat Stanford earlier this season and lost by only five points in overtime against Ohio State. Notre Dame holds a 10-4 lead in the series. In their home-and-home series in Big East play last season, the Irish won both games by seven points. This is their first postseason meeting.
What first-round game is most likely to end in an upset?
Carolyn Peck has done a great job with sixth-seeded Florida this season, notching overtime upsets of both LSU and Tennessee during the last two weeks of the regular season. But No. 11 seed New Mexico is better than its seed would indicate. The Lobos are a fun team to watch, play great defense and really get after it. Don Flanagan is another good coach who knows his stuff. And don't underestimate the Lobos' motivation -- two wins and they're back in Albuquerque for the regional semifinals.
Other than the No. 1 seed, what team is most likely to win the regional?
No. 2 seed Maryland was in the mix for a while as a possible No. 1 seed and might have been one quality win away from it. After playing powerhouses Michigan State and Tennessee around Thanksgiving, the Terps played 12 unranked teams, most with high RPIs (of note, the stretch did include NCAA Tournament teams Boston College and Coppin State), from Dec. 1 through Jan. 5, and that might have been the difference. The only team to beat North Carolina this season, the Terps are one of the tournament's most athletic teams. This is a talented group that ranked second in the nation in scoring this season with 83.6 points per game.
Which teams will meet in the regional final?
I've picked the four No. 1 seeds to advance to Boston, but Maryland could end up there instead. The battle in the paint between top-seeded Ohio State's Jessica Davenport and the Terps' Crystal Langhorne would be one of the better matchups of the tournament. One concern for the Buckeyes? They don't have as potent of an offense as Maryland. The Terps have more shooters and more scorers, which means the Buckeyes' defense can't just bog down on any one player. Maryland spreads opponents out and could win this potential matchup if the Terps get four or more players in double figures.
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.
From the best first-round game to the most underated player, here's how the regional shapes up heading into the first round.