As easy as 1-2-3 ... 4
There's more to the women's NCAA Tournament than seeds and team records. Here's another by-the-numbers look at the bracket:
1: Albuquerque Regional
One point guard might have been the key to Ohio State's No. 1 seed. The Buckeyes enter the first round of the NCAA Tournament with just two blemishes on their record, and it's no coincidence that both losses occurred when Ashley Allen was hampered by an injury that kept her out of the starting lineup.
But since she returned to the starting five on Jan. 5, the Buckeyes have been unbeaten, riding a 19-game win streak into the Big Dance. In the days leading up to Selection Monday, Allen was perhaps the most talked about player in the country. And why not? The Buckeyes haven't lost this season with Allen on the court at tip-off. A converted shooting guard, Allen has overcome two knee injuries to run the Ohio State show.
When it comes to the kids from Columbus, everybody knows about All-American center Jessica Davenport and Brandie Hoskins, the Big Ten tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Three other Buckeyes also earned some sort of all-league accolade. But Ohio State coach Jim Foster calls Allen the last piece of the puzzle, the one who makes the rest of the picture come together.
"[Allen] is the key ingredient for us," Foster said. "She takes care of the details and helps everyone else on the floor do their jobs, too. We are all comfortable in our positions with Allen on the floor. She makes us all fit together and that's what makes us very hard to guard."
The Buckeyes won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles this year on the way to the No. 1 seed in the Albuquerque Regional. They posted a 28-2 record, with Allen sporting a perfect 20-0 mark as a starter. She missed the first eight games of the season due to a right foot injury, but her time on the bench was well-spent.
"Ashley was more cerebral when she came back from the injury," Foster said. "She spent her time sitting next to [assistant coach] Debbie Black talking about strategy and what she needed to do in certain situations. In our system, ball reversal is critical for our half-court sets to work. Ashley has the confidence to get the ball moving and get the ball reversed."
What makes Allen's play even more impressive is the fact that she was never a point guard until two years ago. After a knee injury, she moved there from her shooting guard spot, which she had played her first few years with the Buckeyes. But Allen, a fifth-year senior who was granted a medical redshirt in 2003-04, has been at the point ever since, and Ohio State is 58-7 the last two seasons.
Allen, who averages 4.2 points and 3.8 assists, hasn't completely lost her shooter's touch. She doesn't take as many shots as she once did, but Allen has learned to shoot selectively. Foster says she has mastered the art of hitting the occasional 3-pointer (she averages just one trey per game) that "reminds other teams 'Remember me? I'm still out here.'" That helps stretch the defense to allow Davenport to do her thing on the low block.
"My role is to control the offense," Allen said. "On defense I need to keep pressure on the opposing point guard. Our defensive intensity has definitely picked up this year, and we have won games with our play on that end."
Allen teams with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Kim Wilburn and reserve Tia Battle to form a very disruptive backcourt. OSU can pressure opponents all over the court for a full 40 minutes.
And Allen is enjoying the moment, happy to be healthy again and have such a significant role for the Buckeyes.
"I know that every game could be my last," she said. "I just want to go out a play hard, stay focused and take care of business."
2: Bridgeport Regional
Two teammates, two classmates, two friends. That about sums up Michigan State seniors Liz Shimek and Lindsay Bowen. They are terrific individual talents who will forever be remembered as a pair. They are the two winningest players in Spartans history and have led their club to one Final Four.
The question is, can Shimek and Bowen make it two?
Bowen is the perimeter shooter from Dansville, Mich. She grew up a short drive away from East Lansing and always dreamed of playing for her beloved Spartans. As a kid, Bowen even wrote a contract to her parents and signed on the dotted line, guaranteeing that she would get a scholarship to MSU.
Shimek is the forward from up north in Empire, Mich., who grew up on her parents' farm. She was up at the crack of dawn every day to do her chores, working on her basketball skills whenever she could find the time. She arrived at Michigan State along with Bowen four years ago with only one promise from coach Joanne P. McCallie: We will make you better and you will make us better.
That promise was prophetic. Shimek and Bowen have started alongside each other since they set foot on campus. The twosome has presided over the most successful era in MSU history.
During their magical run to the national championship game last year, both young women got to play the part of team savior. Bowen kept MSU alive with her shooting display in a second-round win against USC. Shimek's turn came in the regional final against Stanford, when she scored 24 points and hauled down 10 rebounds.
Shimek and Bowen shined together in the national semifinals against Tennessee. They helped rally MSU from a 16-point deficit to beat the Lady Vols. Bowen scored 18 while Shimek rang up another double-double.
The pair will again be in the spotlight this weekend in Chicago as the quest begins for another trip to the Final Four. It's a road that might take them through Duke and Connecticut along the way.
But they are up for the challenge. Bowen is the school's career leader in 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting. Shimek is the top dog all-time in scoring and rebounding.
Together, they've already proven they are capable of anything.
3: Cleveland Regional
Three is the magic number for UCLA. The Bruins have three All-Pac-10 players, three 1,000-point scorers and three players nominated for Kodak All-America honors. It happens to be the same three players in each instance, the Triple Threat of Nikki Blue, Lisa Willis and Noelle Quinn. The trio makes up one of the best perimeter groups in the country and accounts for 62 percent of the Bruins' offense.
Blue is a senior point guard and floor leader for UCLA. She has had the job for four years but has made the steady progression from a shoot-first mentality to a savvy distributor and decision maker. Her scoring is down, but every other statistic is up this year, and she ranks in the conference's top 10 in career assists and steals.
"She has changed the most over her career," coach Kathy Olivier said. "She's become a true point guard by getting the ball to the right people at the right time. She understands her job is about getting other people touches and recognizing where the ball needs to go. She's unselfish and that's why we are successful."
Willis is the senior shooter and defensive whiz. She captured Pac-10 tournament MVP honors in leading the Bruins to the program's first tournament championship. She gets the job done on both ends of the floor and is UCLA's career leader in both steals and 3-pointers.
"Lisa is very active and aggressive," Olivier said. "Obviously she has tremendous range with her shot. Defensively she disrupts with super-long arms, quick hands and her ability to read the game. Sometimes it looks like she's taking a break, and then she comes to life and she gets you."
Quinn is the junior with the complete package. She is one of the most versatile talents in the college game, ranking among the Pac-10 leaders this season in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots. Quinn also plays with a tremendous competitive fire.
"Quinn is so together," Olivier said. "She just makes the game look easy, and she's become our go-to player. The biggest thing she brings isn't even her stat line. Our team follows her emotional lead, and she provides the confidence and stability we need to succeed."
Collectively, the Triple Threat is an explosive unit that can score in bunches, helping the Bruins average close to 80 points per game. During their careers, the threesome have combined to score 4,661 points. They'll need more big numbers starting this weekend in West Lafayette.
But UCLA's road to a first Final Four is fraught with danger. To reach Boston, the Bruins likely would have to beat (in this order):
• A Bowling Green team seeded lower but ranked higher in the polls;
• Purdue on the Boilermakers' home court; • ACC champion and No. 1 overall seed North Carolina; • and SEC champion Tennessee.
But the Triple Threat takes it one game at a time.
4: San Antonio Regional
Any talk about Oklahoma this year has started with the big Sooner Schooner that OU has been riding all year. Freshman center Courtney Paris has been unstoppable and the unquestioned driving force behind the team's undefeated Big 12 regular season and tournament championships.
But a closer look at OU reveals the true secret to the success in Norman, and the key to how far this team can go in the NCAAs. It all comes down to the fact that Paris can't do her job if the other Oklahoma starters don't do theirs. So consider the possibility that an OU trip to the Final Four actually comes down to the "other four Sooners."
Coach Sherri Coale claims the Sooners will go as far as point guard Britney Brown leads them. After some early-season struggles, notably in a loss to UConn, Brown has come on strong down the stretch by averaging double-figure scoring.
"She's the key to it all, and that may be a little point guard bias," admits Coale, a terrific college point guard in her days at Oklahoma Christian. "Britney keeps constant pressure on the defense by pushing the tempo. She finds the right person at the right time to deliver the ball to. She is excellent at taking the ball to the rim herself. She organizes us and provides us with some toughness."
Erin Higgins stretches the defense with her 3-point arsenal. She has knocked down more than 80 triples this year and has the most in OU history, with a green light that goes on pretty much when she crosses half court. Her favorite thing to watch on TV? The Duke men's basketball games, so she can study J.J. Redick's movement without the ball to find ways to help her game.
"She is such a problem for defenses because you always have to know where she is," Coale said. "We can put her on the same side of the court as Paris to discourage double teams on Courtney. Or we can put her opposite so defenders cannot bring weakside help."
Leah Rush might be the player who has benefited the most from having Paris around. Rush is an undersized forward who used to have to take her smaller frame down low with the big girls as a necessity. She still has the ability to do that this year, but now it's on her terms.
"The biggest difference for Leah is that she doesn't have to bang against bigger bodies for 40 minutes, " Coale said. "She's still a good post defender with her quickness, but now she can float around more to hit her jump shot, and she stays a lot fresher."
Chelsi Welch is the final piece of the Sooners puzzle. She's a slashing wing who can find seams and read angles in the defense to find an opening.
"Chelsi is a threat on the perimeter and a threat going to the rim," Coale said. "When she and Leah are playing well, I honestly don't know how you can guard us. That is what has happened in our big wins this year. Those two get us going, and we can score from all five spots."
Make no mistake -- the post is the first option for Oklahoma. Paris averaged 21 points and 15 rebounds per game this season. But the other four Sooners -- Brown, Higgins, Rush and Welch -- combine for 34 points and 12 rebounds a night, too.
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.