UNC the favorite, but many others not far behind
Updated: March 13, 2006, 9:02 PM ETBy Graham Hays | ESPN.com
The bracket for the NCAA Tournament has been essentially a prix fixe menu for more than a decade.
Traditional powers Connecticut and Tennessee rarely served up anything less than the best, but even gourmet basketball grows stale without some innovation and fresh ingredients. Sure, there were occasionally specials, like Katie Douglas and Purdue in 1999 or Ruth Riley and Notre Dame in 2001. But since 1995, only Douglas' Boilermakers have claimed the title at a Final Four that didn't include either the Huskies or Lady Volunteers (and often both). So when Baylor beat Michigan State last April in a championship game that was guaranteed to give one of the schools its first national title, a lot of people speculated about the beginning of a new era of parity at the top of women's college basketball. So far, so good. As long as you aren't expecting miracles. This isn't likely to be the year a No. 7 seed cuts down the nets. Heck, the sum of the seeds that make it to the Final Four in Boston may not even add up to seven. But just as Baylor emerged last year from a field that featured LSU as the consensus favorite, there are a host of challengers capable of making life at the top unpleasant for current tourney favorite North Carolina.
AP PhotoIvory Latta and UNC are 29-1 and have won seven straight since an overtime home loss vs. Maryland.
The favoriteMake no mistake, the Tar Heels deserve the label of tournament favorite, even if they started the season ranked just eighth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. North Carolina helped its own cause early, beating Arizona State, Connecticut (by 23 points in Hartford) and Vanderbilt before reaching ACC play. And the Heels took over the top spot in the polls the right way, beating No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 29. Sylvia Hatchell's team later stumbled at home against Maryland, but the Heels bounced back by beating Duke in the regular-season finale and putting up 91 points to beat the Terrapins in the final of the ACC Conference tournament. With player of the year candidate Ivory Latta and wins against half of the other teams on this list, North Carolina is the team to beat.
The ChallengersConnecticut: Geno Auriemma's team bounced back from the beat-down it suffered at home against the Tar Heels, finishing second in the Big East in the regular season and winning the conference tournament for the second year in a row. Seniors Ann Strother and Barbara Turner lead the way as they seek a third national championship in four seasons, but it's the youthful exuberance (and mistakes) of freshman Renee Montgomery and sophomores Charde Houston, Ketia Swanier and Mel Thomas that seems to send Connecticut on a perpetual offensive roller-coaster ride.
|MORE TEAM BREAKDOWNS|
|Taking a closer look at the favorites to win the 2006 NCAA Tournament, ESPN.com's Graham Hays identifies the biggest X factors facing each team:
• UConn's fate rests in Houston's hands
There might not be a more gifted player with the ball in her hands than Charde Houston. But can she break loose in the Big Dance?
• Time for Currie to come up big for Duke
Duke personifies the team concept. But Monique Currie must be able to put her teammates on her back when needed.
• Tiger duo could be best in bracket
Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles will determine how far LSU advances. But if they come up big, it's a 1-2 punch that could knock out the field.
• Terps must limit turnovers
The Terps are good enough to beat any team in the country -- as long as their guards take care of the ball.
• Larkins must be Robin to Latta's Batman
When (and if) star Ivory Latta should falter this NCAA Tournament, Erlana Larkins must be the one to step up for UNC.
• Packer can't let OSU foes pack in paint
Marscilla Packer must keep hitting shots from outside to open up the paint for OSU and Jessica Davenport.
• OU's role players can't disappear
Courtney Paris will come up big. But for OU to win, it needs every part firing on all cylinders to get it done against top competition.
• Two sides to Rutgers' aggression
Rutgers could go far on its relentless and downright annoying defense -- as long as opponents don't match or find a way to exploit that aggressiveness.
• Will fatigue be a factor for Tennessee?
Tennessee's success rests solely on its starters, who are more familiar with each other than Buddhist monks in monasteries.
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