- Beth Mowins, Women's Basketball
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Sixty-four teams. Hundreds of players. Here's four real difference-makers you should get to know better:
It might be an overused cliché, but there's no more accurate way to say it: In this NCAA Tournament, defense will lead to offense for Texas A&M. The Aggies open with Texas Arlington (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET Saturday) and then a potential second-round showdown with George Washington. All three clubs rank among the top 15 scoring defenses in the nation.
If the Aggies can survive that and advance, the offense would take over in a highly anticipated, high-octane Sweet 16 meeting against top-seeded North Carolina.
Junior point guard A'Quoneshia Franklin shoulders the responsibility for setting the tempo throughout the NCAA Tournament for Texas A&M. She has played the full 40 minutes of a game 11 times this season and has not missed a start for coach Gary Blair.
She guided the Aggies to their first Big 12 regular-season championship, beating Oklahoma twice along the way. Franklin secured the crown in the regular-season finale with a career-high 27 points against Texas by draining eight 3-pointers.
Franklin is best known for her passing ability as she led the team in assists and led the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio this season. She stands just 5 feet, 3 inches, but Blair says she's got a big game. Her leadership will determine how far the Aggies can go.
Non-BCS schools usually aren't the NCAA Tournament teams carrying around the weight of expectations. But at Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raider nation is talking about a trip to the Final Four. They certainly have the firepower to back it up.
Senior Chrissy Givens is the reason for the ruckus in Murfreesboro, Tenn. She is the two-time Sun Belt Conference player of the year, defensive player of the year and tournament MVP. She set an SBC tournament record by scoring 85 points in her last three games -- and then proclaimed that going to the Final Four isn't too farfetched.
Coach Rick Insell prepared Givens & Co. for the postseason by scheduling the likes of Tennessee, Georgia and Maryland this year. Against those three teams, Givens didn't miss a minute of action and averaged 21 points.
More BCS opponents are lurking if MTSU keeps adding to its nation's-best 26-game win streak. Ohio State waits in the second round with potential rematches against Tennessee and Maryland deeper into the Dayton Regional.
Stanford faithful have been waiting 10 years to return to the Final Four. Three consecutive heartbreaking losses in the Elite Eight by a total of 12 points have the Cardinal hoping that this will be the year to get back to where they belong.
So what makes this time around different? It's not a what, it's a who. Pac-10 freshman of the year Jayne Appel could be the difference-maker. Coach Tara VanDeveer calls her 6-4 rookie a "franchise player." That's pretty high praise for a talented post who has yet to crack the starting lineup, but Appel is worthy.
Appel provides quite a spark off the Stanford bench in fewer than 20 minutes per game. She is good enough to push All-American candidate Brooke Smith over to the power forward position when Appel enters the game. Smith has mentored the freshman as she has blossomed throughout the year. In the Pac-10 tournament, Appel registered a pair of double-doubles to help Stanford to another title.
If the seeds hold true in Fresno, Stanford would meet Connecticut for a trip to Cleveland and the Final Four. That would set up an intriguing matchup of the top two rookies in the country, with Appel squaring off against the Huskies' dynamic freshman center, Tina Charles.
When folks around the water cooler talk about the most dangerous teams in the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt is at the center of the discussion. The Commodores blew by the field in the SEC tournament with their trademark stingy defense, a multitude of offensive weapons and senior leadership.
Nobody embodies the Vandy spirit and can-do attitude like senior Caroline Williams. She is a former walk-on from a small town in Georgia who just wanted to contribute to the team. Four years later, she has become one of the best pure shooters in the college game, leading the nation by shooting 50 percent from 3-point range.
Williams needs one more 3-pointer to make 90 for the second season in a row. She made only four treys her freshman year, but this season she has hit half of the team's long-range bombs.
Williams will be wearing a target on her back during the NCAA Tournament as defensive stoppers will look to make a name for themselves at her expense. But the crafty senior moves well without the ball and has range out close to the hash marks.
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
From a former walk-on who's now one of the game's most pure shooters to a freshman All-America candidate out west, here are four difference-makers to keep an eye on in the Big Dance.