Commentary

Defending champs face rough road back to title game

Originally Published: March 17, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The selection committee's work is done, but questions remain. Here's a look at the five biggest bracket questions:

Which No. 1 seed has the toughest path to Tampa?

Spokane may be the toughest regional from top to bottom, but at least No. 1 seed Maryland gets to start work on scaling the first part of that summit from the comfort of the Comcast Center in College Park, Md. No such luck for the defending champs, the Tennessee Lady Vols, who could conceivably face Purdue on its home court in the second round and Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City, just a short drive up I-35 from the Sooners' home turf in Norman.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
J. Meric/Getty ImagesPat Summitt's squad won't catch many breaks on the road to Tampa.

Tennessee's draw is tough enough to make that second-round encounter with Purdue arguably a preferred outcome. No. 8 seed Utah appeared headed for a seed two or three lines better before its collapse against Colorado State in the Mountain West tournament. That loss aside, these are still the same Utes who rolled through a three-bid conference without a loss in the regular season and spent recent weeks entrenched in the RPI top 20.

And that's all just the first weekend, before the Lady Vols would head to Oklahoma City for what could shape up as a chance to win a regional and an honorary Big 12 title all in one.

Oklahoma didn't earn anything better for itself than the fourth seed after a late-season slide. And there are absolutely no guarantees Sherri Coale's team will even have any games left to play when it picks up its bags at Will Rogers World Airport after a potential second-round encounter with Notre Dame in that team's backyard. But as Tennessee can attest after escaping with a 70-67 win against the Sooners in November in the same arena that will host the Final Four in Tampa, it's always safer to pick fights that don't involve 40 minutes of bouncing off Courtney Paris in the paint.

All of that would be to potentially earn a spot opposite Big 12 conference tournament champ Texas A&M in the regional final if seeding holds (not that a rematch against a third-seeded Duke team that pushed the Lady Vols in Durham, N.C. earlier this season would be all that much better).

Perhaps the only upside for Tennessee, a team that doesn't pile up rebounds at quite the same rate as fellow contenders Connecticut and North Carolina, is that of its most likely potential opponents in the regional, only Oklahoma truly dominates the glass.

Tennessee was supposed to have the toughest road to the Final Four last year, until upsets elsewhere in the bracket derailed potential clashes against Maryland and Oklahoma. Pat Summitt's team then had to wait to prove it was unquestionably the nation's best with wins against North Carolina and Rutgers in Cleveland.

If the Vols make it to the Final Four this season, they may prove it before they even get there.

Which team seeded third or lower could be this year's Rutgers?

Unlike last year, when Rutgers rode the wave it started by winning the Big East tournament all the way to the championship game of the NCAA tournament, momentum seems to have taken a pass on potential sleepers. Purdue was the only upset winner from one of the six power conferences during conference tournaments, and the Big Ten champ doesn't appear to have the firepower to make a run at Tampa.

But if the mythic creature commonly referred to as a "good loss" has any grounding in reality, it may come from what befell Louisville in the final of the Big East tournament.

Even in losing to Connecticut, despite an impressive second-half rally, Louisville put a strong finish on a weekend in Hartford, Conn., that separated the Cardinals from the horde of Big East teams behind Connecticut and Rutgers. Just about everything that seemed possible on paper translated to the court for a team that spent part of the season adjusting to new coach Jeff Walz.

All-America candidate Angel McCoughtry played an understandably sizable role in the success story. McCoughtry is as good as any player in the country at getting shots from anywhere in the offensive zone, and she's a gambler with great instincts for jumping passing lanes on defense. But in leading her team to the final with wins against St. John's, Rutgers and West Virginia, she was also just one part of an ensemble.

The Cardinals have a terrific second scoring option in junior forward Candyce Bingham and a point guard in Patrika Barlow who can get the offense going.

And when they play defense, they treat the court like Manhattan residents treat floor space -- not an inch is left unutilized.

All of which makes them an intriguing opponent to plug into a potential Sweet 16 game against North Carolina, assuming they get past Miami (Ohio) in the first round and likely Kansas State, minus its leading scorer, in the second round.

North Carolina does many things extremely well. One thing it doesn't do all that well -- doesn't really try to do all that well -- is protect the basketball. The top-seeded Tar Heels are averaging 20 turnovers a game entering the NCAA tournament, a trade- off for pushing tempo and forcing 23.7 turnovers per game by their opponents.

In a potential matchup of similar styles, it never hurts to have the best player on the court on your side. In this case, it might just be the underdog with that card in its hand.

Which overlooked player could be this year's Armintie Price?

A four-year force of nature on the defensive end known all too well by SEC fans, Mississippi's Armintie Price closed her college career in the national spotlight. With Price leading the way last year, Mississippi knocked off Maryland and Oklahoma before a loss to eventual champ Tennessee stopped the run a game shy of the Final Four.

[+] EnlargeKimberly Beck
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesKimberly Beck and George Washington are looking to make a splash in the tournament.

Like Price, George Washington senior point guard Kimberly Beck has long been a fixture on award lists. And after a trip from the heart of entrenched power in Washington, D.C., to the heart of fight-the-power thought in the Bay Area, she might be a candidate for the same kind of popular uprising Price enjoyed.

Beck's sixth-seeded Colonials have their work cut out for them in the first two rounds at Stanford, but a first-round game against No. 11 Auburn is manageable. And while knocking off No. 3 Cal in a potential second-round game wouldn't be easy, the Colonials are well equipped to trade defense with the Pac-10 runner-ups.

George Washington is a quality team with the ball in its hand, but veteran coach Joe McKeown makes his mark when the other team has the ball. The Colonials enter the NCAA tournament ranked among the top 30 in the nation in scoring defense, despite playing at a quick enough pace to lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring at 68.6 points per game.

And although McKeown's "Blizzard" zone is less frenetic than former Mississippi coach Carol Ross' full-court pressure, it has the same potential to exaggerate an opponent's predilection for turnovers or exacerbate its shooting woes. That was the case for Auburn, which enters the NCAA tournament shooting 42.5 percent from the floor but managed just 37 percent shooting in a 68-66 loss against George Washington in January.

Beck has been at the forefront of that attack, literally and figuratively, almost from the day she stepped foot on campus. Stats don't always tell the whole story, but Beck's 67 steals and 14 blocks this season are all you need to know about how quickly she moves both laterally and vertically at 5-foot-8.

And once Beck takes the ball from you, it's likely going through the net before it finds your hands again. She ranks among national leaders this season in both assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio, as she has throughout her career. And despite an unorthodox release that's more Jim Furyk than Jerry West, she shoots 38 percent on 3-point attempts.

Which double-digit seed could make it to the second week?

Remember all that stuff about Oklahoma's road back to a potential spot in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City? Well, there are no guarantees its season lasts past Easter.

Not only might the Sooners face Notre Dame in a second-round game down the road from South Bend in West Lafayette, Ind., they face another local challenge in first-round foe Illinois State. And the Missouri Valley champ bears more than a passing resemblance to last season's Marist team.

The Redbirds are going to struggle to match up with Courtney Paris, but the same could be said for almost every team in the country, up to and including some WNBA teams. And coach Robin Pingeton's team has some options down low. Pingeton didn't use junior center Nicolle Lewis very much in the conference tournament, but the 6-foot-6 Lewis enters the NCAA tournament averaging 9.6 points per game and has the midrange touch to make at least one of the Paris sisters step away from the basket. And with Ashleen Bracey and Kenyatta Shelton, the Redbirds have two forwards as quick to the ball off the rim as anyone on Oklahoma's roster other than Courtney and Ashley.

The Sooners also enter NCAA play with more turnovers of their own than turnovers forced, a dangerous trait against a team that ranked among national leaders all season in assist-to-turnover ratio thanks to a trio of talented guards in two-time MVC MVP Kristi Cirone, Tiffany Hudson and Maggie Krick.

Of course, the safest bet for mid-major success during the opening two rounds comes in Norfolk, Va., where either Old Dominion or Liberty is guaranteed to be playing for a spot in the Sweet 16. The odds are obviously with No. 5 seed Old Dominion in its backyard, but don't count out fellow Commonwealth representative and 12th-seeded Liberty.

Notable for more than just the presence of the Frazee triplets, who all play major minutes, the Lady Flames are probably better than their seeding indicates. They fell by a wide margin in their biggest test of the season at North Carolina, but they handled NCAA-bound Xavier on the road and beat James Madison, Old Dominion's conference nemesis, by double digits at home.

Even in the loss at Chapel Hill against North Carolina, Liberty actually outrebounded the host and shot 43.5 percent against one of the nation's better defenses.

Whichever team escapes that first-round game should have a shot against No. 4 seed Virginia in the second round.

Which eight will be more elite: Big 12 or Big East?

A quarter of the field comes from those two conferences, so there are certainly some bragging rights on the line -- not to mention some pressure to justify the largesse.

The two leagues won't go head-to-head in the first round, but there will be six second-round showdowns if the seeding holds through the first two days of play. Fittingly, each conference would have the higher-seeded team in three of the six potential games.

For the Big 12, Baylor, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are in the spotlight. It will be tough for the league to make a claim as the best in the nation if it doesn't send at least two teams through to the Elite Eight, and those three are the top candidates in the wake of the injury that knocked Kansas State's Kimberly Dietz out for the rest of the year. No. 3 seed Oklahoma State, in particular, surely would have preferred to be the fourth seed in the Oklahoma City Regional instead of one rung higher in the same New Orleans Regional as No. 2 LSU. But with a tougher road and the weight of heavier expectations, the Cowgirls have an opportunity to prove they're more than just Andrea Riley.

On the Big East side of things, lumping Connecticut and Rutgers together in the Greensboro Regional bodes well for getting at least one team to Tampa. But taking the league's two heavyweights out of the equation elsewhere also puts the spotlight on the rest of a league which some have suggested rode on their coattails.

With a senior-dominated lineup and a strong defensive style, No. 5 seed West Virginia seemed like sleeper material heading into March. But the Mountaineers stumbled badly at the end of the regular season against Syracuse and in the conference tournament against Louisville and now face a first-round game against New Mexico in front of what's sure to be a heavily partisan crowd in Albuquerque.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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