Commentary

Same old teams once again the favorites as tourney opens

Updated: March 21, 2008, 6:02 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Certainly, you could work on a premise that this women's NCAA tournament is just an inevitable process of elimination until we get to a Rock-'Em, Sock-'Em Robots-style final between Connecticut and Tennessee.

That would please one of the three demographics of dedicated women's hoops fans. That being, of course, the followers of the Orange and Blue who either deep down believe or would just flat-out say that anything not involving one of the two "Empires" is really not important.

The second demographic is not anti-Empires, per se, but hasn't exactly been upset that UConn has missed the last three Final Fours and was cheering for North Carolina and Rutgers in Cleveland last year.

And then the folks in the third demographic are so sick of the Empires that if either loses before Tampa, these people will be so giddy they'll be running into busy intersections giving away money. And if both lose, these delirious fans might just expire from happiness.

It was just two seasons ago, in 2006, when that was the case -- an Empireless Final Four, that is -- thanks to fatal blows in regional finals from ACC schools North Carolina and Duke.

Alas, though, there's not much reason to think this won't be the tournament when the Empires strike back, meaning both make the Final Four again. Tennessee is the defending national champion and has had its hiccups: a foul-plagued loss to Stanford in December, February's faulty-clock-aided "victory" over Rutgers, and then the bottom-dropped-out loss to LSU.

Seeing a lead not just evaporate but be obliterated, as was the case against LSU, Tennessee got the kind of reality jolt that even top programs sometimes need.

UConn didn't need to lose any games to get that kind of jolt -- it was more than enough to lose Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas to season-ending knee injuries. Then their one loss, to Rutgers, just added some grit to the Huskies. They feel the "absence" from the Final Four -- despite the puny three seasons that it has been in reality -- like a gaping hole in the program's psyche.

When penciling in your bracket, did anything get in the way for even two seconds of writing Tennessee straight into the Final Four? Nothing did for me.

Sure, if seeds were to hold, Tennessee would face Okalahoma in Oklahoma City in the regional semifinals. And you could go back to their November meeting in Orlando -- a 70-67 Tennessee win -- and suggest that this could be a troublesome game for the top seed if it happens.

However, the game that is sticking in my mind is OU's 70-64 loss to Missouri in the Big 12 tournament -- the only time a No. 12 seed has ever won in that event. No top-four seed in the NCAA tournament has more "getting it together" to do than Oklahoma does.

And if there is a Texas A&M-Tennessee regional final, that's where the Aggies' lack of experience against marquee opponents outside the Big 12 could really impact their chances for an upset.

For what it's worth, I don't know that seeds will hold in the Oklahoma City Regional's early rounds … a team like fifth-seeded Notre Dame could have something to say about that.

As for the Greensboro Regional, an interesting possible game -- albeit not likely a close one -- could be in the second round if Texas faces UConn. Obviously, this is not yet the powerful Texas that you can expect to see in the coming years under Gail Goestenkors. But … this is a team that definitely took steps forward in the past few weeks.

The Longhorns pushed Oklahoma State for a spot in the Big 12 tournament title game, and they finally have started to look more like a Goestenkors-coached team. This game might be a preview of a Final Four matchup we might see in a few years.

It's kind of neat that there could be another Old Dominion-Virginia matchup if seeds hold. (I recently wrote about those two programs and their past NCAA histories.) I am curious to see if Virginia can use this season and this tournament as a type of springboard back toward the national prominence the Cavs used to have.

Speaking of flashbacks, if Iowa State and Rutgers meet in the second round, that would be a repeat of a 1998 meeting won 62-61 by the Scarlet Knights.

It's safe to say there has been all kinds of angst from the East Coast about the fact that UConn and Rutgers are in the same regional. Seemed pretty weird to me, too. And you could look at it two ways, if seeds hold: UConn just beat Rutgers by 20 points, so the Huskies can feel really good about that. But …

We know from last year that weird stuff can happen with Rutgers in Greensboro Coliseum. The Scarlet Knights upset overall No. 1 Duke there in 2007. And if any program/coach is good at conjuring up past mojo, it's Rutgers and C. Vivian Stringer.

Another thing to keep an eye on in the Greensboro Regional is Cal -- a team we last saw being drilled mercilessly by Stanford in the Pac-10 final. If the Bears make it to Greensboro, coach Joanne Boyle will have a chance to be on familiar ground after all her years as an assistant at Duke.

Greensboro was home to the ACC tournament again this year, and league champ North Carolina wouldn't have minded getting to go back there again. But the selection committee's letter-of-the-law meant UConn as the overall No. 1 got placed in Greensboro because it's closer to Storrs, Conn., than New Orleans.

It's a plane ride either way, so it's pretty silly, frankly. This is one of those cases that I think the committee hamstrings itself with its principles and procedures -- taking another No. 1 seed, the Tar Heels, out of North Carolina to put in a team that is not in any legitimate sense "close" to Greensboro.

I also can't think of a better way to ensure the North Carolina women could possibly get less media coverage in their state. Media outlets there are going to be hard-pressed to do justice to the Tar Heel women when there are men's and women's regionals in the state while UNC's women, if they advance, will be in New Orleans.

I realize the committee members can't always weigh all these media/fan concerns, but this is one placement I just don't agree with. They need more common-sense flexibility in terms of their geography rules -- something that is continuously discussed. It should be.

But New Orleans it is for the Tar Heels, provided they navigate their way to the Sweet 16. They could have to face a Louisville team that is coming off a hot Big East tournament, and Cardinals coach Jeff Walz is very familiar with UNC from his days as an assistant at Maryland.

Which brings us to the Terps, who were able to ride the "no respect" card in 2006 all the way to the national title. During Monday's selection show, there was some goofy talk about Maryland still not getting any respect or attention … maybe the Terps want to tell themselves that as motivation, but it has no basis in reality.

Maryland got a No. 1 seed in a region where the Nos. 2-3-4 seeds all carry some significant baggage. No. 2 Stanford is clearly a good team but the Cardinal haven't made a Final Four since 1997 and have just a lot of "almosts" in the recent past. No. 3 seed Baylor lost a 16-point lead to Texas in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals and has inconsistent post play. No. 4 Vanderbilt, should it meet Maryland in the Sweet 16, would have a hard time matching up with the Terps across the board.

A lot of us came into this season thinking there weren't a great number of candidates to win the national title, and nothing has changed that assessment. That doesn't mean you won't see any upsets in the next few days. But all signs point to this being a tournament for the big dogs.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.