If UConn doesn't win the title, who will?
In sports, even a sure thing isn't truly a sure thing. This is a basketball tournament, after all, and anything can happen when you play 63 games in three weeks. The Connecticut Huskies as 2009 women's NCAA champs really isn't pre-ordained.
It has seemed like that, though, due to the combination of the Huskies' strength and a less-than-dynamic year overall nationally in terms of really great teams to challenge UConn.
Still, let's remember there have been other "can't-miss" teams that missed. UConn was undefeated entering the NCAA tournament in 1997 and fell in the Elite Eight. Louisiana Tech was unbeaten in 1990 until its national semifinal loss to Auburn.
Tennessee had three losses in 1999 going into the tournament, but as the three-time defending NCAA champion UT was still the heavy favorite. But Duke pulled an upset in the Elite Eight.
And all three of those years -- 1990, '97 and '99 -- there were other teams in the championship picture throughout the season.
Eventual winner Stanford, Auburn, Virginia and Tennessee were strong contenders along with that undefeated Louisiana Tech team going into the 1990 tournament.
In 1997, there was a lot of focus on Stanford, Georgia and Old Dominion along with UConn. And a 10-loss team, Tennessee, ended up winning that NCAA title.
In 1999, eventual champ Purdue, Louisiana Tech and UConn were all considered legitimate challengers to stop the Tennessee four-peat, though none of them was actually the one that did.
The last time anything seemed this "sure" in women's hoops was UConn in 2002. And it did turn out to be "sure."
Now, we understand that many UConn fans don't want to hear chatter about this either way. They're mad that the media is "setting them up" or jinxing the Huskies by talking about them as unbeatable. But then if we suggest UConn might be beaten, the fans are upset that we're "disrespecting" the Huskies.
Such are the high-brow neuroses when you're a program that good -- one that already has two of the four perfect seasons in women's hoops during the NCAA era. But if someone else is going to win the NCAA title, who might it be?
And remember, this is not the same thing as, "Who might beat UConn?" Because, like in '90 and '99, the team that beats the "big favorite" -- if that happens -- may not be the one that goes on to win it all.
So all that qualifying in place, here are some teams that -- if everything went right for them in the tournament and at least one game went very wrong for UConn -- could end up the unexpected 2009 champion.
Sure, yeah, we know. For the Terps to do this, many are convinced they will have to rack up 80 or 90 points (or more) each time out, which is a daunting proposition.
Several coaches I've talked to in recent weeks see Maryland as "very beatable" -- even though they don't actually want any part of trying to beat the Terps. In other words, they think there are defenses that would slow the Terps, and there is always the "hope" -- if you're their opponent -- that they would have one of those supposedly inevitable bad shooting nights that even high-octane offenses have.
Last year, though, what knocked Maryland out wasn't a defense that wore down the Terps but rather another offense that outscored them: Stanford, in a 98-87 points-fest in the Elite Eight.
Maryland has two superstars who already have an NCAA title in Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver. But they have a freshman, Lynetta Kizer, and a juco transfer, Demauria Liles, inside. They are not deep. They nearly got bounced in the ACC tournament quarterfinals by Wake Forest before turning it on near the end of that game.
Still, they won the ACC tournament by showing a lot of resolve against Wake, then North Carolina, then Duke -- teams that are obviously well-versed in how to stop Maryland but couldn't do it.
Oh, the howls of derision. The Sooners have never advanced past the Sweet 16 in Courtney Paris' previous three seasons, plus they have fallen in her final two Big 12 tournament appearances (after winning the first two). Their "big win" in terms of nonconference foes came this year against Tennessee, which doesn't have the luster it would have had in other years.
So Oklahoma has been called "overrated" and "under-achieving" probably more than any team in the past few seasons, inheriting that mantle from another Big 12 program, Kansas State (from 2002 to 2005).
The Sooners can look devastatingly good, as they did against Kansas in the Big 12 tournament and, yes, against Tennessee back in February. Like most everyone else, though, in November they were pounded by UConn. Before that, they were edged at home by North Carolina. The only other team to beat OU is Texas A&M, which did it twice in the past three weeks.
Courtney Paris' limited time because of foul trouble against A&M hurt the Sooners in the Big 12 semifinals. This is where twin sister Ashley Paris -- who is, certainly, a very good player in her own right -- needed to step forward. Which she has several times this season. But she seems to be in an offensive slump in the past few weeks.
Further, A&M's defense took the Sooners out of their rhythm, and point guard Danielle Robinson never could get them back in it. Shooter Whitney Hand, back after a broken hand, did not hit a shot in either of the Sooners' Big 12 tournament games.
All this, though, doesn't mean the Sooners should be dismissed. If they can make the Sweet 16, they'll have another chance to play in front of an adoring (and loud) Oklahoma City crowd.
Hey, it was the Cardinal -- with Candice Wiggins, of course -- who upset UConn last year, before going down to Tennessee, which is a team Stanford seems able to beat only once a decade, and unfortunately for the Cardinal in 2007-08, that win over Tennessee came in December.
The Cardinal lost Wiggins to graduation and point guard JJ Hones to a knee injury early in this season. But Stanford continues to reign over the Pac-10 even if that has that "inevitable" feel to it year after year, the Cardinal still have to actually do it.
Jayne Appel has had a brilliant season and was the league's player of the year. Jeanette Pohlen has settled in at point guard. Kayla Pedersen had her season high in points, 25, in the Cardinal's championship game of the Pac-10 tournament.
This was not a good year nationally for freshmen, but Nnemkadi Ogwumike is an exception who stands out. Jillian Harmon is one of those seniors who will do whatever's asked on offense and defense.
And there's coach Tara VanDerveer, who keeps piling up victories. She called her 1992 national championship squad a "bucket of bolts" team. And while this squad has more individual talent than that one, it seems to have the same mentality.
You see flashes with this team that make you say, "What if "
One of the problems, though, is that the Blue Devils are still stuck a bit between their old selves of the Gail Goestenkors days and their new selves of the Joanne P. McCallie days.
They seem to be transitioning more to the latter, and their work on the boards and on defense at times this season has made them appear a potentially difficult team for any offense to face.
But by the same token, Duke's own offense is very turnover prone; McCallie attributes it to the lack of a "true" point guard. And the Blue Devils have had games when they miss more close-range shots than should seem humanly possible.
Still, Chante Black has been very solid inside, and Carrem Gay had an outstanding performance in the ACC championship game. Jasmine Thomas might not be as "true" a point guard as others, but she has played very well on many occasions.
Plus, Duke has a lot of athleticism and effort coming off the bench. And while it seem improbable to think the Blue Devils can really get all the parts working in the right direction for six consecutive games, it's not impossible.
The Tigers won the SEC regular season behind a strong senior class led by DeWanna Bonner, Whitney Boddie and Sherell Hobbs.
In the league tournament semifinals, the Tigers beat SEC titan Tennessee for a second time this season. But they were upended by Vanderbilt in the championship game. The Commodores beat Auburn twice this season, exposing some defensive lapses the Tigers can have. Other teams occasionally did that, too, but not enough to actually defeat Auburn. That is, though, a concern for coach Nell Fortner.
Auburn has the advantages of a senior-dominated team but the disadvantage of not having much NCAA tournament experience: just one game. This group was in the field last year -- Auburn's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2004 -- and the Tigers lost in the first round.
The Cardinals had the good fortune of making the Big East tournament final which coincided with the bad fortune of having to play UConn a second time this season.
Both games had small periods of closeness followed by large periods of blowout-ness. Still, the Cardinals' only other losses were back in November at Nevada (one of those things) and against West Virginia in February (another one of those things).
While they are being drowned out in the jubilation over the No. 1-seeded men's team, the Louisville women have the superstar in Angel McCoughtry, the solid sidekick in Candyce Bingham and the solid supporting cast to make an NCAA tournament run. Six games? Well
The Aggies upset Oklahoma -- the second time they've beaten the Sooners this season -- in the Big 12 tournament semifinals before falling to Baylor. A&M is as deep a team as is in the NCAA field, led by Danielle Gant, a 5-foot-11 do-everything player who would probably lead the nation in garbage baskets were that stat kept.
A&M does not have a dominant offensive post player in any sense, but it does have a strong post defense led by La Toya Micheaux. The Aggies also have sharpshooters in Takia Starks and Tanisha Smith, a junior-college transfer who wasn't on last year's Elite Eight team.
And foes not used to Texas A&M's bump-and-grind, withering pressure on defense will be disrupted by it.
This is not a deep team like Texas A&M, but it's deeper than Baylor was last year, when one injury -- to guard Jhasmin Player -- really did impact the team's effectiveness after she was hurt.
Danielle Wilson was injured on Feb. 28, and even though she was Baylor's leading scorer and rebounder at the time, it wasn't as big a blow to the team as outsiders guessed it would be.
Baylor won the Big 12 tournament without her, led by seniors Jessica Morrow, Rachel Allison and Player, plus junior Morghan Medlock and sophomore Melissa Jones.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.
MORE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- S. Carolina still No. 1 as Stanford falls to 16
- St. John's gives coach Tartamella an extension
- Stewart leads No. 2 UConn in rout of UCLA
- Davenport layup sends Texas by Texas A&M