Tourney could be best in years

A friend called Tuesday from a St. Patrick's Day gathering where guests were filling out their women's tournament brackets. She was getting grief from someone about phoning me, the "ESPN.com expert" (cough), which is funny because she certainly wasn't seeking my advice.

Anybody who knows me knows what a bad idea that is. First, I'll complain about how much I hate making picks. Then I'll proceed to overanalyze everything to the point that you'd be better off asking someone who hadn't seen a game all season. Or maybe someone who has never even heard of basketball.

The reason my friend called, actually, was just to remark on how hard the bracket was to fill out (even without my complicating matters).

"What about if Louisville plays LSU in the second round … that's in Baton Rouge! Stanford might have to play San Diego State on its home court! The Cardinal should win, but still! What about Georgia? What if they get on a roll? What if Auburn plays Rutgers on its home court? Rutgers has been getting it together! Or Oklahoma at Iowa? I saw Baylor win the Big 12, but how long can they keep winning games like that? Iowa State is seeded better than Tennessee, but how can I not pick Tennessee if they play? I mean, come on, it's Tennessee! What about Duke if it has to play Michigan State at home? Couldn't Gonzaga maybe make the Sweet 16? How good is Notre Dame?"

Which is to say, she was voicing what might be a popular refrain now among a lot of women's hoops followers: If you take UConn out of the mix, it's really a great tournament.

In fact, it might be one of the most exciting and unpredictable tournaments we've ever had -- again, other than games involving UConn.

Admittedly, to a lot of folks who don't follow the sport, it's a surprise to hear this. They don't know. They see UConn's perfect record and victory margin, and they think the whole season must have been dull, and that this whole tournament will be, too. That's not true at all, but such is the shadow cast by UConn.

How did this happen, that the Huskies would be -- or at least appear to be -- so far ahead of the pack? You could say it has been five years in the making. Well, five years specifically for this team to be where it is.

Geno Auriemma built his program from scratch starting in 1985, and it took six seasons for him to make a Final Four, in 1991. Since then, he has never had a period that long without UConn in a Final Four.

Subsequent appearances were in 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008. That has produced five titles. And none of it is nearly enough for Auriemma. It wouldn't be enough even if you-know-who in Knoxville, Tenn., didn't have 18 Final Four appearances and eight titles.

Auriemma could have coached anything or anybody successfully, but he got into women's basketball and stuck with it. All his postgame wisecracks -- and sometimes in-game wisecracks, like when he's joshing with former player and ESPN analyst and sideline reporter Rebecca Lobo at halftime -- can slightly obscure the fact that he's a great tactician, a demanding but rewarding teacher, and a skillful motivator.

When you watch the Huskies, you see very few mistakes. Auriemma sees them, though, even the tiniest ones. And even if they don't actually hurt his team, he still points them out because he wants to eradicate them. Little problems never become big problems at UConn because they never even get to grow into medium problems.

After you build such a firm foundation for excellence, it starts doing a lot to maintain itself. That's not to say, at all, that Auriemma and his staff don't have to work hard. They do. It's just that their hard work usually propels the program to levels of "terrific," not just "really good." And that's because the bar is so high when new players walk in that they immediately start by reaching up.

In a recent talk with Leon Barmore -- who is now an assistant at Baylor and one of the best coaches in the sport's history -- he mentioned the importance of feeling comfortable with the expectation that you are supposed to win all the time.

It was like that for many years at Louisiana Tech when he was head coach there. His teams didn't win every single game they played, but they thought they should. It wasn't that success was taken for granted, because it was still highly valued. But it was just considered a requirement, not an option.

Auriemma had the best player in the nation in Diana Taurasi from 2000 to 2004 and won three titles with her. He was rearranging chess pieces in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and then got another Taurasi-like player in Maya Moore last year. Any extra fuel he or the Huskies might have needed for this season came from their 2008 Final Four loss to Stanford.

This UConn crescendo has coincided with just enough of a dropoff for everyone else to create the gap we've seen all season and still have going into the NCAA tournament.

Several superb seniors nationwide graduated last year. But while UConn lost four solid seniors, it didn't lose its best player. That was the case, though, for the Huskies' 2008 Final Four counterparts, Tennessee (Candace Parker), Stanford (Candice Wiggins) and LSU (Sylvia Fowles). For that matter, Tennessee and LSU both lost all five of their starters.

Other teams that lost experienced stars to graduation included Maryland, North Carolina, Rutgers and Texas A&M -- all of which were Elite Eight teams last year.

This season might have had a different feel to it in terms of the "gap" between UConn and the field if a few things had gone differently -- for instance, if Parker had opted to stay a fifth year at Tennessee and use her final season of eligibility. Anyone who doubts how much of a difference one phenomenal player can make for a team needs only to look back at what Taurasi did for UConn in 2003 and 2004.

Parker's mere presence on the floor would have made everyone else's shot selection better because of the defensive attention she requires. It also would have cut down on turnovers for a team that has played hot potato so much that it's astounding coach Pat Summitt is still sane.

Parker had developed into a very good teammate by her last season at Tennessee, too, something not all great players do. With a look or pat on the back or words in a huddle, she shared her confidence with everyone else.

Another thing that might have impacted this season is if Gail Goestenkors had remained coach at Duke. This is not meant as a dagger at Joanne P. McCallie. (Although some Blue Devils fans still would be willing to throw one, figuratively speaking, of course.)

But think of it like a race car that gets a different driver. The players who are this year (and were last season, too) the key components at Duke were coached and/or recruited there by Goestenkors. Duke, and certain Blue Devils in particular, went through a difficult adjustment period under McCallie.

The unavoidable time it took the new coach and her players to get used to each other was time the Blue Devils were in neutral, not accelerating. Without the driver switch, they might not be a full lap behind UConn.

This is not to suggest that even if Parker had stayed another season or if Goestenkors had turned down Texas in 2007 that the Huskies would not still be the favorites. They would be. There just might not be quite the same feeling that this is a coronation, not a tournament.

And yet we can go back to this whole season and what we saw that makes us really excited about this tournament anyway.

We saw a rising-power mid-major team, South Dakota State, continue its climb at the same time a longtime mid-major power, Old Dominion, missed the NCAA field for the first time in 18 years.

We saw freshmen learning and growing at Tennessee. We saw senior experience pay off at Auburn and Vanderbilt, and the ways Tennessee in its rare weakened state helps strengthen the rest of the SEC.

We saw a no-star team (Florida State) tie a two-star team (Maryland) for the ACC regular-season title, then watched the Terps triumph in their league tournament for the first time in 20 years.

We saw the drama carousel that never seems to stop turning at Rutgers, in good times and in bad. We saw Louisville handle just about every challenge but UConn, and how Notre Dame dealt valiantly with ACL injures to two key players.

We saw Ohio State drop the car keys into the hands of a rookie point guard from New York, Samantha Prahalis, and how that helped the Buckeyes rule the Big Ten again. We saw Joe McKeown, who won consistently at George Washington, come in to try to salvage a long-sinking ship at Northwestern.

Speaking of sinking, Iowa had parts of its campus under water during the destructive early-summer floods. But the Hawkeyes -- who were out helping sandbag then -- are afloat now in the postseason.

We saw Stanford remain the shining light of the Left Coast, while Cal keeps scratching and clawing to try to get to its own perch. We cursed the letters A-C-L too many times, including with a gut-wrenching repeat knee injury for Arizona State's Dymond Simon.

We saw, once again, that coach Elaine Elliott at Utah could probably win with a roster of mannequins. (She'd just keep putting them in the right spots and somehow teach a couple of them to shoot.) We empathized with teams such as Bowling Green and Illinois State that could play well for months but get bounced by the cruelty of the league tournament.

We saw the Big 12 hit a decade atop the league attendance chart and continue to enjoy robust crowds (at multiple schools) more consistently than any other conference. We saw Oklahoma center Courtney Paris extend her double-double streak to an absurd 112 games. And we saw Baylor win the league tournament the season before its incoming rookie gold mine that's led by Brittney Griner.

So, sure, UConn is likely to win it all. But there's still a lot more left to see.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.