RALEIGH, N.C. -- Like stones across a creek getting further apart, the steps to the Women's Final Four become more difficult to take … yet more tantalizing to dream about reaching.
Down to the Elite Eight, we have a group that already has some historical significance: It includes an unprecedented two No. 6 seeds. Some of these teams are trying to create more history: Iowa State, Arizona State and Louisville seek their first visit to the Final Four.
And there is geographical/conference parity: Two teams from the Big East, two from the Big 12, two from the Pac-10, one from the Big Ten and one from the ACC.
What's missing? The SEC. It doesn't have a team in the Elite Eight for the first time since the NCAA tournament began in 1982.
In fact, there have been only two years when the SEC did not have at least one Final Four team: in 1992 and 2001, which coincidentally happen to be the two seasons that former mid-major power Missouri State made the Final Four.
For the first 16 seasons of the tournament, Missouri State was the lowest seed to have advanced that far, doing so as a No. 8 seed in 1992. The Bears held the record until 1998, when Arkansas made it as a No. 9, which remains the Final Four record. Missouri State was a No. 5 when it made the first "March to the Arch" in 2001.
With the Women's Final Four in St. Louis again, No. 6 seeds Arizona State and Purdue attempt to join Alabama (1994) and Notre Dame (1997) as six seeds in the last quartet.
Both have to go against No. 1 seeds in Tuesday night's regional finals. The Sun Devils are in the Elite Eight for the second time, and once again they have to face a Big East team in the Eastern time zone. In 2007, Arizona State lost to Rutgers in a not-very-compelling (OK, it was really dull) 54-45 final in Greensboro, N.C.
Now they're in Trenton, N.J., which is basically South Storrs, Conn., trying to knock off the No. 1 seed in the tournament. In the Sweet 16, Connecticut played around with Cal like a cat fiddling with a toy for almost a half, then went in for the kill.
The Sun Devils, despite losing their point guard earlier this month with a knee injury, have already upset the No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in the Trenton Regional, the latter being surprising in particular because of the way Arizona State did it: with offense.
The idea of the Sun Devils winning a grind-it-out game with Texas A&M on Sunday wouldn't have seemed all that surprising. But Arizona State scoring 84 points against what's considered one of the top defensive teams in the country was a stunner.
Connecticut won't face Tennessee again this year (sore subject for Huskies fans), but at least the Huskies will face a former Tennessee player. Sun Devils senior center Sybil Dosty is from Tucson, Ariz., but bypassed the Arizona schools in favor of Tennessee. She transferred to Arizona State after one season, though, as did Lauren Lacey from Minnesota. Both Dosty and Lacey are 6 feet, 3 inches and will be needed against UConn.
The other No. 6 seed trying to knock off a No. 1 is Purdue, which held off Rutgers on Sunday night in Oklahoma City and now must face the entire state of Oklahoma. Or at least that's how it will feel to the Boilermakers when they enter the crimson-filled Ford Center on Tuesday night.
Top-seeded Oklahoma didn't have too much trouble dispatching No. 4 Pitt on Sunday. And with the Sooners men falling in the Elite Eight, all the attention goes to the Paris twins (Courtney and Ashley) as they try to help the women's program get to its second Final Four.
Purdue has been to the Final Four in 1994, 1999 and 2001, all under different coaches. Former player Sharon Versyp will try to be the fourth coach to take the Boilermakers that far.
Purdue might be greatly outnumbered in terms of fan support, but the Boilermakers have the type of personnel that could push the Sooners.
Meanwhile in Raleigh, it's a matchup of teams with a lot in common, including their school colors of red and black. No. 1 seed Maryland is looking for a return trip to the Final Four after its 2006 NCAA championship, and No. 3 Louisville is in its first Elite Eight.
It's a matchup involving senior star players Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver of Maryland and Angel McCoughtry of Louisville -- each of whom will hear her name called very, very early at the WNBA draft.
The coaches, Maryland's Brenda Frese and Louisville's Jeff Walz, worked together at Maryland (five seasons) and Minnesota (one), and won an NCAA title along with Coleman and Toliver in 2006.
Maryland's slow start Saturday and need for a furious rally against semifinal foe Vanderbilt suggests there are chinks even in the Terps' offensive armor, and you can expect that Walz knows how best to try to take advantage of them.
Out west, No. 4 seed Iowa State is in the Elite Eight with No. 2 Stanford, which is looking to make the program's eighth trip to the Final Four.
In 1999, Iowa State got to the Elite Eight for the first time, upsetting UConn in the Sweet 16. After that game, Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly said, "Wow, one more game and we're going … I can't even really make myself say the words."
The words were "Final Four," and the destination then was San Jose, Calif. Iowa State didn't make it, falling to Georgia in the regional final, and a decade has gone by until now, when the Cyclones have another chance.
Fennelly invited members of his 1999 team back to Hilton Coliseum this season to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of that Elite Eight team and to reinforce to his current players the sort of legacy they are in charge of upholding.
He will impress upon his Cyclones before facing Stanford that opportunities are rare for most programs, yet he will try not to put any additional weight on their shoulders.
After all, you step lightly but confidently when you're crossing a stream stone-to-stone, and you keep telling yourself that next rock really is within your reach.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.