In less than three weeks, the women's NCAA tournament will culminate with the Final Four in St. Louis. Which teams will be there to decide the 2009 championship?
Mechelle Voepel's Final Four picks
Connecticut, Stanford, Baylor, Oklahoma
Connecticut: The March to the Arch Part II will have one repeat participant: Connecticut. Just as in 2001, the Huskies will head to St. Louis for the Final Four, with the hope of a better outcome this time. We have no reason, really, not to pick UConn. Should the Huskies face Texas A&M in the Elite Eight, they might find the Aggies a bit like the very good Rutgers teams of the past few seasons (not this season) in terms of pesky defense and streaky shooters who can get hot. But UConn usually handled that well. There's no one in the Trenton Regional that is going to give Huskies much more than half a game. Meaning even if some team stays close for the first half, it won't for the second.
Stanford: If seeds hold in the Berkeley Regional, it will be the second meeting this season between Stanford and Duke. The Blue Devils won the first one -- a sloppy, unappealing game in Durham in December -- in part because Stanford struggled at the foul line. But Stanford has lost just twice since then -- at Tennessee and at Cal -- and the Cardinal looked very strong in the Pac-10 tournament. So it won't be a surprise to see a rematch of last year's national semifinal between UConn and Stanford in the national semifinals. It would be a surprise, though, to see Stanford win that matchup again. (And, yes, we do realize that Tennessee is swimming around in the Berkeley Regional like a potential adolescent shark growing bigger by the day. So it's not impossible that you know what.)
Baylor: The Raleigh Regional is devoid of either of its local teams -- Duke and North Carolina. Instead, No. 1 seed Maryland is the ACC representative that will make it there if seeds hold. I know I'm going out on a limb to pick No. 2 Baylor for the Final Four. If I hadn't seen Baylor in person four times in the past two weeks -- including its loss at Kansas -- I would not make this pick. But I was struck by the different ways Baylor found to win all three of its Big 12 tournament games. Against each foe -- Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Texas A&M -- Baylor essentially beat its opponent at its own game. Also in each game, coach Kim Mulkey made just the right adjustments at key times -- including going to an almost-never used zone against Texas A&M.
Baylor had to scramble in all three of those games, and that could be an indicator that this team might not have the stuff for a Final Four. But the fact that Baylor won all three showed me that maybe the Lady Bears do have the stuff. We'll see. I could also very well see Louisville's being the team to upset the top-seeded Terps here. And after Vanderbilt won the SEC tournament, I won't write the Commodores off, either.
Oklahoma: Finally, there is the Oklahoma City Regional, where Oklahoma didn't have a chance to play last season because the Sooners were upset in the second round by Notre Dame. There is danger for the Sooners in this bracket, and that could be said even if they had not been upset in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. If seeds hold, the Sooners would have to get by an Auburn team that might bring back some memories of the way another SEC squad, Mississippi, kind of ran OU into the ground in the 2007 Sweet 16.
Is there extra pressure on OU because the Paris twins are in their senior year, they haven't gone to a Final Four and the Sooners have a path through Oklahoma City? Sure, but maybe the karma, which hasn't been very good for OU in past NCAA tournaments, will be better this year. And being in Oklahoma City should be a big asset, too, of course.
Graham Hays' Final Four picks
Connecticut, Stanford, Maryland, Oklahoma
Connecticut: The tournament's heavy favorite doesn't have to travel far in the first four rounds, starting at home in Storrs before heading a few hours south to Trenton. Those short commutes could prove useful in providing extra time in the whirlpool, because although this might not be the toughest competitive region, it does offer extremes of physical and fast play. California and Virginia both looked like potential No. 2 seeds (or better) at various points in the season and could prove tougher than a typical Sweet 16 opponent. Get past that hurdle and the Huskies likely would face either Florida State, a team that already pushed them as much as anyone this season, or Texas A&M, a team that makes every trip down the court an exercise in endurance.
Maryland: The Terrapins get ACC territory all to themselves in College Park and Raleigh, with the rest of the conference shipped elsewhere. Not that familiarity helps slow down the ACC champs -- people have been trying unsuccessfully to slow Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman for four years. The top half of the bracket is loaded with teams that rely on execution but boasts few that can stick one-on-one with either Toliver and Coleman outside or Lynetta Kizer and Demauria Liles inside. That's less the case in a potential regional final against Baylor, Louisville or even South Dakota State, but whether it's the Lady Bears without Danielle Wilson, the Cardinals' short bench or the Jackrabbits in new surroundings, there are reasons to think Maryland will survive.
Stanford: Even as a No. 2 seed, Stanford has the carrot of potentially playing top-seeded Duke, or any other team, just across the Bay from Palo Alto in a regional final. (Staying close to home isn't quite as much of a perk for the first two rounds in San Diego, considering first-round opponent UC Santa Barbara will be even closer to its campus and potential second-round foe San Diego State would be at home.) A potential Sweet 16 game with Jayne Appel posting up Jantel Lavender is intriguing, but -- in part because there are some similarities -- Ohio State isn't likely to take Stanford out of its comfort zone. That leaves Duke, which handled Stanford in Durham earlier this season. Both teams are better now than then, but the Cardinal's rediscovered outside touch could make the difference.
Oklahoma: Like Stanford, Oklahoma might have to get past an opponent on that team's home court to reap the benefits of playing in its own backyard for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. But even in Iowa City, the toughest early test might be ninth-seeded Georgia Tech, a frenetic defensive team that could test Danielle Robinson's occasional tendency to slip in too many turnovers. The same could probably be said of either Pitt or Xavier in the third round, but the good news is that should the Sooners survive, they would have their press-break well tuned in time to face either third-seeded North Carolina or No. 2 seed Auburn. It's not a perfect draw, but the Sooners are more athletic than in recent years, and it might ultimately be to their benefit to play teams that might reciprocate if play gets sloppy.
Charlie Creme's Final Four picks
Connecticut, Stanford, Maryland, Oklahoma
Connecticut: The Huskies' inclusion in the Final Four is an obvious choice. They have been the best team in the country since the balls were rolled out in October. They haven't been seriously challenged all season, and a loss in the tournament would be an epic upset.
Stanford: The Cardinal are playing with tons of confidence right now and won't have to leave their home state to get to St. Louis. There are some teams in their draw (San Diego State, Mississippi State and Duke) with guards who play defense that could create some trouble, though.
Maryland: Heading into the tournament, Maryland clearly looks like the second-best team in the country and doesn't have a team in its region likely to match the Terps' toughness until a possible regional final matchup with Baylor. If Marissa Coleman keeps playing the way she has in the season's final month, the Terps will cruise to the Elite Eight and will be favored to beat anyone except UConn.
Oklahoma: The Big 12 tournament proved that the Oklahoma City placement is not necessarily an advantage for the Sooners and their path to the Final Four. The road will be bumpy, but ultimately, the veterans will lead them there. The question might be, "Has Courtney Paris placed too much pressure on herself and the team?"