- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The women's Sweet 16 has three first-timers and two more that are practically newbies.
The field is set for this weekend's regional finals with names we expected and others that very few folks saw coming. Thus, it's a Sweet 16 that is actually closer than usual to being geographically representative of the whole country.
The Mountain time zone isn't represented, but the Mountain West Conference is. That league's tournament champion, 11th-seeded San Diego State, is the lowest seed and biggest surprise of the teams still playing.
The real first-timers are Mississippi State, Gonzaga and Nebraska. Kentucky and San Diego State aren't on that list but might as well be. The Aztecs' last appearance in the regional semifinals was in 1985, and the Wildcats' lone appearance was in the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1982. Back then, the NCAA tournament was a 32-team field, so reaching the Sweet 16 meant winning a single game.
In 1982, Kim Mulkey was playing for the eventual national champion, Louisiana Tech; now she has her Baylor team in the Sweet 16 again and will face old friend/foe Pat Summitt of Tennessee.
All is right with the world in Rocky Top once more, after last year's aberration, when a first-round loss meant the Lady Vols' first absence from the Sweet 16. Tennessee is one of four SEC teams still alive and kicking this year, tying the league with the Big 12 for most schools in the Sweet 16.
It might come as a surprise to folks that Mississippi State, with the talent that has gone through Starkville, has never been this far before. Next for Mississippi State is Florida State, which survived St. John's in overtime in the second round. The Bulldogs and Seminoles can just think about each other, and not look at that scary other side of the Dayton bracket.
Because No. 1 seed UConn looked more indestructible than ever Tuesday in a 90-36 demolition of Temple. Now the Huskies are Iowa State's problem to worry about, although the fourth-seeded Cyclones might take a day to catch their breath after escaping from 12th-seeded Green Bay 60-56. For what it's worth, Iowa State does have a Sweet 16 win over the Huskies -- which happened 11 years ago.
Kansas City is the only region in which the top four seeds -- Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Kentucky -- made it to the regional semis. Dayton (Mississippi State) and Memphis (San Diego State) each has a team that had to pull an upset or two to get that far.
And Sacramento is the odd-number region, as seeds 1, 3, 5 and 7 are represented by Stanford, Xavier, Georgia and Gonzaga.
Catching up with the favorites
UConn and Tennessee, winners of 11 of the past 15 NCAA titles, were not tested in their early-round games. So they remain on a collision course for a national semifinal matchup. And at this point, they both look so confident that it's going to take something very special to keep that from happening.
Kudos to No. 7 seed Gonzaga for knocking off one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament, second-seeded Texas A&M, in the best game of the early rounds. But
How many -- besides hoops geniuses, Aztec/Mountain West devotees and those folks who would admit they had no idea what they were doing -- picked No. 11 seed San Diego State? Especially since the Aztecs had to play sixth-seeded Texas on the Longhorns' home floor in the first round.
The Aztecs were the ones who looked like they felt at home, beating Texas 74-63 and creating a neutral-court atmosphere for the second round with West Virginia. Mountaineers coach Mike Carey had expressed his displeasure about potentially having to play the Longhorns on their court, but it turned out Texas wasn't the team he had to worry about. It was Mountain West tournament champ San Diego State, which won 64-55.
Their turn to be shining lights
Gonzaga's Vivian Frieson had a night to remember in her hometown of Seattle, as she did nearly everything right -- including making the winning basket -- in the Bulldogs' upset of Texas A&M: 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots and three steals.
San Diego State's Jene Morris scored 59 points in two games. Alexis Rack had 30 points and six assists in helping hand Ohio State more March misery. And now Rack is going where no previous Mississippi State players ever did, not even LaToya Thomas or Tan White.
Mississippi State still has never beaten Tennessee, but the Lady Bulldogs do have "Sweet 16" finally crossed off their list.
The breakout performances
Some freshmen in their first NCAA tournament have already left an impact. Kentucky's A'dia Mathies had 32 first-round points. In the second round, Georgia's Jasmine James had 27 points and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins 31.
But it wasn't just rookie guards having all the fun. Baylor center Brittney Griner blocked a tournament-record 14 shots against Georgetown, greatly contributing to the Hoyas' shooting 17.1 percent from the field. We wouldn't have been surprised if Georgetown, playing in Berkeley, Calif., later went out on the Pacific to see if the Hoyas could, in fact, hit the ocean from a boat.
Pivotal players for Sweet 16
Dayton Regional: Can senior post player Jacinta Monroe help Florida State earn a possible second chance against UConn this season?
Memphis Regional: If Tennessee's Kelley Cain is holding her own, every other part of her team's offense gets better.
Kansas City Regional: Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale looks to Danielle Robinson to do everything right.
Sacramento Regional: If Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike asserts herself as much as she has lately, the Cardinal are likely to make a third consecutive Final Four.
Could you believe it?
UCLA likes its defense to look as if there are Bruins everywhere. But it has to just seem that way. The Bruins can't actually have more than five players on the court at once because, you know, the rules just don't allow you any extras.
On Tuesday, in the eighth-seeded Bruins' loss to No. 1 Nebraska, UCLA picked up a technical foul for having six players on the court. Coach Nikki Caldwell said she'd never see that before -- and might have regretted that the Bruins couldn't have actually gotten away with it. Perhaps that might have stopped Nebraska, which now just might have a rematch with Big 12 foe Oklahoma in the Elite Eight.
The Huskers will have to top Kentucky first, while the Sooners meet Notre Dame. If Oklahoma and Nebraska do face off in the regional final, these programs know each other so well they just might try something like sneaking a sixth player out there to get an edge.
Don't overlook ...
No. 2 seed Duke didn't exactly chase seventh-seeded LSU out of Cameron Indoor Stadium in the second round; the Blue Devils pulled away late for a 60-52 win.
However, might Duke have a chance to play that one really good game that the Blue Devils seem capable of? If they survive the upset-minded Aztecs, might that good game end up being against Tennessee or Baylor?
Some of the Sweet 16 matchups bring back memorable meetings between the same programs in past NCAA tournaments.
• Stanford and Georgia faced off in the 1996 national semifinals, but Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer wasn't on the sidelines for that one. That was the season she took off to coach the U.S. national team, which went on a long international tour to prepare for the '96 Olympics. Georgia, led that season by guard Saudia Roundtree, prevailed over Kate Starbird's Cardinal team 86-76, but then fell to Tennessee in the final.
• In the 1999 Sweet 16, Iowa State's 3-point shooters were too much for UConn, upsetting the Huskies 64-58. This year, like in '99, UConn is the No. 1 seed and Iowa State is No. 4.
• In a very controversial finish, Baylor was whistled for a foul against Tennessee with two-tenths of a second left in the 2004 Sweet 16. Tasha Butts made both free throws, and Tennessee survived 71-69.
*Who'll be Best in Show?
With all four top seeds there, Kansas City might see three nail-biter games. Both No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 Oklahoma are trying to get to the Final Four for the third time in program history.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.