1. Lady Bulldogs, Aztecs -- Finally!
Both Mississippi State and San Diego State had some reasonably high, if not overwhelmingly so, expectations to start the season (SDSU was picked to win the Mountain West). Each made it into the Top 25 by the second week of the season. The Lady Bulldogs crunched Maryland by 29 in November. The Aztecs battled to within five of fifth-ranked Notre Dame four days later.
But their seasons could best be described as uneven after that. Mississippi State lost 12 games, dropped two to Florida, scored a mere 36 points at home against Auburn on Feb. 21 and then scored just 47 at LSU a week later. San Diego State suffered three straight losses -- to New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV -- at one point. On Feb. 16, the Aztecs beat MWC champ TCU by 23, only to lose at Utah five days later by 18. They finished third in a relatively soft Mountain West.
Bottom line: Neither lived up to any expectations, especially their own. Until now.
2. Welcome to the Show
Mississippi State, Gonzaga and Nebraska are headed for uncharted waters as each reached the Sweet 16 for the first time. Last year, Cal was the only newbie to join the party.
Kentucky and San Diego State are practically newcomers: The Aztecs' last appearance in the regional semifinals was in 1985, and the Wildcats' lone appearance was in 1982. Back then, the NCAA tournament was a 32-team field, so it was win one game and advance to the round of 16.
3. Big 12 vs. SEC
The Big 12 was considered the best league in the country all season long. Making an argument against it was possible, but pretty difficult. And with four of the 16 teams remaining, that label looks pretty good. The Big East was considered No. 2, but now has just a pair of clubs left.
But what's this coming up on the left? Why, it's the SEC. In a season not considered one of the SEC's best (Georgia slumped, Mississippi State was enigmatic, Florida and South Carolina disappointed, and the bottom of the league was mostly noncompetitive), the conference has still produced a quarter of the Sweet 16. Tennessee has been itself, Georgia has rebounded, Mississippi State has put together two tremendous second halves and Kentucky also dominated in its last 20 minutes of basketball. Even second-round losers LSU and Vanderbilt acquitted themselves well. Both were playing on the home floors of higher seeds and had second-half leads.
That makes the SEC the winner over the Big 12 in the unofficial battle of conferences. The Big 12 loses by a Sydney Carter shoelace because Texas A&M is already gone as a No. 2 seed and, even worse, Texas laid an egg on its home floor in the first round.
4. Mid-majors: alive and very well
Actually Xavier, Gonzaga and San Diego State all don't like being called mid-majors and, frankly, none really looks the part. Perhaps the term should be "non-BCS league" teams. Regardless of the terminology, one year after no non-BCS league teams made the Sweet 16, here we are with three. This also comes in a year when the Horizon, Sun Belt and WAC all received at-large bids and two of those three won an NCAA tournament game. Call it 2010, the Year of the Renaissance.
5. Diggin' Diggins
On a night when the veterans got off to a slow start and Notre Dame found itself in a 10-point hole, freshman Skylar Diggins took control. Behind Diggins' aggressiveness on both ends (31 points, seven steals), the Irish soon had control of their second-round game against Vermont and won comfortably. Once more, Notre Dame's balance and versatility were on display.
Diggins played a more supportive role, taking only four shots in Round 1 against Cleveland State. The rookie defers, distributes (14 total assists), defends and, at times, dominates -- still without a reliable jump shot.
6. Stanford's path is clear
With all due respect to the rest of the Sacramento Regional (and now, most notably to Gonzaga), a Stanford-Texas A&M matchup was fashioned an inevitability by most of the experts (yours truly very much included). Well, inevitability in sports can be fleeting. And yet, I'll do it again. Who doesn't think that with the Aggies out of the way, Stanford is now an overwhelming favorite to reach San Antonio? The Cardinal should get little resistance in their quest for a third straight Final Four.
7. Blue Devils power outage
Duke's 66-point average in its first two games isn't alarming. In fact, that's a respectable, if unspectacular number. Yet something is missing in the Blue Devils' offense. It hasn't looked smooth or crisp. There seems to be far too much reliance on the defense to create offense. Sure, Duke played like that much of the regular season, too. But this time of year, the opponent gets tougher. Possessions are more critical. An inability to produce in the half court is a Blue Devils weakness and should be something to watch in Memphis.
8. Home-court advantage
Exactly half of this year's Sweet 16 was afforded (and took advantage of) the luxury of playing two games on its home court. And that doesn't count Kentucky (Louisville) and Gonzaga (Seattle), which at the very least had a proximity advantage. Now, before everyone goes crazy about how unfair this is, remember, each of the home-court teams this year also happened to be a top-four seed. All would have been favored anyway, anywhere. Texas, a No. 6 seed, lost on its home court. The moral of the story could just be that good teams win, teams with flaws get exposed. Period.
9. Vandersloot's yips
Thanks to a whopping 15 assists in the first-round victory over North Carolina, Gonzaga point guard extraordinaire Courtney Vandersloot still has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. However, the 11 giveaways against Texas A&M were as much disappointing as they were alarming. Xavier doesn't quite pose the same backcourt defensive threat as the Aggies. However, the Musketeers will run people at Vandersloot and the twin towers of Ta'Shia Phillips and Amber Harris will be waiting in the lane. The junior Lieberman Award candidate as the nation's best point guard received something of a mulligan on Monday night. She won't get another. Fortunately, no one knows that better than Vandersloot.
10. Let's just start at halftime
Florida State has been tied at the half in each of its games. The first 20 minutes were a wash. Mississippi State was down at the half in its first game to Middle Tennessee. Perhaps Sue Semrau can get Sharon Fanning-Otis to agree to save some legs and play just the final 20. In contrast, UConn's two opponents probably wanted to stop at halftime.
11. Tennessee error
Connecticut gets and has gotten most of the attention when it pertains to domination and blowout wins. Rightfully so. However, the Lady Vols have been nearly as destructive to their opponents in the opening two rounds. Neither Austin Peay nor Dayton ever had a chance. Keep a particularly close eye on the glass. It's a favorite refrain of Pat Summitt's and the Tennessee players are listening. They have posted an 89-53 rebounding advantage.
12. Cyclone or a breeze?
Iowa State has played solidly in its first two wins. The Cyclones were especially good down the stretch against Green Bay, executing on offense as well as they had all game on the key possessions. Now as Iowa State makes that left turn from Ames to Dayton, around that corner awaits the Huskies steamroller. To Coach Bill Fennelly's credit he's excited about the prospect of playing UConn, saying it will garner his program some additional attention. Right he is. And despite what the final score turns out to be, all that attention will be good. In fact, Iowa State is really in a no-lose situation. Yet, has there ever been a bigger Sweet 16 underdog than the Cyclones will be?
13. Have dogs, will travel
The frequent-flier mileage winner this season is Georgia. Two western trips (Tempe, Sacramento) in two weeks. REM probably hasn't traveled that far out of Athens in the last two years. The Lady Dogs have done it with toughness, the ability to put a rough end to the season behind them, and the ability to score the biggest buckets at the biggest times against Tulane and Oklahoma State. However, with Stanford on deck, perhaps Georgia would have been happy saving all that time in the air and just staying in Tempe for a while longer.
14. Consistency in Kansas City
The only region that didn't have its chalk erased was Kansas City, setting up two dynamite matchups. Nebraska's blue-collar, efficient, take-no-prisoners style will face Kentucky's quickness, speed and finesse-based attack. Notre Dame versus Oklahoma might be the most evenly matched contest of the regional semis (Xavier-Gonzaga is close), with a backcourt clash to zero in on: Danielle Robinson versus Diggins. Grab some barbecue and settle in. Sunday will be fun day in K.C.
15. Griner gets new grade
Clearly, Baylor's Brittney Griner has improved immensely throughout her freshman season. Now, we might be able to see exactly how much. Saturday's game against Tennessee will be a rematch of Baylor's opponent on Day 1 of the Griner era. The numbers that day for the 6-foot-8 freshman were fine, if not really good: 15 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks, 9 of 10 from the free throw line (maybe the most impressive of them all). The big caveat to making a pure comparison between this game and the one in November lies on the other side. The Tennessee front line is also much improved. Even in the rugged Big 12, it is not every day that Griner faces two bigs like 6-6 Kelley Cain and 6-3 Alyssia Brewer.
16. Who's the best player left on the block?
The question becomes far more interesting with UConn's Tina Charles and Maya Moore excluded (have to maintain intrigue somehow). As great and important as Kelsey Griffin has been for Nebraska, the winner here is Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike by the width of a corn husk. They have both averaged double-doubles in the tournament. Ogwumike is just a bit more of a presence. The world will likely get to see more of her in San Antonio, and a certain writer might finally be able to spell her last name without looking it up each time.
And finally …
Nobody's beating UConn. Not only is this not going out on a limb. This isn't even climbing the tree. Certainly, the streak will not end in Dayton. If the Huskies were to lose before reaching the Final Four, then the game would likely have to replace David versus Goliath in the Old Testament.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.