Five questions on women's tourney
With the exception of UConn, women's hoops is more competitive than ever
1. Could Tennessee's nightmare last year cause headaches for everyone else this season?
It seems strange to think a Tennessee team could be flying under the radar -- the Lady Vols don't exactly have a history of requiring the element of surprise to get a jump on teams in March and April. But at least when it comes to the four No. 1 seeds in this year's bracket, they do seem to be the least harassed by the glare of the spotlight, to put it politely.
Connecticut has its record streak, Stanford has its string of Final Four appearances and the rivalry du jour with the Huskies, and Nebraska, at least until the Big 12 final, had its own unbeaten record to talk about.
And Tennessee? After last season's first-round loss to Ball State (the first time the Lady Vols failed to reach the Sweet 16), it has something to prove, which generally puts Pat Summitt's team in a mood that bodes ill for any team in its path, be it in the Memphis Regional or beyond this year.
Tennessee is the only one of the four No. 1 seeds lacking a player who averages at least 15 points per game -- Connecticut and Stanford each have two players above that threshold. Not coincidentally, the Lady Vols are also the only one of the four top seeds with five players averaging double figures. At least for now, with somewhere between one and six games remaining to affect the totals, they're also the first team from Knoxville with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio since the 2005-06 season. And they're four rebounds shy of being the first Lady Vols team in that span with a double-digit rebound margin. And on goes the count.
That's a lot of numbers, but the point of mentioning all of them is that while this Tennessee team might not have one of the program's familiar marquee names to latch onto, it has built-in redundancies like NASA has built-in redundancies.
Angie Bjorklund's shooting, Shekinna Stricklen's ability to create points for herself, Glory Johnson's always tantalizing potential to do what she did against Middle Tennessee (21 points, 12 rebounds) on a nightly basis, team rebounding, all the size and length on defense. The Lady Vols don't have one thing that will always beat you, but they have half a dozen or more things that could beat you on a given night.
A lot of things can go wrong in the NCAA tournament. Recent history suggests it pays to have at least one player who can bail you out in those situations (Diana Taurasi, Sophia Young, Candace Parker, Maya Moore or Tina Charles). But it also pays to have a lot of ways to win games. So count on the Lady Vols winning more NCAA tournament games than they did a year ago. Just don't count on them stopping with one.
Which nevertheless brings us to
2. Which No. 1 seed has the toughest road to San Antonio?
Speaking of things that can go wrong. Tennessee won't be required to leave the state to gain passage to San Antonio, but what the team's route lacks in frequent flier miles, it more than makes up for in potential road rage. The first part of the commute, in particular, stacks up against just about anything folks in New York or Southern California put up with on a daily basis.
With due respect to No. 16 seed Austin Peay (which enters the NCAA tournament with a losing record but also played a tougher schedule than most sacrificial seeds, dropping games to Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, James Madison, Vanderbilt, Xavier and Arkansas-Little Rock), getting out of the driveway should be easy enough.
Then comes the fun.
No. 8 seed Dayton and ninth-seeded TCU are both better than their respective seeds, and the former is an especially interesting potential second-round roadblock. Tennessee's size is one of its great assets, and something most second-round opponents would be ill-equipped to handle. But the Flyers already played two games against Xavier, a team with big, skilled bodies in the frontcourt in Amber Harris, Ta'Shia Phillips and April Phillips, a shooter in Katie Rutan and good guard play from Special Jennings and Dee Dee Jernigan. Granted, Xavier routed Dayton in one of the meetings, but the Flyers beat the Musketeers (without Harris and Rutan) last season in the Atlantic 10 tournament and nearly did the same in an overtime loss four weeks ago.
Jim Jabir's team is deep, plays exceptional defense and can beat anyone when its 3-pointers start falling.
Survive that and Tennessee likely gets a rematch with Baylor -- just for the right to advance to the regional final. Both teams are clearly better than when they met in the season's opening game, but Baylor's freshmen not named Brittney Griner played a total of 47 minutes that game. When the Bears beat Texas A&M on the road in late February, Shanay Washington, Kimetria Hayden and Terran Condrey played 75 minutes -- and fellow freshman Jordan Madden wasn't even available that night. Add in Melissa Jones, Baylor's backbone who returned from an extended absence for the team's final game in the Big 12 tournament, and this isn't your normal No. 4 seed.
Survive all of that and either Duke or West Virginia likely awaits in the regional final -- because who wouldn't want to play 40 grinding minutes against two of the best defensive teams below the top seed line?
If Tennessee runs that gauntlet, it will earn its San Antonio getaway.
3. Which player's star might get a chance to shine in the first two rounds?
Katie Feenstra. Rachele Fitz. Jennifer Warkenthien. You don't have to delve into the deepest recesses of history to find examples of players who used the tournament's opening weekend to make a name for themselves -- or at least polish an existing name -- on the national stage, whether their teams made it to the Sweet 16.
In that spirit, follow Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark and Vermont's Scrabble-worthy duo of Courtnay Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos.
Middle Tennessee State has a history of prolific scorers under Rick Insell's watch, from Chrissy Givens to Amber Holt to Clark. But what Clark did in the Summit League final, scoring 48 points to rally her team from a second-half deficit against fellow NCAA tournament entrant Arkansas-Little Rock, went beyond a team's system or style.
The No. 10 Blue Raiders nearly knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing in the first round last season and get a far more geographically neutral assignment this time against No. 7 Mississippi State in Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs aren't without size to throw against Clark, an undersized post -- Chanel Mokango can change a lot of shots. But Clark has faced big bodies before without missing a beat. If you haven't had a chance to see her play, expect to see the quickest post moves you've seen and a touch around the basket and off the glass that a lot of All-American bigs would pay good money for.
Pilypaitis is just as likely to leave a lasting impression in leading No. 10 Vermont against No. 7 Wisconsin in South Bend, Ind., although it'll be as much for her passing and rebounding as her scoring. A 6-foot point guard in a small forward's body, she's fearless on the court. That cuts both ways -- she's going to commit her share of turnovers. But more often than not, she's also going to make even more plays for the Catamounts. Wisconsin defends well, but the Badgers don't force a lot of turnovers, and as Iowa's Kachine Alexander and Kamille Wahlin proved most recently, they can give big numbers to opposing backcourts.
And you can't take Pilypaitis without Kotsopoulos, her fellow senior and Canadian. An all-conference defender all four seasons, she emerged this season as a go-to scorer, both from the 3-point line and getting into the lane to finish or get to the line.
4. Where's the best place to be for the first two rounds?
Seattle isn't a bad place to spend four days any week of the year, but it's an especially inviting destination for women's basketball fans this year. A first-round game between Texas A&M and Portland State might offer a chance to sneak away and check out the nearby Experience Music Project downtown, or at least take in nearby Lake Washington, but the rest of the slate should keep people content inside Bank of America Arena.
The other first-round game between No. 7 Gonzaga and No. 10 North Carolina has both the storylines and the style to be among the opening round's best. Both teams like to get out and run, and Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot is going to have plenty of opportunities to show why she leads the nation in assists (for what it's worth, Portland State's Claire Faucher is fifth in the same category). On top of the action on the court, the game offers a chance for a flagship mid-major program to get a win as a favorite against one of the sport's biggest names and most questionable at-large selections after a suspect finish in the ACC.
It's an NCAA tournament game Gonzaga should win, and that in itself is a statement.
Whatever happens in that game, the probable second-round encounter with Texas A&M should offer an intriguing finish to the weekend. Gonzaga's furious second-half rally against Texas A&M on a neutral court in Las Vegas the week before Christmas nearly erased a 19-point halftime deficit. The Bulldogs didn't complete that comeback, but they haven't lost since, winning their final 18 games by double-digit margins and each of their final six games by at least 28 points. And whether or not name value ought to count, a North Carolina-Texas A&M meeting would draw eyes and make a few people wonder if maybe these Tar Heels aren't a lost cause after all.
Berkeley, Calif. (No. 5 Georgetown vs. No. 12 Marist and No. 4 Baylor vs. No. 13 Fresno State) and Norman, Okla. (No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 South Dakota State and No. 6 Georgia Tech vs. No. 11 Arkansas-Little Rock), also look tempting. And while even a bad NCAA tournament game beats a lot of sporting events, Tempe, Ariz. (No. 4 Oklahoma State vs. No. 13 Chattanooga and No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 12 Tulane) might take the prize as the least intriguing site.
5. What's the "other" story of this year's NCAA tournament?
There's no escaping the dominant story of the NCAA tournament, especially now that the selection committee has set up a potential Tennessee-sized hurdle in the semifinals for unbeaten and largely untested Connecticut en route to a title defense.
But no matter what the buzz sounds like in the coming days, that's not the only story.
Take Connecticut out of the equation and which team is the favorite this season? Presumably Stanford has earned that label with a dominant run through the Pac-10 and a tough nonconference schedule, but you could make compelling arguments for half a dozen teams other than the Cardinal -- maybe more than that. At the same time, the teams in the final top 10 of the regular season have 33 losses combined. That's right on par with how many losses the top 10 had at this point in the season when the Huskies last won consecutive titles in 2003 (the second of what was ultimately three in a row). Those 33 losses are also considerably fewer losses than the men's top 10 has entering the NCAA tournament. So how deep is this field?
Forgetting the Connecticut drama, what will this tournament offer in the way of evidence of parity? We've got mid-majors sprinkled throughout the seed lines, from No . 3 Xavier and No. 7 Gonzaga as first-round favorites to a pair of America East teams with No. 10 seeds in Hartford and Vermont and an Ivy League team (Princeton) as a No. 11 seed, all higher than you'd normally expect out of those conferences.
Will we see double-digit seeds like No. 13 Lehigh and No. 12 Bowling Green staying with second- and third-tier seeds like No. 4 Iowa State and No. 5 Michigan State, respectively? Will those seeds, in turn, challenge the top seeds if they reach the second weekend and the Sweet 16? In a lot of ways, the selection committee has set up an interesting experiment with the way pairings fell in this year's bracket.
I think that with the unique exception of this Connecticut team, women's basketball is more competitive than it has ever been. As much through competitiveness as upsets, I also think I'll know a lot more about whether that's true after the next three weeks.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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