Five players to watch
The goal for 64 teams is San Antonio, but with 48 games to be played between now and Tuesday night, there are plenty of reasons to put off predicting the distant future and instead enjoy the moment. The five players below compete for teams the seedings say won't make it to the second weekend. Count on them having a big hand if their teams prove otherwise.
And whatever happens, catch them while you can.
Kachine Alexander, Iowa(8) Iowa vs. (9) Rutgers: 8 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2, ESPN360), Stanford, Calif.
There were 32 players who finished the regular season and conference postseasons averaging double-digit rebounds per game, including high-profile NCAA tournament participants such as Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark, Xavier's Ta'Shia Phillips, Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin, Oklahoma's Amanda Thompson and Ohio State's Jantel Lavender. But only two players in that group of 32 managed to reach that rebounding milestone while failing to reach 5-foot-10 in the media guide. And with apologies to Southern Illinois' 5-8 Stephany Neptune, pulling down boards in the Missouri Valley Conference is a different world from doing it in the Big Ten.
Meet Iowa's Alexander, the best 5-9 rebounder this side of middle school.
Alexander averaged 10.7 rebounds per game for the Hawkeyes (that's 1.86 rebounds per foot for those counting at home), beating out Lavender, Northwestern's Amy Jaeschke and others for second place in the Big Ten behind Illinois' Jenna Smith. But Alexander isn't just a forward trapped in a guard's body; she also led the Hawkeyes in assists per game and steals, and got to the free throw line more than any two of her teammates put together. And that's all despite missing seven games with a stress fracture in her leg.
Because of the injury, Alexander missed Iowa's early losses against West Virginia, Boston College, Michigan and Iowa State. Just 5-5 at the time of her return, the Hawkeyes enter the NCAA tournament after going 14-8 the rest of the way and pushing Ohio State to the limit in the Big Ten title game. And with sharpshooters like Jaime Printy and Kamille Wahlin alongside her, Alexander is part of a backcourt that could cause headaches not just for first-round foe Rutgers but even potential second-round opponent Stanford.
Iowa's star goes by the nickname "Kash," but there's an obvious alternative if she ever needs a backup: Alexander the Great.
Lauren Prochaska, Bowling Green(12) Bowling Green vs. (5) Michigan State: noon ET Saturday (ESPN2, ESPN360), Louisville, Ky.
It's not quite beating Geno Auriemma's team, but whether collectively or individually, one of the toughest things to do in women's basketball is to match your season scoring average against Jen Rizzotti and the University of Hartford. That's especially true when you're playing on the Hawks' home court, where they went 16-1 and allowed 46.4 points per game this season.
But by the end of a game at Hartford in late December, despite a slow first half, there was Bowling Green's Prochaska with a game-high 18 points, right at her current season average of 17.9 points per game. And if not for a fantastic defensive play by Hartford's Erica Beverly in the closing minutes, it might have been 20 points for Prochaska and a rare home loss for the Hawks.
Rizzotti's word is gospel when it comes to defense, but even she had to tip her cap to a player who just knows how to score.
"She's tough, she's smart; she's been a scoring player for them since she got there," Rizzotti said at the time. "When you've had that freedom for three years to be that go-to guy offensively, you just find better ways to score every year. So she's just really hard to guard."
The reigning two-time MAC Player of the Year (and, as she's just a junior, she could become only the second player in conference history to win it three times) is about 6 feet of arms and legs on the wing, making it appear at times as if she's gliding out there. Perhaps that temporal confusion explains why defenders can't get to her in time to stop her from hitting 45 percent of her six 3-point attempts per game or 90 percent of her five free throw attempts per game. And like Iowa's Alexander, Prochaska has more than one trick. In addition to the scoring, she averages 5.7 rebounds, leads the team in steals, ranks second in blocks and has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.
Niveen Rasheed, Princeton(11) Princeton vs. (6) St. John's, noon ET Saturday (ESPN2, ESPN360), Tallahassee, Fla.
President Obama doesn't like Princeton's chances in the first round of the NCAA tournament, which might suggest he's among the many who need to become a little more familiar with Rasheed. The good news for him, and the bad news for the rest of the Ivy League, is that he has three more seasons after this one to come to appreciate one of the nation's best freshmen.
Rasheed arrived at Princeton along with fellow Californian and club teammate Lauren Polansky, and instead of struggling to adjust to the college game, they proved to be the final pieces in separating Princeton from normal Ivy constraints. The Tigers cruised through the Ancient Eight, winning all 14 games in league play by an average of 21.7 points per game. Individually, only Columbia's Judie Lomax had anything on Rasheed, who ranked second in scoring and steals, third in rebounding, fifth in field goal percentage and 10th in assists in conference games.
But it wasn't just conference play that marked Rasheed's rise. She put up 21 points and 8 rebounds against Lehigh, 19 points and 7 rebounds against Rutgers, and -- despite what must have been some nerves playing in her home state four games into her college career -- 14 points and 8 rebounds against UCLA. Princeton dropped close decisions to the Scarlet Knights and Bruins, but with Rasheed and sophomore Lauren Edwards, another Californian, the Tigers have the tools to compete on this stage.
Erica Allenspach, Marist(12) Marist vs. (5) Georgetown: 8 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2, ESPN360), Berkeley, Calif.
Marist has made itself something of a household name at this time of year in women's basketball, memorably reaching the Sweet 16 in 2007, beating DePaul in the first round the following season and giving Virginia a game in the NCAA tournament opener last year. That success is also why a lot of fans know Rachele Fitz's name by now. The senior is closing out a record-setting career in style: She leads her team in scoring and rebounding for the fourth season in a row and continues to expand her range and her all-around game. The Red Foxes also have a sophomore who appears poised to inherit the scoring mantle next season in Corielle Yarde, the team's second-leading scorer who has a pair of 30-point games to her credit this season.
But if this is going to be another magical March, Allenspach is more than likely going to catch your eye.
A junior guard whom -- like Fitz -- coach Brian Giorgis stole away from numerous programs in Ohio, Allenspach is the Ray Allen to Fitz's and Yarde's Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (with any luck circa about two years ago as opposed to the present versions). Allenspach is a prototypical mid-major marksman, hitting 42 percent of her shots from the 3-point line, but like most everyone on this list, she does more than that. She's not a point guard in the mold of former Marist standout and current assistant coach Alisa Kresge, but while Kristine Best and Elise Caron split a lot of the ballhandling duties, it's Allenspach who leads the team in assists and has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team. Yet she's also able to get in the lane and get to the line in an offense that's constantly in motion.
Marist's guards are going to have their hands full against Georgetown's speed and pressure. Which means they're going to need the ball in Allenspach's hands a lot.
Merideth Marsh, Vanderbilt(11) DePaul vs. (6) Vanderbilt: noon ET Sunday (ESPN2, ESPN360), Cincinnati, Ohio
You can't make a list like this without at least one senior guard at this time of year, and Marsh more than merits mention. It might not be Alexander's double-digit rebounds, but one of the more remarkable statistics out there is Marsh: Listed at 5-6 and presumably measured in her sneakers to reach that, she's averaging four rebounds per game in the rough-and-tumble world of SEC conference play.
Crashing the boards isn't how she makes her greatest contribution, of course, but it does say a lot about Marsh's style of play and how a team like Vanderbilt, without a single rotation player taller than 6-1, maintained not only a rebounding edge overall this season but also in conference play. Marsh is most dangerous on the perimeter, where she shot a tick below 40 percent from the 3-point line and provided plenty of playmaking support for Jence Rhoads. But proving yet again that she's either fearless or a little off her rocker, she also leads Vanderbilt in free throw attempts.
And that's not from getting fouled shooting jumpers.
Marsh has the statistics that single her out as a special talent. Like the others listed here, she also has the rare ability to put on a better show than even those numbers indicate. Which makes her and the others here exactly the kind of players the first weekend of the tournament is all about.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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