- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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This year's NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds established themselves well before Selection Monday. In fact, if you'd been asked to predict them just days after last season's Final Four, you likely would have come up with this quartet.
Some might have thought UConn would struggle a bit more than the Huskies have in their one-loss season. But certainly no one is surprised that the Huskies, Baylor, Tennessee and Stanford are the top four teams in the NCAA tournament. Although
At the Big 12 tourney, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey played devil's advocate about Tennessee being a No. 1 seed. As in, she was being the Blue Devils' advocate. Mulkey asked some media folks if Duke just might deserve to bump Tennessee as a potential No. 1.
Such speculation will go over really well in Knoxville, Tenn. About as well as Mulkey's assertion that Baylor's Destiny Williams deserved a spot on the Big 12 all-tournament team over Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson was received in Norman, Okla.
Mulkey would brush off any criticism by saying she has frequently praised Tennessee and OU's Robinson, which she has. As usual, Mulkey says exactly what's on her mind at all times. And she is also always on the lookout for anything that she perceives is a slight to the Lady Bears.
It's just in her personality to be a feisty guardian of her "tribe," and while some might quarrel with her, it's hard to argue with her results. When Mulkey came to Baylor, the program's claim to fame was a run to the WNIT final in 1998, the year the Lady Bears made their first postseason appearance.
Baylor was 7-20 in 1999-2000, the season before Mulkey arrived, and had never been close to being in a discussion about the nation's best programs. More than a decade later, Baylor has a national championship, three Big 12 tournament titles and is hoping to make it to a second consecutive (and third overall) Final Four.
Baylor was a NCAA No. 4 seed last season and pulled two upsets in Memphis, over top-seeded Tennessee and No. 2 Duke, to advance to the Final Four. Once there, Baylor fell 70-50 to UConn.
The narrowed gap between those programs this season -- with Baylor's youngsters more experienced and Tina Charles and Kalana Greene graduated from UConn -- was on display when they met Nov. 16 in Hartford, Conn. The Huskies hung on for a one-point victory that kept their winning streak going, but the performance by Baylor in that environment made it evident that Gang Green were likely to be a legitimate national-championship contender.
Defense has been the root of Mulkey's philosophy with the Lady Bears, who have held their opponents to 32.1 percent shooting from the field. UConn is also holding its foes to 32.1 percent, while both Tennessee and Stanford are at 33.1 on field goal percentage defense.
Offensively, the Huskies are the best shooting team of the four No. 1 seeds at 50.1 percent, followed by Stanford (49.1), Baylor (47.3) and Tennessee (46.6).
All four top seeds are also hosts for the first- and second-round games, and then Baylor has the least distance to travel should the Lady Bears advance to the Sweet 16. They would head north about two hours to Dallas, where they might face Texas A&M for a fourth time this season.
What might stop Baylor before the Dallas final? Probably nothing. If seeds hold, the Lady Bears in the regional semis would play No. 4 seed Michigan State, which had trouble with Ohio State center Jantel Lavender in all three meetings this season. She averaged 28.3 points and 8.7 rebounds against the Spartans. How would they fare against Baylor center Brittney?
Baylor's seeding and placement were expected. But Mulkey got other good news Monday from senior Melissa Jones, who said she now can see color and objects with her right eye. Jones had been playing with no vision in that eye since bumping her head in a Feb. 27 game, which resulted in a swollen optic nerve.
Jones still compiled 12 points, 27 rebounds and 17 assists in the Big 12 tournament in spite of her vision problems.
Speaking of overcoming obstacles, UConn dealt very well with the potentially disruptive transfer of freshman post player Samarie Walker from the team in January. And the Huskies showed they can win in any fashion, as they had to engage in some grind-it-out battles in the Big East that were not the kind of basketball they like to play.
The Huskies were able to endure games such as their 57-51 win over West Virginia, or their two victories over Georgetown, 52-42 and 59-43. The latter came in the Big East tournament, which the Huskies won to propel them into the NCAA tournament.
And there might be a third Georgetown-UConn meeting in the Sweet 16. First, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma likely will try to make a win over UConn alum Jen Rizzotti's Hartford team as painless as possible for the Hawks in the opening round. Next will be the winner of Kansas State-Purdue, neither of which stands a chance against the Huskies anywhere, let alone in Storrs.
No. 5 seed Georgetown opens with Princeton, then likely would have to face No. 4 Maryland on the Terps' home floor in the second round. But if the Hoyas get through that, maybe they could drastically slow down another matchup with UConn enough to pull a major upset. Or at least give it a good try.
Meanwhile in the lower part of the Philadelphia Regional bracket, if seeds hold, Duke would face DePaul for another chance at UConn, which beat both the Blue Devils and Blue Demons decisively in the regular season. If the Huskies make the Final Four, it will be their 12th appearance.
Tennessee is seeking its 19th trip to the Final Four, but could have a little more difficult path in the Dayton Regional. Not early on, though. Tennessee opens with Stetson, then will get the winner of Marquette versus Texas.
An intriguing potential matchup looms in the Sweet 16, as Tennessee might meet No. 4 seed Ohio State, which at one point this season looked like it might not even get into the NCAA tournament field. But the Buckeyes now have won nine games in a row. They should have a big boost from the crowd if they make it to nearby Dayton, which is about an hour from the Buckeyes' campus in Columbus.
Of course, Tennessee's fans are known for traveling wherever the team goes; the five-hour trek from Knoxville to Dayton would be nothing for loyal Lady Vols followers.
If Tennessee meets No. 2 seed Notre Dame -- which is led by guards Natalie Novosel and Skylar Diggins -- in the regional final, the Irish's three games of experience against UConn this season could really help them. Two of those were single-digit losses to the Huskies.
Stanford would have loved to have lured the sophomore Diggins from her hometown of South Bend, Ind., out to California, but she didn't budge. The Cardinal did get a guard out of the Midwest for this season, though, in freshman Toni Kokenis. She's averaging 5.5 points, but had a very big game in the Pac-10 tourney final, scoring 17 points off the bench on 7-of-9 shooting against UCLA.
Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen will be attempting to make their fourth consecutive Final four appearance for Stanford, which is the top seed in the Spokane Regional.
Stanford, which opens with UC Davis, could actually get two pretty good tests in the second round and then regional semifinals if the Cardinal advance that far. The second-round game would be against either No. 8 seed Texas Tech or ninth-seeded St. John's, and either could be the toughest foe that any of the No. 1 seeds have to face in that round.
Then Stanford could meet No. 4 seed Kentucky or No. 5 North Carolina in the regional semis. Both are very athletic teams that would like to force the Cardinal into playing the kind of frenetic and rather sloppy game that would be their best chance to get an upset.
If Stanford gets to the regional final, it's likely it would face either No. 2 seed Xavier or No. 3 UCLA, both of whom have scores to settle with the Cardinal. Xavier lost a very painful Elite Eight game last season on a buzzer-beater to the Cardinal, and was crushed 89-52 in December at Stanford.
UCLA, trying to become a real rival to the Pac-10's dominant program, has lost three games this season to Stanford, but got closer each time. The Bruins made the Cardinal work hard for their 64-55 win in the league tournament title game Saturday.
The four top seeds are all past NCAA champions, of course; Tennessee has eight titles, UConn seven, Stanford two and Baylor one. The Lady Bears were the winners the last time the Women's Final Four was in Indianapolis. And if these four meet in Indiana in April, there's little doubt that spectators are doing to get their money's worth.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.