Commentary

Bracket's five burning questions

Originally Published: March 14, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The NCAA tournament bracket offers 63 questions waiting to be answered. But since we have to wait until Saturday for those, here are five more about what might unfold in the weeks to come.

1. What could prevent a Connecticut-Tennessee semifinal?

A potential national semifinal between Connecticut and Tennessee will dominate the headlines coming out of the selections and, quite likely, through the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeSkylar Diggins
Michael Tureski/Icon SMISkylar Diggins and Notre Dame could pose problems for fans of a UConn-Tennessee showdown.

Unless, of course, one of them loses. So what's the most likely bump in the road?

There hasn't been a game in which Connecticut wasn't the favorite for a long time, and that certainly isn't going to change through the first three rounds, no matter how things shake out among a group highlighted by No. 4 Maryland and No. 5 Georgetown. An Elite Eight meeting with Duke or DePaul would be more intriguing, if not necessarily daunting, but Duke looked like it wanted no part of the Huskies in Storrs earlier this season, and DePaul might have thrown its best punch in standing up to its Big East rival for most of the first half when the two met.

Likewise, while a potential Sweet 16 meeting with Ohio State in Dayton, a short commute from Columbus, might at least catch Tennessee's interest, the Buckeyes don't have the recent postseason history -- or the consistency this season -- to suggest they are ready to derail a Lady Vols team that forces even the toughest opponents to dig down deep in search of new reservoirs of inner fortitude.

Given that there's only one hypothetical round left before a Geno Auriemma-Pat Summitt reunion in Indianapolis, you can guess where this is going.

If there is a last line of defense against the frenzy that would accompany Connecticut-Tennessee, it is the Huskies' old Big East nemesis, Notre Dame. And from a battle of lead guards between Meighan Simmons and Skylar Diggins, go-to players with versatile skills in Shekinna Stricklen and Natalie Novosel, shooters who don't mind leaving it all on the court in Angie Bjorklund and Brittany Mallory, enigmatic potential forces down low in Glory Johnson and Devereaux Peters, and coaches with national championship rings (all right, one has enough for a couple of hands), this might be the most evenly matched regional final out there -- including the one below.

We might get Connecticut against an old rival in the Final Four; it's just a matter of which old rival.

2. Which No. 1 seed has the toughest road to Indianapolis?

No top seed has a better feel for the road conditions ahead than Baylor, which won't have to venture any farther from home in the first four rounds than the roughly 100 miles between Waco and Dallas -- around the corner, in Texas measurements. But when it comes to the potential final leg of the trip, a quarterfinal showdown against Texas A&M, familiarity means only that Baylor knows exactly what kind of bumper-to-bumper, nerve-testing ride it will be.

During the broadcast of the Big 12 championship game, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said she knew Gary Blair wasn't going to outcoach her and she wasn't going to outcoach him. There wasn't much left for either team to do in the third meeting between the teams than let the players execute what everyone on the other team knew was coming. That worked for Baylor with Brittney Griner; it didn't for Texas A&M with Danielle Adams. That's no guarantee the same would happen this time around.

But it's not just the familiar final step that makes Baylor's path to Indianapolis a tough one. Playing Texas A&M again is a self-evident challenge. Earlier rounds present the possibility of some slightly more deceptive challenges. To be clear, we're only really talking about degrees of length when it comes to the odds of a No. 1 seed losing earlier than a regional final. It just doesn't happen much. Only twice in the past 10 tournaments did a No. 1 seed fail to reach the Sweet 16 (and one of those was Duke losing to Michigan State on the latter's home court). And while two No. 1 seeds fell in the Sweet 16 last season, that brought the total to just eight such instances in the past 10 tournaments.

With those caveats out of the way, Baylor could at least face interesting matchups after presumably getting by Prairie View in the opening round. Either Houston or West Virginia would present a defensive test for Baylor. The Couagrs lost momentum with a defeat in the Conference USA title game, but they won on the road at Louisiana Tech and on a neutral court against Louisville earlier this season. West Virginia isn't the team it was, or was thought to be, early in the season, but like Houston, it forces turnovers, defends and negates some of an opponent's talent advantage.

And in the Sweet 16, either No. 4 Michigan State or No. 5 Green Bay would present an opponent that is used to competing against bigger opponents (although obviously not to quite the degree presented by Griner) and, particularly in Green Bay's case, can use its own physical parity to its advantage with defensive pressure. Both the Spartans and Phoenix also have the potential to get hot from multiple hands at the 3-point line.

Different styles and potentially the most familiar of foes means Baylor has a long trek ahead of it without ever having to leave Texas.

3. What is the best place to be for the first two rounds?

It might not be the most ideal situation from the standpoint of competitive balance, but put an underseeded Gonzaga team in Spokane alongside a pair of better seeds with distinctive styles, and you have some compelling basketball.

[+] EnlargeJaime Printy
Khris Hale/Icon SMIGraham Hays' best first-round game? Jaime Printy and sixth-seeded Iowa against 11-seed Gonzaga -- in Spokane.
No. 14 Montana won't mind playing about as close to home as it could hope to when the Big Sky champion takes on No. 3 UCLA in the first round, but the real drama begins with No. 11 Gonzaga facing No. 6 Iowa. The Hawkeyes were 4-1 on neutral courts this season, but playing the Bulldogs at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane doesn't qualify. The Big Ten team was just 6-5 in true road games. Throw in the fact that both teams don't mind pushing tempo and have great guards, and it should be one of the most entertaining first-round games -- and a game that sets up a clash of styles either way against UCLA and one of the nation's stingiest defenses in the second round.

Silver medal: University Park. Dayton was a bit of a surprise as an at-large selection but a welcome one from an entertainment perspective. No game demonstrated that better than a 112-107 double-overtime loss against Penn State to open the regular season. Dayton standout Justine Raterman scored 32 points in that game, while Penn State's Alex Bentley was among three Nittany Lions to top 20 points and added nine assists. However that rematch plays out, and assuming third-seeded DePaul avoids trouble against 14th-seeded Navy, either potential second-rounder would feature a lot of up-and-down basketball with the game in the hands of playmakers.

Bronze medal: Wichita. Green Bay didn't want to end up playing on someone else's home court in the first two rounds, so the Horizon League champs can live with trading what they hoped would be a No. 4 seed for a chance to play in Wichita. Not that it's an easy road for the Phoenix in Kansas, not with a tough first-round game against similarly tourney-tested Arkansas-Little Rock and star forward Chastity Reed. Michigan State will be favored to await the winner of that game, but with the way Northern Iowa shoots the 3 and closed the season, every game in Wichita could be worth watching to the end.

4. Which player might emerge as the star of the show?

First two rounds: Courtney Vandersloot, Gonzaga
It has been awhile since one of the five best players in the nation entered the tournament playing for a non-BCS side. Depending on how you want to classify it, perhaps since Jackie Stiles earned player of the year honors for Southwest Missouri State in 2001 (players such as Houston's Chandi Jones and TCU's Sandora Irvin might argue the point). But with Vandersloot very much in contention for first-team All-America honors in her senior season, the No. 11 seed in Spokane might have not only the best player in that quartet of teams that also includes No. 3 UCLA, No. 6 Iowa and No. 14 Montana, but one of the best in the nation. And importantly for Vandersloot, one of the most prolific passers in the history of women's college basketball, she has plenty of options to whom she can direct the ball for the Bulldogs. As good as Gonzaga was in reaching the Sweet 16 last season, Vandersloot was not at the peak of her game against Texas A&M in the second round or Xavier in the Sweet 16. This time, she could be the spark to get the Bulldogs back to the second weekend.

Entire tournament: Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame
This is the stage for which Diggins seems to have been designed. She carries herself with both the poise and the unmistakable self-confidence of a player ready for a trip down US-31 from South Bend to Indianapolis and the Final Four. In the Big East tournament, Diggins played like that when it mattered most, scoring and creating big basket after big basket in a semifinal against DePaul worthy of the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, and in a championship game against Connecticut that did a better-than-passing imitation of a Final Four game.

The numbers don't always leap off the page as part of a balanced offense for the Fighting Irish, but Diggins does at least a little of everything well enough to be a factor on every part of the court -- a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, 3-point range, a tremendous ability to get to the line and ballhawking skills. One more shot in an overtime loss against Oklahoma last season might have sent Notre Dame to the Elite Eight or beyond. Expect Diggins, who didn't have her best shooting night in that game, to be willing to take that shot this time. And don't be surprised when she makes it.

5. Which teams should be on upset alert?

Teams seeded ninth or lower won just four games last season -- two by San Diego State and one each by Green Bay and Arkansas-Little Rock. That number is skewed a bit by No. 9 seeds going winless in what usually amounts to 50-50 games in the first round against No. 8 seeds. But even counting just the wins by double-digit seeds, last year was in line with most tournaments over the past decade. Nevertheless, if last season wasn't quite the explosion of parity it felt like at times in the early rounds, history suggests there are places to look for upsets.

Pick a No. 11 seed: These teams win 27.6 percent of their games in the NCAA tournament, significantly more than No. 12 seeds at 18.4 percent. At least one No. 11 seed has advanced to the second round in 14 of 17 seasons since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams.

Candidates: Dayton, Gonzaga and James Madison all appear to have upset potential (there simply is no way to project or know how Middle Tennessee State, the other No. 11 seed, will react after the tragedy it experienced with the death of Tina Stewart). Gonzaga and Dayton were mentioned above, but a meeting between Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson and James Madison's Dawn Evans rates as one of the must-see matchups of the opening round.

Look at a No. 7 or No. 10 seed: Early exists by Ohio State and Texas A&M last season weren't without precedent. In six of the past 10 tournaments, at least one No. 7 or No. 10 seed advanced to the Sweet 16. In that same span, just two teams seeded No. 8 or No. 9 reached the Sweet 16.

Candidates: There is a bit of a catch this season, as both Xavier and Duke are No. 2 seeds playing on their respective home courts. That's going to make like considerably more difficult for the likes of Iowa State or Marist (in Durham) and Louisville or Vanderbilt (in Cincinnati). That might leave Louisiana Tech as the strongest candidate, playing close to home in Shreveport, although it's difficult to imagine Texas A&M falling victim to the same fate that befell it last season against Gonzaga. In its favor, Tech tested itself on the road at UALR, Missouri State and LSU, among others, this season. It also has Adrienne Johnson, which, considering she averaged 22 point and 9.5 rebounds, isn't half bad going against Danielle Adams.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.