- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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1. Good vibes: Spokane was a cathartic site for Stanford in 2008, as the Cardinal won the regional there and advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1997. Stanford did that as a No. 2 seed; the Cardinal were also a No. 2 in 2009. Last year and this year, Stanford is a No. 1 seed, and the Cardinal will be trying to make their fourth consecutive Final Four appearance. Stanford is at home in the early rounds, and the Cardinal have won 61 consecutive games at Maples Pavilion. But
If the Cardinal get to Spokane, they might get pushed out of their comfort zone. If they face a team such as No. 4 seed Kentucky or fifth-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16, the Cardinal must be wary of falling into the kind of game the Wildcats or Tar Heels would want. That would be a track meet of piling up possessions and hoping that translates into enough points. Stanford wants a more orderly game of precision and fewer errors.
2. An air of familiarity: No. 2 seed Xavier, which is hosting a subregional, could face either seventh-seeded Louisville or No. 10 seed Vanderbilt in the second round. When the Musketeers and Cardinals met during the regular season in Louisville, Xavier's Amber Harris had 28 points and 18 rebounds in a 71-59 victory. Louisville had an "uh-oh" loss at Providence on Feb. 28, then fell in the Big East quarterfinals to Notre Dame. Xavier is the Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament champion.
If Vanderbilt -- one of just four SEC teams in the NCAA field -- pulls a first-round upset to face Xavier, that would be a repeat matchup of a second-round game last year that the Musketeers won 63-62. Vandy's Melanie Balcomb coached at Xavier for seven seasons, from 1995 to 2007.
3. Hard road: Because of predetermined sites, pretty much every season the bracket will have teams with a worse seed getting a home-court advantage over teams with a better seed. One of the examples this season is in the Spokane subregional, where host Gonzaga is a No. 11 seed and will open against sixth-seeded Iowa.
If the Bulldogs win, they're likely to meet No. 3 seed UCLA. The Bruins are trying to make it to the regional semis for the first time since 1999, when they ended their season with an Elite Eight loss to Louisiana Tech.
The Bruins pushed top-seeded Nebraska in the second round last year, their first time back in the tournament since 2006. UCLA's top five scorers this season are all averaging between 12.3 and 8.5 points, and that's the balance that coach Nikki Caldwell hopes can help the Bruins keep on playing in Spokane after the first two rounds.
Three players to watch
Jeanette Pohlen: Remember way back, when we were talking about her as Stanford's "makeshift" point guard? She has done rather well in that role for the Cardinal, and her senior season has been the best yet. Pohlen is averaging 15.2 points, second on the team to Nneka Ogwumike's 16.4, and leads the Cardinal with 147 assists (with 90 turnovers). Pohlen also has shot 41.9 percent from behind the arc, making 83 3-pointers. Somewhat an overshadowed Cardinal standout of the previous three seasons, Pohlen was Pac-10 Player of the Year this season and has elevated her WNBA draft stock.
Amber Harris: Xavier's 6-foot-5 post player would love to make it back to her hometown of Indianapolis for the Final Four. Like teammate Ta'Shia Phillips, she is averaging a double-double as a senior (18.8 points, 10.3 rebounds). Harris had a good postseason last year, but was probably wishing she'd made more than the 10 of 17 shots she hit in the Elite Eight loss to Stanford which, of course, Pohlen won for the Cardinal on a coast-to-coast layup at the buzzer.
Jessica Breland: Who knows what to expect from the No. 5 seed Tar Heels, who lost four straight to end the regular season, but then made it to the championship game of the ACC tournament. The senior Breland, who sat out last season recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, has come on strong of late. She's averaging 12.6 points, but in the four ACC tournament games, she averaged 19.5 points.
No. 8 Texas Tech versus No. 9 St. John's
For the Red Storm, this is just the second time the program has made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances (1983-84). For the Lady Raiders, it's the first trip to the NCAA field since 2005. That drought was tough on Texas Tech fans, who previously had seen their team go to the NCAA tournament 16 consecutive times.
As Texas Tech's 8-8 Big 12 record indicates, it was an up-and-down conference season. At one point, Tech lost six games in a row. The Lady Raiders rebounded from that to win five of their last seven in the regular season, including against then-No. 1 Baylor. There isn't a "star" for Tech; Kierra Mallard is the only player to average in double figures in scoring, at 12.1.
St. John's is actually kind of the same story, with two players averaging about a dozen points apiece: Shenneika Smith and Da'Shena Stevens. And the Red Storm had to get through their own losing streak during the season of four in a row.
Last season, in the subregional across the state of Washington in Seattle, Gonzaga felt like a host school and knocked off Texas A&M. That was a No. 7 seed beating a No. 2. This year, the Bulldogs are a No. 11 seed, and this time they really are at home in Spokane in the early rounds.
The West Coast Conference champions lost three games in November -- to Southern California, Stanford and Mississippi -- but only one since, to Notre Dame on Dec. 29. Gonzaga would need to upset No. 6 seed Iowa and then likely No. 3 UCLA to get to continue the tournament in the Bulldogs' hometown.
Senior Courtney Vandersloot has made her case as one of the nation's top offensive players -- she's averaging 18.6 points and has 327 assists to 98 turnovers -- and is also effective on the defensive end, with 96 steals.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Stanford seeks a fourth straight Final Four, Xavier wouldn't mind a second shot at the Cardinal, and Gonzaga has been tabbed as Spokane's Cinderella in the making.