Commentary

Taylor-made first look at the Sweet 16

Originally Published: March 23, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

If you think Tennessee and Connecticut have had some epic battles …

There might be no more arresting a struggle, filmwise, than that between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, playing the co-dependent, grieving, permanently damaged couple in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

[+] EnlargeElizabeth Taylor
AP PhotoLegendary actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died Wednesday at the age of 79, was a two-time Oscar winner.

With the news of Taylor's passing Wednesday, we must give a nod to one of the great performers of the 20th century. For those who think of her only as someone who had as many marriages as a cat supposedly has lives or for being in the late Michael Jackson's odd menagerie of friends along with the likes of Bubbles the Chimp, you need to see Taylor's best stuff.

Check out "A Place in the Sun" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Butterfield 8." Heck, even watch "Cleopatra" for its sheer gaudy extravagance. But Taylor's greatest acting triumph was "Virginia Woolf," which is like watching a verbal train wreck that you can't take your eyes off of even if you want to.

Then again, if your team just lost painfully in the NCAA tournament, you might want to avoid a film that potentially could depress you as much as "Virginia Woolf." (This means you, Xavier fans.)

If your team is still alive and into the Sweet 16, you have a few days to soak up the excitement and dream big. One of these teams will win the national title, and there was just enough drama in the first two rounds to at least suggest that the champion might not be the squad you think. Or at least that there might be some twists in store that we didn't expect.

But that's what makes a good movie … or tournament. So here's a look ahead at the Sweet 16, which opens on a television near you Saturday.

1. Best performers

Liz Taylor won two best actress Oscars: for "Butterfield 8" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," both of which involve, uh, adult content. But they were made in the 1960s, so some of what was shocking then seems tame now.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn's Maya Moore is a 52.8 percent shooter for the season, averaging 22.3 points. She's 10-for-26 (38.5 percent) in two tourney games, with 28 points.

UConn's Maya Moore has won two Wade Trophy awards and is seeking her third NCAA title. How shocked will people be if she and the Huskies don't get that? Probably not so much. After all, UConn has almost no bench, and some Huskies fans are concerned that Moore hasn't shot all that well for the past month. They wonder whether she is a bit worn down or in some kind of slump. Yet the Huskies still keep winning, and Moore has always shown the ability to rise to the occasion.

She likely will need to against the likes of Sugar Rodgers, the Georgetown star who scored a combined 60 points in the first two rounds and has the Hoyas in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1993.

Other big point producers thus far who are still in the tournament include Gonzaga teammates Courtney Vandersloot (63) and Kayla Standish (60), Ohio State's Jantel Lavender (51), Oklahoma's Whitney Hand (51), Baylor's Brittney Griner (47), Texas A&M's Danielle Adams (46), North Carolina's Italee Lucas (44) and Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike (44).

Expect that all of these players will be critical to their teams surviving to the Elite Eight.

2. Mascot challenge

So, speaking of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," here we are with 16 teams left, and not a feline among them. But there are canines: UConn's Huskies, Bulldogs for Gonzaga and Georgia, and the bulldog mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas. And we have to bring in the genius that is Smokey, Tennessee's clever dog mascot.

There are birds, with Louisville's Cardinals and Green Bay's Phoenix (a mythical bird, but still), and there are Bears from Baylor.

[+] EnlargeBlue Devil Mascot
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIt's the Blue Devils versus the Blue Demons in the bottom half of the Philadelphia region.

You have types of pioneering Americans: Sooners, Tar Heels, Aggies and Irish from Oklahoma, North Carolina, Texas A&M and Notre Dame. The Buckeyes of Ohio State and Cardinal of Stanford are both, um, tree-related.

And then there's the creepiest-sounding Sweet 16 matchup, Blue Devils versus Blue Demons. Except … those demonic mascots for Duke and DePaul aren't scary. Mr. Blue Devil's pitchfork, for example, isn't actually real.

3. ACL survival region

Liz Taylor was a widow at 26, made one of the most expensive flops in cinema history ("Cleopatra"), twice married and divorced the true love of her life, Richard Burton, put up with comedians from John Belushi to Joan Rivers mocking her, had all kinds of health issues … but through it all, for nearly 80 years, she was a grande dame of a survivor.

The freaking ACL is an injury that has devastated women's basketball over the years, but the Dayton Regional in particular has some great stories of players who've come back from knee injuries. Oklahoma's Hand missed all but five games last season and part of this season with knee woes, and she has enough pain that it limits her practice. Didn't look like it, though, the way she shot the ball against James Madison and Miami.

Ohio State's Sarah Schulze was out earlier this season after suffering a knee injury but has managed to return. Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters has been through two knee surgeries while with the Irish; Brittany Mallory also has had one.

And Tennessee's Vicki Baugh has battled the ACL, too. Of all things, she tore hers the night the Lady Vols won the 2008 NCAA title (she didn't get to have much of a celebration), and she reinjured it the next season. Baugh sat out last year, but she is an important part of Tennessee's post game this season.

4. League bragging rights

The conference that got the most teams in the NCAA tournament, the Big East with nine, is also the one that has the most representatives in the Sweet 16: five. But three of them are in the Philadelphia Regional: UConn, Georgetown and DePaul.

5. Holding your own with heavyweights

Liz Taylor and Sandy Dennis both won Oscars for "Virginia Woolf," and Richard Burton should have. The fourth actor in the drama: George Segal. He was nominated but was somewhat a candle in the movie to the raging infernos that stole the show.

You wonder whether this is how Green Bay coach Matt Bollant feels in the Dallas Regional, alongside the likes of Georgia's Andy Landers, Texas A&M's Gary Blair and Baylor's Kim Mulkey.

However, Bollant's team has won 25 games in a row and has shown it definitely belongs in the Sweet 16.

6. Sooners still strong

Liz Taylor played a tragic figure in one of those great 1950s weepies, "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

The last time we saw the Paris twins play with Oklahoma -- in the 2009 national semifinals -- we might also have thought we wouldn't see the Sooners back at the Final Four for a while. But even without Courtney and Ashley, Oklahoma made it to the Final Four last season.

It will take two more upsets -- over No. 2 seed Notre Dame, then No. 1 Tennessee or fourth-seeded Ohio State -- for the Sooners to make it three in a row. But all things considered, another Sweet 16 appearance is quite a good showing for the Sooners.

7. Bigger in Texas

Liz Taylor was opposite James Dean and Rock Hudson in "Giant," a classic melodrama set in the ranches and oil fields of Texas.

Griner has been a giant for Baylor since she arrived, and not just because of her height. She's a truly skilled player and has improved every aspect of her game as a sophomore, from footwork to free throw shooting. Baylor can look ragged at times when she's not on the floor. But when she's out there, the Lady Bears are very tough to beat.

[+] EnlargeJessica Breland
AP PhotoAfter missing last season as she fought Hodgkin's lymphoma, Jessica Breland has helped lead North Carolina to the Sweet 16.

8. More giants

There are other post players who are expected to be major factors in the Sweet 16. Among them: Ohio State's Lavender has put the Buckeyes on her shoulders again; North Carolina wouldn't be into the regional finals without Jessica Breland; and freshman Stefanie Dolson has been critical for UConn after the loss of Tina Charles to the WNBA.

9. There he goes again

Pretty much no matter what Liz Taylor did, it made news. There aren't many people in women's basketball who get constant publicity, but UConn's Geno Auriemma is one of them.

With Gampel Pavilion just about half-full for Tuesday's second-round win over Purdue, Auriemma criticized the Huskies fan base for not showing up. Which was a story that brought the usual gathering of trolls and Neanderthals to the reader comments section to try to one-up each other on how much they hated, loathed, despised and didn't care about women's basketball.

(Why, then, are they wasting their precious time reading a story about women's basketball, which they so desperately don't care about … that's always the mystery.)

The reality is that Auriemma's program has been so good that it gets taken for granted. Further, there really is not much enjoyable about watching UConn pound Hartford by 36 and Purdue by 24. But there's also not much Auriemma can do about that. He's going to keep winning. Other programs will have to catch up.

And if Auriemma is disappointed that too many Huskies fans -- who, like everybody else, have economic choices to make with their entertainment dollar -- opt out of watching NCAA tournament blowout games, then maybe UConn should stop bidding to host the early rounds.

Now, let's see how many UConn backers go to Philadelphia. It should be a good showing. They do care.

10. DePaul's banner season continues

Well before the Steve Martin version, Spencer Tracy and Liz Taylor starred in the original "Father of the Bride."

Doug Bruno, in his 25th season with his alma mater DePaul, has been a father figure to many young women he has coached … but doesn't actually have a daughter himself. Bruno and his wife, Patty, have six sons.

The extended Bruno family will be proudly supporting Dad and his Blue Demons in the Philadelphia Regional. Junior Keisha Hampton, a Philly native, hit two free throws with 4.9 seconds left Monday that gave DePaul a 75-73 victory over Penn State and the Sweet 16 berth. DePaul's 29 victories this season is a program best.

[+] EnlargeKelly Graves
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMight the coaching vacancy at Washington be a distraction for coach Kelly Graves and Gonzaga.

11. Will they leave?

Many times in her film career, Liz Taylor played the irresistible temptress, a character others found it very hard to say no to. Um, actually, she was in that role a lot in real life, too.

There are two so-called "mid-major" teams in the Sweet 16 in Green Bay of the Horizon League and Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference. With some big-conference jobs open -- including in the same states as Gonzaga and Green Bay -- it's inevitable that the Bulldogs' Kelly Graves and the Phoenix's Bollant would be looked at for filling those positions.

Might the likes of Washington and Wisconsin want Graves and Bollant? If so, can those schools tempt these coaches to leave the smaller-conference programs where they've had success? Both likely will try to distance themselves far from any such talk as they prepare for the Sweet 16, but coaching rumors can be an unwanted distraction.

12. Is a title Baylor's destiny?

Two of Liz Taylor's movies were based on Tennessee Williams plays: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly, Last Summer." Censorship that existed in the late 1950s cut or altered so much of the dialogue in both, though, that you had to read between the lines at times to know what was actually going on.

Certainly, UConn's Auriemma has never censored himself. And, really, neither has Baylor coach Mulkey. Reporters might even say she has been a bit peevish in recent news conferences about perceived slights.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
Matt Strasen/US PresswireBaylor's Brittney Griner has 47 points, 14 blocks and 12 rebounds in two tourney games. She's 14-of-25 from the field.

But Mulkey is always defensive if she feels as though anyone -- even unintentionally -- is shortchanging one of her players.

Lately, Destiny Williams, a sophomore transfer from Illinois, has been a player Mulkey insists does not receive enough credit. And Williams indeed deserves some: She has 60 points and 41 rebounds in the Lady Bears' five postseason games. Her rebounding in particular could be very important for Baylor from here on out.

13. On guard

Liz Taylor played Amy in "Little Women." And although not all guards are little, we'll still use this as a segue into a discussion of the plethora of perimeter players who could be stars in the Sweet 16.

Graham Hays will have more on this later in the week, but wow, were to start? Let's go by region. In Spokane, Gonzaga's Vandersloot has been the big story of the tournament thus far, becoming the first player in Division I men's or women's history to get at least 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in her career. Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen was the Pac-10 Player of the Year. Lucas, who perhaps hasn't reached her full potential at North Carolina, is having a very good final postseason as a senior. And Louisville freshman Shoni Schimmel, who had 33 points in the second-round upset of Xavier, is just getting started.

In the Dallas Regional, Odyssey Sims stepped in right away as a rookie to lead Baylor on the court. Texas A&M veterans Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter have complemented each other well. Jasmine James, Georgia's leading scorer, got the winning putback against Florida State in a 61-59 second-round win. And Julie Wojta (a guard-forward), Hannah Quilling and Celeste Hoewisch each have at least 100 assists this season for Green Bay.

We've already mentioned Georgetown's Rodgers in the Philadelphia Regional. There are also Duke's Jasmine Thomas and DePaul's Sam Quigley, both savvy seniors. And UConn has been extremely guard-oriented. Three Huskies have at least 125 assists this season, and two others are at 97 and 95.

In the Dayton Regional, there is mercurial but talented Samantha Prahalis at Ohio State, the heart of Oklahoma with Danielle Robinson, a rising star at Tennessee with freshman Meighan Simmons, and Notre Dame sophomore Skylar Diggins, who has improved her scoring and assist numbers after a strong rookie season.

14. Still on track for showdown

Some were surprised when Liz Taylor appeared on "General Hospital" for a few episodes in 1981, but she was a big fan of the daytime drama.

[+] EnlargeGeno Auriemma & Pat Summitt
Elsa/Getty ImagesTennessee and Connecticut have not met since Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, left, and Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, right, broke off the annual matchup in 2007.

The biggest soap opera in women's hoops the past several years has been the rivalry between UConn and Tennessee, even though their regular-season series ended in 2007.

As expected, the selection committee put the Huskies and Lady Vols on the same side of the bracket, and now they're both two victories from their first meeting in four years.

Although UConn breezed through its early-round games, Tennessee got a challenge from Marquette in the second round before prevailing 79-70. Next up for the Lady Vols is Ohio State, and the question is: How will Tennessee's posts hold up against Buckeyes center Lavender?

As mentioned earlier, Baugh has battled back from her ACL troubles, but she has never been 100 percent. She'll give Tennessee whatever minutes she can. Kelley Cain also could be an important factor inside for the Lady Vols. But what about Alyssia Brewer, who didn't play against Marquette? We'll have to see whether the Buckeyes can dribble-penetrate anywhere near as effectively as the Golden Eagles did (that will be tough), which should impact how much Tennessee's various interior players are in the game against Ohio State.

15. Staying the course

Liz Taylor's peak as an actress was over by the late 1960s. But she remained an A-list celebrity until her death and worked periodically until about a decade ago.

It's difficult in any profession when you worry that your best years are behind you. In sports, if you're a coach, you might sometimes wonder whether you "missed your chance" with previous teams and might not get one again.

Or … you might just keep going, enthusiastically looking ahead to each year because you still believe you can win it all. Georgia's Landers, Texas A&M's Blair, DePaul's Bruno and Ohio State's Jim Foster haven't won an NCAA championship in their long careers as head coaches, but they continue to get victories and pursue that goal.

Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell -- whose teams meet in the Spokane semifinals -- have won NCAA titles (VanDerveer has two). But those wins are getting further in the rearview mirror. The Tar Heels won their title in 1994, the Cardinal in 1990 and '92.

VanDerveer has gotten agonizingly close in the past 18 seasons, going to the Final Four six times in that period and usually being in the mix to at least make it that far. Maybe it will happen with this year's Cardinal team. If it doesn't, VanDerveer will just keep trying.

16. The plot thickens

In "A Place in the Sun," Montgomery Clift's character wants so badly to marry the socialite played by Liz Taylor that he's about to commit a murder … but then decides not to. As luck would have it, his intended victim accidentally dies anyway. But nobody believes it was an accident.

Only in the movies, right? That is the proverbial truth about sports: that they can't be scripted. But for the past two years in women's basketball, maybe it has felt as if it was a predictable plot with UConn's consecutive perfect seasons.

When you consider UConn's talent and resolve, it's certainly possible the Huskies could pull it off again. But the feeling going into this Sweet 16 is different. There are several possible outcomes we can believe really could happen. Now, we'll wait to see which ones do.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.