Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Updated: March 23, 3:14 PM ET
Sixteen teams, eight games, five questions
By Graham Hays
Cleveland has three heavyweights. Bridgeport has Duke looking to take out Connecticut in the Huskies' backyard. San Antonio has Seimone Augustus, Courtney Paris and Candice Wiggins. But will the defending champs and the winner of the next round's Cinderella face-off make Albuquerque the place to be during the regional finals?
For the most part, the chalk held in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But with a sleeper from the Mountain West Conference and some tough kids from Boston adding just enough intrigue to a Sweet 16 already loaded with national powers going toe-to-toe, the bracket promises an exciting four days of basketball at the four regional sites.
What are some of the biggest story lines to ponder while you catch your breath before Saturday?
What does Alexis Hornbuckle's return mean in Cleveland?
While Army and George Washington presumably weren't too excited about it, either, the selection committee probably felt as queasy as anyone upon learning Tennessee's point guard would return from a broken bone in her wrist in time for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With Alexis Hornbuckle wearing a soft cast and playing quality minutes off the bench (she is averaging 20.5 in the tournament), and the team perhaps deriving a little extra energy from a perceived seeding slight, the Lady Vols rolled through the first two rounds in Norfolk.
Adding Hornbuckle to the group of players who won the SEC tournament by beating both Georgia and LSU makes Tennessee that much stronger. And that's not good news for Rutgers and potentially North Carolina. Candace Parker's dunks got all the attention (sadly, some of it negative), but that hype obscured how well the entire team is playing. Despite some cold shooting in the second half of a rout against George Washington, Parker and Zolman are both rolling on offense. Perhaps just as important, Nicky Anosike and Tye'sha Fluker are active, averaging 9.0 ppg and 7.0 rpg, and 8.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg, respectively.
Some will say only three No. 1 seeds advanced to the Sweet 16. After watching the Lady Vols at full strength, it might be more accurate to say No. 1 seeds advanced to only three regional sites.
Which No. 4 seed could cause the most trouble?
Each of the three remaining No. 4 seeds faces a No. 1 in the Sweet 16, but will DePaul, Michigan State or Purdue be able to spring the same kind of upset No. 8 seed Boston College handed top-seeded Ohio State in the second round? For the record, three times in the last five years a No. 1 seed has fallen in the Sweet 16 (Texas in 2004, Duke and Tennessee in 2001).
Though they needed a miraculous rally in their own town to avoid being upset in the second round against Tulsa, the DePaul Blue Demons might stand the best chance of taking out a favorite.
LSU head coach Pokey Chatman was extremely displeased with her team's first-round rout of Florida Atlantic, and the Tigers couldn't pull away from No. 9 seed Washington until late in their second-round game. The game against the Huskies demonstrated exactly how vulnerable the Lady Tigers can be in relying heavily on two players, as star center Sylvia Fowles was reduced to just two minutes in the first half after picking up early fouls.
The Blue Demons don't have anyone who can match up with Fowles when LSU has the ball, but Wade Trophy finalist Khara Smith can put a lot of pressure on Fowles when DePaul has the ball, potentially placing LSU in a precarious position once again.
If DePaul sharpshooter Allie Quigley can regain her shooting touch after hitting just 2-of-8 from behind the arc in the first two rounds, the Blue Demons appear to have the right inside-outside offensive mix to challenge the Tigers.
Does either Boston College or Utah have a shot in Albuquerque?
The men's bracket has Wichita State taking on George Mason; the women's bracket has this showdown of Cinderellas. We know one of these two teams will be playing for a spot in the Final Four, but which one has the best shot of beating either Baylor or Maryland?
Even though Boston College pushed second-seeded Maryland to overtime in early January, it's probably Utah.
The Utes and their fans might bristle at the label of Cinderella, and it's true that their run so far has been more about living up to expectations than exceeding them. The quartet of Kim Smith, Shona Thorburn, Julie Larsen and Jessica Perry has used the national stage to show this team deserved its No. 5 seed.
While it won't garner the publicity of Candice Wiggins vs. Courtney Smith or Candace Parker vs. Cappie Pondexter, the positional battle between Utah point guard Thorburn and Boston College point guard Sarah Marshall could be one of the gems of the round. A strong case could be made that Thorburn has been the most valuable player of the first two rounds, even though Smith was named MWC Co-Player of the Year.
Utah cannot afford to fall behind against Boston College or a potential regional final opponent, as the Utes did against both Middle Tennessee and Arizona State. But in making those comebacks and beating Arizona State on the boards, Utah showed it has the mental and physical toughness to make a legitimate run at Boston.
What is the marquee matchup of the Sweet 16?
Rutgers regained some luster when the Scarlet Knights finally showed signs of life in the second round, drubbing TCU and looking like the team that went 16-0 during Big East conference play. But Oklahoma freshman Courtney Paris used the first two rounds to announce her arrival as the Arnold Palmer to Candace Parker's Jack Nicklaus, and the Sooners' showdown with Candice Wiggins and an underrated Stanford team is a game worth firing up the TiVo for.
In the first two rounds, Wiggins averaged 27.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg in wins against Southeast Missouri State and Florida State. For her part, Paris missed a total of six shots in wins against Pepperdine and BYU. The two won't spend much time near each other on the court, other than in Wiggins' forays to the hoop, but that won't stop them from staging a duel for the ages. And with Stanford bigs Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin challenging Paris, and Oklahoma's legion of guards teaming up on Wiggins, both players will have plenty of support.
Is playing in UConn's backyard enough to slow Duke?
Ask Andy Landers and Georgia.
Geno Auriemma's Huskies advanced to Bridgeport, Conn., a short drive from both Hartford and Storrs, with easy wins against Coppin State and Virginia Tech, setting up a potential regional final against Duke. Critics have already blasted the selection committee for putting the No. 1 seed in the position of playing what amounts to a road game with a trip to the Final Four on the line (just as the committee did to Penn State in sending the Lady Lions to Hartford in 2004).
The problem with all of the conspiracy theories is that they overlook a pretty good No. 3 seed in Georgia (as well as No. 4 seed Michigan State, although the Spartans are a longer shot). Connecticut freshman Renee Montgomery has at times been a revelation at point guard, and sophomore Ketia Swanier is much improved, but consistency at the position remains a big issue. And against Sherill Baker's unrelenting defensive pressure, instability at point guard is a recipe for disaster.
The irony is that if Georgia knocks off the local favorite, and Duke doesn't slip against Michigan State, the trip to Bridgeport could end up being rather pleasant for the Blue Devils, as Duke fans are rather abundant in the New York-New Jersey area.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.