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Saturday, March 15, 2008
Updated: March 18, 2:04 AM ET
Magnificent seven on inside track to Tampa

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Call them the "Seven Sisters" for the Title IX age.

The seven colleges in the Northeast that originally earned that collective nickname once represented the best and brightest of higher education for women. Now, more than 170 years later, the biggest event in women's collegiate athletics is about to begin with seven clear contenders for the throne.

Teams like Baylor, Cal, Duke, Louisville, Texas A&M, West Virginia and many others enter the NCAA tournament with reason to believe they can reach the Final Four in Tampa, Fla., and even win the national championship -- just as Rutgers emerged from the pack last season to reach the national final against Tennessee in Cleveland.

It's just that if one of those emerging teams does come up big in March, it would have to go through the seven teams below. What follows is a brief overview of how the seven leading contenders can become the last team standing on April 8.

LSU can win the title if Allison Hightower makes the leap

Allison Hightower
Allison Hightower has been hot during LSU's wins and struggled during the Tigers' five losses.

Even with the biggest paint presence in the women's game in Sylvia Fowles, LSU has a small margin for error when it comes to competing for a championship. A sophomore who might be the only reserve to play significant March minutes for her team, Hightower could help provide a little more breathing room on the road to Tampa.

The Lady Tigers raced undefeated through the SEC regular season in Hall of Fame coach Van Chancellor's first campaign in Baton Rouge, La. But they also went 1-4 against fellow championship contenders Connecticut, Maryland, Rutgers and Tennessee.

In those losses -- as well as the Lady Tigers' only other loss against Middle Tennessee, in a game Fowles missed because of a knee injury -- two themes were almost universal: the team's rebounding woes and Hightower's shooting woes

And the Lady Tigers, who are outrebounding opponents by a scant margin this season despite Fowles' presence, aren't likely to get much bigger over the next three weeks.

That leaves Hightower, who shot 27.5 percent from the field in LSU's five losses.

Few teams are as collectively efficient on offense as LSU, which produces assists on 66 percent of its field goals and ranks first in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio entering the NCAA tournament. Hightower plays a big part in that success, shooting 41 percent from behind the arc -- including 48.4 percent in the team's 27 wins.

No matter how much attention opposing defenses pay to Fowles, who also averages just two personal fouls per game and has yet to foul out this season, she's probably going to get her numbers. Sharpshooter Quianna Chaney is LSU's only other double-digit scorer. Her production isn't as much of a guarantee as Fowles' is, but it's close. If Hightower is ready to make the leap to stardom that seems within reach for the former prep All-American, the small margin of error is going to be with the teams trying to beat LSU.

North Carolina can win the title if it finds its range

The Tar Heels rank among the national leaders in field goal percentage, shooting 47.5 percent from the floor. So why suggest shooting touch is an issue?

Erlana Larkins
Erlana Larkins anchors UNC's inside game, but the Tar Heels will need an outside presence, too.

North Carolina enters the NCAA tournament with a 30-2 record, a clean sweep of the ACC regular-season and conference-tournament titles and a host of reasons to think a national championship is very much in the cards in Chapel Hill.

But Sylvia Hatchell's team also enters shooting 28.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

Beginning with the 2000-01 season, each of the seven teams that won national titles shot at least 32 percent from 3-point territory. Three champions shot at least 40 percent from behind the arc, compared to just one (Baylor in 2004-05) that shot less than 36 percent.

That's not to say any of those teams won national championships because of 3-point shooting, but it was at least a part of the equation for otherwise disparate squads. Of the five North Carolina players averaging at least one 3-point attempt per game, only freshman Rebecca Gray (40.3 percent) is doing so at that 32 percent baseline mark established by Baylor.

North Carolina doesn't ignore the 3-pointer, attempting 14.5 per game, but it hasn't played a big role in the team's success to date. By excelling on the glass and forcing more than 23 turnovers per game, the Tar Heels rolled through their first 32 games averaging 26.3 more points per game than they allowed.

But it's not just a cliché to suggest baskets are harder to come by in March and April.

Excluding a first-round win against Prairie View A&M, North Carolina averaged 67.5 points in its four other NCAA tournament games last season. That was 16.2 points per game less than its regular-season average. And that was a team that came within a few possessions of playing for the title with one of the game's great offensive talents in Ivory Latta.

Better opponents play better defense and take better care of the basketball.

North Carolina has great balance, great defense and great rebounding, but getting a little more outside the box wouldn't hurt.

Connecticut can win the title if it doesn't have to win it from the free-throw line

Connecticut actually isn't alone in having to hope its season doesn't come down to a trip to the charity stripe. It has been an unusually bad season for free-throw shooting among elite teams, with Connecticut, LSU, North Carolina and Rutgers all shooting less than 70 percent from the line entering the NCAA tournament.

Renee Montgomery
Renee Montgomery is one of the few players UConn can trust at the line in a close game.

The difference is all of those teams have players who have been to the Final Four.

There are really two things in play here for the team sure to be the bracket's No. 1 overall seed. First off, the Huskies are simply pretty lousy from the free-throw line. Renee Montgomery saved the team against Louisville in the Big East final by hitting all 11 of her free throws down the stretch, but she and freshman Maya Moore are just about the only good bets among healthy Huskies. Of most concern, Tina Charles leads the team in free-throw attempts but shoots just 56.6 percent from the line.

But there is the issue of what a late-game free-throw scenario represents.

Strange as it sounds, the Huskies enter the postseason as one of only two major contenders without Final Four experience, along with Stanford. Sure, they have a guy on the bench -- not to mention a staff of assistant coaches -- who knows how to navigate a championship run. But current seniors Ketia Swanier, Charde Houston and injury-sidelined Mel Thomas arrived as the freshman class after Diana Taurasi's final title.

Four times in the 12 games immediately preceding the NCAA tournament Connecticut was in a position to win or lose in the final minutes. That was a far cry from its first 21 games, which produced just one single-digit margin of victory. Chances are, the postseason, at least after the opening weekend, will provide more of the former than the latter.

Tennessee can win the title if it keeps control of the glass

There are worse things than déjá vu when you're the defending national champions. And a lot of things look familiar about this season's version of the Lady Vols.

Nicky Anosike
Nicky Anosike's rebounding prowess might make the Lady Vols as dangerous as last year's champs.

There's a late-season loss against LSU, this time avenged in the conference title game.

There's the underrated backcourt of Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt still taking exquisite care of the offense. Hornbuckle posted a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio last season; she enters this season's NCAA tournament with a 1.5 mark. For her part, Bobbitt has matched a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio last season with a 1.4 mark this season.

There's a sharpshooter looking for her stroke after a conference cool down, this time freshman Angie Bjorklund in the place of Sidney Spencer. Bjorklund shot just 30.3 percent from behind the arc in SEC play, just as Spencer dropped from better than 40 percent out of conference to 33.9 percent in conference play last season.

There's even a field-goal defense mark that is an exact duplicate of last season's final number -- a stingy 38.7 percent.

And there's still the not-so-small specter of Candace Parker on both ends of the court.

But beyond all the similarities, there's at least one reason to think this season's team might be even better than the one that celebrated a championship in Cleveland: Nicky Anosike.

Anosike was certainly a big part of last season's championship, but the senior has been a key this season in shoring up her team's control of the glass. Entering the NCAA tournament, Anosike already has more rebounds through 32 games than she totaled in 37 games last season. And judging by a 9.9 rebounding average in the SEC tournament, she's just hitting her stride.

Anosike was already a good overall rebounder, a great offensive rebounder and one of the best post defenders in the nation. But if her performance is indicative of a team that's more consistent on the boards than it was a year ago, this season's Lady Vols might be better than the 2006-07 version.

Stanford can win the title if Candice Wiggins is up to the challenge

One of the most remarkable things about Candice Wiggins during the first three seasons of her career at Stanford was how much she produced relative to how little she took.

Candice Wiggins
Stanford might be better off if Candice Wiggins didn't share so much.

Perhaps fittingly for a Bay Area star, she was the basketball equivalent of a perfectly efficient hybrid car. No ounce of energy on her part and no possessions on the team's part were wasted in producing an All-American résumé.

But if Stanford is going to reach its first Final Four since 1997 and win its first national title since 1992, Wiggins might have to continue a season-long trend of consumption.

Sometimes you just need a sports car to win the race, fuel efficiency be damned.

Wiggins led the Cardinal in field goal attempts per game in each of her first three seasons, but she never had a domineering profile. As a sophomore, she averaged 3.1 more attempts per game than the player who took the second most shots on Stanford's roster, Brooke Smith, and that was the biggest differential in her first three seasons. By comparison, Candace Parker is averaging 6.4 more attempts than anyone else for Tennessee this season -- far more the norm for an All-American scorer.

This season, en route to becoming the Pac-10's all-time leader in points, Wiggins is averaging 4.6 more field goal attempts than any of her teammates.

That's not to say Stanford is a one-woman team on the offensive end. The Cardinal have a gifted post scorer with a good stroke from the free-throw line in Jayne Appel. Freshman Kayla Pedersen probably isn't getting the recognition she deserves; her debut season isn't far behind those of Maya Moore and Jantel Lavender.

Wiggins is still an unselfish passer -- averaging nearly three assists per game -- and still values the basketball with just 53 turnovers in 33 games. But more than ever before, Stanford's fate rises and falls with the shots that leave her hands.

If that burden doesn't weigh Wiggins down in the NCAA tournament, as it might have en route to a career-low field-goal percentage to this point, the Cardinal might get their title.

Maryland can win the title if it takes from others what it gives unto them

Maryland is going to commit a lot of turnovers. That's a given. The Terrapins turned the ball over a lot when they won a national championship two seasons ago, and they turned the ball over a lot last season, when they lost to Mississippi in the second round.

Crystal Langhorne
Crystal Langhorne and the Terps will turn it over often, so they must take the ball away on defense.

For Brenda Frese, the risk of an occasional turnover, or 20, is outweighed by the easy points that come by pushing tempo and letting her players make the most of their talent.

Those turnovers are also countered by getting the opponents to take chances of its own, letting Maryland's quickness and strength work on the defensive side of things.

But in losses to Rutgers, North Carolina and Duke, the types of teams Maryland will have to overcome to win another title, Frese's team gave without taking in return.

In those three defeats, Maryland's opponents totaled just 34 turnovers. All three teams, including a North Carolina team that is itself prone to turnovers, committed fewer turnovers than they averaged per game over the course of the regular season.

And for its part, Maryland committed at least 19 turnovers in all three games -- above its season average of 17.8 turnovers per game.

As the Terrapins have demonstrated all season, including in the team's signature victory over LSU, they can beat opponents in a variety of ways. They shoot the ball incredibly consistently for a team that incorporates the 3-point shot as such a big part of its arsenal. And with Crystal Langhorne, Laura Harper, Marissa Coleman and Jade Perry, the Terrapins have the ability to simply wear opponents out on the boards, as was the case against LSU.

But over the course of what they hope will be six games, even the Terrapins might not have enough weapons to make up for free possessions produced if they give without taking.

Rutgers can win the title if it takes pressure off its defense

Rutgers wins with defense, but C. Vivian Stringer's team is still looking for its first shutout.

Essence Carson
Essence Carson's Scarlet Knights don't plan on getting into many track meets.

Alone among the seven teams on this list, Rutgers enters the NCAA tournament averaging fewer points per game this season than its opponents allow per game.

In six losses, Rutgers limited it opponents to an average of 59 points.

You get the picture.

The Scarlet Knights aren't going to put up 90 points a game, and Stringer isn't suddenly going to morph into Paul Westhead. But to get back to the championship game and build a winning streak one-game longer than they had last season, the Scarlet Knights need to start shooting the ball at least as well as they did last season.

Rutgers averaged 64.4 points per game last season and shot 36 percent from behind the arc and 70 percent from the free-throw line. Those might not be gaudy totals, but they were more than enough to finish what the defense started. Essence Carson, Matee Ajavon, Epiphanny Prince and Brittany Ray all averaged at least one 3-pointer per game and shot at least 35 percent from behind the arc in 2006-07. Entering the NCAA tournament this season, only Carson and Ray are above that mark. An almost unstoppable player when her shot is falling -- with one of the quickest first steps in the game, defenders have to give her a little breathing room -- Ajavon is mired at 26 percent.

With the injuries that took Myia McCurdy and Khadijah Rushdan out of the lineup, Rutgers no longer has the depth to play as much full-court defense as Stringer might like. And yet even with less of its famous press, the defense is actually outperforming last season's group by holding opponents to less than 35 percent shooting.

Now the Scarlet Knights just need to hit enough shots to reward themselves for the defensive effort.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.