Tuesday, March 17, 2009
What does draw hold for UConn?
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
It's not fair to Connecticut to say that all the Huskies have to do is show up to advance to the Final Four and win the NCAA championship.
They also have to put on their uniforms.
Now seriously, the Huskies still have to win six games to get a title, and that means there are still six opportunities to lose. Well, come on, not in reality. But
See, this is hard to do. We've spent a season talking about UConn's being such a heavy favorite and now that the bracket is out, nothing has changed. Still, let's take a look at each round's possibilities.
First round: (16) Vermont
PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
Connecticut (33-0) is six games away from the fifth perfect season in Division I women's basketball history.
Hmm Vermont happens to be one of the six states in the United States that I still haven't visited. The Catamounts won the America East Conference tourney, beating UConn legend Jen Rizzotti's Hartford team along the way.
This is Vermont's fifth trip to the NCAA tournament and first under coach Sharon Dawley. Courtnay Pilypaitis is Vermont's leading scorer and rebounder; you can just call her "CP33."
The bad news for Vermont is that it's playing UConn in the first round.
But that's also the good news. UConn's media contingent might provide more copy on the Catamounts in the next five days than has been written about the program in the previous five years combined.
Second round: (8) Florida or (9) Temple
No offense to the Catamounts, but here's where it gets a little more serious. If seeds hold, UConn is looking at eighth-seeded Florida, which was playing very well right up until a Feb. 8 victory over Tennessee. Since then, the Gators have slumped, losing five of their last six games.
That included an SEC tournament loss to Tennessee. This is a senior-dominated Florida squad, led by guard Sha Brooks. Amanda Butler, a former Gators guard herself who's in her second season as coach, has the kind of energy and commitment that stands out.
The other possibility is that UConn faces No. 9 Temple. The Owls are going to be a story even in the first round, because longtime Huskies assistant Tonya Cardoza is in her first season as Temple's coach and will be making a return to Gampel Pavilion as her team meets Florida.
Cardoza was with UConn for 14 seasons, and her Temple team lost to Charlotte in the Atlantic 10 tournament semifinals.
This could be fifth-seeded Virginia, 12-seed Marist, No. 4 California or 13th-seeded Fresno State. Marist, of course, made a run to the 2007 Sweet 16, where it ran into eventual national champion Tennessee. So at least Marist knows what that is like.
But let's say UConn's regional semifinal foe is either of the two better-seeded teams: Cal or Virginia. The Bears seem a little shaky. They've lost three of their last five, and one of the victories was by just three points over Arizona, which finished 4-14 in the Pac-10.
Senior posts Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton have been outstanding players for Cal, but they have won just one NCAA tournament game in their careers.
Meanwhile, Virginia has been a disappointing team, frankly. Maybe it goes back to point-guard issues, as Sharnee Zoll graduated and Paulisha Kellum suffered a torn ACL and missed the season.
However, it seems that a team with Monica Wright and Lyndra Littles, who was eligible to rejoin the team in December, should have done better than 23-9 entering the tournament. The Cavs are 2-4 all-time against UConn, including regular-season losses in 2006 and '07. Yes, Geno Auriemma was an assistant coach to Debbie Ryan at UVa during 1981-85, but it was so long ago as to be pretty much irrelevant.
Well, it would be pretty crazy if the Huskies ran into Big East foe Notre Dame here. The seventh-seeded Irish would have to pull a few upsets to make it. Not that they don't have a history of that -- plus, Notre Dame is host for the first two rounds.
The score of the UConn-Notre Dame game during the regular season was deceptively close -- a 10-point Huskies victory on Feb. 22 doesn't reflect that UConn dominated the action.
If seeds hold up, though, it will be either 2-seed Texas A&M or third-seeded Florida State in the regional final against UConn. The Seminoles are 0-3 versus the Huskies and have faced them before in the NCAA tournament: a 70-52 second-round loss in 2005. The Aggies and Huskies have never met.
This FSU squad shared the regular-season ACC title with Maryland but then fell by 18 points to Duke in the league tournament semifinals. I don't want to diminish the Seminoles' success in the ACC but do have to point out that their regular-season wins over North Carolina and Duke both came in Tallahassee, Fla.
As for Texas A&M, the Aggies played well down the stretch of the Big 12 season and in the tournament, falling to Baylor in the final.
Texas A&M lost in the Elite Eight last season to Tennessee -- a game that the Aggies had every chance to win. Their offense went into the deep freeze with about six minutes left, and they seemed to get more tense with the magnitude of the occasion -- whereas Tennessee did just the opposite.
The Aggies have three starters back from that team: Danielle Gant, La Toya Micheaux and Takia Starks. Sydney Colson, who came back from a knee injury suffered in July, and juco transfer Tanisha Smith have joined those three in the starting lineup.
A&M has pressure defense and a lot of bodies to throw at you. Gant is one of the best competitors you'll see in the tournament, and that is no cliché. But all the things that A&M does well are not things you would expect to really rattle UConn.
Obviously, there are all kinds of scenarios here, but what seems most plausible is Berkeley's No. 1 seed, Duke, or second-seeded Stanford in the national semifinals.
Stanford beat UConn in the semis last year in Tampa, so no team will make the Huskies "see red" more than the Cardinal. Well except Tennessee. And the Orange Crush, seeded No. 5 in Berkeley, is not exactly out of the picture for a 19th Final Four. (Tennessee is not exactly "in" the picture, either, though.)
If Duke advances, it will be the fifth Final Four for the program but the first under coach Joanne P. McCallie, who took Michigan State that far in 2005. On a really good day, the Blue Devils do match up OK with the Huskies, at least on paper. I'm still waiting to see if this Duke senior class -- led by Chante Black -- can spur a truly "great" game from the Blue Devils this season. I mean "great" like the game the 1999 Duke team played to upset Tennessee's four-peat attempt.
A game where everything goes right. That could happen for some teams -- all aspects would click perfectly -- and it still wouldn't be enough to beat UConn. But it just might be enough in the right scenario for Duke.
Among the top four seeds on both halves of the other side of the bracket, No. 3 Louisville (Raleigh Regional) and No. 1 Oklahoma, third-seeded North Carolina and 4-seed Pitt (all of the Oklahoma City Regional) played UConn this season -- and all got pounded.
Louisville got it twice, in fact, most recently in the Big East tournament. Oklahoma faced UConn in the 2002 title game, so that would be history revisited if the Sooners and Huskies meet again for all the marbles in St. Louis. That was UConn's last perfect season.
The top two seeds of the Raleigh Regional -- No. 1 Maryland and No. 2 Baylor -- both won their conference tournaments and enter the NCAA competition with a lot of momentum. They also have something else: recent national championships, as Baylor won in 2005 and Maryland in 2006.
So while UConn still really doesn't look like it can be stopped, there could be some challenges along the way.
The Huskies will have to do more than just show up and dress out but that's fine. They have been doing everything they need to do all season long.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.