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The Final Four teams gather on the game's grandest stage every spring, characters in a three-act drama that always plays to a full house of fans and the occasional vice president. The penultimate four, on the other hand, play to the sound of one hand clapping. They disperse to empty gyms across the map, sometimes slinking and other times striding, but forgotten all the same in the hubbub of the season's final weekend.
Only four of the more than 300 teams that started last November had more successful campaigns a season ago than Duke, Florida State, Kentucky and Xavier, which is precisely why no four teams had longer summers. All four came within a victory of the Final Four -- in what would have been the first trip for any of the latter three programs -- and all four have to start new ascents back on level ground with everyone else.
|FSU graduated a bulk of its star power, but with players such as Alexa Deluzio, coach Sue Semrau knows her team is full of potential.|
The question for all is will last March prove a step in a longer journey or the trip of a lifetime?
Out of the four, Florida State's dreams of a place in San Antonio lasted the least amount of minutes in the Elite Eight. Handed the impossible task of slowing No. 1 Connecticut, the Seminoles hung around for the better part of a half, cutting the deficit to seven points with just more than eight minutes to play before halftime, but ultimately faded like 38 other teams at the hands of the Huskies in a 90-50 loss.
In reality, Florida State continued to fight long after the outcome was settled in that game. But it's not far off the mark to suggest the nature of the defeat gave them that many extra minutes to start preparing for this season. The sting of losing by 40 points -- just the Seminoles' third loss in two and a half months at that point -- offered little reason to dwell on the details beyond the doors of the arena in Dayton.
"I think our players felt like we want to be better than that," Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. "And they really were able to head into this season last summer and last spring. That was a great thing for me as a coach because we're ready to turn the page and do that as well."
Of course, teams that advance in the NCAA tournament generally don't just leave memories behind when they turn the page. They also leave players behind. Like almost any postseason success stories, Florida State had strong seniors leading its run. Center Jacinta Monroe finished her career as the program's all-time leader in blocked shots and ranked fourth in rebounds. Alysha Harvin was the team's top perimeter scoring option. And Angel Gray started every game as the team's lockdown defender.
Little wonder, then, that Florida State opens this season ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25 and only slightly better at No. 14 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll -- making it the only one of last season's Elite Eight losers to begin the season ranked outside the top 10 in either poll.
Not that the coach is crying poverty.
"I really like our potential; I like what we have to work with," Semrau said. "Obviously, we've lost a lot of experience, but it's really made us a different type of team, a different looking team."
To that point, it is also not an entirely unfamiliar team. For all the experience they lost in Monroe, Harvin and Gray, the Seminoles also return five players who played significant minutes in the rotation -- including 129 of the 200 minutes available against Connecticut. There are no guarantees that Alexa Deluzio, Cierra Bravard, Chasity Clayton, Christian Hunnicutt or even Courtney Ward, already a standout in her own right, will seize the opportunity to shift from role player to focal point. But there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that some or all of them could do just that. The Seminoles don't need to find diamonds in the rough; they just need to keep polishing what they have.
"We talk to them about it, and we give them that opportunity, and then they have to go out and do it themselves," Semrau said. "And that's something that I've learned over the course of time, is you can't give something to somebody. I can't say to Cierra, 'All right, now this position is yours because Jacinta Monroe graduated.' I can say, 'This is what we'd like to see happen, and it's really on you whether it happens or not.'
"And [we] put them in a position where they know they have to go out and work in order to earn that role. I have to give our kids a lot of credit; they've done those things."
The coaching staff also did the things it needed to do to keep a program on steady footing from season to season. In other words, like the other three teams in question, Florida State made the most of its recruiting. The four-player incoming class includes guard Olivia Bresnahan, a 5-foot-11 guard who averaged 11 rebounds as a high school senior and who Semrau says is the most ready to step in right away, and 6-3 forward Natasha Howard, the nation's No. 2 recruit according to ESPN HoopGurlz.
In her first unofficial action for the Seminoles, Howard put up 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes against Alabama-Huntsville in an exhibition.
"When she gets things, she has the ability to be the best player who has ever played here," Semrau said. "She's a pretty special player. Her basketball IQ is as high as her talent level."
Even 40 points from the Final Four, it's all about finding the pieces to get you another shot.
Duke: It says something about one of the teams remaining on this list that Duke's Elite Eight loss wasn't the most painful of the quartet, but a kick to the ribs is still a kick to the ribs.
|Last season's loss at the buzzer in the Elite Eight will only serve as motivation for Xavier players like April Phillips.|
Leading Baylor by five points with less than three minutes to play in Memphis, Duke watched a typically suffocating defensive effort go by the wayside after Krystal Thomas fouled out and the Lady Bears came up with big plays in the closing seconds. Instead of its first trip to the Final Four under Joanne P. McCallie, Duke had to take solace in 30 wins and a share of the ACC regular-season crown.
Now for the first time during her tenure in Durham, McCallie opens a season with a roster of players who haven't played for anyone else during their college careers. That development isn't without its pitfalls, given how much departed seniors Joy Cheek, Keturah Jackson and Bridgette Mitchell contributed on the floor last season, but it bears mentioning within the framework of the coach's distinctive style built around relentless, physical defense.
And with five highly regarded freshmen (with guard Chelsea Gray the most touted of them all) everyone is going to need to be on the same page. The Blue Devils have championship size with Krystal Thomas and Allison Vernerey, a go-to player in Jasmine Thomas, an established role player in the Wanisha Smith mold in Karima Christmas and now plenty of young depth. As Rutgers was the most recent to prove two years ago, hyped freshman classes don't always work out as planned, but they do make optimism easy to come by.
"I think all five are ready," McCallie said. "I think all five will contribute. I can't really tell you how or in what order; we'll just have to see. Every day it's somebody different; it's like going to a candy store. Every day it's someone different stepping up, and whoever decides they're going to be consistent is somebody you're going to see more often."
Kentucky: The Wildcats could have expected life was going to be different this season, but they didn't even make it opening day before experiencing just how tough life can be as the chased.
Fresh off the program's first trip to a regional final (not to mention its first trip to the Sweet 16 in nearly 30 years), Kentucky entered the summer safe in the knowledge that four starters and three key reserves were returning for an encore, including SEC player of the year Victoria Dunlap, freshman standout A'dia Mathies and point guard Amber Smith, pilot of coach Matthew Mitchell's pressure defense and fast-paced offense.
Then Smith went down with a knee injury while playing in a pickup game in July, leaving her status for the upcoming season in doubt. The Wildcats likely won't know before the middle of January whether she will play this season or take a redshirt. That leaves a key position, perhaps the key position in Kentucky's system, up for grabs, with contestants ranging from freshman Jennifer O'Neil, to junior returnee Crystal Riley and Mathies sliding over from the 2.
All they have to do is replace a player who averaged 4.5 assists per game and ranked sixth in the SEC in free-throw percentage while getting to the line more times than players with considerably more touted offensive roles, such LSU's Allison Hightower and Mississippi State's Alexis Rack. No big deal.
"I hope that we can navigate the early part of the schedule with Jen and Crystal getting more experience at that position," Mitchell said. "But it sure is good to know that A'dia can slide over there and perform at a really high level if that plan doesn't work the way I have it envisioned."
Ask Kentucky's coach and he'll tell you the team didn't use the disrespect as motivation last season while it made its way up the SEC standings and through the NCAA tournament after being picked to finish in the bottom half of the league. Likewise, he isn't worried about players feeling the pressure of newfound external expectations this season. As in the case of Smith's injury, they feel they can find the answers within. That's the lesson they take from one of the most memorable seasons in program history.
"We thought a lot about last season right after, we certainly did," Mitchell said. "And I, to some degree, will always think about them because they set such a great example of what we would like, what we've envisioned Kentucky to be. They set a great example of that. They were honest kids, they were hard-working, they were disciplined, and that's what we're trying to be."
Xavier: Exhibition games offer only slightly more insight than the opposition usually offers resistance, but look at the opening scoring sequences in the play-by-play of Xavier's win against Bellarmine.
A defensive rebound by Ta'Shia Phillips leads to a 3-point attempt for Katie Rutan (her second attempt in the game's opening 79 seconds). Rutan misses, but Phillips gets the offensive rebound and scores. The next trip down the floor, Bellarmine has a 3-pointer blocked by Tyeasha Moss, Phillips collects the rebound (her third in the game's first two minutes) and Moss hits a 3-pointer at the other end.
How do you recover from one of the most soul-crushing losses in recent postseason history (Stanford winning their Elite Eight matchup on a coast-to-coast, buzzer-beating layup), a result that had fans across the nation simultaneously wincing and embracing the humanity of the moment?
You do exactly what put you in position to win that game in the first place. And with players like Phillips, Moss and Rutan as examples, that means you defend like mad, rebound like Bill Russell and shoot at will. There's a reason Xavier coach Kevin McGuff signs off most of his tweets with the admonition, "Advantage X!" His is a team with an identity, and that much is sure to remain intact.
Dee Dee Jernigan, the unfortunate protagonist in the drama that unfolded in the closing seconds of the regional final against Stanford when she missed a pair of shots from close range, is gone. So, too, is versatile forward April Phillips. But from the moment Amber Harris elected to return for a fifth season rather than move on to the WNBA, the Musketeers were once again national championship contenders. No team in the country has a duo like Harris and Phillips, who combined to average 20.6 rebounds per game. Consider that Harris is the lesser of the two on the boards, a player just as comfortable taking someone off the dribble or shooting a 3-pointer, and she still ranked two-tenths of a rebound behind Boston College's Carolyn Swords and ahead of former Stanford All-American Jayne Appel in rebounds per game last season.
Add in two shooters in Rutan and Moss, a point guard worthy of her name in Special Jennings and the intriguing addition of former Tennessee forward Amber Gray, who will not have to sit out a season after transferring for medical reasons, and more than any of last season's other penultimate four, Xavier is ready to pick up where it left off -- no matter how painful that moment was.
And how this season started, unofficial or not, says a lot more about what's likely ahead than how last season ended.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.