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Defending NCAA champion Baylor is the No. 1 seed and is riding a 30-game winning streak. Who might stand in the way of the Lady Bears reaching the Final Four and trying to become the fourth program to win consecutive national championships?
1. What can stop a repeat of last year's Elite Eight matchup between Baylor and No. 2 seed Tennessee?
Frankly, it's hard to see much getting in the way of the Lady Bears on the road to Oklahoma City. If seeds hold, they'd have a semifinal meeting there with Purdue, which got hot to win the Big Ten tournament -- but before that run was not seen as a No. 4 seed.
Tennessee, though, might encounter some more challenges. That could start in the second round against No. 7 seed Syracuse, although the fact that the Lady Vols are at home in Knoxville, Tenn., makes an early-round upset all the more unlikely.
If Tennessee gets to Oklahoma City, the foe could be No. 3 seed UCLA, which pushed Stanford to the limit in the Pac-12 tourney championship game. Or possibly No. 6 seed Oklahoma, which would be the "home" team, playing 20 miles from its campus.
2. Conference tournaments can be very exciting. But sometimes you have to wonder if that's really the best means for awarding an automatic NCAA tournament bid, compared to the results of an entire conference season.
In this regional are three so-called small-conference teams that did not win their regular-season league title, but got into the Big Dance via winning their tournament: No. 14 seed Stetson (Atlantic Sun), No. 11 seed Central Michigan (Mid-American), and No. 16 seed Prairie View A&M (Southwestern Athletic).
Great for those schools. But tough for the regular-season champs, who were tripped up in the league tournament and didn't get NCAA at-large bids: Florida Gulf Coast (18-0 A-Sun), Toledo (15-1 MAC), and Texas Southern (16-2 SWAC.) FGCU and Texas Southern won their leagues by four-game margins. Toledo's league record was three games better than any of its MAC competitors.
3. The only one of the 16 early-round sites that is completely neutral -- Columbus, Ohio -- is at the school that currently has the top job opening in women's hoops. Ohio State didn't make this NCAA tournament, and coach Jim Foster was let go after 11 seasons and a 279-82 record.
Considering the school's resources, the prep talent in Ohio, and the high profile of the Big Ten, this is a top-tier job that will draw many eager applicants. But it seems unlikely any of the coaches who'll be playing at this site -- Oklahoma's Sherri Coale, UCLA's Cori Close, Central Michigan's Sue Guevara, or Stetson's Lynn Bria -- are candidates.
That said, two of them are pretty familiar with the Buckeye State. Guevara was once a graduate assistant at Ohio State and has been a Big Ten head coach (Michigan) and assistant (Michigan State). Bria previously coached at Ohio University. -- Mechelle Voepel
|Kayla Alexander averages 17.7 points on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. The 6-foot-4 senior center adds 8.7 rebounds for the Orange.|
Kayla Alexander, Syracuse: There are presumably quite a few ACC coaches who are thrilled Alexander won't be around when Syracuse joins the conference next season. The senior was an impact player from the beginning, but she raised her game to new heights this season and figures to come off the board in the first round of the WNBA draft. The No. 2 active leading shot-blocker in Division I, behind Baylor's Brittney Griner, Alexander emerged as an offensive force this season. She picked up her scoring average by nearly a point per game in the past five games, impressive considering all of the opponents in that span also are in the NCAA tournament (Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame and Villanova twice).
Sam Ostarello, Purdue: Ostarello didn't understand what the fuss was about after she hit one of the biggest shots of the Big Ten tournament, an old-school sweeping hook from the block. She had made the shot for years, she said, and pointed out she even used it on her first attempt in the McDonald's All American Game -- when she was guarded by Griner. The senior, a prolific tweeter, is a little bit quirky like that, and she's all the more fun to watch because of it. She's also a legitimate prospective WNBA talent, a ferocious rebounder who had back-to-back 19-rebound games against Nebraska and Ohio State this season and 15 double-digit rebounding performances overall. The more involved she is against No. 13 seed Liberty and potentially fifth-seeded Louisville, the more likely it is she gets a chance to test that hook against Griner in the Sweet 16.
Meighan Simmons, Tennessee: When Tennessee's junior is at the top of her game, she's as difficult to stop as any guard this side of Skylar Diggins. She also has been one of the streakiest elite players in the country during her time in Knoxville, which makes her all the more compelling. She was very good for much of the SEC season -- and very consistent. She was the leading scorer in conference play at 19.3 points per game, compared to fewer than 16 points per game out of conference, and averaged 2.5 assists and 2.6 turnovers in conference play, compared to 1.8 and 2.8, respectively, out of the conference. But in two late losses against Kentucky and Texas A&M, the shooting percentage suffered and turnovers piled up. -- Graham Hays
(8) Florida State vs. (9) Princeton: The Tigers have their eyes set on only one goal: finally getting an NCAA tournament victory. In fact, after a March 8 win over Yale, Princeton even received a pep talk from one of its most famous alums, former New York Knick (and former U.S. senator) Bill Bradley, who told the team about how his squad finally made good in 1965, advancing to that year's Final Four.
Point is: This could be Princeton's year. The Tigers (22-6, 13-1) are making their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament and are led by four seniors, most notably 6-foot guard Niveen Rasheed, the two-time unanimous Ivy League player of the year. Rasheed does everything for the Tigers -- she's averaging 16.9 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists -- but can she finally get them that elusive NCAA tourney win?
Of course, that's where the talented Seminoles (22-9, 11-7) will have something to say. Florida State has played nine ranked teams this season, winning four of those games. The Seminoles have a dangerous inside-out combo, with great play in the paint from Chelsea Davis and a steady perimeter presence with senior guard Alexa Deluzio.
The Tigers have made it clear that an NCAA tourney victory is the only way to complete their story, so expect this matchup to be exciting from start to finish. -- Kate Fagan
(11) Central Michigan over (6) Oklahoma (first round): The Chippewas aren't big, but Oklahoma is not the kind of team that can necessarily take full advantage of that. In sophomore Crystal Bradford, Central Michigan has the kind of player who can wreak havoc among the Sooners' talented guards. Bradford is one of just three players in the country to lead her team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. -- Charlie Creme
(1) Baylor vs. (5) Louisville: The Lady Bears, who have won their first-round NCAA game in each of their past 10 appearances, should cruise into the Sweet 16 through their home site in Waco, primed with four seniors in the starting lineup and ready for their run at the national championship. Should Baylor reach the regional semifinals, it'll be riding a nation's best 32-game winning streak; its previous loss was to Stanford in Hawaii in November.
Louisville will need to pull off an upset on its home floor of Big Ten tournament champion Purdue to advance to the program's second regional semifinal appearance in the past three seasons. The Cardinals are first-time hosts for NCAA games and were 14-2 at home during the regular season.
(2) Tennessee vs. (3) UCLA: The Lady Vols, who haven't been a No. 3 seed since 1997, should get their momentum back in Knoxville after losing two of their last three games heading into the NCAA tournament. They also get back sophomore center Isabelle Harrison (9.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg) after she missed three games with a knee injury. That's a big boost that should push Tennessee to first- and second-round wins.
Riding the momentum from a strong Pac-12 tournament effort, UCLA should be able to defeat Stetson and then Oklahoma, a team the Bruins already defeated in the nonconference season when the Sooners were still at full strength. Senior Markel Walker, who averaged 16.7 points a game in the Pac-12 tournament, is the key to the Bruins' offense. -- Michelle Smith