Since this is a column about women's college basketball predictions for 2009, specifically the NCAA tournament, and not an Agatha Christie novel ending in edge-of-your-seat, who-done-it mystery, this foray into crystal ball-ism will begin at the end.
Why? Because we should have a really good idea who done it, or will do it, this season: the Connecticut Huskies. In Storrs, then Trenton, N.J., then St. Louis. With overwhelming talent and precise execution.
No twists or surprises -- at least not in the Nutmeg State. UConn will win the national championship. There. That's out of the way.
The important thing is to enjoy the journey even if the destination seems obvious, predictable and a little bit anticlimactic. The Huskies will take care of their business and win a sixth title. It's the other 57 games that venture into the unknown and are where the fun and speculation begin. Using our current Bracketology for March's 64-team field, these are the story lines that would emerge in the NCAA tournament:
Frankly, it is just too hard to imagine the Huskies losing. They have the nation's best player at three different positions: point guard Renee Montgomery (yes, this is a concession that Montgomery is superior to Maryland's Kristi Toliver), small forward Maya Moore and center Tina Charles. They don't take a night off.
Their best players are also exceptional defenders, and defense should never have an off night. A collective go-for-the-jugular mentality has been embedded. And UConn won't have to leave the tri-state area before reaching the Final Four. The question likely won't be whether Connecticut is the best team this season, but whether the Huskies are the best team ever.
After UConn, the race is wide open
The Huskies remain light years ahead of everyone else, but teams 2-16 could have a blanket thrown over them. Jockeying for seeding is as hotly contested as the conference races in the Big 12, SEC and ACC. That, coupled with limited threats from the mid-major leagues (this will be a down year for upsets), makes for some tremendous games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds.
The Big East and Big 12 will dominate
The Big 12 isn't quite as deep as it was a year ago, but it has much greater talent at the top. Of its six teams that would be in the NCAA tournament if the bracket were picked today, four have realistic claims for being Final Four-worthy (Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor). Two of them would make it (Texas A&M and Texas).
The Big East has more depth than any other conference. At least eight would make our tournament if it were held right now, led by UConn. Louisville also has the look of a Final Four team. The Cardinals' biggest obstacle might be being placed in the same region as the Huskies, which was the case in our most recent Bracketology.
Bonner and McCoughtry will shine
It's not as if Louisville's Angel McCoughtry exists under the radar any longer, but this tournament will cap her exceptional career as the Cardinals give the Huskies their most difficult challenge in March. She will emerge as the best player in the tournament who doesn't reach the Final Four.
Auburn's DeWanna Bonner might challenge McCoughtry for that title -- except Bonner, a 6-foot-4 senior, will be at the Final Four. The versatile guard and her experienced teammates will lose to Tennessee in the SEC race, only to secure a much better prize. The Tigers won't put up much of a fight against UConn in the title game, but Bonner will have put the program back on the national map and secured herself as a top-three pick in the WNBA draft.
Terps will fail to get past the Sweet 16
Something is missing for the Terrapins. What that "something" is remains difficult to define. Perhaps it's a paucity of depth, a shortage of significant big-game experience beyond Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman or a lack of a killer instinct. More than likely, it's a combination of the three, plus some intangibles that kept Maryland from being any higher than a No. 4 seed in this projection.
With opening-round games in College Park, the Terps will have an advantage in the pursuit of a Sweet 16 berth. However, as a No. 4, a probable matchup with a 1-seed means the end of the road. The slide from the very, very elite has been gradual, but manifests itself in the 2009 tournament. Toliver and Coleman will leave College Park with their success having peaked as freshmen.
Tennessee still too young
The talent in Knoxville is obvious. It will continue to blossom throughout the SEC season, and the Lady Vols are good enough to win the conference's regular-season title. In this projection, they earned a No. 2 seed. But the tournament is a different animal. The experience gained by Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen and Briana Bass throughout the regular season is not applicable to the one-and-done concept of the NCAA tournament. Understanding what it means to play with a no-tomorrow tag around the neck while still facing the expectations of playing for the Lady Vols will be a little too much for the freshmen. While hard to fathom, a Pat Summitt-coached team will go out in the second round -- it would mark the first time in Summitt's tenure her team failed to reach the Sweet 16.
Attendance will be up
but not overwhelmingly so. More fans will show up thanks to the switch back to 16 predetermined sites for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, but it won't be the huge uptick that many might hope for. With no Texas Tech, Georgia or LSU in the tournament, the cities of Lubbock, Duluth and Baton Rouge won't do nearly as well as they might have otherwise.
And while it's commendable that the NCAA put games in bigger, yet nontraditional Pacific Time zone cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle -- perhaps in an attempt to grow the game in larger markets -- the individual draws are not there. Not to mention there is generally a smaller pool of teams from which to choose for local interest -- and in these trying economic times, fewer fans are likely to travel.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.