- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- The theoretical -- and highly probable -- has become the actual: There will be two undefeated teams entering the women's NCAA tournament.
Connecticut won the American Athletic Conference tournament title with a 72-52 victory over Louisville on Monday, and the Huskies will start the defense of their national championship with a 34-0 record. On Sunday night in Greensboro, N.C., Notre Dame won the ACC title over Duke, and it will go into NCAA play at 32-0.
I got the chance to see both games in person. How good are the Huskies and Fighting Irish? Whew -- incredibly good. Which team is better? Well, that's what the Big Dance is for, right?
"I gotta say it: I've enjoyed watching them play this year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of former Big East foe Notre Dame. "I watched them play the other night, and they seem like they are playing with a little chip on their shoulder. They've got an incredibly high energy level. And there may not be two better players in the country on the same team than Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd."
Of course, as good as UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart is -- she had 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists Monday, and was named tournament MVP -- one could say there might not be two better players on the same team than Stewart and any other Huskies starter.
The bottom line is, UConn and Notre Dame -- who have met in the national semifinals the past three years -- might be on a collision course for a winner-take-all epic in Nashville in April. But ...
"There's an awful lot that has to happen between now and then," Auriemma said. "[And] for everybody that wants that game to happen, there's just as many people that go, 'Enough already; there's other good teams besides Connecticut and Notre Dame."
True, and Louisville is one of them. But there's zero debate that UConn and Notre Dame have separated themselves as the best of the best so far in 2014. And the big-picture narrative for this year's NCAA tournament is whether those two both can navigate through five more games to have another chance to face each other.
But before we get to that, we have to wait a week to see what the NCAA selection committee does in regard to setting up the bracket. The selection show is next Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
We already know what regions Notre Dame and Louisville will be in: their own. They'll have to win their early-round games on the road, but if they do, they'll go back to their home arenas for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight. Notre Dame, Louisville, Stanford and Nebraska are the hosts in this odd year that the NCAA opted to return to home sites for regionals.
Women's basketball really outgrew that format a decade ago. And next year, the tournament will return to neutral regional sites. But this season, the committee members are in the position of deciding whether they will follow their procedures and principles very strictly (the geographical S curve) or whether they will do what many people (including Auriemma and his Louisville counterpart, Jeff Walz) think makes more sense.
The regional-placement options for UConn are Louisville's KFC Yum! Center and Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. If the committee decides to follow the letter of the law, so to speak, and send UConn to the geographically closest region, it's Louisville.
But considering it's a plane trip to either Louisville or Lincoln, should the strict adherence to geographical proximity trump the avoidance of potentially making UConn and Louisville meet a fourth time before the Final Four?
In 2011, then-Big 12 foes Baylor and Texas A&M were placed in the same regional after already having met three times that season. But the regional they played in was at a neutral site in Dallas.
Would UConn in Louisville's region be fair to either the Huskies or the Cardinals? Louisville is 30-4, and its losses have been at Kentucky (Dec. 1) and three times to UConn.
After Monday's defeat, Walz was, frankly, a bit testy about a variety of topics but as usual gave forthright and honest answers. He said he didn't want to get in hot water with the NCAA, joking that he might lose "my per diem money and everything."
But, clearly, he thinks his team has performed well enough that the Cardinals shouldn't have to play UConn again just for a chance at the Final Four. So he's hoping the Huskies won't be in the Louisville Regional, although he means no disrespect to any other teams by saying that.
Walz has lost to UConn twice in the NCAA title game (2009, 2013), and nobody knows better how good the Huskies are this season than Louisville. The Cards' three losses to UConn this season have been by 17, 20 and 20 points.
Walz wants his players to think they really can beat the Huskies if they meet again. He just hopes that meeting will be in the Final Four.
And then there's the flip side to this: If UConn is in Louisville's region, could that be perceived as a disadvantage toward the Huskies? To potentially have to play a team that is so familiar with UConn on that team's home floor in regional action? Or would you look at it this way: Since UConn has decisively beaten the Cardinals three times, why wouldn't the Huskies want to meet Louisville again if it came to that?
It's a conundrum, isn't it? What's most "fair" and to whom? Some of the questions the committee will have to answer are the same ones asked every year. But this year, because of the home regional sites and having two undefeated teams, the whole puzzle is more esoteric.
Here, though, is what is crystal clear: UConn is chasing ultimate perfection again. The Huskies have had perfect championship seasons in 1995, 2002, 2009 and 2010. Three other programs have been perfect in the NCAA era, but each did it once: Texas (1986), Tennessee (1998) and Baylor (2012).
Now, Notre Dame joins UConn in the quest for an unblemished season. There are other teams, certainly, that feel they will have something to say about all this. Tennessee, which would be the "home" team in Nashville should the Lady Vols make it to the Final Four, won the SEC tournament and projects as a No. 1 seed.
Baylor shared the Big 12 regular-season title with West Virginia and then beat the Mountaineers in the league tournament final Monday. The Lady Bears were devastated by their upset loss to Louisville last year in the Sweet 16, and with the loss of five seniors, Baylor is a very different team in 2014. And a very hungry one.
There are all kinds of scenarios we can debate and discuss as we count down the days and hours until the bracket is revealed.
But let's end this on something that's definitive: UConn is definitely ready for its title defense. Does Auriemma mourn the demise of the Big East? Absolutely. Will he be sorry to see Louisville (heading to the ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) depart after this season, leaving the American more devoid of teams that have made an impact in the women's game? Of course he will.
However, if there's one thing that has absolutely defined Auriemma and the Huskies, it's that they will always be ready to play whomever, wherever, whenever.
"We had a conversation in our locker room with the team," Auriemma said of winning the American title. "We talked about [how] it's not so much the trophies and the watches or whatever you get. The hats, the shirts ... it's nice, but they don't really mean anything.
"The significance of this is you have a goal when you start Oct. 15. Our goal is to win the conference championship, and then the process is that. So when you actually do it, it re-enforces that our process is right."
One more trophy is in UConn's enormous case. Now, the Huskies' process is aimed toward Nashville. Whatever road they have to take to get there.