The NCAA tournament is a series of 63 questions that leave us with a single answer to the question: Which team will be national champion? But first, here are five more questions to prepare for the start of play.
1. How could Connecticut be stopped?
Let's set aside, for the time being, means supernatural and interventions divine.
The truth is that if Connecticut doesn't reach the Final Four, it will have fallen victim to the most significant upset in the women's tournament's history. That is what many people called Baylor's loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16 three years ago. Baylor was the No. 1 overall seed and defending national champion and had two experienced All-Americans, including one who was clearly a transformative talent even as her college career unfolded. That much sounds familiar.
But Baylor wasn't undefeated entering the tournament that season. Connecticut is this season. Baylor outscored its opponents that season by an average of 27.5 points per game. Connecticut has beaten foes by 39.7 points per game (Connecticut outscored nonconference opponents by 32.2 points per game this season). Brittney Griner and Odyssey Sims were going for a second title together. Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson are after their fourth.
As unlikely as what Shoni Schimmel and the Cardinals pulled off in Oklahoma City was -- in a tournament that once saw a No. 16 seed win a game, it surpassed everything -- it pales in comparison to the thought of a team other than Connecticut winning the Bridgeport regional.
How could Connecticut be stopped short of Indianapolis? It would help if a single challenger could be constructed from components of the other 15 teams.
UCLA's post scorer: Maryland pushed Connecticut as much as any opponent has, in part through Brionna Jones. It's one thing to accrue more rebounds than Connecticut; Florida State did that and still lost by 24 points. Maryland held its own on the boards and established a post presence through Jones, who scored 24 points on 12-of-14 shooting. It obviously hasn't hurt their record, but for all they have, the Huskies don't have the kind of interior presence brought by Tina Charles, Stefanie Dolson or even Kiah Stokes on the defensive end a year ago. UCLA's 6-foot-4 Monique Billings isn't always a prolific scorer, but like Jones, she is capable on any given night (for instance, 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting against USC).
BYU's 3-point shooting: How did Louisville beat Baylor three years ago? The same way Notre Dame hung around against Connecticut earlier this season. There is no better upset formula than shooting ridiculously well from the 3-point line. Unfortunately, planning for that is kind of like counting on lightning strikes as a source of electricity. There are more prolific 3-point teams than BYU, but the WCC regular-season champion has the ideal mix of quantity and quality. Its three top shooters convert at least 37 percent of their shots, and its best post player can step out and hit the occasional shot.
Duquesne's ball control: There is almost no way to prepare for Connecticut's pace -- not in the sense of "40 minutes of hell" full-court pressing, but just constant, unrelenting attention. No one player can solve that because the Huskies will make someone else handle the ball, but it helps to have someone calm at the helm (think of Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins at the height of the Big East rivalry). Few are better in that respect than Duquesne's April Robinson. She's a senior with good size and strength who isn't focused on getting her own shot, and she ranks 10th in the nation, one spot behind Jefferson, in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Texas' defense: No, it didn't go so well for the Longhorns when the two teams met in the tournament a season ago (105 points of not so well). But we've seen teams that can build their defense around a big shot-blocking presence hang with the Huskies (BYU and Jennifer Hamson in the 2014 tournament). Texas is better defensively than it was at the end of last season, and it still has Imani Boyette in the middle of things.
If one opponent had all the qualities spread across the Bridgeport bracket, Connecticut might have trouble getting to Indianapolis. But there is only one team in the tournament for which the greatest asset is its multitude of assets, and the Huskies won't play themselves.
2. Which No. 1 seed has the most difficult road to Indianapolis?
Although it would travel the fewest miles of any No. 1 seed, barely crossing a state line along the way, Notre Dame faces an on-court trek to Bankers Life Fieldhouse that is worthy of Lewis and Clark.
Granted, the Fighting Irish aren't the only top seed with work ahead of them. Although South Carolina, more than any team, has the size to neutralize the threat and would be at home, do you think Dawn Staley is excited about a potential second-round game against George Washington's Jonquel Jones, a player with every bit the WNBA potential of A'ja Wilson or Alaina Coates?
Nor are there easy options for Baylor, which will likely have some combination of Florida State, Texas A&M, Louisville and Oregon State blocking its path.
But assuming Notre Dame plays to its seed in the first two rounds, at home against No. 16 North Carolina A&T and the winner of No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 9 Indiana, the regional in Lexington could earn the Irish tickets back to South Bend just as easily as a pass to Indianapolis. Start with a Sweet 16 game against Stanford. An inglorious Pac-12 tournament exit notwithstanding, the Cardinal looked like a better team down the stretch than the one Notre Dame dispatched with ease in the Sweet 16 a season ago. The team was far better defensively and more cohesive offensively.
Survive that, and Notre Dame might face a scenario in which the Big Ten regular-season and tournament champion, a team with Final Four experience, is the preferred option. If the opponent isn't Maryland, with all the challenges posed by Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Brionna Jones & Co., it will likely be Kentucky on the court where that team plays many of its biggest games.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw's road to a sixth consecutive Final Four might be the most difficult of them all.
3. Where will the drama be in the first two rounds?
Tempe: No. 2 Arizona State vs. No. 15 New Mexico State, No. 7 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Green Bay
Who is the sympathetic character when a David squares off against a down-on-its-luck Goliath? The most fascinating game of the first round pits Tennessee, a stumbling giant, against Green Bay, the enduring giant-slayer. To understand their places in their respective ecosystems, major and mid-major, understand that these programs have 83 consecutive winning seasons between them. This matchup is likely to earn the right to play Arizona State and its at-times suffocating defense on its home court.
Meanwhile, the other game in Tempe also offers a story, as former USC coach Mark Trakh returns to Pac-12 territory with a 26-4 New Mexico State team that has NCAA tournament experience.
Louisville: No. 3 Louisville vs. No. 14 Central Arkansas, No. 6 DePaul vs. No. 11 James Madison
Start with the respective players of the year from the ACC (Louisville's Myisha Hines-Allen), Big East (DePaul's Chanise Jenkins) and Colonial (James Madison's Jazmon Gwathmey). DePaul had some curious losses along the way, but it also played Connecticut to a standstill for a half, pushed Notre Dame to the wire and didn't embarrass itself against Baylor. The Blue Demons could be a tough test for this young Louisville team, except there are no guarantees that the Big East team will get past a first-round opponent well-equipped to slow the game to a bumper-to-bumper defensive grind.
Syracuse: No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 12 Albany, No. 5 Florida vs. No. 13 Army
Put the entire site on upset alert. Syracuse and Florida, two teams without much recent experience when it comes to the weight of NCAA expectations, face mid-major opponents that have been building toward this opportunity with a senior star for four years. Army's Kelsey Minato (23.6 PPG) and Albany's Shereesha Richards (23.7) rank among the top four scorers in the bracket. Albany has habit of scaring favored seeds, having nearly upset North Carolina when Richards was a freshman and Duke a season ago. Even if the seeds hold, the Orange or Gators would add a pleasantly unfamiliar shade of orange to the Sweet 16.
4. Which team could crash the Final Four?
The chalk proved indelible a season ago, when all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. There is a perception that happens every year, and like most such things, it's not without some grounding in reality. Favorites do well in the women's tournament, clearly.
But the gathering of No. 1 seeds in Tampa a year ago marked just the second time in the past nine seasons that all four top seeds advanced. On occasion, most recently Maryland two years ago, teams make surprise runs to the semifinals. Since 2000, six teams seeded No. 4 or lower reached the Final Four, while another five teams seeded No. 3 did so.
The best bet to be added to that list is a team that doesn't have to leave home. Kentucky showed its potential with wins over Arizona State, Louisville and Duke early in the season (the last of those was admittedly not the test it seemed at the time). The Wildcats picked up momentum late in the season by beating Mississippi State, Missouri and Texas A&M in an eight-game win streak that ended only when they ran out of gas against South Carolina in the SEC semifinals. If we ignore what came between those two points, it's easy to chart a path from Lexington to Indianapolis, particularly because there are no connecting flights.
Kentucky's chance to reach the Final Four without leaving one of its two home is a distinct advantage, but it isn't the only reason to pick the Wildcats. Neither set of fans will appreciate the comparison, but just as Louisville followed first Angel McCoughtry and then Schimmel to the Final Four, Kentucky's Makayla Epps is the kind of player for whom March is made. She is an efficient offensive player who can score from all parts of the court, and it's tough for a defense to take her out of a game. While the roster is undeniably thin, it fits well around Epps, with 3-point shooters Janee Thompson and Maci Morris and capable frontcourt scorers Alexis Jennings and Evelyn Akhator.
5. Which players should you catch while you can?
Seeding suggests these players won't be around beyond the first four days. Each has the talent to change that -- or at least put on a memorable show while trying.
Tyra Buss, No. 9 seed Indiana: A small-town scoring legend straight out of "Hoosiers" in high school, Buss is now a big-time all-around player for what, not coincidentally, is one of the nation's most improved teams.
Kelsey Minato, No. 13 seed Army: The Steph Curry comparisons aren't out of line, given how the Patriot League's all-time leading scorer plays the game. She's top-five nationally in 3-pointers and 3-point accuracy.
Jonquel Jones, No. 8 seed George Washington: This team's seed is the product of games Jones missed, which makes a 6-foot-6 player with 3-point range and game-changing defensive reach a bracket-buster.
Brittney Martin, No. 7 seed Oklahoma State: A senior peaking at the right time, Martin is one of two players in the nation who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and she is the only one in this field.
Ellen Nystrom, No. 11 seed Colorado State: The committee didn't like one-loss Colorado State nearly as much as the Top 25 polls did. A 6-foot-1 Swedish guard who averages 10.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists, Nystrom will play the biggest role in determining which evaluation was correct.
Kelsey Plum, No. 7 seed Washington: What kind of knots does the tournament's leading scorer tie defenses in? She's fifth nationally in free throw percentage and also leads the nation in free throws made because teams can't stop fouling her.
Shereesha Richards, No. seed 12 Albany: Ask Tennessee (19 points, 10 rebounds) or USC (33 points) to name the mid-major part of this senior's game.
Courtney Williams, No. 6 seed South Florida: First or second on the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers, Williams also has more assists than turnovers. That's all-around talent.