First impressions of the 2012 bracket
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said after the Big 12 final that her team's attitude was business-like confident. So much so that if the Lady Bears had been sent to play their first-round games at Texas A&M, they would have essentially said, "Yeah, whatever. Bring it on."
Baylor has been No. 1 in the polls for most of the year and is the only undefeated team in the field. The Lady Bears (34-0) are beating their opponents by an average of 27.2 points and have had only five games with a single-digit victory margin.
Saturday, they won the Big 12 tournament title game by the largest margin in the event's 16-year history (23 points), and that was with superstar Brittney Griner held to season-lows in points (11) and rebounds (three).
So is Baylor as ready as it can be for this Big Dance? As Julianne Moore would say in her Sarah Palin/"Game Change" character, "You betcha." But look who could potentially be waiting for Baylor in the regional final in Des Moines, Iowa: No. 2 seed Tennessee.
We could write a book on the history between Mulkey and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt; but, today, we'll keep it to the overall bracket. Will this be the first time since 1989 that all four No. 1 seeds make it to the Final Four? It's logical to assume that, considering how Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford and Connecticut have separated themselves from the rest of the field all season.
It's so logical that I just couldn't bring myself to pick it that way. What the heck, I thought, take a flier and go with No. 2 seed Maryland to break up the Gang of Four. That means Notre Dame fans will want to print out my pick (and that of bracketologist Charlie Creme) and do a violent leprechaun dance on them. We both went out on a limb for the Terps to make it to Denver.
With that in mind, I consider Raleigh as the toughest of the regions, although there's no consensus on that topic among us ESPNers, either. I was leaning hard toward Des Moines, but my reasoning crept over to Raleigh. If seeds hold, it's Notre Dame (Big East regular-season champ), Maryland (ACC tournament champ), Texas A&M (defending national champ) and Georgia (the Dogs finished third in the rugged SEC, which has eight teams in the field.)
If you're doubting Texas A&M, that's understandable, considering the Aggies had 10 losses and were 11-7 in Big 12 play. But three of those defeats were against Baylor. Yes, the Aggies also lost twice during the season against Texas, but that's because they had rare encounters with the "good" Longhorns.
The "bad" Horns showed up for the Big 12 tournament, stinking up Municipal Auditorium in an 81-58 first-round loss to Texas Tech. But that brick-and-air-ball fest didn't push Texas out of the NCAA field, keeping coach Gail Goestenkors' tournament appearances streak alive at 18, including the past five with Texas. However, Goestenkors hasn't advanced past the second round with the Longhorns. As the No. 9 seed in the Fresno regional with No. 1 Stanford looming, it seems very unlikely to happen this year. That said, just getting into the tournament after an 18-13 season should make Texas pleased.
• Here is a look at other teams that should be happy with this bracket:
Kansas: Like the Longhorns, the No. 11 seed Jayhawks went 8-10 in the Big 12. Unlike Texas, Kansas has not gotten the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee in a long, long time. This will be the Jayhawks' first NCAA appearance since 2000. There has been a lot of frustration and heartache for coach Bonnie Henrickson and KU players/fans since she took over the program in 2004-05, including the loss of standout post Carolyn Davis to a knee injury in February. Yet, finally, the committee tossed the Jayhawks a life preserver, and their first-round foe will be very familiar: No. 6 seed Nebraska. The teams were conference mates forever until the Huskers' move to the Big Ten this season.
Stanford: The Cardinal always feel underappreciated and underestimated. They should also feel overburdened, as they again spent the season propping up their underwhelming conference. The Pac-12 has a lot to be boastful about in women's sports, where league schools are the reigning champs in volleyball (UCLA), soccer (Stanford) and softball (Arizona State). The Pac-12 has also won six consecutive softball titles and 24 of the 30 NCAA tournaments.
In women's hoops, it's been a different story. The league's last NCAA title came from Stanford 20 years ago, and the Cardinal are the only league school to make the Final Four since Southern Cal in 1986. Stanford will be going for its 11th Final Four trip and can't really complain about its path.
Yes, the Cardinal will have to move three time zones ahead with early rounds in Norfolk, Va.; but if they advance, they're back relatively close to home in Fresno. If seeds hold, they'll be joined by No. 2 Duke, No. 3 St. John's and No. 4 Purdue. Even if seeds don't hold, there's no one in the region Stanford shouldn't be favored against. However, if they make it to Denver, Baylor could be waiting for them.
(Oh, and by the way, Pac-12 why make the official announcement today, of all days, about the league tournament's future move to Seattle's KeyArena? It's a good idea, especially trying to capitalize on the enthusiasm for women's hoops in the city thanks to the WNBA's Storm. But is Selection Monday really the best day to announce it? Isn't this the conference that always gripes about being ignored? Maybe with only two teams in the field, the Pac-12 thought it needed to do something else Monday to stay busy.)
Maryland: Part of my so-called logic in thinking the Terps could make it to the Final Four is the comfort factor. They're at home in College Park for the early rounds, and if they advance to Raleigh, that's a trip they are used to in ACC play. If it comes to an Elite Eight showdown against No. 1 Notre Dame, Maryland's physical strength and rebounding prowess should match up well against the Irish.
• Now, as for the teams that are the least happy after seeing the bracket -- of those that made it into the field, that is -- here are three:
Duke: The No. 2 seed Blue Devils saw the NCAA chances of their rival, North Carolina, go down in flames and had to be thinking -- like everyone else except the committee -- they were the perfect substitute host for Chapel Hill, N.C.
Instead, the committee apparently is hoping to set a record for worst early-round attendance by shipping Duke to Nashville and bringing No. 4 Georgia Tech, No. 5 Georgetown, No. 12 Fresno State and No. 13 Sacred Heart to Carmichael Auditorium. We hear tickets are going like hotcakes Lisa's concrete-textured hotcakes from "Green Acres," that is.
The committee managed to simultaneously torpedo Chapel Hill's attendance while also forcing the ACC's regular-season champion to potentially face either host Vanderbilt or nearby Middle Tennessee in the second round. Yes, the Blue Devils were upset in the ACC quarterfinals, but for crying out loud
If Duke does survive to the Sweet 16, it then goes much further west, to Fresno.
Ohio State: As mentioned, the Buckeyes ended up with the number that they call the dreaded "snowman" in golf: No. 8. How did this happen? Creme projected the Buckeyes as a No. 5 seed, and there's no way he is that far off.
Ohio State (25-6) finished second in the Big Ten, plus has the league's player of the year in guard Samantha Prahalis. The Buckeyes did lose twice to Nebraska in their past three games, and the Huskers are a No. 6 seed. But still, an eight seed and being set up to face Baylor in the second round? That's if Ohio State can get past No. 9 seed Florida in the first round.
About the only thing the Buckeyes have to be glad about is they get to stay in Ohio (they're placed in Bowling Green); but they probably would have been happier to play on another planet than to be in this predicament.
Rutgers: The No. 6 seed Scarlet Knights are one of the unfortunate teams that will to have to overcome geography just to get out of the first round. Rutgers will travel far west to Spokane, Wash., to face No. 11 Gonzaga, which made it to the Elite Eight last year when playing at home. If Rutgers gets past the Zags and No. 3 Miami tops No. 14 Idaho State, the Scarlet Knights and Hurricanes will also feel a zillion miles from home in the second round.