Connecticut is a No. 1 seed for the sixth straight season and 15th time overall. Who might stand in the way of the Huskies reaching a 13th Final Four?
1. Kudos go to two former players of the same era who both have proven successful as head coaches. Notre Dame grad Coquese Washington, who turned 41 in January, has Penn State back in the NCAA field for the second year in a row after a five-year absence. This time, Penn State comes in as the Big Ten's regular-season champion.
Meanwhile, new mom Nikki Caldwell -- who gave birth to a daughter last week and will turn 40 in May -- led LSU to an at-large bid in her first season in Baton Rouge, La., after her three years of progress at UCLA.[+] EnlargeMary Langenfeld/US PresswireGreen Bay's Julie Wojta is one of just seven players in the nation with 100 assists and 100 steals, and she's the only one also averaging 10 rebounds.
No. 4 seed Penn State will open with 13-seed UTEP, the Conference USA champions whose only three losses this season -- to UC Santa Barbara, Arizona State and Rice -- are games in which the Miners haven't reached 50 points. So you can guess what the Lady Lions will try to do to them.
No. 5 seed LSU played well down the stretch of this season, even giving Tennessee -- Caldwell's alma mater -- a challenge in the SEC tournament final in Nashville. To advance to a potential second-round matchup with Penn State, LSU will have to get past Mountain West champ San Diego State, which upset Texas on the Longhorns' home court during the Aztecs' Sweet 16 run in 2010.
2. No. 7 seed Green Bay and 10th-seeded Iowa State, which meet in the first round in Ames, Iowa, both make a lot of 3-pointers and spread them out amongst teammates. The Phoenix hit 209 from long range this season, with five players making at least 20 each. The Cyclones made 218 3-pointers, with three players sinking at least 40 and one at 38.
The one Cyclone who doesn't shoot the 3 -- yes, there is actually such a player at Iowa State -- is Chelsea Poppens, who's 1-for-6 from behind the arc. But she's the team's leading scorer and rebounder at 14.3 and 10.7.
And if you haven't heard of it, Green Bay, beware of the phenomenon called "Hilton Magic." The Cylcones' Hilton Coliseum tends to have a bad effect on visitors.
3. No. 8 seed Kansas State realistically might not stick around for too long in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats face Ivy League champ Princeton in the first round, then would meet UConn in the second round (barring the upset of the century by Prairie View).
But just the fact that the Wildcats are in the field is pretty good for K-State, considering that, in the preseason, the team was picked to finish ninth in the now 10-team Big 12.
Incidentally, also in the Kingston Regional is Gonzaga, for whom former K-State guard Taelor Karr now plays. She's a starter who averages 7.6 points for the No. 11 seed Bulldogs. Karr parted ways with K-State last season after averaging 10.3 points for the Wildcats. She was immediately granted eligibility by the NCAA to play at Gongaza this season, rather than having to sit out a transfer year. That's something you almost never see happen. So why did it this time? Seems the NCAA believed Karr that her leaving the Wildcats was Kansas State's decision, not hers. -- Mechelle Voepel
Three players to watch
Shenise Johnson, Miami: The only thing Johnson hasn't been able to do consistently in her college career is singlehandedly will her team to big wins on the road, so it's fitting that one of the most complete players in college basketball might get a chance to do that if the Hurricanes meet Gonzaga in a potential second-round game in Spokane. But Johnson is hardly to blame for the team's road woes in recent seasons. In fact, she's the main reason the formerly moribund program had expectations in the first place. Among ACC players this season, Johnson ranked second in scoring, third in assists, first in assist-to-turnover ratio, first in steals and seventh in rebounding. She just missed the top 10 in field-goal percentage, but her 2-point field-goal percentage of 49.8 percent would have been good for eighth in the conference. She has earned the green she wears because there is no more energy-efficient superstar.
Lauren Polansky, Princeton: Part of the joy of the NCAA tournament is finally getting a look at star players for whom statistics and words have to suffice during the regular season, a group to which Princeton standout Niveen Rasheed clearly belongs. But part of the joy is also the spotlight that shines on players whose value can only be appreciated in person. Only a junior but already the two-time Ivy League defensive player of the year, Polansky is in the latter camp. And if Princeton, making its third consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, is going to make some noise in Bridgeport by winning a game and at least challenging top seed Connecticut in a potential second-round game, it will be because of both. On her recruiting visit, Polansky wowed, and perhaps ticked off, future teammates by preventing anyone from getting the ball past half court in pickup games. She hasn't stopped defending for 94 feet, an effort worth watching this weekend.
Julie Wojta, Green Bay: How many other teams have a player for whom they run an alley-oop play? Green Bay's star has a typical mid-major story, largely ignored in recruiting coming out of the tiny Wisconsin town of Francis Creek, but she is anything but the typical mid-major athlete. A 6-footer with WNBA speed and strength who came to Green Bay as a guard, she is now effectively the post for a team that lacks a true center, yet she's as comfortable shooting 3-pointers and blowing by defenders off the dribble as she is down low. She's one of just seven players in the nation with 100 assists and 100 steals, and she's the only one also averaging 10 rebounds (it's safe to say she's also the only one who once guarded Brittney Griner in an NCAA tournament game). All of that and Wojta is also No. 19 nationally in scoring, averaging 19.8 points and shooting 52 percent from the field and 42 percent from the 3-point line. -- Graham Hays
Best first-round game
(8) Kansas State vs. (9) Princeton: Playing in its third consecutive NCAA tournament under coach Courtney Banghart, Princeton (24-4) is hoping that experience translates into the program's first NCAA victory. The Ivy League's only tournament win came in 1998, when 16-seed Harvard famously toppled top-seeded Stanford.
Kansas State (19-13) slipped into this season's field behind the strength of its schedule, having played 11 games against tournament teams. Kansas State will attempt to overwhelm the Tigers with athleticism and big-game experience, which they got plenty of in the Big 12. Guard Brittany Chambers averages 14.3 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Wildcats, while forward Jalana Childs leads the team in scoring at 14.5 points per game.
The Tigers have pinpointed K-State's weaknesses (transition defense and poor shooting) and are focused on exploiting them. Banghart's team features three double-digit scorers, led by forward Niveen Rasheed's 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. -- Kate Fagan
Upsets to watch for
(11) Gonzaga over (6) Rutgers (first round): With the Zags playing on their home floor, this might not feel like a huge upset, but Rutgers is still the bigger, more physical team. On the flip side, each offensive possession for the Scarlet Knights is a challenge, and a Gonzaga strength is its ability to score easily. If the Zags can find a way to do it against Rutgers' always formidable defense, this one might not even be that close.
(7) Green Bay over (2) seed Kentucky (second round): If styles truly do make great fights, this is the classic counterpuncher versus slugger. If the Phoenix's disciplined, more half-court-oriented approach can win out over the Wildcats' desire to press and force turnovers, it could be a tense day for Kentucky. -- Charlie Creme
Projected regional semifinals
(4) Penn State vs. (1) Connecticut: Even with an uncharacteristic four losses on their docket heading into the tournament, it's hard not to imagine the Huskies -- with four starters who played in last year's Final Four -- cruising through their first two-round games down the road in Bridgeport. Connecticut is 5-1 all-time in Bridgeport.
The only question mark is senior Tiffany Hayes, who has been playing through two stress fractures in her right foot and was in a boot early this week. But Geno Auriemma is using the 10-day break to rest his veteran guard. Still, neither a strong Princeton team nor up-and-down Kansas State should pose a true challenge.
Penn State, the Big Ten champion, is making its second consecutive tournament appearance for the first time since a run of seven in a row from 1999-2005. Before losing to Purdue in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, Penn State had won eight in row. Sophomore Maggie Lucas comes into the tournament averaging 19.1 points a game.
(3) Miami vs. (2) Kentucky: The Hurricanes, who have reached the Sweet 16 once since 1992, have their highest-seed ever and are going to have to overcome the longest journey in the field to advance to the regional, starting the tournament in Spokane and facing the possibility of having to face host Gonzaga in the second round. But Gonzaga is not quite the team it was last season when the Bulldogs ran to the Elite Eight with Courtney Vandersloot at the helm, and Miami should have the advantage with its star senior guard tandem of Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson.
Kentucky has a No. 2 seed for the first time since 1982 and will have to get past host Iowa State, assuming the Cyclones can get past a hot Green Bay team in the opening round. Iowa State is 10-2 in NCAA play on its home floor. The Wildcats are led by junior A'dia Mathies, averaging 15.7 points a game. -- Michelle Smith
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2012 WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR