Commentary

Sweet 16 nearly set

Originally Published: March 20, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

With just eight games left to play before we reach the Sweet 16, almost all our questions about the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament have been answered. Almost.

1. Will Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins or Brittney Griner rule Tuesday night?

Going by the unofficial scoring method of Kevin Durant's Twitter feed, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne won the first round in a landslide.

The All-American with the oft-told story stole the show with 39 points against Arkansas-Little Rock in her first national television appearance. Hitting inside, outside and pretty much anywhere she chose to stop and send the ball toward the basket, Delle Donne outscored the entire opposing lineup until Blue Hens coach Tina Martin pulled her barely beyond the midpoint of the second half to rest up for the second round.

[+] EnlargeElena Delle Donne
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireIf Delaware gets past Kansas, Elena Delle Donne and the Blue Hens will face Tennessee in their first Sweet 16.

But in the charismatic Diggins, who comes closer to matching Durant's Twitter following than any of her peers (and perhaps all of her peers put together) and the peerless Griner, who could make Durant work in the paint, Tuesday's second-round games showcase arguably the three most compelling players in the sport. Neither Diggins nor Griner had much work to do in first-round routs against Liberty and UC Santa Barbara, respectively, but Notre Dame's game against No. 8 seed California and Baylor's game against ninth-seeded Florida should at least make each break a sweat.

The Gators already stopped one star in her tracks just to get here, ending Ohio State All-American Samantha Prahalis' career in holding the senior to nine points and four assists. And while Cal freshman point guard Brittany Boyd (@ONEandONLYbboyd) trailed Diggins by roughly 159,000 Twitter followers as of Monday night, she looked a lot closer than that to matching Diggins' impact on the court when she put up 15 points, 8 assists and 6 steals in a first-round win against Iowa.

2. What's next for Delaware?

The opening round opened eyes to just what kind of talent we're witness to with Delle Donne, but did she convert skeptics who questioned whether a team from the Colonial Athletic Association really deserved a No. 3 seed? When even No. 2 seeds like Kentucky and Maryland struggled to first-round wins, the Blue Hens deserve credit for demolishing Arkansas-Little Rock on that team's home court.

But college sports are what they are, and that means any team that isn't in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC will win respect from a certain contingent of fans only by beating teams from those conferences (never mind that Delaware already did that by beating Penn State earlier this season). That makes No. 3 seed Delaware playing 11th-seeded Kansas in Little Rock a more compelling matchup than the seedings might otherwise suggest. Win this one to reach the first Sweet 16 in program history and Delle Donne mania takes off.

3. Will a favorite lose on the road?

[+] EnlargeMichigan/Oklahoma
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiSixth-seeded Oklahoma hosts 3-seed St. John's on Tuesday.

There might be nothing that confuses casual fans more when it comes to the women's tournament than the sight of weaker seeds playing at home against stronger seeds. Come to think of it, the feeling isn't that dissimilar for ardent fans, either. It's a compromise intended to bring fans into the stands, but it isn't pleasing anyone. And a night that promises to showcase the best women's college basketball has to offer with Delle Donne, Diggins and Griner in the spotlight also threatens to conclude with another round of insinuations about the bracket's competitive legitimacy.

In three of the four games that wrap up the second round, the weaker seed gets to play on its home court: No. 7 seed Vanderbilt hosting 2-seed Duke, No. 6 seed Oklahoma hosting third-seeded St. John's and 5-seed LSU hosting No. 4 seed Penn State.

In large part because of home-court advantage, it would be difficult to consider any result from these games an upset. Vanderbilt was 4-7 on the road this season but is 18-1 at home. Oklahoma? Just 5-7 on the road but 11-4 at home. LSU at least managed a winning road record (8-6), but it was a much better team in Baton Rouge (13-3 at home).

4. Which Cinderella will win an invite to the party in Raleigh?

St. Bonaventure won't appreciate the label, not after earning a No. 5 seed by sweeping the Atlantic 10 regular season and beating decidedly non-Cinderella programs like St. John's and West Virginia on the road. But whichever team wins between St. Bonaventure and 13-seed Marist ought to embrace the mantle of Sweet 16 fan favorite.

The Bonnies already beat the Red Foxes once this season, a 67-58 win at home in Olean, N.Y., a game that was tied with eight minutes to play, but that doesn't necessarily make them a heavy favorite for this game in Tallahassee, Fla. In fact, it's double-digit seed Marist and coach Brian Giorgis who are the experienced hands here. When last we saw the Red Foxes as a No. 13 seed, they were playing Tennessee in the Sweet 16 in 2007, and a win Tuesday would be the program's sixth in the NCAA tournament in the past seven seasons. For its part, St. Bonaventure needed overtime to get its first-ever NCAA tournament win in the first round against Florida Gulf Coast. The all-upstate pairing in the second round also pits two of the best coaches in the country working outside the power conferences in Giorgis and St. Bonaventure's Jim Crowley, ESPN.com's national coach of the year this season. Which brings us to …

5. Is someone auditioning for Austin?

That Gail Goestenkors felt compelled to resign at Texas for the basketball sin of merely making the NCAA tournament every year tells you all you need to know about how big a job is now up for grabs in Austin. The Longhorns might be third in the state at the moment behind Baylor and Texas A&M, but nobody questions the resources they will put toward changing that order. Throw out a handful of mainstays who aren't going anywhere, mostly those with multiple championship rings, and just about every other coach in the business is at least fair game for the rumor mill.

St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico has family ties to her current location in the Big Apple and a strong emotional investment in a program she built into a Big East contender, but when you land in the president's Final Four, you are going to attract some attention for high-profile openings. If not Barnes Arico, how about Georgia Tech's MaChelle Joseph, another coach whose career arc is still ascending and who made the Yellow Jackets postseason regulars.

And while Texas doesn't seem like a school willing to settle for someone else's assistant, the guy sitting next to Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Tuesday night, assistant Jonathan Tsipis, is overdue for a program of his own to run.

One thing that seems certain is Texas isn't going to want to hire a coach who just fell short of the Sweet 16 to replace a coach whose greatest crime was not making it that far in March. That could make Tuesday a job audition for some.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.