- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
The Women's Final Four is in danger of getting a little repetitive.
Baylor is going for its second straight title and third appearance in three years.
Notre Dame has been to the title game each of the past two seasons but come up empty.
Connecticut and Stanford are in a race to see which can be the first in tournament history to reach six straight Final Fours.
All four are No. 1 seeds once again. Can anyone out there break up the monotony, put a jolt of change into the sameness of it all?
There are some teams lurking, teams with talent and experience, with good balance inside and out but precious little frame of reference for playing all the way into April.
Now is as good a time as any to break through.
No. 2 seed Kentucky
Biggest potential roadblock: Delaware in the Sweet 16
The path is clear if: The Wildcats can find their offensive groove again. Kentucky shot just 35.7 percent from the floor in its loss to Texas A&M in the SEC title game, opening the second half by missing 19 of its first 23 shots.
That can't happen in this tournament.
DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker need to score inside for the Wildcats to complement the play of two-time SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies out on the perimeter. Mathies has scored in double figures in 30 of 32 games this season and a streak of 23 in a row.
We've always known the Wildcats can play defense. This season, Kentucky rounded out its résumé with some of the highest scoring in the country. But can it score enough to keep up with the most offensively talented teams in the tournament field? That question will determine whether Kentucky can make its first appearance in the Final Four.
No. 2 seed Cal
Biggest potential roadblock: No. 7 Texas Tech in the second round in Lubbock. The Lady Raiders are 14-3 at home this season.
The path is clear if:
The Bears are able to recapture their mojo after ugly loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. Cal is strong enough inside to be able to get through the early rounds with lots of production in the paint.
But it won't get the Bears all the way to New Orleans.
Senior guard Layshia Clarendon, who has been Cal's steadiest player all season, will have to get hot from the perimeter as the Bears go deeper into the bracket.
Point guard Brittany Boyd will have to score more and the Bears will have to be better than average from the free throw line, where they are shooting 61.9 percent this season. Giving away free points in the NCAA tournament is best way to punch a quick ticket home.
It is on the defensive end that Cal could claim the program's first Final Four bid. The Bears suffocated Stanford when the two teams played at Maples Pavilion back on Jan. 13, shutting off the 3-point shooting that gives the Cardinal momentum and Chiney Ogwumike room to breathe underneath.
The Bears have been allowing opponents 56.8 points a game. They might even have to be a little better than that to get to the Big Easy.
No. 2 Tennessee
Biggest potential roadblock: Well, Baylor. There isn't a bigger roadblock for any team in the entire tournament. And based on the 76-53 result between the two teams earlier this season, this might look on paper like too big a hill to climb for the Vols.
The path is clear if: Tennessee plays like the gutty, determined, healthy team that has wins over North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Vanderbilt, LSU and Texas A&M and not the team that enters the tournament with two losses in three games.
Health is everything for Tennessee, which used the week between the SEC tournament and NCAA opener to rest and heal. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison, who has missed the past three games with a right knee injury, should be good to go in Knoxville on Saturday.
While the Vols are the fourth-highest-scoring team in the country heading into the tournament, defense and rebounding will be everything to Tennessee should coach Holly Warlick aim to lead the program to its first Final Four since its last national title win, back in 2008.
No. 3 seed Penn State
Biggest potential roadblock: LSU in the second round in Baton Rouge
The path is clear if: The Lady Lions can avoid another dismal shooting night like the one that knocked them out of the Big Ten tournament against Michigan State in the semifinals. Penn State hadn't shot that poorly in a game since 1996.
Maggie Lucas is the hot hand after hitting seven 3-pointers in Penn State's last game and she has 96 for the season, but Lucas has plenty of capable help in point guard Alex Bentley, who is averaging more than 14 points a game.
Penn State went 6-1 against ranked teams this season, proving it has the mettle to play in big games, the only loss coming against Connecticut.
No. 4 seed Maryland
Biggest potential roadblock: Connecticut in the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport. The big upset for the Terps has to come fairly early in the tournament. Sending the Huskies home at this point would be an historic feat.
The path is clear if: Alyssa Thomas and Tianna Hawkins can bring their A-game and stay on the floor. Foul trouble could end Maryland's hopes quickly considering that the Terps are down to a six-player rotation in most games after a series of injuries and illnesses has stripped the roster of its depth.
But the talent that is on the floor is plentiful. Thomas, the two-time ACC Player of the Year, and Hawkins have been Maryland's offensive bookends, each averaging better than 18 points a game.
Thomas is coming off an epic performance at the ACC tournament in which she posted the event's first triple-double, with 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Considering all of the tumult Maryland has faced -- losing guards Brene Moseley and Lauren Mincy to season-ending knee injuries -- the Terps have four wins over ranked teams this season and the potential to jumble the bracket in a big way.
16dBonnie D. Ford