- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The coming weeks will provide 63 answers, or perhaps an answer in 63 parts, to the question of which is the best team in women's college basketball. But with the bracket in our hands and games still days away, let's start with five more questions about what awaits.
1. Which top seed faces the toughest road?
The shortest road from a regional site to the Final Four will also be the most difficult to travel for Tennessee.
Three of the top seven teams in the most recent AP Top 25. Four of the top 11 teams in the same poll.
One team that won the SEC tournament, another that shared the Big 12 regular-season title and came within a 3-pointer of adding the conference tournament crown. A third team that would be playing on its home court, where it draws some of the biggest crowds in the sport, and which lost one game all season to a team that wasn't Connecticut.
And we haven't even gotten to the team with Alyssa Thomas yet.
Louisville, the basketball team, taught us the dangers of looking too far ahead in the bracket last season when it stunned Baylor in the Sweet 16, but it's impossible to avoid thinking about what Louisville, the regional, might offer in two weeks if Tennessee, West Virginia, Louisville and Maryland, the top four seeds in order, make it there.
And if the overarching theme of the tournament is a potential championship game between unbeaten former Big East rivals Connecticut and Notre Dame, the more pressing subplot is what to make of the path Tennessee will have to travel to make the drive back down Interstate 65 to its first Final Four since Candace Parker was around.
The Lady Vols will presumably be able to navigate a first-round game against Northwestern State and a second-round game against either St. John's or Southern California, both games at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Maryland enters the tournament ranked No. 11. Tennessee's record against the 10 teams ahead of the Terrapins is a modest 3-3 (among the other No. 1 seeds, South Carolina is 2-3, Connecticut is 6-0 and Notre Dame is 4-0).
The only good news for fans of the Lady Vols is their team need play only one of either West Virginia or Louisville. That won't cheers fans of those two teams who spent the days leading up to the bracket wondering about their own chances for a No. 1 seed but now face such a major impediment to even playing against a top seed.
If you want star power, this part of the bracket offers Thomas, Shoni Schimmel, Meighan Simmons and more. If you want players waiting for a chance to make themselves stars, it has West Virginia's Bria Holmes, Tennessee's Isabelle Harrison and Maryland's Lexie Brown. If defense is your thing, it has three of the top 39 in the country by field goal percentage with West Virginia, Tennessee and Louisville. Rebounding? All are in the top 41, with Maryland third and Tennessee fourth.
But if you want an easy road to Nashville, don't take I-65.
2. Which team could crash the party in Nashville?
Chalk has the permanence of history behind it in the women's tournament, but whether the surprises are mild (2-seeds California, Texas A&M and Notre Dame advancing in recent seasons) or more major (5-seed Louisville a season ago or 4-seeds like Baylor in 2010 and Rutgers in 2007), it can be erased along the path to the Final Four.
For all the reasons discussed above, it's possible the regional in Louisville will serve up something other than a No. 1 seed. But good luck figuring out which one is the best bet to deny Tennessee.
If you're looking for a team that could go against history, it can't hurt to go with one that hasn't been around for much of it. North Carolina -- the No. 4 seed in the Stanford Regional -- can look very good, as it did when it beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium or Maryland in the ACC tournament, and very young, as it did when it lost to Syracuse, Miami and Georgia Tech in succession or Virginia Tech just a few weeks ago. But a 4-seed that always plays like a 4-seed probably isn't going to get to the Final Four.
A 4-seed that occasionally plays like a 1-seed might just do so at the right time.
It helps that we've already seen North Carolina beat South Carolina on a neutral court, a December game that looks now like a potential preview of a Sweet 16 game in California. The Tar Heels didn't even get a signature performance out of Diamond DeShields in that game. She was good, but 34 points and 19 rebounds from the frontcourt of Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel were equally important.
At its best, that's what North Carolina does, spread the wealth and spread the court, with the added bonus of having an individual talent who can take over a game on any given night.
At times the outside shooting goes missing. Other times it's the inside game that recedes or the ball control that disintegrates. It's a young team, after all.
A young team that on its best night could beat South Carolina and Stanford. Of such are March surprises constructed.
3. Where might the first-round upsets be?
• Nos. 13-16 seeds (10-320 all-time record)
Best bet: All but one of those wins came from 13-seeds, so start on that line. Nebraska is the only 4-seed that isn't playing at home in the first two rounds, and 13-seed Fresno State has a much shorter trip to Los Angeles. But the Huskers are still at a reasonable facsimile of full strength. The same can't be said for Purdue, which has done a remarkable job of winning without injured senior guard KK Houser, though at some point it has to miss all that she brought to the table. Both Bowling Green and Central Michigan were competitive with Purdue earlier this season, and MAC peer Akron is peaking at the right time. Even in West Lafayette, Ind., its pace behind Rachel Tecca and Hanna Luburgh could test the favorite.
• No. 12 seeds (21-96 all-time record)
Best bet: There is one big reason BYU could cause problems for NC State, but we'll get to more on center Jennifer Hamson in a bit. In addition to their presence in the post, the Cougars enter the first-round game in Los Angeles as one of the nation's better 3-point shooting teams (35th overall and 16th among teams in the tournament). NC State ranked near the bottom of the ACC in 3-point defense and isn't the kind of team that is going to physically push around a WCC opponent. BYU's Lexi Eaton is a streaky shooter, but if she's on, look out.
• No. 11 seeds (39-96 all-time record)
Best bet: If Kirby Burkholder's name was Elena Delle Donne, would James Madison still be an 11-seed? All right, that's not fair. Burkholder isn't Delle Donne, and we might not see another college scorer like the latter in our lifetime at any level, let alone the mid-major level. But is James Madison's résumé really that much worse than Delaware's in recent seasons? The Dukes cruised through the Colonial with but one loss, took Vanderbilt to overtime at home, North Carolina to the wire in Chapel Hill, and beat St. John's in Queens. They rebound well for a mid-major, take care of the ball, defend well and have multiple scoring options. Now first-round foe Gonzaga knows how all its opponents felt.
• No. 10 seeds (41-108 all-time record)
Best bet: Florida State has Natasha Howard, who could pose big problems in the post, but it has to play Iowa State in Ames. Georgia Tech gets LSU in Baton Rouge. Fordham and Oklahoma, on the other hand, play on neutral courts, a more attractive proposition. Picked in the preseason to win the Big 12, Oklahoma never did find the consistency to live up to those expectations, but putting aside the final scores, it put itself in position to beat Louisville and West Virginia and beat Iowa State and Oklahoma State on the road. It just feels like Aaryn Ellenberg, Morgan Hook and Nicole Griffin have one more good game in them as they face DePaul in Durham, N.C.
4. Where is the best place to be for the first two rounds?
• Gold: Iowa City, Iowa: If we can cheat, let's lump together the sites in Iowa City and Ames, about a two-hour drive away with games on opposite days, and just immerse yourself in a basketball smorgasbord. Iowa City offers both short- and long-term value. Start with a compelling first-round game between host Iowa and perennial thorn-in-the-side Marist. This is one of the most potent offensive teams Brian Giorgis has had in his long run at the school in Poughkeepsie, a group that twice hit 100 points and regularly scored better than 80. Now it faces an Iowa team that is at its best playing quick and playing offense. The winner of that likely gets third-seeded Louisville, which won't be thrilled about the number. Will the Cardinals use the seeding slight to launch another us-against-the-world postseason run? We'll start to find out in Iowa City.
• Silver: Chapel Hill, N.C.: Again, what you want out of a good first-round site is the potential for some upsets but also the possibility to see the potential launch of a long tournament run. Chapel Hill sets up perfectly on both counts. Start with the two first-round games featuring 4-seed North Carolina and 5-seed Michigan State, teams that at times played much better than those seeds suggest but also suffered some puzzling setbacks. The Tar Heels face UT Martin, no stranger to tough assignments after playing Notre Dame in the first round a season ago. Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome (43.1 points per game between them) might not win, but they will go down hoisting shots. The Spartans get Hampton, which finally got a seed worthy of its performance in its fifth consecutive appearance. The Big Ten team did well moving on without suspended point guard Kiana Johnson, but Hampton's pressure defense will be a pain to contend with. Avoid the upsets and the Tar Heels and Spartans would play one of the more compelling second-round games.
• Bronze: Baton Rouge, La.: West Virginia shouldn't need a reminder that it can't take first-round opponent Albany for granted. Granted, the Mountaineers had enough to worry about with Elena Delle Donne in a first-round loss a season ago in Newark, Del., but the other game in that pod featured Albany scaring the daylights out of North Carolina. So while we've never seen a 2-seed lose a first-round game in the women's tournament, this one could at least offer some entertainment. And that's the worst bet for a good game in Baton Rouge, which also features a first-round game between 7-seed LSU and 10-seed Georgia Tech. If LSU wins, which is no given against a team that actually had a better record on the road in ACC play than it did at home, it sets up the ethically dubious but often compelling scene of a favorite forced to play a true road game. Asya Bussie and Bria Holmes against Theresa Plaisance and Jeanne Kenney? Sign me up.
Who are five players to catch while you can?
Kim Demmings, Wright State: You might have missed the Horizon League final between Wright State and Green Bay -- even Demmings missed most of the first half because of foul trouble. But the Horizon League player of the year took over the game in the second half and scored 22 points after halftime. Down 10 points at one point early in the half, Wright State instead came away with its first ever win in Green Bay. Demmings can score off the dribble or at the 3-point line. It is no insult to Kentucky to say the best guard on the court in the first round may be in the other uniform.
Jennifer Hamson, BYU: NC State saw just about every kind of player there is to see over the course of an ACC season, but it didn't see a 6-foot-7 center with the kind of agility and athleticism Hamson possesses. Second in the nation in blocks entering the tournament, Hamson also averages 18.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and shoots 72 percent from the free throw line -- where she tends to spend a lot of time. A volleyball All-American who put that career on hold to focus solely on basketball this season, she is as good as any center in the country.
Tyaunna Marshall, Georgia Tech: Elite scorers for teams in this seed range tend to be inefficient scorers, players who pile up points on a high volume of touches but lack an all-around game. Marshall is the complete opposite. One of the ACC's leading scorers at 19.6 points per game, she not only shot 48 percent from the field but committed just 49 turnovers (against 93 assists) in 1,000 minutes on the court. And we haven't even gotten to the rebounds and steals she comes up with. Enjoy one of the game's underrated all-around seniors while you can.
Rachel Theriot, Nebraska: The Huskers should make it back to Lincoln for the tournament's second week, by seed, but there are no givens when a 4-seed plays a 5-seed in the second round (or potentially Hamson and an upset-minded BYU). So keep an eye on Theriot, who is just getting started as one of the nation's elite point guards. One of those players who seems to be able to move at a casual pace and still be a step ahead of defenders, she bettered predecessor Lindsey Moore in both assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio, while picking her moments as a scoring threat.
Ebony Rowe, Middle Tennessee: She is sixth among active players in scoring and fourth in rebounding. The only other player in the top 10 in both categories at the moment? Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike. That's good company to keep, and it's company Rowe earned both on and off the court. Like Ogwumike, the would-be engineer is as good in the classroom as she is on the court. Her GPA won't help against Oregon State, but what will is her ability to provide a consistent scoring presence for a Middle Tennessee State team that otherwise relies on defense to create points.
Which No. 1 seed has the toughest test (Tennessee)? Which team might rock the chalk (UNC)? We look at five burning questions off the women's NCAA tournament bracket.