- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The women's version of March Madness tips off at 11 a.m. ET Saturday at 16 sites around the country, with early rounds concluding Monday and Tuesday. Here are 10 things to look for/ponder/debate during the opening steps of the Big Dance:
1. Leagues of legends?
Who said this: "I think we have the toughest conference in the country. We beat each other up. On any given night, anybody can win. You have to bring your A-game."
Answer: Almost every coach, although some do add the qualifier "one of the toughest conferences" because they know that saying the toughest is over the top.
UConn's Geno Auriemma of the new American ("We have no real geographic link, but we're all in the United States!") Athletic Conference isn't going to say this about that amalgamation of orphans, castoffs, left-behinds and biding-their-times. But he doesn't need to. He can just say, We got Breanna, and you don't. (Hmmm ... rings a bell, doesn't it?)
So which league really was the toughest to play in this season? Hah, as if there could be a consensus on that. But the conferences that received the most NCAA bids were the SEC and ACC, with eight each. We'll see how many live on to the Sweet 16.
2. Speaking of Breanna ...
UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart did not play in the Huskies' NCAA tournament opener last year because of a sore Achilles tendon. Still, the Huskies somehow muddled through without her in a 105-37 victory over Idaho.
In UConn's subsequent five games, Stewart had a combined 104 points and 31 rebounds. She was the most outstanding player of the Women's Final Four.
Let's see what kind of numbers she produces in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Starting with Prairie View (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET Sunday), which won the SWAC's automatic bid but has a 14-17 record coming into the NCAA tournament.
To make it more interesting, how about Stewart playing 1-on-5? At least for one half?
3. Quick quiz
In honor of the Women's Final Four city: Which team won the NCAA women's hoops championship the year that the Indigo Girls' song "Nashville" was released? Hint, if needed: That song was on the "Rites of Passage" album. Answer below.
4. Hail the newbies
Five schools are in the Division I NCAA tournament for the first time. So here's a big welcome to North Dakota, South Dakota, Akron, Wright State and Winthrop.
Meanwhile, the program breaking the longest drought from its previous appearance is Fordham, which was in the NCAA field just once before, in 1994.
(Incidentally, Breanna Stewart made her "first appearance" in 1994 too. She was born in August of that year.)
5. The one and only
Just one program has appeared in all 32 previous NCAA tournament fields: Tennessee. The Lady Vols are a No. 1 seed this year for the 22nd time, and they are seeking their 19th appearance in the Women's Final Four.
Tennessee has advanced at least as far as the Sweet 16 every year except one. That was 2009, when Ball State stunned an admittedly subpar (by Tennessee standards) Lady Vols team, 71-55 in the first round.
The odds of a Tennessee first-round loss this year are approximately 999 trillion-billion-gazillion to 1, not that we want to make No. 16 seed Northwestern State (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET Saturday) feel bad. But the Southland champs have to go against Tennessee on the Lady Vols' home court, Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee did, however, lose three home games this season: to LSU, Notre Dame and Kentucky. So maybe we should stop being so negative toward Northwestern State's chances. Let's say 998 trillion-billion-gazillion to 1.
6. Both perspectives
Undefeated Notre Dame is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row and fourth time overall. But the Irish have been on the other end of the spectrum as well.
In their first NCAA appearance, in 1992, the Irish were a No. 12 seed and had a 14-16 record. They were also as low as a 12-seed in '96. And they were an 11-seed in 2003, but made it to the Sweet 16 after upsetting No. 3 seed Kansas State in the second round.
The Irish start this year with Robert Morris (ESPN, 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday), the Northeast Conference champ that last made an NCAA appearance in 2008.
7. States of hoops frenzy, Part 1
Which state has the most teams in the NCAA women's field this year? This one might surprise you. It is a huge state, population-wise, but you don't necessarily think of it right away for women's basketball prowess. No team from this state has ever made it to the Final Four.
It's ... New York, which has six teams in the field: Syracuse, Fordham, St. John's, Army, Marist and Albany. And they're all on the right half of the bracket, in the Notre Dame and Louisville regions. The best seed among the New York teams is Syracuse at No. 6.
(And since we kind of have a Breanna Stewart theme going, we should mention that she's a native of Syracuse, N.Y.)
The states with the second most NCAA teams? Tennessee and California each have five.
8. States of hoops frenzy, Part 2
The early rounds will be contested in 13 states this year, with three of them having "doubles" (on alternate dates, which is convenient if you want to attend both).
The closest double is on Tobacco Road in North Carolina, as both Duke and UNC are hosting games. You could bicycle between those sites if you wanted.
The second closest is in Texas, with Baylor (Waco) and Texas A&M (College Station), a 90-minute drive.
Then there's Iowa, where Iowa State (Ames) and Iowa (Iowa City) will host. That's about a two-hour drive. And if you take Interstate 80 for that trip, you'll pass by the exit sign for What Cheer.
Which really is the name of a very small Iowa town, not just a question that spirit squads ask their captains.
9. Underdog watch
Any chance a double-digit seed survives into the Sweet 16? It's a tall order, especially if it has to play on a higher-seeded team's home court.
But here are some possibilities: No. 11 seed James Madison (vs. sixth-seeded Gonzaga), No. 10 Oklahoma (vs. 7-seed DePaul), No. 11 Florida (6-seed Dayton), No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast (vs. 5-seed Oklahoma State), No. 10 Georgia Tech (at 7-seed LSU).
10. Quiz answer
Stanford won the NCAA title the year the Indigo Girls' song "Nashville" was released, 1992. The album "Rites of Passage" -- an all-time favorite -- actually came out in May '92, a little more than a month after Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer's "Bucket of Bolts" team beat Western Kentucky 73-62 in an anticlimactic final.
The marquee game of that Women's Final Four in Los Angeles was the semifinal between No. 1 seeds Stanford and Virginia, which the Cardinal won 66-65, ending Dawn Staley's college career. By the way, if seeds hold in this year's regional at Stanford, it will be VanDerveer's second-seeded Cardinal against Staley's top-seeded South Carolina team in the final.
Stanford starts this year's Big Dance in a rather unlikely place: Ames, Iowa, where the Cardinal open with South Dakota (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday). And while Stanford is in the Midwest, South Carolina will be on the West Coast, opening against Cal State Northridge in Seattle (ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday).
Happy dancing, folks!