Previewing a very Sweet 16
Welcome to the tournament within the tournament, the roped-off section of the postseason club that is the Sweet 16.
Getting to the tournament in the first place is a big deal. Just as it's not easy to get to base camp on Mount Everest, it's not easy to get to the starting line of the NCAA tournament. And once there, it only gets more difficult with each step.
Reaching the second week, when the basketball summit really starts to come clearly into view, is a big deal.
Look at the math.
There are more than 160 schools that have appeared in the tournament without ever reaching the Sweet 16.
Making it this far is how programs like Bowling Green, Marist and Green Bay cemented their status as giant-killers. Making it over and over is how Gonzaga made a major statement. Making it to the second weekend after falling short in its first 11 appearances validated Louisville in 2008 and set the stage for what was to follow under coach Jeff Walz. It's the bugaboo the Big Ten can't seem to overcome with any frequency.
Even as an afterthought -- as the Sweet 16 might be for UConn, after 21 consecutive appearances -- it's meaningful.
When Tennessee finally missed out in 2009 and Stanford and Notre Dame fell short in recent years, it was news.
So whether it's the teams we expected to be here or the teams like BYU, DePaul and LSU that broke brackets to gain entry, those taking the floor this weekend truly earned their way here.
South Bend Regional
Clearly those involved in setting the start times of the Sweet 16 games didn't watch the first meeting between Baylor and Kentucky this season. Let's just say Notre Dame and Oklahoma State should have contingency plans in place to keep loose in the event of an extended wait for the second tip time Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
As a refresher, in what has to rank as the game of the season, Kentucky beat Baylor 133-130 in four overtimes on Dec. 6 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, a game in which Kentucky's Jennifer O'Neill scored 43 points off the bench, Baylor's Makenzie Robertson played 57 minutes, and all sorts of numbers were compiled. But contrary to the outcome, not to mention the preseason rankings that placed the SEC team three spots ahead of the Big 12 team, it was Baylor that took off after that epic encounter and Kentucky that stumbled through much of the rest of regular season.
Other than a loss at Kansas a few days after playing Connecticut about as well as any team did this season, Baylor coalesced remarkably smoothly around Odyssey Sims. Nina Davis emerged as a star-in-waiting, Niya Johnson gave Sims freedom to play a pure scoring role, and big bodies piled up rebounds. It's Kentucky that remains the enigma, with late-season wins against Tennessee, Texas A&M and South Carolina rekindling hope that its collection of guards can mesh with DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker as a single cohesive entity that plays the way we're used to seeing Matthew Mitchell's teams play.
On the other side of the bracket, Oklahoma State's wins in the first two rounds marked its first back-to-back victories since the middle of January. Even with a point guard like Tiffany Bias on its side, that's an ominous sign heading into Notre Dame's home. So are the facts that Oklahoma State may be at its best when games are played in the 60s, and Notre Dame, fresh off 177 points in the first two rounds, failed to reach 70 points just once this season.
Well, we never got the chance a season ago to see the former volleyball player whom not enough fans had an opportunity to watch in the regular season take the court against UConn. So at least there is that.
It seems unlikely that BYU's Jennifer Hamson taking the court against the Huskies in a game played in Nebraska will generate quite as many stories as former Delaware All-American Elena Delle Donne (who memorably dabbled in volleyball before returning to basketball) coming within a game of doing the same in last season's regional in Connecticut. But the 6-foot-7 Hamson proved in the first two rounds that, like Delle Donne, her sparkling regular-season numbers were no mirage. Showing off good mobility, stamina and a soft touch, she controlled the paint against NC State and Nebraska in the first two rounds. Is it an insurmountable challenge for the Huskies? Of course it isn't, but size like that is something they haven't really seen since their last encounter with Brittney Griner. So at least it's a different test they'll likely ace.
By far the better bet for an upset comes in the other game, as DePaul continues its quest to prove it deserved a seed more in keeping with some of its former Big East peers and fellow conference champions. The Blue Demons have 3-point shooters, backcourt depth and defensive pressure enough to bother just about any team (which is why, in addition to beating Duke in the second round, they played competitive games against Notre Dame and Kentucky). That said, Texas A&M is not the matchup for DePaul that Duke was, if only because the Aggies have the kind of point guard in sophomore Jordan Jones, who had 16 assists against James Madison in the second round, that Duke lacked.
With games being played just 170 miles from Nashville, this might as well be the "so close you can taste it" regional, unless, of course, you find that to be too queasy a proposition when the KFC Yum! Center is involved.
For host Louisville, which might have put together the most impressive first two rounds of the tournament in routs against Idaho (mildly impressive) and Iowa (very impressive on that team's home court), it's the proximity to a second consecutive trip to the Final Four and a third in six seasons. Not that she lacks a prominent place in program lore as is, but two Final Fours and the upset against Baylor a season ago would leave Shoni Schimmel as a Cardinal without peer.
But Schimmel already has one appearance in the season's final weekend. And if we're talking about rewriting places in program history, it's hard to top what could await Tennessee's Meighan Simmons if she shoots the Lady Vols to their first Final Four without former coach Pat Summitt, a Final Four played within the borders of the Volunteer State, at that. There is about just as much on the line for Maryland's Alyssa Thomas, whose team faces the Lady Vols on Sunday and who, for now, must contend with her place on the list of best players never to reach a Final Four.
LSU is the surprise member of the quartet, but it fits right in. What better way for Tigers coach Nikki Caldwell to put her stamp on a program, after all, than by taking it to its first Final Four since the days of Seimone Augustus and doing so by going through Louisville on its home court and potentially her alma mater and former employer Tennessee in the Elite Eight?
Louisville may still offer the best basketball of the tournament's second week. And if LSU travels with a sufficient army of tailgaters, it will definitely be the best place to party among the four regional sites.
This regional offers a border war between two programs that appear to be settling in for extended stays at the top of the sport and a matchup between college basketball's two active leading scorers.
Other than that, there just isn't much going for the games in Stanford.
All right, there is the Palo Alto weather, too.
The rematch between South Carolina and North Carolina may well be the most enticing game of the entire Sweet 16. Which team is the favorite on what is truly a neutral court a couple of thousand miles from home? Is it the SEC regular-season champion with someone who should fare well in the national coach-of-the-year race in Dawn Staley and the inside power of Alaina Coates and Elem Ibiam complementing the all-court games of Tiffany Mitchell and Aleighsa Welch? Or should it be the team that already beat South Carolina on a neutral court earlier this season and has freshman Diamond DeShields, who seems to become a bigger star with each shot she takes?
Coates, who averaged 11 points and 13.5 rebounds in the first two rounds of the tournament, barely played in the earlier game against the Tar Heels, but if she's more of a factor now, aren't North Carolina's freshmen, too?
While we're at it, does all of that make a game involving Chiney Ogwumike, Maggie Lucas and the more than 5,000 career points they've scored between them the undercard on the Cardinal's home court? Penn State hasn't been to a regional final in a decade, but Dara Taylor vs. Amber Orrange is a sneakily compelling point guard matchup, and Penn State coach Coquese Washington does have some big bodies to throw at Ogwumike.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UConn beat Notre Dame 79-58 to cap a 40-0 season to win it second consecutive NCAA title and record ninth championship overall.