Storylines abound in Sweet 16
Regional semifinals tip off on ESPN at noon ET Saturday in the Notre Dame region
We're down to the Sweet 16 , and all the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds are still standing in the regional semifinals. Can't say the same for the 2s and 4s. Here are 10 things to look for/ponder/debate during regional action Saturday-Tuesday.
1. Ouch, that smarts
Usually the Sweet 16 is sweet, but sometimes it's sour. That is, if you were really counting on being in that group, but aren't. Especially if you happen to be hosting a regional.
When the NCAA went to having regionals at neutral sites, this situation became less potentially painful. A school might miss out on a regional that was very near to it, but not actually on its home floor.
For 2014, though, the NCAA went back to home sites -- for this season only -- and there is one school that is left out of its own "party": Nebraska.
The Huskers' second-round loss to BYU means the red-clad fans in Lincoln won't have the home team to pull for this weekend. Interestingly enough, the only other time that BYU was in the Sweet 16, in 2002, the Cougars did the same thing to Iowa State. The Cyclones were hosting a regional in Ames, Iowa, but lost to BYU in the second round.
2. Civic pride
But all is not lost for fans in Lincoln, which Nebraska coach Connie Yori has been reminding them this week. She put aside her disappointment to sell the regional to fans, just as Iowa State's Bill Fennelly did 12 years ago.
Yori's primary selling point is a very, very good one: Come watch the No. 1 seed UConn Huskies and top player Breanna Stewart, the "rock stars" of the women's tournament.
Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena just opened for this season, and it's right in downtown Lincoln with plenty of restaurants and watering holes nearby. Lincoln wants to be in the mix for future NCAA events, which is also part of the plea to fans to make the state look good this weekend -- even if everyone there is still pretty bummed out they don't have the beloved Huskers to cheer for.
As a longtime observer of Nebraska fans, I believe they will have an admirable showing. Who knows? Maybe they'll impress UConn coach Geno Auriemma so much that he'll somehow find a way to bring the Huskies back someday for a nonconference game.
3. Barbershop quartet?
There used to be conspiracy theories about how the NCAA selection committee would supposedly group top teams with male coaches together in regions to get them to "eliminate" each other before the Final Four. Considering everything else the committee members have to factor in while doing the bracket, the idea that they also engaged in this elaborate conspiracy was always far-fetched.
It is really happenstance, in fact, that this year's Lincoln region has four male coaches -- the first time that has happened at any regional since 1999. That year in Cincinnati, the four teams were UConn (Auriemma), Iowa State (Fennelly), Georgia (Andy Landers) and Clemson (Jim Davis).
This year, the four are Auriemma, BYU's Jeff Judkins, Texas A&M's Gary Blair, and DePaul's Doug Bruno.
4. Family bragging rights
BYU's Jennifer Hamson is playing in her second NCAA tournament. That matches the number of appearances in the Big Dance that her mother, Tresa Spaulding Hamson made when she played at BYU from 1983-87.
But Jennifer has an edge over her mom, who also was a 6-foot-7 center for the Cougars. Tresa's teams both lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, in 1984 and '85. Jennifer's Cougars are in the Sweet 16 after victories against NC State and Nebraska.
5. Carolina battle
No. 1 seed South Carolina takes on No. 4 seed North Carolina in a semifinal at the Stanford Regional. Under Dawn Staley, in her sixth year as the Gamecocks' coach, South Carolina generally had a tough time recruiting head-to-head with North Carolina. The Tar Heels, who won an NCAA title in 1994, were consistently more successful.
But Staley had changed that narrative, and with it, the landscape of recruiting in the Carolinas. Consider that the No. 1-ranked recruit for this year's high school senior class, Aja Wilson of Columbia, S.C., has yet to announce her college choice. But her hometown school, South Carolina, is still right in the running. Even a few years ago, that likely would not have been the case.
Wilson's other finalists are reported to be UConn, Tennessee and North Carolina, and her decision is supposed to come April 16.
6. Glad to be in action
Louisville's Shoni Schimmel and her teammates played exceptionally well in their early-round games at Iowa, with victories over Idaho and the host Hawkeyes. There wasn't much drama about whether Schimmel and her fellow seniors would advance to the Louisville regional semifinals and play again at the KFC Yum! Center.
That includes Antonita Slaughter, who had a scare in December when she collapsed at a game because of a blood clot. Initially, it was thought she would miss the rest of the season. But she was medically cleared to play after the clot passed and she no longer required medication. She returned in January.
"It's a blessing to be here, just to be able to be on the court with my teammates," Slaughter said Tuesday after the Cardinals' victory. "Kudos to my teammates, the staff, my family for never letting me get down on myself, fighting adversity and making the best of it."
7. Who you calling underdog?
Last year, no doubt, Louisville was a huge underdog as a No. 5 seed facing No. 1 Baylor in the Sweet 16. And we know how that turned out.
This year, the Cardinals are a No. 3 seed (cough). But considering they are hosting a regional and playing so well, are they really still underdogs?
"We played the underdog role last year, and it was a little different because we were a 5 seed," Schimmel said. "People know about us now, and they're not going to take us as lightly as last year."
8. Potential rematch?
Especially after seeing Louisville upset Baylor last year, Tennessee did not take the Cardinals lightly when the teams met in the 2013 Oklahoma City Regional final.
Tennessee was well aware of how dangerous Louisville was, and that proved the case as the Cardinals defeated the Lady Vols 86-78.
Guess who could meet again for a trip to the Final Four? It could be Louisville and Tennessee once more, this time on April 1 with a ticket to Nashville on the line.
The Lady Vols have more Final Four appearances than any women's program, with 18. But the most recent was 2008. Louisville's two Final Fours have both come since then, in 2009 and last year.
9. Baylor-Kentucky, Chapter 2
It was the first Friday in December where we got a strong indication that Baylor -- despite its massive loss of seniors from last year -- was going to be really good again. That was the four-overtime thriller the Lady Bears lost to Kentucky 133-130 in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 6. It was the highest combined score of any game in Division I women's basketball history.
Now, more than three months later, No. 2 seed Baylor and third-seeded Kentucky will square off again, this time in the Notre Dame Regional. So observers are joking about how many overtimes this one might take. So ...
Did you know there has been a four-overtime game in women's NCAA tournament play? In 1995, Alabama beat Duke 121-120 in the second round in Tuscaloosa, Ala. That was the just the second NCAA tournament game for Gail Goestenkors when she was coaching Duke.
10. Can it be as good?
Penn State meets Stanford in a battle of Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the Stanford Regional semifinals.
It just so happens those schools met last December in a volleyball regional final that was the caliber of an NCAA championship match. Penn State prevailed 3-2, winning the final set 15-11. It was as high a quality a match as was played all season. Penn State went on to win the program's sixth NCAA title, tying it with Stanford for the most women's volleyball championships.
In women's basketball, Stanford has the historical edge with two titles and 11 trips overall to the Final Four. Penn State is looking to get to the Final Four a second time, having made it that far in 2000.
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