Unbeaten UConn's presumed run to national title hardly an easy march
No. 1 Duke has three regional roadblocks in MSU, Tennessee and Stanford
UConn may not have its best-ever team, but easily the nation's best this year
Oklahoma and UConn should meet in the NCAA final, just like in 2002
When the March to the Arch has finally played out a few weeks down the road, it probably won't matter all that much how the brackets in the women's 2009 NCAA championship were shaped. When you have a team as dominant as Connecticut sitting at the top of heap (as an ESPN graphic pointed out, the undefeated Huskies have beaten ranked teams by more than 31 points a game), it may seem like the next few weeks are just an exercise in determining who gets the honor of being crushed by UConn in the championship final.
But other undefeated and dominant teams have left the NCAA tournament empty-handed. Take, for example, the Connecticut team that played in the Final Four the last time it was in St. Louis. Granted, those Huskies had lost two of their best players, Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, to late-season injuries, but they were still loaded enough to be heavily favored -- until freshman Diana Taurasi lost her shooting touch (if not her nerve) and they lost to eventual champ Notre Dame in the national semifinal. Just as in 2001 and every other year, the 2009 tournament will provide drama, heartbreak and triumph all over the brackets. The Selection Committee, which has an even more complicated task than their counterparts on the men's side -- because they have to consider attendance -- has made sure that even Connecticut will have a speed bump or two on their way to a sixth title.
Best Draw: Maryland. The Terps get their first two games at home, and a Sweet 16 in Raleigh, N.C., where they will presumably get some love from the fans of ACC rivals whose teams either didn't make the tournament (N.C. State) or got shipped far afield (Duke, North Carolina.) Their biggest obstacle to the Final Four, Baylor, has found ways to win without 6'3 junior center Danielle Wilson, who tore an ACL on Feb. 28; but at some point, the Bears are going to miss her size as well as her 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks a game.
Worst draw: Duke. Congratulations, Dukies, you got the final No. 1 seed. Now you get to travel to East Lansing, where you may have to play No. 9 Michigan State, your coach Joanne P. McCallie's former team, on its home court in a second-round matchup. If you can survive that, you'll be winging your way west to Berkeley, Calif., where you could meet up with defending national champion Tennessee, which, despite its historically low seed (#5), will be damned if it's going to miss the Sweet 16 for the first time in history. (The Lady Vols may have lost double-digit games, but as long as Pat Summitt is at the helm, they're dangerous. Remember, the last time they lost 10 games, in 1997, they won the whole thing.) If you get past agent Orange, you'll probably have to face No. 2 Stanford. The Cardinal won't be playing on its home court, but its fans will fill Haas Pavilion, home of archrival Cal, where Stanford's record is about as sparkling as it is at Maples Pavilion.
Biggest Shaft: Louisville. Not only did the Cards not get the 2-seed they had made a legitimate case for, they didn't get a first-round game in nearby Bowling Green, Ky. Instead, they get to play in Baton Rouge, with a likely second-round matchup with home-team LSU.
Second biggest shaft: Auburn. The No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City regional will likely have to face 7th-seeded Rutgers on the Scarlet Knights' home court in Round 2.
Best first-round matchup: Texas-Mississippi State. The most mystifying team in the Big 12 meets the most dangerous team in the SEC. Runner-up: Xavier-Gonzaga.
Best Second Round Matchup: Rutgers-Auburn. Tigers senior DeWanna Bonner and a group of seniors with something to prove face a senior, Kia Vaughn, and a group of freshmen with something to prove. Runner up: Tennessee-Iowa State.
Best Sweet 16 Matchup: Duke-Tennessee. Duke is one of the few teams that has enjoyed as much success as sorrow against the Lady Vols. The teams are 5-5 historically; their last matchup was a 62-54 win for Duke in Knoxville on Feb. 16. Runner-up: Florida State-Texas A&M.
Best Elite Eight matchup: Connecticut-Texas A&M. Danielle Gant leads a brutally tenacious defense that might actually make UConn's terrific point guard, Renee Montgomery, look bad. Runner-up: Oklahoma-Auburn.
Raleigh Region: Maryland. The Terps are playing their best basketball right now, and nobody is better at launching last-second daggers than senior point guard Kristi Toliver, the hero of the '06 title team.
Oklahoma City: Oklahoma. Aside from the fact Courtney Paris has $64,000 riding on a national title, this is arguably the best team Oklahoma has had. If perimeter ace Whitney Hand gets her stroke back after missing four games with a broken finger -- and she will, eventually -- Courtney and her twin, Ashley, will finally get the Final Four trip they've been waiting four years for.
Berkeley: Stanford. The Cardinal may not have a dazzling star like Candice Wiggins, but they have arguably the best frontcourt in the nation, a backcourt that gets better every day and size and depth that are tough to match.
Trenton: Connecticut. Whether or not this is the greatest team in Connecticut history, this is, easily, the best team this season.
Final Four: Connecticut will get its long-awaited rematch with Stanford, the team that knocked 'em out of the tourney last year, and the Huskies will beat the Cardinal on the perimeter. As in 2002, Oklahoma will give Connecticut its toughest game of the season in the final. And, just as like seven years ago, the Huskies will prevail, thereby entering the pantheon of greatest teams in the sport.
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