Early impressions, notes on NCAA women's tournament bracket
There's no clear favorite among No. 1s UConn, Baylor, Tennessee and Stanford
A juicy Final Four game would be UConn vs. Tennessee for the first time since '07
Beating Baylor and Brittney Griner will be tough; only two teams did it this year
The elite teams of women's basketball have been playing an entertaining game of tag this season.
UConn beat Baylor.
Baylor beat Tennessee.
Tennessee beat Stanford.
Stanford beat UConn.
Tag -- who's it?
Apparently parity is it this year.
"I don't think there's a clear-cut favorite," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "There are a lot of different teams that can make a statement."
That's unlike a year ago, when UConn was the prohibitive and dominating favorite, riding back-to-back perfect seasons to its second straight championship. There is more opportunity in this year's bracket. Any of the No. 1 seeds appear capable of winning a national title in Indianapolis on April 5.
And if the seedings hold true -- something that's only happened once in the women's tournament -- prepare for some great matchups:
UConn vs. Tennessee: This potential Final Four matchup between old rivals will be the constant humming noise to the background of the early rounds. The media desperately wants it. And it would be great for the game: the first meeting since the schools' regular-season series came to a nasty end in 2007, due to animosity between Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt over the recruitment of current UConn star Maya Moore.
While UConn is looking to win its third straight title, Tennessee just wants to be back in the mix. The Lady Vols have missed consecutive Final Fours for the first time since the early 1990s. Tennessee was dumped by Baylor in last year's Sweet 16 -- and again lost to Brittney Griner's Bears last December. Summitt might actually prefer to face Auriemma than Griner at this point.
Baylor vs. Anyone: The Griner effect is felt from Knoxville to Palo Alto. Summitt's team practices against a 6-foot-5 male player who impersonates Griner. So does the Stanford Cardinal: "We affectionately call him 'Brittney,'" VanDerveer said. "My mantra is you can't look ahead, but you've got to work ahead."
And beating Griner will take work. Texas Tech, the No. 8 seed in the Spokane bracket, managed to do it in February, the only team other than UConn to defeat Baylor in more than a year.
Last year Griner was an oddity, a gangly freshman whose coach was trying to protect her after she made headlines for throwing a punch. Now she's a force -- stronger, more confident in her offensive game and supported by a talented freshman point guard in Odyssey Sims. And, oh by the way, the last time the Final Four was held in Indianapolis Kim Mulkey's Baylor team beat Michigan State for the title.
Stanford's Balanced Attack: Could this year's Stanford team have a better shot at a title than the ones led by stars Candice Wiggins and Jayne Appel? Maybe. This Cardinal team shares the burden between three candidates for Player of the Year awards: Kayla Pedersen, Jeanette Pohlen and Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
Familiarity breeds contempt: Baylor could end up playing Texas A&M for a fourth time. Stanford could end up playing UCLA for a fourth time. Both Mulkey and VanDerveer were surprised to see their conference rivals in their brackets. The excuse is something about "natural geography" (as though Spokane is remotely close to Los Angeles), but it's not a good look for the tournament committee.
"It doesn't feel as exciting," VanDerveer said. "It doesn't have the newness factor."
East Coast bias?: The Big East sent nine teams to the NCAA tournament. The Pac-10 sent just three -- despite a 6-2 record against the Big East. The UCLA Bruins were relegated to a No. 3 seed, despite beating Notre Dame in South Bend; Notre Dame earned a No. 2 seed.
Best potential second round matchup: Gonzaga vs. UCLA: The No. 11 Bulldogs will be playing at home and could face the No. 3 seed Bruins. Coach Nikki Caldwell has turned UCLA into a defensive force, which will have its hands full if it meets Gonzaga, the top scoring team in the country.
Hyped freshman guards vs. old stalwarts: Sims isn't the only talented freshman guard in the mix. Key contenders are relying on novice guards: UConn with Bria Hartley, Tennessee with Meighan Simmons and Oklahoma with Aaryn Ellenberg. Experienced veterans like Stanford's Pohlen and Oklahoma's Danielle Robinson provide a counterbalance.
Sympathy card: No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee State will draw a lot of attention in its first round game against Andy Landers' Georgia team. But not for any reason it wants. The team is still grappling with the recent stabbing death of junior Tina Stewart; her roommate is being charged.
Hot streaks: Several teams are coming in riding winning streaks: Stanford (23), Tennessee (22), UConn (20). But it's not just the heavyweights: No. 5 seed Green Bay has won 23 straight, No. 10 seed Marist has won 26 straight.