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Still the 1

Lady Vols not unbeaten, but they're still the team to beat

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Posted: Monday March 08, 1999 03:12 AM

  Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols, ranked second with a 28-2 record, are going for their fourth straight national championship. AP

By John Donovan, CNN/SI

Purdue may be the No. 1 team in the nation, the top seed in the Midwest and darn near a shoo-in in many people's minds to make it to the national championship game.

But if you ask Leon Barmore, the longtime coach of third-ranked Louisiana Tech, who the best team in the country is ... well, he's thinking someone else.

No slight intended, Purdue.

"Tennessee is the best basketball team in the nation. Nobody else is close," said Barmore, whose team was seeded No. 1 in the West on Sunday when the seedings were announced for the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship. "Look, they have the best three players in the country on the same team. They have the best player to ever play the game. They have the best coach.

"They'll walk through their region like it's not even there."

Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, Purdue and Connecticut were picked as the top seeds for the tournament, which begins at eight campus sites throughout the country Friday.

Tennessee, which finds itself ranked second with a 28-2 record, is going for its fourth straight national championship after its perfect 39-0 season last year. The Lady Vols are loaded, with Chamique Holdsclaw, Semeka Randall and Tamika Catchings still the most potent trio in the country.

Coach Pat Summitt's team had an early season stumble against Purdue, then was knocked off before the Southeastern Conference Tournament by Louisiana State. So now some think the Lady Vols, the No. 1 seed in the East, look semi-beatable in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in years.

"We realize [repeating] will be difficult. It was difficult last year," said Summitt. "But I think the team is very, very excited about the possibility of winning the championship."

There are a couple teams that might be able to give the Lady Vols a run. Most notable is Purdue, which has lost only once this season, early in the year at Stanford.

But the only way the Boilermakers will be able get to Tennessee is to get to the championship game and hope Tennessee does the same. That means Purdue will have to knock off Louisiana Tech along the way, if the seeds hold up.

And last year, the Boilermakers made it to the Elite Eight before they were ousted ...

By Louisiana Tech.

"I think we learned a lesson last year," said Purdue coach Carolyn Peck, a former assistant at Tennessee. "We talked at halftime about being 20 minutes away from being in the Final Four instead of taking it one minute at a time in that 20 minutes. I think a great lesson was learned from that."

Louisiana Tech, too, learned a lesson last year in its 93-75 loss to the Lady Vols in the title game.

The lesson was that Tennessee is awfully tough.

"Tennessee is better than ever," said Barmore, whose 26-2 team has won 18 in a row since a pre-Christmas loss to Purdue. Their other loss was to Tennessee. "That doesn't mean that you can't say 'Look, we can pull a upset.'"

Toughest bracket

The Midwest. Texas Tech, the No. 2 seed in that region, easily could have been a No. 1 with its No. 4 RPI. Rutgers, the No. 3 seed and ranked No. 7 in the country, could have been a No. 2. And Florida, the No. 11 in the Midwest, is unranked but could have been seeded much higher, considering their No. 23 ranking in the RPI. Luckily for No. 1 Purdue, the top seed in that region, all three of those teams are in the other half of the Midwest bracket.

"Looking at the big picture, I wasn't overly surprised at the top four seeds," Summitt said. "I think that the Midwest, from top to bottom, has the strongest field."

Conference champs

Eight Southeastern Conference teams got into the field, including Florida, which went 6-8 in the SEC, the first team to get an at-large bid with a sub-.500 record. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 had five teams apiece, while four were picked from the Big East, the Big Ten, Conference-USA and the Pac-10.

Most intriguing first-round matchup

We like the 8-9 contest between Penn State and Virginia in the West. Either could easily have been seeded higher. Penn State has two losses to Purdue -- by a total of seven points. Virginia is ranked No. 19 in the nation and was the regular-season runner-up in the ACC.

Looking ahead

Old Dominion and Stanford could end up with a second-round doozy. After losing Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Fokl to knee injuries, perennially strong Stanford is still searching for an identity. But the Cardinal is still dangerous. Stanford, remember, is the only team to beat top-ranked Purdue this season. Old Dominion had better beware.

Bumpiest road for top seed

No doubt, it's Louisiana Tech. If the Techsters win the opener against Central Florida, they'll have either Penn State or Virginia (see first-round matchup). Then they still have UCLA or Colorado State, most likely, to contend with in the regional.

Worst break

Notre Dame was a four-seed lock, or better, in the tournament before the Irish lost point guard Niele Ivey to a knee injury in the Big East Tournament. The result: The eighth-ranked Irish (25-4) slipped to a No. 5 seed in the West.

 
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