Connecticut's foes in the NCAA tournament are banking on the Huskies' lack of experience in close games to help produce an upset. Of course, the fact that UConn (33-0) has ripped its opponents by an average of 37.0 points a game—an NCAA record—hardly qualifies as a weakness. " Connecticut is so good and so versatile that it can play any way it wants," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster. "The rest of us have to figure out how to play UConn on a particular night."
The Huskies aren't merely talented—though all five starters are likely first-round WNBA draft choices—they're also relentless on both ends of the court. They average 10.5 steals and have outrebounded opponents by almost 16 a game. The superb backcourt of senior point guard Sue Bird and sophomore shooting guard Diana Taurasi make a combined 46.5% from three-point range, while senior forward Swin Cash, one of three nimble post players, leads Connecticut in both scoring (15.2 points a game) and rebounding (8.9).
However, UConn is a perennial favorite that has won just one title in the last six years. "What makes the tournament great is that a team gets only one chance to slip up," says coach Geno Auriemma. "One bad night and you're out, and the Cinderella story continues."
Who, aside from Oklahoma, is best equipped to give Connecticut a bad night? Tennessee (25-4) is always a threat, but the Lady Vols were dispatched with relative ease when the two teams met in January. Vanderbilt (27-6) might be the SEC team to watch this year. Vandy lost to Connecticut by 19 early in the season, but since then it has greatly improved its defense and sharpened its halfcourt offense. With seven players who are 6 feet tall or more, including 6'6" junior center Chantelle Anderson, the SEC Player of the Year, the Commodores won't be intimidated by the Huskies. "What I like about this team is we're still getting better, we're still passing tests, like the close games we had in the SEC tournament," says Foster, whose Commodores beat Arkansas 81-78 in the semifinals before rolling over LSU 63-48 in the final.
Another contender is Duke (27-3), which passed its biggest test in December, when assistant coach Joanne Boyle underwent brain surgery to remove a blood clot and two players, Rometra Craig and Crystal White, transferred out. Boyle is back on the bench, and the eight players who remain—all of whom play at least 16 minutes a game—have engineered an 18-game winning streak. Led by 5'11" ACC Player of the Year Alana Beard, a sophomore who averages 19.5 points while playing all five positions, and 6'4" sophomore forward Iciss Tillis, the Blue Devils' best rebounder and shot blocker, Duke has survived without a true center by using a motion offense that allows every player to penetrate or shoot the three. But will that attack continue to work in the tournament?
Anything is possible in the NCAAs, says Auriemma. "Everyone has something they think nobody else has, and we all have an Achilles' heel we pray no one discovers."