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SURPRISE PARTY?
Kelli Anderson
March 24, 2003
With neutral-site regionals forcing more top seeds to travel, the road to the Final Four could—for once—be loaded with potholes
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March 24, 2003

Surprise Party?

With neutral-site regionals forcing more top seeds to travel, the road to the Final Four could—for once—be loaded with potholes

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TWO DECADES, NO CINDERELLAS

Upsets in the 21-year history of the women's tournament are rare, and breakthroughs into the Final Four by teams seeded fifth or lower are few and far between.

OVERALL TOURNAMENT RECORD

FINAL FOUR FINISH

SEED

WON

LOST

1st

2nd

3rd/4th

1

265

68

16

11

16

2

190

81

3

4

13

3

149

82

2

4

4

4

119

84

0

2

4

5

63

80

0

0

1

6

54

80

0

0

2

7

45

80

0

0

0

8

38

80

0

0

1

9

35

64

0

0

1

10

29

64

0

0

0

11

19

52

0

0

0

12

13

52

0

0

0

13

3

36

0

0

0

14

0

36

0

0

0

15

0

36

0

0

0

16

1

36

0

0

0

NOTE: The field expanded to 64 teams in 1994.

Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith thinks this is the year the women's NCAA tournament finds its inner Cinderella. "I don't know why, but I think there are going to be upsets," says Delaney-Smith, who is something of an authority on the subject, having orchestrated the only win by a 16th seed in men's or women's tournament history, the Crimson's 71-67 upset of top-seeded Stanford five years ago. "There are more good players out there and better coaching. I think the tournament will be a lot less predictable this year than usual." � Predictable? For years the women's tournament has seemed like the most scripted show on television. The favorites virtually always advance through the field unmolested, and nearly half the time Connecticut or Tennessee walks off with the trophy. It's not that lesser teams haven't had the will to wreak large-scale office-pool mayhem like their male counterparts, it's just that the deck has been cruelly stacked against them.

For one thing, the pool of talent has been relatively small, and a disproportionate number of the best players have flocked to the coaches who have had consistent success and media buzz—Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Connecticut's Geno Auriemma. More important, since the tournament expanded to include 64 teams in 1994, the top four seeds in each region have historically hosted three other teams in the first and second rounds as a way to boost attendance. Thus, the bottom four seeds in each region have rarely had neutral floors. Not surprisingly, their rate of success (chart, page 76) is only slightly better than that of the Washington Generals: Since 1994 teams seeded 13th to 16th have accumulated a dismal 4-144 record, and no 14th or 15th seed has ever won a game. (Over that same span men's teams seeded 13th to 16th have gone 17-144, and 14th and 15th seeds have won eight times.) Women's teams seeded 10th, 11th and 12th have done much better (61-168), in part because they play on neutral courts in the first round. "Until we get to neutral sites and level the playing field, you're not going to see many upsets," says LSU coach Sue Gunter. "You wouldn't see that many in the men's game if they were [awarding home court advantage to favorites] the way we are."

This year, in a baby step toward neutrality, the tournament committee assigned sites for the first two rounds in July—ostensibly eliminating the automatic home court advantage to the top seeds—but the choices were not entirely equitable. Home court advantage was conferred on many of the usual suspects that could promise sufficiently large advance ticket sales, like Connecticut, Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Stanford. Top contenders Duke, LSU (both No. 1 seeds) and Texas (a two seed) will have to play away from home for their first two games. The Blue Devils don't have too much to complain about, as they will travel all of 20 miles to Raleigh for their first-round game. But LSU, which suddenly has a rabid fan base thanks to hometown star Seimone Augustus, the SEC newcomer of the year, is seeing its 27-3 record and SEC tournament championship rewarded with a trip to Eugene, Ore. "Our kids know we don't get a home game," says Gunter, "so we just have to get ready for the road."

Predetermined sites may shake up the brackets slightly, but what's more likely to crumble the chalk is greater parity. "There is no dominant team this year," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. "We're all vulnerable, and the predetermined sites will make some teams more vulnerable than others."

How crowded is the field with bona fide contenders? In addition to the Final Four perennials of Connecticut and Tennessee, there are five former champions among the top 12 seeded teams ( North Carolina, Purdue, Stanford, Texas and Texas Tech). Every tournament team has lost at least once, no one more dramatically than defending champion Connecticut, which saw its NCAA-record 70-game winning streak and nine-year Big East tournament title run end against then No. 14 Villanova in the league championship game. Though his players hardly knew how to react—after all, it had been two years since UConn had last visited the loss column—Auriemma said after the game that "this could be the best thing to happen to us."

With the burden of an undefeated season lifted (just in time) and the young Huskies refocused, Connecticut could be more dangerous than ever. On the other hand, Villanova's victory gives hope to every Cinderella wannabe in the tournament. The Wildcats, whom Goestenkors calls "the Princeton of the women's game" because their style is so unusual, showed that patience, execution and great defense can overcome superior talent.

Moreover, playing on the road can sometimes work in an underdog's favor. Arkansas's Gary Blair, the only coach to have taken a seed as low as nine to the Final Four, says getting away from home "and its built-in pressures" helped his Razorbacks make it that far in 1998. "We were 13 days on the West Coast and about out of per them, but we really bonded as a team," he says.

For the first time all 63 tournament games will be televised. That's a dramatic leap from eight years ago, when only four games were shown on ESPN, and Final Four weekend—in which Rebecca Lobo led UConn to its first title—was on CBS. To accommodate this year's expanded TV schedule and minimize conflicts with the men's tournament, the semifinals and final have been moved to a Sunday-Tuesday format, making the women's championship game (to be broadcast on ESPN on April 8) the final game of the college basketball season.

Who will still be playing then? After Oklahoma, a 10 seed, has taken out second-seeded Villanova and fallen to top seed Tennessee in the Mideast, and three seed Kansas State has squeaked by top seed Connecticut in the East, the two teams left standing will be Duke and LSU. Duke will win it all, which should suit the Razorbacks' Blair just fine. "I'd love to win it," he says, "but if it can't be me, I just hope it's someone else who hasn't won it before. I'm getting tired of looking at Geno and Pat."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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