Remember the days when the top women's teams entered the NCAA tournament with no more than one loss, when a flirtation with perfection was a rite of spring? Remember when unranked teams knew their place? Ah, last year seems a long time ago. This season has seen one insurrection after another, with unranked teams having knocked off top 10 opponents a whopping 11 times. Two of the AP's preseason top 5—Tennessee and Duke—have lost three games each. Big 12 power Kansas State and two-time defending national champion Connecticut, which last year completed an NCAA-record 70-game winning streak, have lost four times. Every one of those schools except Tennessee has fallen to an unranked opponent.
All this floundering by the elite has led to six No. 1s, the most since the mid-1970s, when Wayland Baptist and Delta State were slugging it out for the top spot. What does it all mean for this year's NCAAs, which begin on Saturday? "I see the tournament as being much more wide open than it has ever been," says Texas coach Jody Conradt. This new phenomenon of widespread talent "speaks to parity," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. "We've always talked about it, but this year you actually see it."
How else do you explain CONNECTICUT'S up-and-down season? The Huskies were the overwhelming preseason favorites, with all five starters returning from last year's championship team, including the reigning national player of the year, guard Diana Taurasi. But the way UConn has been playing lately, it may not make its fifth consecutive Final Four. Among the Huskies' four losses were two at the Hartford Civic Center, where they had not lost since 1986, and two to unranked teams. The pressure of carrying the team seems to be wearing on Taurasi. In an uncharacteristic moment during a Big East tournament quarterfinal game against Virginia Tech on March 7, she picked up her third foul with 7:54 remaining and then needlessly ran through a Tech screen to pick up her fourth 17 seconds later. When coach Geno Auriemma yelled at her as she was coming off the court, Taurasi snapped back. Auriemma benched her for the rest of what turned out to be the lowest-scoring game in tournament history, which the Huskies won 48-34.
And what about six-time champion TENNESSEE? The Lady Vols have been to so many Final Fours (seven of the last nine) that the NCAA should name a bracket after them. But this is not the year to enter the tournament without your point guard and defensive leader. Since junior Loree Moore tore her ACL in Tennessee's 72-69 win at Duke on Jan. 24, the Lady Vols have been manhandled by Connecticut and lost to Georgia in the SEC semifinals.
This year's field is littered with spoilers-in-waiting: MINNESOTA which lost four games without starting point guard Lindsay Whalen (broken right hand), now has its leader back; SEC tournament champion VANDERBILT, Big 12 champ OKLAHOMA and Big East winner BOSTON COLLEGE are playing their best ball of the season; and KANSAS STATE could be the most dangerous team in the tournament if it's hitting its outside shots. "When they are really effective offensively, I don't think there's anybody who can beat them," says Conradt. "They shoot the ball as well as anybody in the country."
But to make it to the championship game in New Orleans, a team will have to do more man shoot the ball well. That's why we predict that the two teams still standing on April 6 will be the two best examples of offensive balance and defensive tenacity, mature leadership and youthful spirit. Those two teams happen to be the same schools that opened the season on Nov. 16 in the Tip-Off Classic in West Lafayette, Ind.: TEXAS and DUKE. Since the Lady Long-horns beat the Blue Devils 85-77 in that game, the two teams have been heading toward the Crescent City on a collision course. Both teams boast scorers at every position, are outrebounding opponents by more than eight boards a game and rely on freshmen inside. A starter for the Longhorns for the last 12 games, 6'3" forward Tiffany Jackson, a favorite for national freshman of the year, averages 12.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Duke's 6'3" forward, Brittany Hunter, last year's Parade Magazine high school player of the year, has contributed 8.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in just 16 minutes a game despite being hobbled at times by plantar fasciitis and a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee.
Duke's moment of truth occurred at Connecticut on Jan. 3. Down by 14 points with less than four minutes to play, the Blue Devils turned up the pressure, forcing seven turnovers and outscoring the Huskies 18-3. Reserve guard Jessica Foley's last-second three-point shot gave Duke a 68-67 victory, UConn's first home loss in four years.
Last year Texas had the advantage of being relatively unknown as it roared to its first Final Four since it went 34-0 and won the title in 1986. This year the Longhorns were circled on most of their opponents' calenders. "This team has had to play with expectations and pressure, and I think it's grown because of that," says Conradt. Fifth-year senior point guard Jamie Carey has plenty of scorers to feed in the half-court, including junior forward Heather Schreiber (12.7 points per game), senior center Stacy Stephens (12.0) and Jackson. But transition is where Texas is most dangerous. "They're relentless," says Goestenkors. "We attack the basket in transition, but we don't shoot the three in transition like they do."
But Duke does have 5'11" senior All-America guard Alana Beard, who leads the team in scoring (20.2), steals (2.3) and blocks (1.3). After playing in the shadow of Taurasi last year, Beard is a front-runner for player of the year. She needs just six steals to become the first player in NCAA history—male or female—to have 2,500 points and 400 steals in a career. Already she has more points (2,622) than any other Duke player of either gender.
The cast around Beard has improved substantially over last year, when the Blue Devils had just two scoring threats—Beard and forward Iciss Tillis, now a senior. This season Duke led the nation in assists with 20.4 a game and had four players average in double figures. "That's huge for us because last year was the Alana Beard show much too often," says Goestenkors. "It goes to show you how much we are sharing the ball and creating opportunities for others." After Beard, Duke's top scoring threat is Monique Currie, a 6-foot sophomore slasher who missed last season with a torn ACL in her left knee. This season Currie has averaged 11.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists and has added "a certain toughness we lacked last year," says Beard. Having Currie back "is the difference between having a Final Four team and a national championship team," Beard says.