STATE OF THE NO. 1:UConn
Let's be blunt: It would be one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history if UConn lost before the Final Four. It's also not going to happen. The Huskies are 14-0 against top 10 opponents this season, winning by an average of 26.3 points. The only top 10 team in the region is Ohio State, and the Buckeyes' tournament history scares nobody.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said he was pleased that a tense second half against Notre Dame (at least the first 10 minutes) allowed his team to run plays in a tight situation, something that UConn has not had the luxury to do often this season. "I think it makes a player feel better when they can make shots when they know they have to make them," Auriemma said. "It's one thing to make shots in the first half when the score is 20-10. When it's an seven-point game and there is four minutes left, that's another thing."
UConn won't be in a game that close prior to San Antonio. Even on the rare occasion when the Huskies lack offensive rhythm -- as in the first half against Notre Dame and against West Virginia in the Big East Championship -- their ball-hawking defense bails them out. Senior center Tina Charles is a physical, shot-blocking, intimidating force, while junior forward Maya Moore deflects more balls than anyone in college basketball. The rest of the group is long and athletic. Pencil them in for San Antonio, please.
St. John's held UConn to a 39.1 percent shooting from the field -- the Huskies' lowest this year -- in a 66-52 UConn win at Gampel Pavilion on Feb. 13. No Big East team played UConn with more moxie, and that bodes well for this tournament. The Red Storm pressure opponents, play terrific transition defense and have a young coach (Kim Barnes Arico) who gets maximum effort out of her players. Sophomore forward Da'Shena Stevens was an All-Big East selection with 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds and Shenneika Smith was the third leading freshman scorer (12.9) in the conference. Beating third-seeded Florida State will be a tall order, but St. John's won't be intimidated; the Storm defeated then-No. 4 Notre Dame on Feb. 16 and led the Irish again with six minutes left in the Big East quarterfinals before finally running out of gas.
SUSPECT TEAM: Virginia
The fifth-seeded Cavaliers are trending the wrong way, with three losses in their last five games. Ther ésumé also isn't very impressive: Of their 21 wins this season, the most notable was a four-point double-overtime win at home over a North Carolina team that's not close to its usual standard. Senior forward Monica Wright was the ACC Player Of The Year (and Defensive Player of the Year, too) but too often she's been forced to carry the nine freshmen and sophomores around her. If Virginia gets past Wisconsin Green Bay in the opening round -- and that's a toss-up game -- it won't get by Iowa State.
JUICIEST MATCHUP: Mississippi State vs. Middle Tennessee State
Middle Tennessee State players admit they've been haunted all season by the memory of last year's excruciating 60-59 opening-round loss to Michigan State. That game saw Alysha Clark, the nation's leading scorer, foul out with 1:35 remaining, having scored 34 points, including 28 in a row for MTSU at one point. The Blue Raiders are back again with a prolific offense that ranked second nationally in three-pointers made per game (10.0) and third in scoring (81.4 points). They enter the tournament on a 16-game winning streak and have five seniors and four 1,000-point scorers. But Mississippi State is no pushover, with senior guard/forward Armelie Lumanu, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and senior guard Alexis Rack, who averaged 17.7 points and led the SEC in three-point field goals made, and ranked fourth in assists. As an 11th seed last year, Mississippi State picked off Texas before losing to Ohio State. One of the tournament's best first-round games.
GAME BREAKER: Tina Charles, Connecticut
The Tina Charles of the region is, well, Tina Charles. She's the favorite for Player of The Year and pairs with Moore to form an impossible matchup. Pack a zone around Charles (18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds), and Moore (17.9 points) or senior swingman Kalana Greene (12.0 points) will kill you with jumpers or driving layups to the basket. Guard Moore aggressively, and Charles will destroy you in the paint. No big player in women's basketball sprints the floor better than Charles, who has 49 double-doubles in her career and 11 this season.
BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF: Alysha Clark, Middle Tennessee State
Even if you've heard of Clark, you've likely never seen her play. She averaged 44 points during the Sun Belt tournament, including 48 in an 80-78 win over Arkansas Little-Rock in the tournament final. (Her 132 points during the tournament are believed to be the highest conference tournament performance in NCAA women's basketball history by any player in any conference.) Clark can score with both hands, is super-quick and has a variety of moves in the post. Remarkably, she's just 5-foot-10, but she has guard quickness around the basket. The senior led the nation in scoring with 28.7 points per game and won't end her college career without a big game.
THE PRESSURE'S ON: Ohio State
The Buckeyes have an easy draw, and should roll over St. Francis and the winner of Mississippi State-Middle Tennessee before a tricky game against Florida State or St. John's. It's pretty simple: Ohio State needs to get to the Regional Final or this season is a big disappointment. The Buckeyes have an All-America inside-outside combination in junior center Jantel Lavender and sophomore point guard Samantha Prahalis, and this is the third season that OSU has won the Big Ten Tournament under coach Jim Foster. The other two times, in 2006 and 2009, the Buckeyes were knocked out of the tournament in the second round and the Sweet 16, respectively. The problem for Ohio State will come against UConn, because Lavender can't have her way with Charles as she does with the Big Ten's interior players. But they need to get there.
NUMBER TO PONDER: 223
UConn has gone 223 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to shoot more than .500 from the field. That might be the greatest streak in the history of women's basketball.
THE PICK: Connecticut
It'd be fun to make a case for someone to break through prior to the Final Four, but there is no case. The Huskies will roll. Auriemma has always said the regional final is the most difficult game to win during a championship run, but no team in Dayton will stay within 15 points of the defending champions. Let's continue this conversation in San Antonio.
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