STATE OF THE NO. 1 - Tennessee
Last year, Ball State bounced Tennessee in the first round. Last year, Pat Summitt raised eyebrows by making her players go back to Knoxville and practice the day after they were eliminated. Last year, it seemed like Summitt lost her magic.
But this isn't last year. The tough lessons Summitt taught seem to have sunk in. Her team is still young, but balanced, with five players averaging in double figures. And the Lady Vols may be peaking at the right time -- they lost once in non-conference play to Stanford and to Georgia in January.
Tennessee relies on the potent outside shooting of Angie Bjorklund and is developing a dominating inside game, with 6-foot-6 sophomore center Kelley Cain who is averaging 10.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots. Shekinna Stricklen has made great strides at point guard.
This is the 20th time Tennessee has been a No. 1 seed. And after what happened last year, the Lady Vols may be more motivated than they've ever been. Which is a scary thought.
Texas is a quality team with an excellent coach coming out of the toughest women's conference in the land -- the Big 12 -- which is sending seven teams to the tournament. Oh, and they're playing in Austin at the Frank Erwin Center, known as "the Drum." Coach Gail Goestenkors already penned an open letter to the community asking them to, "Come early, stay late, be loud - and help us make the Drum beat! Hook 'Em." Get the crowd behind them, and the Longhorns could be headed straight to Memphis.
SUSPECT TEAM: Baylor
Baylor is the region's No. 4 seed but the Bears come in with an awful lot of baggage. Not only is there the punch that made headlines around the nation -- one for which freshman Brittney Griner just served a two-game suspension -- there's also the ongoing health concerns of Melissa Jones. A junior guard, Jones is arguably Baylor's most important player, but has been out with a stress fracture in her leg. Though she is expected to play in the tournament, she hasn't played substantial minutes in several weeks.
JUICIEST MATCHUP:8 Dayton vs. 9 TCU
Unless you think Tennessee is ripe to be knocked off in the first round again -- and I wouldn't hold my breath over that one -- the best matchup is probably the battle to see who will play the Lady Vols. No. 8 Dayton takes on No. 9 TCU in Knoxville. Dayton is deep. TCU beat Big 12 champion Texas A&M earlier in the season.
GAME BREAKER: Jasmine Thomas, Duke
If No. 2 seed Duke is going to do damage in this bracket, they're going to have to do it on the shoulders of Jasmine Thomas. Thomas, a junior guard, was frustrated in last year's second round loss at Michigan State and will be seeking redemption. The first-team all ACC player is averaging 15.7 points a game, 2.8 steals and 4.3 assists and led her team to the ACC Championship.
BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF: Sugar Rogers, Georgetown
Maya Moore isn't the only sweet guard in the Big East. Georgetown freshman Sugar Rodgers has started every game but one this year and is averaging 18.2 points a game. The 5-11 guard out of Suffolk, Va. was named the Big East freshman of the year and has shown a creative scoring ability. Rodgers first-round matchup will be against the other best player you've never heard of: Marist senior Rachele Fitz, the Metro Atlantic conference player of the year, for three years running.
THE PRESSURE'S ON: Brittney Griner, Baylor
Do you even need to ask? Baylor freshman Brittney Griner has been under the microscope since she was in high school, as a 6-8 force who could dunk and intimidate in the paint. The fact that she punched an opponent in the face and broke her nose earlier this month hasn't exactly removed her from anyone's radar. The only way Griner can make the punch a secondary storyline is by playing well in the tournament, handling the scrutiny with grace and helping her team advance.
NUMBERS TO PONDER: 6, 20, 3.
Those are the magic numbers for No. 15 seed Hampton. David Six, the Hampton interim coach all season, was the director of intramurals a year ago and a high school coach before that. But after leading the Lady Pirates to 20 wins and the MEAC title, Six was rewarded with a three-year contract, and a first-round date with Duke.
THE PICK: Tennessee
Are you kidding? You think I would pick against the ice-blue stare of Pat Summitt? Not when her team has a home state path right to the airport gate departing for San Antonio. Even though the Memphis bracket is potentially the toughest of the four, Tennessee is still the team to beat. One off year is shocking enough for the Lady Vols.
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