It's been a fascinating year for UConn (32-1), from coach Geno Auriemma's preseason proclamation that his team would lose multiple games to freshman Samarie Walker's midseason departure and backup center Heather Buck's injury, leaving the team with a six-woman rotation. But here UConn is again, the top overall seed in the tournament and a favorite to win an eighth title and third in a row.
The Huskies have won 20 consecutive games since losing to Stanford on Dec. 30, a loss that snapped the team's record 90-game winning streak. While Maya Moore continued her metronome-like excellence, UConn was bailed out by an unlikely source: the late-season emergence of freshman center Stefanie Dolson, who finished with 24 points in the Big East tournament final win over Notre Dame. "Now that we have someone like her we can count on night in and night out, we have a chance," Auriemma said. "If she hadn't developed to the point she is right now we wouldn't have any chance going into the NCAAs." By no means is UConn a lock to win a title, but it would be a monumental upset not to see the Huskies in Indianapolis in a couple of weeks.
Dayton played Xavier down to the wire last week in the Atlantic 10 final -- the teams were tied at 60 with two minutes to go -- before losing by seven points. The Flyers are deep -- coach Jim Jabir regularly plays nine players, including four junior starters -- and they attack teams off the dribble. Penn State is a rough opening-round matchup because it's a road game, but there is history here: The two teams met at the beginning of the season in a game that featured 13 ties and 10 lead changes and was ultimately won 112-107 by Penn State in double overtime. Don't discount the No. 11 seed factor, a seed line that has won more than 25 percent of its games in the women's tournament.
The Terps are here because we're suspicious of how good the ACC was this season. Plus, their results are filled with danger signs, including four losses in their last seven games and an opening round defeat to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. Maryland is going to be very good next season behind ACC Rookie of the Year Alyssa Thomas and talented sophomore forward Diandra Tchatchouang, but we like Georgetown (who defeated Maryland by eight points at home in November) to knock them out in the second round.
Get ready for a terrific battle of wits between Marist coach Brian Giorgis and Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly. The Red Foxes are on a nation-best 26-game winning streak and had a fantastic year after the graduation of all-time leading scorer Rachele Fitz. Marist is big -- it has six players over 6 feet or taller -- and features one of the better players in the East: senior guard Erica Allenspach, the regular-season player of the year in the MAAC.
But the Red Foxes' strength is their defense. They lead the nation in scoring defense at 48.6 and fewest turnovers per game at 11.1. They'll need to be at their best to stop an Iowa State team that lights it up from the outside (they are shooting 37.4 percent from three-point range, the 11th-best mark in the country). The Cyclones have a terrific player in senior guard Kelsey Bolte, who averaged 16.8 points and was second in the Big 12 with 83 threes.
The Maya Moore of the region is, well, Maya Moore. The senior forward and soon-to-be Player of the Year produces stats across the board (22.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists) and has been traditionally great in the postseason. Last year Moore averaged 24 points during the tournament and was named the MVP of the Final Four. "During tournament play I think it comes down to who has the best player, and Geno has the best player," said Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman. "When you get in to these tournament games there are going to be some close games, and nobody is going to be able to stop Maya."
The junior forward has played a huge role in leading Dayton to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, including the school's first trip last season. A terrific shooter, Raterman averaged 16.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game and shot 55.1 percent from the field. She played through a sore knee to score 19 points in a tight loss to Xavier in the A-10 final and scored 32 points in 44 minutes in her team's memorable double overtime loss to Penn State.
UConn is the big favorite, but Duke needs to get back to the regional final in Philadelphia if only to offer a better showing than the 36-point beating it endured from the Huskies on Jan. 31. "How many times can you keep letting someone punch you?" said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie after UConn's 87-51 win. "I mean, the outcome was never in question here."
This region offers the opportunity for redemption. Along with a great freshman class led by point guard Chelsea Gray, Duke has three talented senior starters, including combo guard Jasmine Thomas, a Wooden Award finalist and a stat-producing machine (14.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.4 steals and 0.6 blocks) and unrelated 6-foot-5 center Krystal Thomas (8.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 blocks).
UConn is 146-3 (yes, we're serious) with Moore in its starting lineup, an almost inconceivable run of excellence. During her career, she has lost to Rutgers and twice to Stanford. That's it.
Same as it ever was. There are only three teams that can beat UConn: Stanford, Baylor and Tennessee. The tournament for the Huskies starts in Indianapolis.