State of the No. 1: Baylor
The Lady Bears have the opportunity to become the first men's or women's basketball team to finish a season 40-0. That's strong motivation for any team, and coach Kim Mulkey has been unafraid to tell her squad (and everyone else) that Baylor has the talent to win it all. The Lady Bears are a deep team led by a transcendent player (junior center Brittney Griner), an All-America sophomore point guard (Odyssey Sims) and athletic forwards and guards (Kimetria Hayden, Jordan Madden and Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams) who know their roles and play tough defense. Baylor has won its games by an average of 27.3 points this season and has held teams to 31 percent shooting from the field. The Bears are as strong a lock for the Final Four as any No 1 seed in history.
Players To Watch: Elena Delle Donne (Delaware), Taylor Gault (Arkansas-Little Rock), Jennifer George (Florida), Brittney Griner (Baylor), Jordan Hooper (Nebraska), Glory Johnson (Tennessee), Anna Martin (DePaul), Samantha Prahalis (Ohio State), Sugar Rodgers (Georgetown), Shekinna Stricklen (Tennessee), Odyssey Sims (Baylor), Haley Steed (BYU), Callan Taylor, (Sacred Heart), and Destiny Williams (Baylor).
If the Huskers get by No. 11 Kansas, they'll face a Delaware team that has a future pro in Delle Donne but a light resume (a 2-1 record against teams with a Top 20 RPI this season) against the big dogs. Nebraska coach Connie Yori has a young team, but it showed impressive grit in the Big 10 tournament. Both sophomore forward Jordan Hooper (19.2 ppg) and junior guard Lindsey Moore (15.8) can score.
Juiciest Matchup: Tennessee-Delaware (possible Sweet 16)
How cool would it be to see Delle Donne take on a beatable Tennessee team? The All-America forward would probably have to shoot 25 times for the Blue Hens to realistically have a shot -- and Tennessee would need to have a bad night in the post -- but both are legitimate possibilities.
Suspect Team: Tennessee
It seems crazy to list a Pat Summit-coached team under this category but the Lady Vols (with eight losses) don't inspire deep faith, even though they've won seven of their last eight games. There is talent here, for sure, and the senior class, led by Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen, has the motivation of not wanting to become the first Pat Summitt class not to appear in a Final Four.
Twitter Account to Follow: Elena Delle Donne, Delaware (@de11edonne)
The Pick: Baylor
Book the ticket for Denver today.
State of the No. 1: Notre Dame
The Irish have been driven all season by the memory of last year's championship game loss to Texas A&M. Sure, they enter the tournament on a loss to UConn in the Big East title game, but this senior-laden group can brush that setback aside. What makes Notre Dame dangerous is its ability to score: The Irish are second in the nation in points (79.6) and third in field goal percentage (47.3%) and have a backcourt among the best in the nation with junior point guard Skylar Diggins (17.0 ppg) and senior guard Natalie Novosel (15.0)
But the key is two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year senior forward Devereaux Peters (12.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg). Peters must be an inside presence -- and stay out of foul trouble -- for Notre Dame to get to where it wants to go. A potential regional final against No. 2 Maryland or No. 3 Texas A&M would be a major test.
Players to Watch: Brittany Boyd, (Cal), Sydney Carter (Texas A&M), Skylar Diggins (Notre Dame), Sarah Hansen (Florida Gulf Coast), Lykendra Johnson (Michigan State), Natalie Novosel (Notre Dame), Devereaux Peters (Notre Dame), Shoni Schimmel (Louisville), Alyssa Thomas (Maryland), Megan Van Tatenhove (St. Bonaventure), and Tyra White (Texas A&M).
Bracketbuster: St. Bonaventure
The A-10 champs won 29 games, including 18 of its last 19, and allowed only 53.1 points this season -- making them a Top 20 team in the category. The Bonnies are led by a pair of seniors -- guard Jessica Jenkins and forward Megan Van Tatenhove -- and are a smart, turnover-free team that will be a tough out.
Juiciest Matchup: Maryland-Louisville (possible Sweet 16)
An entertaining game featuring two All-America-caliber players -- Louisville's flashy point guard Shoni Schimmel and Maryland's terrific scoring forward Alyssa Thomas -- that would also be a bellwether to see how strong the ACC was this year.
Suspect Team: Iowa
The Hawkeyes lost star Jaime Printy to a knee injury in February and went meekly against Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
Twitter Account To Follow: Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame (@skydigg4)
The Pick: Notre Dame.
Plenty of people will jump off the bandwagon after the Big East tournament loss to UConn. Don't be one of them. This is an experienced team that's been pointing to this moment all season. You'll see it in Denver.
State of the No. 1: UConn
For all of UConn's struggles this season, the Huskies lost just four times, and three of those losses were to Baylor and Notre Dame (which defeated the Huskies twice). They also avenged a pair of defeats to Notre Dame with a convincing win over the Irish in the Big East tournament final.
UConn, as always, plays aggressive defense. The Huskies lead the country in scoring defense (45.7 points per game) and every player in the rotation, except freshman forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, has Final Four experience. Sophomore guard Bria Hartley is the key to UConn's fortunes. She's a big-game player -- she had 25 points in a 66--61 loss to Baylor on Dec 18 -- and the Huskies need her to score in this tournament. The same goes for Stefanie Dolson. The 6-foot-5 sophomore center been inconsistent this year, but has played well this month. UConn is peaking at the right time. Watch out.
Players To Watch: Alex Bentley (Penn State), Courtney Clements, (San Diego State), Tasha Dickey, (Kansas State), Stefanie Dolson (UConn), Bria Hartley (UConn), Tiffany Hayes (UConn), Maggie Lucas (Penn State), Shenise Johnson (Miami), A'dia Mathies (Kentucky), Niveen Rasheed , (Princeton), Kayla Standish (Gonzaga), Riquna Williams (Miami), and Julie Wojta, (Green Bay)
Bracketbuster: Green Bay
The Phoenix has the game's best under-the-radar player in senior forward Julie Wojta, who scored 29 points against Detroit in the Horizon League final. Sure, Green Bay will have to open against Iowa State in Ames, but its entire team experienced a Sweet 16 last year. The Phoenix won't be rattled.
Juiciest Matchup: No. 1 UConn vs. No. 3 Miami (possible Elite Eight)
UConn's defense against the high-scoring and dynamic Miami senior backcourt of Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams? Sign us up. Of course, we're not convinced that Miami could guard UConn's scorers but it would be fun to watch.
Suspect Team: Kentucky
Kentucky does not inspire a lot of confidence with four losses in its last eight games, and the Wildcats were pounded on the boards by LSU in an 11-point defeat in the SEC semifinals. While A'dia Mathies is a great scorer, Kentucky's second and third options don't scare anyone.
Twitter Account To Follow: Keyla Snowden, Kentucky (@ keylaSnowden)
The Pick: UConn
The Huskies are peaking at the right time and the region's No. 2 and No. 3 teams are beatable.
State of the No. 1: Stanford
The Cardinal are the top seed in the most jeopardy, and though coach Tara VanDerveer is tired of hearing that the Pac-12 conference is down this year, the truth is it is. Stanford has played a weak schedule compared to the other No. 1s, but senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike (21.6 ppg and 10.5 rpg) is the nation's most tournament-tested player, having led Stanford to three consecutive Final Fours. Two sophomores -- forward Chiney Ogwumike, her sister and the conference's Defensive Player of the Year (15.9 points and 10.1 rebounds), and shooting guard Toni Kokenis (10.1 points) give the older Ogwumike some scoring help. Stanford's fortunes deep in the tournament will rest on the point guard position. Both freshman Amber Orrange and senior Lindy La Rocque have been unsteady.
Players To Watch: Chelsea Gray (Duke), Christina Foggie (Vanderbilt), Whitney Hand (Oklahoma), Tavelyn James (Eastern Michigan), Nadirah McKenith (St. John's), Chinay Ogwumike (Stanford), Nnemkadi Ogwumike (Stanford), Brittany Rayburn (Purdue), Ebony Rowe (Middle Tennessee), Shenneika Smith (St. John's) and Elizabeth Williams (Duke).
If Vandy can beat Middle Tennessee State in the opening round, it will face a beatable Duke team in Nashville. Melanie Balcomb's teams always play tough and Christina Foggie is a big-time scorer who can hit the three.
Juiciest Matchup: Duke-St. John's (possible Sweet 16)
St. John's likes to pound the ball inside-outside with guard Nadirah McKenith and senior forward Da'Shena Stevens, while Duke has a great point guard in sophomore Chelsea Gray and the game's next great center in freshman Elizabeth Williams. This should be a down-to-the-wire game but Duke is short on players and St. John's can pull the upset.
Suspect Team: Oklahoma
Sheri Coale is a terrific coach with a great tournament resume, but the Sooners have been inconsistent lately, evening losing by 25 points to Texas on Feb. 25. The good news? Their first two games are in Norman.
Twitter Account To Follow: Nneka Ogwumike, Stanford (@nnemkadi30)
The Pick: St. John's
We're rolling the dice and picking St. John's to beat Stanford in a fantastic regional final. St. John's defeated UConn, Louisville and Georgetown late in the season and jelled with the return of Stevens after a knee injury. McKenith is a terrific guard and coach Kim Barnes-Arico gets her teams to compete every possession. Someone is going to beat Stanford in this tournament, and the sense here is that it will come before the Final Four.