The region has the most intriguing storylines, with a soft No. 1 seed (Stanford), a dominant-looking No. 2 seed (Duke), a momentum team with presidential support (St. John's) and an emerging program led by a dynamic coach (South Carolina). Stanford handled business in its first two games but South Carolina, coached by former Olympic great Dawn Staley, presents a solid test, especially defensively. The Gamecocks ranked in the top 5 in the country in scoring defense (they allow just 50.7 points per game) and senior guard Markeshia Grant is an impactful scorer from distance. Duke looked unstoppable in its first two games, including a comfortable 16-point win over Vanderbilt. St. John's was the surprise Final Four pick of President Barack Obama, and the Red Storm has kept the First Hoopster's bracket alive with two tight wins. The Red Storm got by Creighton at the buzzer and handled a tricky game on Oklahoma's home court.
No. 5 South Carolina
This blurb deserves an asterisk because South Carolina isn't exactly a Cinderella. It's a 25-win team that won 10 games in the tough SEC, including a victory at Tennessee in February. The Gamecocks have terrific guards and lull teams to sleep with a methodical approach and tough defense. But Stanford presents all kinds of matchup problems for them.
Stanford senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike is the country's toughest matchup not named Brittney Griner because of her midrange play and devastating scoring in the blocks. She's also clutch, with many of her best performances coming in NCAA tournament play. Ogwumike is coming off a subpar, foul-plagued game against West Virginia so look for her to go to work against South Carolina early.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 3 St John's
A fascinating game featuring two teams that can score in bunches. Duke lacks depth but every player in its regular rotation finished in double figures against Vanderbilt. Some questions to ponder: Can the Red Storm's post players handle Duke's star freshman center Elizabeth Williams, who is playing through a stress fracture but has All-America talent in the post? Which star guard (Gray and St. John's Nadirah McKenith) will control the tempo? Can St. John's junior guard Eugeneia McPherson get to the line against Duke the way she did against Oklahoma?
Is Stanford a contender or a pretender?
We'll find out over the next two games. The weakest top seed will be tested in the regional final if it advances past South Carolina, but one very encouraging sign for coach Tara VanDerveer has been the recent play of freshman point guard Amber Orrange, who scored a career-high 18 points against West Virginia. Stanford had to travel across the country to play its opening games in Norfolk but Fresno offers some hometown feel. It should be a fascinating two games for the Cardinal.
Number to Ponder
Percentage Duke shot from the field (42-of-65) against Vanderbilt, a season high. Duke also hit a season-high 63.6 percent from three-point land and the 56 points they scored in the first half were the most in the first half for any team this tournament.
We've been rolling with St. John's for a month and while the feeling isn't as strong as it was before the start of the tournament, we'll continue to ride it out along with Obama. St. John's has enough scoring to get past both Duke and Stanford and the big question will come on the defensive end. How will they matchup against the athletic and bigger posts of Duke and Stanford?
It's been far from smooth for the top seeds in the region. Top-seeded Notre Dame had to fight off a scrappy group from Cal; No. 2 Maryland was nearly picked off by Louisville, and No. 3 Texas A&M barely escaped over Arkansas. The Irish remain the odds-on favorite to land in Denver but they'd be wise not to underestimate St. Bonaventure, who has won 31 of its 34 games. Maryland is loaded with talent but its top players are just sophomores. It remains Notre Dame's region to lose given the team's experience and depth.
No. 5 St. Bonaventure
The Western New York hamlet of Olean has always been basketball crazy and the Bonnies have given the community a terrific story this year. The 31-3 team is led by senior guard and sharpshooter Jessica Jenkins, who hit six three-pointers in a win over Marist and is arguably the nation's best three-point shooter. She's aided by senior forward Megan Van Tatenhove, who plays much bigger than her 6-foot-1 frame and averages 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds. St. Bonaventure defeated St. John's on the road in November but a meeting with Notre Dame on a neutral site is a huge jump in class. The first 10 minutes against the Irish will be key when the nerves will be high for Bona.
Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel, Notre Dame
The two best players in the region -- Diggins had 15 points in the second half against Cal while Novosel finished with 28 including 18-of-20 from the line -- are the keys to a deep run for the Irish. Look for coach Muffet McGraw to ride her stars over the next two games.
No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 3 Texas A&M
If you eliminate the three losses to UConn and Baylor (twice), Texas A&M was in nearly every game this season, despite being physically and mentally worn-out, according to players and coaches, from post-championship demands. The Aggies are not the team we saw cut down the nets in Indianapolis last year but senior point guard Sydney Carter and senior forward Adaora Elonu are tournament-tested and coach Gary Blair is very tough in a one-game tournament because of his ability to mix defenses. Maryland's Brenda Frese is also a terrific game coach and has four very good scorers including sophomore forward Alyssa Thomas (17.1 points) and sophomore point guard Laurin Mincy (13.1 points).
Is Maryland still a year away?
Getting a true read on Maryland is difficult because the ACC's top teams (Duke, Miami and Maryland) all took turns knocking each other off this season. This is a talented collection of sophomores, led by Thomas, and will be a top 5 program next year. But defeating Texas A&M and Notre Dame in back-to-back games is asking too much this season.
Number to Ponder
The number of points scored by Thomas in a four-point win over Louisville in the second round. Thomas struggled with foul trouble and finished with six points on 3-of-10 shooting. Maryland cannot defeat Texas A&M without a huge game from its best player.
If they intend on giving UConn or Baylor a game in a potential Final Four, they'll need to get significantly better on both the boards, and star senior forward Devereaux Peters must stay out of foul trouble.
Gonzaga, once America's darlings on the men's side, are the story of the region. They dropped higher seeds Rutgers and Miami and have a great chance of taking down an inconsistent Kentucky team. That's a nice preamble to the ultimate result: No one is beating UConn. The Huskies have too much scoring and if you saw how they locked down Kansas State in their last game, it's hard to see either Penn State or the winner of Gonzaga-Kentucky coming within 10 points.
No. 11 Gonzaga
The Bulldogs knocked off No. 6 Rutgers and No. 3 Miami at home, though they beat a Miami team that did not have all-ACC guard Riquna Williams because of unspecified conduct detrimental to the team. Gonzaga is smart with the ball, gets its entire team involved on offense, and has three starters who saw significant time during last year's Sweet Sixteen run. With Kentucky losing four of its last eight games, Gonzaga has a great opportunity to advance to the regional final.
Kayla Standish, Gonzaga
Standish had a pair of 30-point games in last year's tournament and had 23 points against Rutgers in the opening round. What makes her difficult is her versatility. At 6-2, the senior forward can shoot from the outside as well as drive to the basket. You have to play her like a guard.
No. 4 Penn State vs. No. 1 UConn
It will be interesting to see how the Huskies match up against one of the nation's most prolific scorers (Maggie Lucas). The Penn State sophomore guard had 30 points against LSU, including 5-of-7 from three-point range, but she's also crafty enough to get to the rim. Of course, she's never faced a defense like UConn, which pressures guards up and down the court. The game figures to be won in the frontcourt and it's hard to see Penn State rebounding with the Huskies.
Is UConn a title contender this year?
A couple of weeks ago, the answer was no. Now it's maybe and heading toward a definite yes. The Huskies have looked exceptionally good over the first two games of the tournament and freshman guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is averaging 18 points in her first two games. That's significant because UConn has four starters (Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson, Kelly Faris, Tiffany Hayes) with Final Four experience and if Lewis becomes a scoring factor over the next two games, watch out.
Number to Ponder
That's the number of points Kansas State scored against UConn in the second round, the lowest single-game point total in women's NCAA tournament history. The lockdown defense by the Huskies limited the Wildcats to 17.5 percent shooting (10-of-57) from the field and 15 percent (4 of 26) from three-point range.
Unless Geno Auriemma's players really hit a cold spell on offense, UConn is heading to Denver for its fifth consecutive Final Four and a likely fourth meeting this year with Notre Dame.
We can offer what-if's and fantastical scenarios about this region but let's deal in reality: Baylor is going to the Final Four. Georgia Tech will provide little resistance and the Lady Bears has already crushed Kansas twice this season. That leaves a flawed Tennessee team and even though the Lady Vols played Lady Bears tough last November (a 76-67 Baylor win in Knoxville), Baylor has too many weapons on both sides of the court.
No. 11 Kansas
The Jayhawks are the tournament's true Cinderella given they were one of the last four teams in, lost their leading scorer (Carolyn Davis) to a knee injury last month and now find themselves in the Sweet 16 after knocking off No. 6 Nebraska and No. 3 Delaware. Junior Angel Goodrich, a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award as one of the nation's best point guards, led the country in assists (7.4) but has emerged as a prolific scorer during the tournament. Senior Aishah Sutherland ranked in the top 10 of the Big 12 in points and rebounds.
Brittney Griner, Baylor
Griner had 25 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and one very sweet dunk against Florida -- and that was without scoring at the beginning of the game for 12 minutes. There's nobody in the country who can play her straight up and while Tennessee has size in the post with 6-4 Vicki Baugh, she's still four inches shorter than Griner and nowhere near as athletic.
No. 11 Kansas vs. No. 2 Tennessee
Goodrich should be able to matchup well with Tennessee's backcourt and Kansas mixes up its defenses very nicely but do they have the frontcourt athletes to handle Tennessee? Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson are matchup headaches for opponents and Baugh has great size. Tennessee is also playing with the motivation of not making the Final Four since 2008.
Will this be Pat Summitt's last NCAA tournament?
It's hard to say at this point and don't expect any Tennessee staffers to reveal much during the tournament. The New York Times addressed the question last week in a long profile and reported nothing has been decided. Summitt has been more muted during games this season and Tennessee's assistants have handled the postgame news conferences. Asked about next season, The Times reported Summitt was noncommittal. "I haven't even made any decision about that," she told the paper. "I'm just trying to win a championship... Whether I'm here at U.T., I may or may not coach. It is what it is. I just want to get another championship for this group."
Number to Ponder
Rebounds for Tennessee senior forward Glory Johnson -- including eight offensive boards -- in a win over DePaul. It was the fourth best single-game effort in Tennessee history behind Patricia Roberts (24), and Daedra Charles and Karla Horton (22).
Baylor. The tournament for the Lady Bears starts in Denver.