The last time the Final Four was held in St. Louis, Purdue was there. While I'm not ready to send the Boilermakers that far just yet, they do make a case for the most underrated in a region that includes some pretty strong teams in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rutgers and Auburn.
The Boilermakers struggled early, but they won seven of their last 10. They tied for second in the conference and reached the championship game, where they lost by one to Ohio State. Perhaps the change of scenery will be good for the Boilermakers, who did take Stanford to overtime and came close to knocking off Maryland. With senior Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton anchoring the inside game and Brittany Rayburn and Jodi Howell showing range on the perimeter, the Boilermakers are as balanced as anyone else in the field.
There's no doubt that Xavier has some talent. Sophomore Ta'Shia Phillips is a Wooden Award finalist, although it's pretty obvious who that award will go to. Still, getting bounced from the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament isn't what you'd expect from a team worthy of a No. 5 seed. Sixth-seeded LSU won seven of its last 10 and reached the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Purdue reached the Big Ten championship. Even Texas beat more ranked teams than Xavier played. Plus, all three played much tougher schedules than the Musketeers.
Bracket-buster: Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets have one of the most aggressive defenses, leading the nation with 14 steals a game. Their full-court press has harassed even the best ACC teams into coughing the ball up. That defense carried them to a win against third-seeded North Carolina. It also forced top-seeded Maryland and Duke into 46 turnovers. While the pressure didn't lead to wins, Georgia Tech's knack for forcing turnovers allowed it to challenge Maryland, one of the hottest teams in the tournament, in an eight-point loss.
Three lower-seeded teams have a definite geographical advantage in this region, including No. 12 Gonzaga in Seattle and No. 8 Iowa in Iowa City. But Rutgers opens the tournament on its home court, which can be a pretty imposing venue for opponents. Granted, the Scarlet Knights haven't defended their home turf as well as in the past, but with more than 7,000 fans on hand, they did stay within 10 of Connecticut in the regular-season finale. That's saying quite a bit, considering the Huskies' knack for demolishing teams this season.
Best player you've never heard of: Central Florida sophomore Emma Cannon
Cannon led UCF to one of the biggest turnarounds in C-USA history. Picked to finish 12th in the league, Central Florida took second in the regular season and won the conference tournament. Cannon ranks seventh in the nation with 11.5 rebounds a game. In the conference tournament, in which the Knights took four wins in as many days, Cannon improved on her stats, averaging 14.5 rebounds and 14.2 points while earning MVP honors. She found success outside C-USA, too: she put up 17 points and seven rebounds against Baylor.
Best matchup: Oklahoma vs. Auburn
Oklahoma and Auburn are both desperate to win a national championship. Courtney Paris has already guaranteed to pay back her scholarship money should the Sooners come away without a national title. There's no question this is the best Auburn has been during Nell Fortner's five-year tenure. It's also one of the most experienced teams in the field. Its senior class, led by SEC player of the year DeWanna Bonner, has really come together during the past four seasons.
This will also be a matchup of two talented point guards. Auburn's Whitney Boddie leads the country with 8.1 assists, while Oklahoma sophomore DanielleRobinson has grown leaps and bounds since her rookie year.
The pick: Oklahoma
The last time the Sooners were a No. 1 seed, they reached the national title game. And they've got a good shot of getting there again. If Paris' scholarship declaration weren't enough incentive, the Sooners also have a chance to play in their home state. All they have to do is make it past the first two rounds.
In Paris, they've also got one of the best players in the game and a player who's willing to carry the load with her ability to dominate the paint. However, the Sooners are also more balanced than ever. With 93 three-pointers on the season, Whitney Hand and NyeshiaStevenson force opponents to think twice about packing the lane. Focus too much on Courtney and twin Ashley Paris, perhaps the most improved player in the country, will burn you.