State Of the No. 1: Tennessee
Since their last loss, a 65-54 defeat at Baylor on Dec. 14, the Lady Vols have won 22 straight games, including 19 SEC contests by an average margin of 23.8 points. Their 90-65 domination of SEC tournament final opponent Kentucky was so complete (the Lady Vols even hit a school-record 16 three-pointers) that afterward coach Pat Summitt grabbed a microphone and broke into song, joining her team in belting out Rocky Top.
By normal Tennessee standards, this was way too early to start celebrating. But these last few years have been a little, well, rocky, for the Lady Vols. They suffered a humiliating first-round loss to Ball State in 2009, then got bounced by Baylor in last year's Sweet 16. But the floundering underclassmen on those two teams have matured into focused upperclassmen who radiate the fire and competitiveness Summitt demands. When everyone is healthy, the Lady Vols have one of the biggest and most versatile front lines in the game, led by 6-foot-3 junior forward Glory Johnson. The perimeter is impressive, too: Freshman point guard Meighan Simmons leads the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) while junior Shekinna Strickland does so many things for Tennessee (including delivering 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game) that she earned SEC Player of the Year honors. Senior Angie Bjorklund, who missed six games with a foot injury, has been especially lethal from the arc lately: seven of those record 16 threes against Kentucky were hers.
In sum, Tennessee is balanced, athletic, big, deep, versatile, stingy on defense (they keep opponents to just 33.1 percent shooting, fifth in the nation) and accurate on offense (they shoot 46.6 percent, sixth in the nation.) And now, after a two-year absence from the Final Four, they are hungry, too.
After losing three frontline starters from last year's Final Four squad, the Sooners might not have everything it takes to get back for a third straight final weekend. But this team, which defended Baylor's 6-8 Brittney Griner so well on Feb. 27 that the Lady Bears needed 37 points from freshman point guard Odyssey Sims to win by one, have enough pieces to cause havoc in this region. With speedy Danielle Robinson, a 5-9 senior All-America point guard, and sophomore sharpshooter Whitney Hand in the backcourt, the Sooners can be deadly from long distance and disruptive on defense. And their coach, Sherri Coale, has a history of scaring the daylights out of favored teams late in March (see Connecticut in 2002 and Stanford in 2010).
Suspect Team: Texas
Given the Longhorns' 7-9 record in the Big 12 and 19-13 record overall, one could have made a case for leaving the Horns out of the tournament altogether. They played a number of ranked teams, but they only beat one of them, Texas Tech, and the Lady Raiders were ranked 25 at the time. Moreover, the Horns lost five of their last seven games. Coach Gail Goestenkors might bring the Longhorns back to national relevance someday, but it won't happen this year.
Juiciest Matchup: Oklahoma vs. James Madison
The two point guards alone make this must-see TV. Oklahoma's Robinson, who averages 18.4 points and 4.8 assists and is one of the top defenders in the Big 12, will face James Madison's 5-7 senior Dawn Evans, who by virtue of a lightning-quick release, a great ability to separate and "the prettiest step-back jump shot I've ever seen, male or female," according to her coach, Kenny Brooks, is the Colonial Athletic Association's career scoring leader and the second leading scorer in the country (23.2 ppg).
Gamebreaker: Shenise Johnson, Miami
There is nothing the 5-11 junior guard, the ACC Player of the Year and a two-time ACC All-Defensive selection, doesn't do for the Hurricanes, who made a huge leap from last year's NIT berth to earn a share of the ACC regular-season title and a No. 3 seed. Johnson leads the 'Canes in rebounding (8.7 rpg), assists (3.7 apg), free-throw shooting (87%) and long-distance shooting (35.7% from behind the arc), and is second in scoring (19.7 ppg), steals (3.2) and blocks (26).
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Dawn Evans, James Madison
If you're an avid reader of Player of the Year watch lists, you probably have heard of JMU's senior scoring machine (see above), who plays 35.6 minutes a game despite suffering from Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a rare disease that attacks the kidney's filtering system. "If I had to put a number on it, I'd say Dawn is playing at 75 percent," says her coach, Kenny Brooks, who keeps Evans out of practice every now and then to conserve her energy. "But her 75 percent is better than most people's 100 percent."
The Pressure's On: Ohio State
In the last five years, no team has done less with its high seeds than the Buckeyes. Consider their recent NCAA track record:
• 2006: Seeded No. 1, lost to 8-seed Boston College in the second round
• 2007: Seeded No. 4, lost to 13-seed Marist in the first round
• 2008: Seeded No. 6, lost to 11-seed Florida State in first round
• 2009: Seeded No. 3, lost to 2-seed Stanford in Sweet 16
• 2010: Seeded No. 2, lost (by 20) to 7-seed Mississippi State
Senior center Jantel Lavender, an All-America center and three-time Big Ten Player of the Year, has one last chance to deliver on her and her team's perennial promise.
Number To Ponder: 85.7
That's the percentage of three-pointers Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund hit over three SEC tournament games. Those 12 makes (on 14 attempts) boost her career threes record to 300 and her career percentage to 41.
The Pick: Tennessee
Does anyone really think Tennessee is going to miss the Final Four three years in a row? (It's only happened once in history, and that was in the early '90s, before Summitt started her singing career.) Notre Dame will give them a game in the Elite Eight, but the Lady Vols won't falter before the Final Four this year. Get ready to hear a lot more Rocky Top.