Four storylines to watch in the women’s NCAA tournament
Baylor, Stanford, UConn and Notre Dame earned No. 1 seeds Monday night when the women's NCAA tournament draw was released. Here are four storylines worth paying attention to once the tournament tips off next week:
1. Will Baylor become the first team ever to go 40-0?
The motivation that has fueled Baylor's 34-0 regular season came from the loss that ended the Bears' championship hopes last March. Top-seeded Baylor lost 58-46 in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Texas A&M, a Big 12 rival the Bears had beaten three times last season prior to the NCAA tournament and has since defeated three times this season.
What makes Baylor the clear favorite entering the NCAA tournament is the combination of 6-foot-8 national player of the year candidate Brittney Griner and a talented, experienced supporting cast. Already the most dominant defensive presence in women's college hoops, Griner has averaged 23.0 points per game and showcased improved ability to score over either shoulder or pass out of a double team.
Griner's development and the perimeter marksmanship of guard Odyssey Sims has propelled Baylor to its best regular season in school history. In addition to beating the defending national champion Aggies three times, the Bears also defeated fellow No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and UConn and potential Elite Eight opponent Tennessee.
2. If Baylor doesn't win, who will?
The teams with the best chance to deny Baylor's quest for an undefeated season are the other three No. 1 seeds, each of whom are familiar names to even casual women's hoops fans.
Stanford has made four straight Final Fours without winning a championship, so sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike will be trying to put the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (31-1) in position to break that hex. Notre Dame (30-3) fell to Texas A&M in the title game last spring, so point guard Skylar Diggins spearheads the Big East regular season champion Irish's quest to avenge that loss.
[Related: Play Women's Tourney Pick'em | Bracket | Print it out ]
Then there's UConn, which by its lofty standards endured a somewhat pedestrian regular season. The Huskies (29-4) suffered a rare home loss to Saint John's and lost the Big East regular season title to Notre Dame, but they emphatically avenged both of those losses in capturing the conference tournament title, sending a message that they are tournament-ready.
3. Can Tennessee return to a Final Four?
If Tennessee is going to fulfill its pledge to Coach Pat Summitt and avoid going four years without a Final Four appearance for the first time in program history, the Vols will have to overcome a difficult draw.
Up first is Summitt's alma mater Tennessee Martin, followed by a potential matchup with seventh-seeded DePaul in front of a likely Blue Demons-heavy crowd in Chicago. If the seeds hold, Tennessee would also have to beat a 30-1 Delaware team that has the nation's leading scorer just to earn the right to challenge national title favorite Baylor in the regional finals.
There's no question Tennessee will be the sentimental favorite this season after Summitt announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. The duo of Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson will be responsible for helping the Vols avoid an upset and earn a shot at Baylor in what would be perhaps the marquee game of the entire tournament.
4. Will high seeds survive difficult geographic draws?
If the primary problem with the selection committee's bracket last season was that Baylor and Stanford had to face a conference opponent for the fourth time in the elite eight, then this year's main issue is the second-round traps set for No. 2 and 3 seeds.
No. 2 Kentucky could face 10th-seeded Iowa State on its home floor, No. 2 Tennessee may draw seventh-seeded DePaul in Chicago and No. 3 St. John's faces a potential road game at No. 6 Oklahoma.
The team with the most to complain about, however, is second-seeded Duke, which was shipped to Nashville instead of playing in Chapel Hill, N.C., a few miles from its campus. The Blue Devils' second-round opponent will either be seventh-seeded Vanderbilt, which went 17-1 at home this season, or 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee State, whose campus is 45 minutes from Nashville.
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