Women's NCAA Tournament Preview and Predictions
We could get this out of the way first and say the University of Connecticut is going to win the NCAA Women's Tournament and chalk up yet another 39-0 season—but like my girl Courtney Paris, I'm not ready to do that quite yet.
Biggest Snub: Bowling Green. The Falcons fell in their conference championship to Ball State, and an RPI of 48 just didn't do the trick, mostly due to a terrible non-conference schedule. At 28-4, it doesn't kill you to give a mid-major a chance, does it?
Oh well, let's take a look at the regions:
Favorite: UConn. The only name recognized by the casual fan is Maya Moore (pictured above, from above). What most people fail to realize is the 33-0 record isn't due to one person alone. Each of the Lady Huskies' starting five can hurt you, as can their bench, as will their coach.
Tina Charles (16.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG) and Renee Montgomery (15.8 PPG, 5.2 APG) will have increased roles if coaches decide to go the Jimmy Pastos route and focus completely the star player...though Moore will probably still tear the double- and triple-teams to shreds.
Top scoring offense, second best scoring defense, best field-goal percentage, most assists per game, and best assist-to-turnover ratio. Good luck matching up.
Upset Special: Hello? Marist! Given the 12-seed in the region, the Red Foxes are heading to Hollywood for round one (and hopefully two). They play the Lady Cavaliers out of the University of Virginia in the first round. Like most schools from the Big Six, UVA has a great size advantage on Marist.
Brian Giorgis (three NCAA Tournament victories in the last two seasons) has until Saturday to prepare.
He will likely go with his normal starting five, but the option is there to try to match up on the inside, inserting freshman Brandy Gang into the starting lineup to take pressure off Maria Laterza and Rachele Fitz.
This move would be a gamble, because the Red Foxes lack depth in the paint and would have to sit one of their experienced guards. If Laterza, Gang, or both get into foul trouble, only Emily Stallings is available off the bench to roam underneath.
Coming off the bench at 5'10", Lynzee Johnson is too undersized to be given the task of guarding UVA's frontcourt, but gives Marist better depth in the backcourt, where she is also lethal.
Guard play is important, and the Red Foxes will be bringing a different point guard to the Dance for the third straight year. Alisa Kresge guided Marist to the Sweet 16 in '07, Nikki Flores led them to the second round last year, and Elise Caron takes the duties this time around.
Caron averages 2.7 assists per game, while Erica Allenspach (3.1 APG) and Julianne Viani (4.5 APG) also know what to do with the rock.
One of Marist's greatest strengths is free-throw shooting, where Giorgis' squad ranks seventh in the nation at 78.4 percent. It could be important in a physical, down-to-the-wire game.
Should the Red Foxes advance, they likely face an over-seeded California team, which again has a size advantage, but if Marist is hot from deep, magical things can happen.
A victory in the second round would set up a Sweet 16 matchup against UConn. Take my advice: Root for Marist. It will make you a better person.
Sleeper: Notre Dame. Despite being the No. 7 seed, the Irish play their first round game at home in South Bend. Should they win, their second round game is at home...in South Bend. The home-court advantage could vault them over No. 2 Texas A&M, sending them to lovely New Jersey for the Sweet 16.
Prediction: To nobody's surprise, UConn will emerge from this region. No. 3 Florida State isn't playing its best basketball anymore, and if Texas A&M falls to Notre Dame in the second round, it would make UConn's course even easier.
Favorite: Stanford. Duke somehow stole a No. 1 seed, but nobody is fooled. Stanford is absolutely the favorite to come out of this region. Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen can both score and rebound. Jeanette Pohlen is the three-point threat to complement a brutal inside game.
Stanford is second in the nation in rebound margin and only trails UConn in scoring margin, assists per game, and assist-to-turnover ratio. An unselfish team which rebounds the ball is very dangerous.
The knock on Stanford is the team's vulnerability to give up the trifecta. Opponents hit almost 33 percent of three-pointers attempted against the Cardinal.
Upset Special: None.
As is the case too often with women's basketball, none of the lower-seeded teams pose an actual threat to higher-seeded teams in Berkeley.
If you want to count No. 9 Michigan State over No. 8 Middle Tennessee State in the first round as an upset, that's your prerogative...but if the game were played anywhere but East Lansing, MTSU and its brutal full-court press and three-point barrage would prevail.
If you really want to reach, spring for Sacred Heart over Ohio State, but the game is in Columbus. A fundamental team, Sacred Heart makes 75 percent of its free throws and 39 percent of its three-pointers.
Still, Ohio State has too much size and athleticism, not to mention the crowd's support.
Sleeper: Tennessee. Cute, right? It's almost impossible to sell any Pat Summitt team as a potential sleeper, so I won't even try. She has never missed an NCAA Tournament, and come to think of it, the No. 5 seed this year is as low as any of her teams have ever been ranked.
She knows how to coach in March, so Duke better be ready for the Sweet 16 showdown. Duke won at Tennessee by eight points earlier in the year.
Prediction: I like Stanford to advance from Berkeley. The advantage of playing in its home state the entire time will play a huge factor.
Duke has the right components to beat the Cardinal. With Abby Waner and Jasmine Thomas threatening from outside, the Blue Devils still match up on the inside with Chante Black (6'5").
If necessary, Krystal Thomas (6'4") is available off the bench to help under the rim.
Duke commits a lot of turnovers, but plays stifling defense to overcome it.
Neither team is particularly efficient from the free-throw line, but Duke is slightly better. In order for the No. 1 Blue Devils to "upset" the No. 2 Cardinal, they will need to convert from the stripe.
Favorite: Maryland. Name a hotter team (not coached by Geno Auriemma) right now than the Lady Terps. Can't be done. When a team not in Durham or Chapel Hill wins both the ACC regular-season crown and the ACC Tournament title, it's something to talk about.
Winners of 12 straight games, Maryland does a little bit of everything—except play defense. The Lady Terrapins are the top three-point shooting team in the nation (41 percent), 13th in free-throw percentage (76 percent), but their best defense is their stellar offense.
Allowing almost 70 points per game, Maryland could run into trouble against a strong defensive team which also happens to be hitting its shots on the other side of the court.
Upset Special: University of Wisconsin-Green Bay over LSU. The No. 11 Phoenix have the best scoring defense in the land, allowing just over 50 points per game, as well as the best turnover margin.
Though LSU will have the advantage when it comes to size and athleticism, UWGB's Celeste Hoewisch and Kati Harty lead an attacking defense which averages over 12 steals per game.
Though there is nothing impressive about UWGB's 66 points per game, the Phoenix make the most of their opportunities, converting 46 percent of their field goal attempts.
Sleeper: South Dakota State. I haven't bought into the hype yet, as the Jackrabbits didn't run the table in-conference, and didn't beat any high-profile teams. Still, they only lost at Maryland by a dozen, and won at Gonzaga, in addition to beating several teams from major conferences.
With a No. 7 seed, it's hard to see them getting by Baylor in the second round, but crazier things have happened. If they beat Baylor, you have to like them to at least make a run to the Elite Eight, because that win confirms all the hype, making them completely and utterly legit.
The Lady Jacks have some lengthy bodies coming in, but not right now. Being out-rebounded and pushed around inside will be their downfall. Their star, Jennifer Warkenthien (15.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG), stands only 6'0" tall.
She was able to register 17 points and seven boards against Maryland very early in the season, but she'll be getting extra attention since SDSU has now hit the national rankings.
Regardless, making the NCAA Tournament, and even potentially winning a game, is a huge accomplishment for South Dakota State. Any team which wins 31 games, including 17 straight, commands respect.
Prediction: Baylor. The Lady Bears aren't the biggest team in the Big 12, but they were able to win the conference tournament. Though they didn't have to go through Oklahoma to win the title, there's no telling what would have happened if the teams did meet up.
Despite losing both meetings to the Paris sisters this season, they only lost by five and eight points, respectively.
Against Maryland, Baylor will use its experience against Oklahoma to bump around on the inside to create havoc for the Lady Terps. They don't turn the ball over much, and boast the eighth-best rebounding margin despite playing in the Big 12.
A sturdy 42 percent from the field is no aberration, and will help Baylor to the Final Four.
Favorite: Oklahoma. I didn't mind at all when Courtney Paris offered to pay back her scholarship if she didn't guide her team to a National Title. Over the course of the season, the Sooners have become much better than the 28-point loss at UConn might lead people to believe.
I plan on donating money to Marist when I finally start making some, and though it won't be $64,000, and I didn't play on the basketball team, it's kind of the same thing, right?
Upset Special: This region is filled with all sorts of goodies. Charlotte over Purdue looks good, Gonzaga over Xavier can totally happen, and Montana over Pittsburgh would be a stretch, but why not?
The Charlotte/Purdue winner plays UNC in the second round (UNC will win), and the other four teams will run into Oklahoma in the Sweet 16, so this is the best spot to take a gamble in your bracket.
Charlotte has three solid scorers in Aysha Jones, Shannon McCallum, and Danielle Burgin. McCallum and Burgin both rebound. Jones, Traci Ray, and Ashley Spriggs all drop dimes like they're wishing for good luck at a fountain.
Susceptible on defense, the 49ers still stayed in some games they had no business being in early in the year.
Gonzaga has a great turnover margin, plays tight defense, and has two excellent scoring options with 6'2" Heather Bowman inside (19.5 PPG) and 5'8" Courtney Vandersloot outside (16.4 PPG).
The Lady Bulldogs' opponent, Xavier, is great on defense, but the team's kryptonite is at the free-throw line, where the Lady Musketeers shoot an abysmal 63.8 percent.
For Montana to knock off Pitt, the Lady Griz (best name in the Dance) need Sonya Rogers (40.6 percent from range) to expose Pitt's lack of three-point defense in the most urgent of ways.
If you don't think she'll set the nylon on fire, don't advance Montana to the second round.
Sleeper: Can a No. 3 seed be a sleeper? In women's ball, yes. North Carolina has faded into mediocrity since losing to UConn in January. They even struggled in a tuneup game a couple of days ago against South Dakota (not to be confused with South Dakota State).
The Lady Heels only beat the 18-11 Lady Coyotes by six points, but they can still heat up and make as much noise as any other team in the NCAA Tourney.
Scoring 83 points per game, Carolina can hurt you with the ball in anyone's hands. Rashanda McCants (14.9 PPG), Jessica Breland (14 PPG), Italee Lucas (13.6 PPG), and Cetera DeGraffenreid (12.1 PPG) can all score at will.
The Lady Heels rank in the top 10 in the nation in steals per game (12.1), blocked shots per game (6.5), and assists per game (16.8).
They've fallen off the radar, but I've got them beating No. 2 Auburn in my bracket, setting up an Elite Eight game against Oklahoma.
Auburn has a beast on the inside in DeWanna Bonner, listed at 6'4", averaging 21 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest. Bonner doesn't blow you away from the floor, only shooting 48 percent on field goals, but when she gets to the free throw line, she converts 84 percent of the time.
The Lady Tigers also have one of the nation's premier guards in Whitney Boddie, averaging 11.3 points and 8.1 assists per game.
Why am I taking Carolina over them? Let's call it a hunch, a bias, and a prayer.
Prediction: Two words—Courtney Freakin' Paris. Two more words—Ashley Freakin' Paris. Two final words—Danielle Robinson.
Oklahoma has too much inside and good enough guard play to get the job done to advance.
Courtney boasts over 16 points and over 13 rebounds per game. Ashley isn't far behind with 12.7 PPG and 9.5 RPG. Robinson gets them the rock. In addition to scoring 12.8 PPG, she has 5.8 assists per game.
Oklahoma will beat Baylor for a third time, and UConn will outlast, not embarrass, Stanford.
Though I wasn't ready to crown UConn when I started the article, I am now.
In the championship game, I've got UConn over Oklahoma, handily.
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