- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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There are 63 games ahead to provide answers, but let's first settle on some of the questions for this year's NCAA tournament.
1. Which No. 1 has the toughest road to Denver?
We knew when we woke up on Selection Monday the toughest road to Denver for teams not fortunate enough to earn No. 1 seeds would be the route that led through presumptive No. 1 overall seed Baylor. What we learned in seeing the bracket is that the reverse is also true. It's going to be tough for any team to get to the Final Four by going through Baylor, but the selection committee ensured it won't be easy for the championship favorite to get there, either.
A team with the nation's most dominant player, Brittney Griner, and its second-best team field-goal defense could see its own reflection in the first four rounds against teams with a whole lot of individual talent and a heck of a lot of defense.
The most intriguing matchup in the region, if not the entire tournament, will only happen if No. 3 Delaware joins Baylor in the regional final, but placing Griner on the same court as Blue Hens All-American Elena Delle Donne would give Kim Mulkey's team a taste of what the rest of the nation feels every time it tries to guard what can't be guarded.
But even if it isn't Delaware, which begins its run with a tricky game on No. 14 Arkansas-Little Rock's home court and would potentially face No. 2 Tennessee in the Sweet 16, Baylor may have to deal with one-on-one headaches. Griner versus Delle Donne would be a tournament headliner, but Odyssey Sims against Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis would be a worthy undercard in the second round if the Big Ten Player of the Year's eighth-seeded Buckeyes get by Florida in the first round in Bowling Green, Ohio, just a short drive from Columbus.
Assuming Baylor takes care of business against UC Santa Barbara in the first round and evades either Ohio State or Florida in the second round, a Sweet 16 meeting with either No. 4 Georgia Tech (No. 36 in the nation in turnover margin) or No. 5 Georgetown (No. 6 in the nation in field-goal defense, No. 4 in turnover margin) would take a toll of a different kind.
And all of the above fails to take into account the quarterfinal the chalk suggests will happen in Des Moines against Tennessee, a rematch of one of just five wins Baylor had all season by single digits. The Lady Vols may not have a stand-alone star quite like Griner or Sims or a statistically-dominant defense, but they do have talent aplenty and the motivation to get coach Pat Summitt back to the Final Four.
Baylor made the regular season look easy, but its reward is a treacherous path to Denver.
2. Speaking of roads, which team has the toughest road trip?
You keep thinking the inherent inequality of stronger seeds playing on the home court of weaker seeds in the early rounds will reach critical mass one of these years. But here we are again.
Consider that one No. 2 seed, Maryland, opens the tournament playing the first two rounds on its home court, should the Terrapins beat No. 15 Navy in their first game. But instead of playing in Chapel Hill, N.C., a short trek from Durham, No. 2 Duke faces a potential second-round game against No. 7 Vanderbilt in Nashville, where the Commodores went 17-1 this season. (Duke's gain if Vanderbilt falls victim to an upset in the first round? The Blue Devils would play Middle Tennessee State, whose campus is 45 minutes from Nashville). That's the most glaring bracket-integrity-be-damned offering of the early rounds, but it's hardly the only one.
No. 3 St. John's faces a potential second-round road game at No. 6 Oklahoma. As mentioned, Delaware opens the tournament with a road game at Arkansas-Little Rock, as does No. 7 Green Bay against No. 10 Iowa State in Ames -- that pairing taking place in the first round for the second time in three years on the Cyclones' court. And No. 11 Gonzaga could get back-to-back home games against stronger seeds with No. 6 Rutgers and No. 3 Miami visiting Spokane.
It's enough to make No. 4 Penn State potentially playing at No. 5 LSU in the second round look benign.
3. Where is the best place to be for the first two rounds?
Gold medal: Ames (Kentucky, Green Bay, Iowa State, McNeese State). Yes, one of the same sites that threatens to make a mockery of the bracket's integrity is also as potentially exciting a place to be for the first two rounds as any out there.
What makes a site interesting for the early rounds? It helps to have a contender with question marks, a team that could sneak into the Final Four but which also possesses the vulnerabilities to make its progress less than foregone conclusion.
With No. 2 Kentucky, the team that won the SEC regular-season title but lost at mid-major power Middle Tennessee State and major also-ran Alabama, that's a check. It helps to have a little guy with a realistic chance to win two games, a program that annually overachieves and plays an appealing style. It doesn't hurt if that team has a singular talent that most fans haven't had a chance to watch. With No. 7 Green Bay and its Wooden Award finalist Julie Wojta, that's a check. And it helps to have atmosphere. Loud gyms matter, and few places have better or louder fans than those who routinely fill Hilton Coliseum to support a team likely to play much, much better than a No. 10 seed would indicate in front of their supporters.
Silver medal: Tallahassee (Georgia, St. Bonaventure, Florida Gulf Coast, Marist). One of these things is not like the others. Florida's state capital will play host to the tournament's unofficial mid-major convention, with Georgia coach Andy Landers wondering how his name ended up on the invite list.
Making the first tournament appearance in program history, No. 5 St. Bonaventure finds itself playing the role of heavy against fellow newcomer No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast, in the field in its first season of eligibility at the Division I level.
The other first-round game offers a more traditional pairing of major conference favorite and proven mid-major sleeper. This might not be the Marist team that made it to the Sweet 16 in 2007 with Rachele Fitz or nearly upset Duke last season despite losing star Erica Allenspach to injury, but it is a team that knows its way around the postseason. Landers is a known commodity, but Jim Crowley, Karl Smesko and Brian Giorgis are three of the best coaches you probably haven't seen.
4. Which teams could erase the chalk?
As someone who somewhat sheepishly picked four No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four, I feel compelled to at least make a case for some less predictable paths to Denver.
The non-No. 1 seed: Duke
The tricky opening in Tennessee notwithstanding, Duke finally seems to have an offense capable of getting it beyond a regional final. Granted, that didn't happen in postseason-type games in the regular season against Connecticut, Kentucky and Notre Dame, but perhaps those were learning experiences more than flashbacks.
Chelsea Gray is an efficient floor leader, Elizabeth Williams seemed to get better as her freshman season progressed, rather than hitting a wall, and while still not prolific, the Blue Devils can use the 3-pointer to their advantage at times. It would just be a lot easier to pick them in a potential regional final against Stanford if they still had Richa Jackson, out for the year with an injury, to contest Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike on the boards.
The mild sleeper: Delaware
Delaware may be the most difficult team to predict in the tournament because it doesn't really fit any model seen since Jackie Stiles and Southwest Missouri State, and even that isn't a great fit. The Blue Hens beat Penn State, St. Bonaventure and Princeton before conference play and played Maryland down to the final minutes on the Terrapins' home court. So whatever your assessment of the Colonial Athletic Association, they have played well against the caliber of teams they're likely to face in the second and third rounds (in their case, probably Nebraska and Tennessee).
They should be able to compete in those games. Could they take that one step more and actually beat Baylor? Delle Donne gives them a chance, but two numbers stand out. Delaware ranked among the national leaders in rebound margin, but a big Maryland team beat it on the boards 39-29. And players other than Delle Donne shot 42 percent from the field this season (she shot 52 percent). Those aren't the numbers that make you think Delaware could win five of 10 against Baylor, or even three of 10. But one? That's a possibility.
The long shot: Penn State
The Big Ten regular-season champions have two high-caliber guards who can create points in Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas. The Nittany Lions have an offense that is generally efficient beyond Bentley and Lucas, shooting 43 percent from the floor (which is what Texas A&M shot last season, for what that's worth) while coming respectably close to an even assist-to-turnover ratio. And they have a defense that quietly ranked among the top 25 in the nation in field goal defense.
Can the Nittany Lions beat the Huskies if the latter plays the way it did in the Big East tournament? Probably not. Can they win if the Huskies play the way they did against St. John's late in the regular season, or even some approximation thereof? That's not impossible to believe.
5. Who are the players to watch?
Des Moines: As already mentioned, it's a region blessed with the two best players in the nation in Griner and Delle Donne. In addition to Prahalis, Ohio State's Tayler Hill, Georgetown's Sugar Rodgers, Nebraska's Jordan Hooper, DePaul's Anna Martin and Tennessee's Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen are no strangers to short lists for individual awards. And as good as Prahalis and Sims are at point guard, they can't even claim undisputed bragging rights at the position in this region. There are eight finalists this season for the Nancy Lieberman Award, given annually to the nation's best point. Five of them are in this quadrant: Prahalis, Sims, BYU's Haley Steed, Kansas' Angel Goodrich and Nebraska's Lindsey Moore.
Fresno: Arguably the two best players in the region share a surname and wear the same uniforms, giving No. 1 Stanford a leg up on the competition as long as the Ogwumike sisters are out there. Duke's Elizabeth Williams was ESPN.com's top freshman, while Blue Devils point guard Chelsea Gray more than filled the void left by former All-American Jasmine Thomas. St. John's guard Shenneika Smith hit one of the season's biggest shots, a late 3-pointer to end Connecticut's 99-game home winning streak, but she also put up the all-around numbers throughout the season to rank among the Big East's best talents. Second in the nation in points per game, No. 12 Eastern Michigan's Tavelyn James is the region's top scoring threat, but Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg and Whitney Hand, Purdue's Brittany Rayburn and Vanderbilt's Christina Foggie can go for 20-plus on any given night. If assists are more your thing, No. 16 Hampton's Jericka Jenkins ranks second in the nation at 7.2 a game.
Kingston: The story of Connecticut's season was how it would deal in losing a singular talent in Maya Moore, but the Huskies share a region with a bunch of teams still happy to have the services of strong solo acts. Green Bay's Julie Wojta, Kentucky's A'dia Mathies and Miami's backcourt duo of Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams are all among 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, as is Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes. Penn State's backcourt of Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas rivals any in the region, including Miami's Johnson and Williams or Connecticut's Hayes and Bria Hartley (and it's entirely possible that Connecticut's best player comes off the bench, the role filled by freshman and Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis. Princeton's Niveen Rasheed is the Ivy League Player of the Year, while San Diego State's Courtney Clements won the same award in the Mountain West. If you're looking for proven postseason form, Gonzaga's Kayla Standish has as good an NCAA tournament résumé as any.
Raleigh: Skylar Diggins has a clear lead on her peers when it comes to Twitter followers, but she's also out in front of the pack on the court. In contrast to Diggins, who receives and earns as much attention as any player in the nation, Maryland's Alyssa Thomas may still be one of the most underrated stars in the game. Outside of the top seeds, few players better justify the price of admission than Louisville's Shoni Schimmel, the free-shooting, flashy sophomore guard. The rest of the region is heavy on players whose significance doesn't necessarily show up in the stat line, although the first-round game between St. Bonaventure's Jessica Jenkins and Florida Gulf Coast's Kelsey Jacobson will put two players already in the top 20 in NCAA history in 3-pointers on the court together.
Baylor is the top seed but might have the toughest road to the Final Four.