Spokane Regional breakdown
Before we find out if Stanford can reach a sixth consecutive Final Four, let's take a look at the rest of the region.
1. Gonzaga, a No. 12 seed, is looking for its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs are used to beating the so-called "big" conference schools to get there.
In 2010, they knocked off North Carolina and Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament. In 2011, when they reached the Elite Eight, they beat Iowa, UCLA and Louisville before finally being halted in the regional final by Stanford. Last year, Gonzaga topped Rutgers and Miami.
Beth Mowins and Debbie Antonelli break down the NCAA women's tournament bracket.
Of course, it helped that all those games were played in the state of Washington (2010 in Seattle, and 2011 and '12 in Spokane). Now once again in 2013, the Bulldogs are hosting early-round games in Spokane. Will No. 5 seed Iowa State and/or No. 4 seed Georgia be this year's Gonzaga major-conference victims?
Certainly, the Bulldogs' Taelor Karr is familiar with the Cyclones' style of play. She faced Iowa State while she was still competing for Kansas State (she transferred to Gonzaga).
2. Tulsa is just one game above .500, but the Golden Hurricane earned the program's second NCAA tournament bid by getting hot at the right time. And a little home cooking didn't hurt, either.
Tulsa began the season with five consecutive losses. But now, Tulsa is coming off five wins in a row -- four of them in the Conference USA tournament, which was held in Tulsa. That league tourney title gave the Golden Hurricane the automatic bid with a 17-16 record.
By contrast, their first-round opponent, top-seeded Stanford, has lost only 14 games in its past five seasons combined. That includes two losses this year, to UConn and Cal.
3. Speaking of the Bears, who are the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Regional, they have to play on the road in the early rounds, while rival Stanford is a host site.
A lot of folks are looking ahead to a potential Stanford-Cal showdown in the Elite Eight. But the Bears might have to survive in enemy territory to get there. Cal meets No. 15 seed Fresno State in the first round in Lubbock, Texas, and then could meet No. 7 seed Texas Tech, the host school. Texas Tech lost three times at home this season, all to Big 12 foes: Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma. -- Mechelle Voepel
Three players to watch
Alex Bentley, Penn State: She didn't lead Penn State in points or assists during the Big Ten season, but that's not to say Bentley's importance has diminished for a team that still believes it can end a tournament that it begins in Baton Rouge down the road in New Orleans. The backcourt was a work in progress for much of the season; Dara Taylor's addition changed the dynamic that previously existed between Bentley and Maggie Lucas. It might still be a work in progress, if the struggles against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament are any indication. But even if she cedes the volume of shots to Lucas and some of the playmaking duties to Taylor, Bentley is still the one at the wheel in crunch time.
Layshia Clarendon, California: People in Pac-12 territory need no introduction to Clarendon. In fact, conference fans beyond Berkeley are probably about ready to bid her adieu at this point. But the NCAA tournament sets up to give a lot of fans in other time zones their first extended look at a senior who is one of the season's most notable success stories. She was a good player on good teams her first three seasons, but she emerged this season as the go-to scorer on a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations. In Pac-12 play, she averaged 17.6 points, 3.1 assists and shot 47 percent from the field. Out of conference, she averaged 12.8 points, 2.5 assists and shot 41 percent from the field.
Adrian Richie, Green Bay: How many other players in the bracket lead their team in points, 3-pointers, free throws, rebounds, steals and blocks? And in the event of a tie, how many are also second on the team in assists? All-Americans are tough acts to follow at pretty much any school, and all the more for a program like Green Bay, which is used to NCAA tournament trips but not the kind of individual accolades Julie Wojta piled up. But Ritchie excelled as the closest thing the Phoenix had (or really wanted) to a go-to player. Green Bay's first-round opponent, LSU, struggled in losses against Florida Gulf Coast's Sarah Hansen and Hampton's Keiara Avant, mid-major players with superb all-around games. Ritchie is from the same mold. -- Graham Hays
Best first-round game
(5) Iowa State versus (12) Gonzaga: The big equalizer in this game is the location: the McCarthey Athletic Center, which is Gonzaga's home court. Of course, if anyone understands home-court advantage, it's Iowa State, which plays its home games in front of one of women's college basketball's most dedicated crowds. And as Iowa State coach Billy Fennelly told reporters after the bracket came out, his players will be ready for the challenge: "Our kids would rather go play a great Gonzaga team in front of 6,000 people than play in an empty gym somewhere." (The Zags have sold out the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center six times this season.)
So the question for this game will be whether Gonzaga (27-5, 15-1) can start strong, then harness the energy provided by the fans -- because the Zags are going to need all the help they can get to topple the always-ready Cyclones, who are making their seventh straight NCAA appearance.
The reason this game will be so good is because the teams are mirror images of one another, very similar in style -- strong outside shooting and a balanced attack -- as well as personnel. The Zags are led by guards Haiden Palmer (12.4 points per game) and Taelor Karr (10.8 ppg), from whom they'll need superb performances to rattle the Cyclones. Iowa State (23-8, 12-6) will come into town looking to drain shots from the perimeter, with junior forward Haille Christofferson (15.6 ppg) at the helm of that attack. Iowa State enters NCAA play with a stifling zone defense and a handful of talented shooters.
So, yeah, Gonzaga is going to need some home cooking to pull off this upset. But it's possible. -- Kate Fagan
Upsets to watch for
(12) Gonzaga over (5) Iowa State (first round): The Cyclones are disciplined and have a height advantage, but the Bulldogs are at home in front of a great crowd and are relentless in their effort. Iowa State has more talent and even experience, but Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves has created a program that plays well in March, especially when it has home-court advantage.
(6) LSU over (3) Penn State (second round): This is more talk of home-court advantage. This is a second-round matchup that could be a repeat from 2012. Last year, the Lady Lions prevailed, but the Maravich Center is no cakewalk (just ask Georgia or Kentucky). Penn State had a few offensive issues down the stretch, and another night of that on the road in Baton Rouge could mean elimination. -- Charlie Creme
Projected regional semifinals
(1) Stanford versus (4) Georgia: Andy Landers' team is no stranger to the rigors of the NCAA tournament, with 30 appearances in 32 years, but the Lady Dogs are going to have to get out of Gonzaga's home court in order to advance down the road to Spokane Arena. The Bulldogs, who finished third in the SEC behind Tennessee and Kentucky, will have earned the right to face a Stanford team that bounced Georgia from the tournament in 2010 by a painful 73-36 margin.
The Cardinal, with two games at Maples Pavilion, should have little trouble on paper getting through. But it could be a battle as Stanford goes into the tournament still without junior guard Toni Kokenis, out for a long stretch of the season with an undisclosed illness. The Cardinal hope that Amber Orrange can duplicate the success she had in the Pac-12 tournament finale against UCLA, providing Chiney Ogwumike some needed support.
(2) Cal versus (3) Penn State: The Bears, the tournament's only non-No. 1 seed to knock off another one of the top seeds this year (a victory over Stanford on Jan. 13), will have a very tough second-round game against Texas Tech in Lubbock, but their inside-outside balance carries the day. Cal should head into the Sweet 16 with the first 30-win season in school history.
Penn State, a No. 3 seed for the second year in a row, will ride the 3-point shooting of senior Maggie Lucas -- who has 290 career 3-pointers coming into the tournament -- out of Baton Rouge and past LSU for the second straight year. Penn State has only faced Cal once, winning the 1990 matchup. -- Michelle Smith