There's plenty of talent standing between Connecticut and a sixth consecutive Final Four. Players such as Elena Delle Donne, Tianna Hawkins, A'dia Mathies and Alyssa Thomas -- not to mention UConn's Stefanie Dolson, Kelly Faris and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis -- make Bridgeport one of the most talented regions of the bracket.
1. Finally, a road game that West Virginia fans conceivably could drive to see. The No. 11 seed Mountaineers open NCAA play with No. 6 seed Delaware in Newark, Del. That's 275 miles from Morgantown, W.Va., about a 4 hour, 40-minute drive.
Beth Mowins and Debbie Antonelli break down the NCAA women's tournament bracket.
It's the nearest road game West Virginia has had this season since playing Virginia on Dec. 2; getting to Charlottesville is around a five-hour drive.
The "closest" (ha-ha) Big 12 school to West Virginia is Iowa State, which is roughly 870 miles (a 14-hour drive) away. Conference realignment is such a great thing, isn't it?
Meanwhile, speaking of long hauls, No. 16 seed Idaho is in the tournament for the first time since 1985. But it doesn't seem likely that many Vandals fans will catch their first-round game in person. Not unless they make the hike to Storrs, Conn., to see their team face No. 1 UConn.
Incidentally, that 1984-85 season was the last before Geno Auriemma took over as the Huskies' coach.
2. UConn would not have to leave its home state to make it to New Orleans, with early-round games in Storrs and the regional in Bridgeport. Like Stanford, UConn is seeking its sixth consecutive Final Four appearance. Unlike Stanford, the Huskies won a couple of those: in 2009 and '10, part of their seven NCAA titles overall.
The last time UConn didn't get to the Final Four was 2007, when the Huskies lost to LSU in the Fresno Regional final. And the last time they lost an NCAA tournament game in the state of Connecticut was in 2006, when Duke beat the Huskies in the regional final in Bridgeport.
3. Maryland, the No. 4 seed, is hosting the early rounds. But might the Terps -- who open with No. 13 seed Quinnipiac -- face some trouble making it to the Sweet 16?
In the second round, they could meet No. 5 seed Michigan State, if the Spartans get past No. 12 seed Marist. And Michigan State is a potentially dangerous team. The Spartans made it to the final of the Big Ten tournament, upsetting league regular-season champ Penn State in the semifinals.
Michigan State lost to Purdue in the tournament championship game, and the No. 5 seed did seem at least a couple of spots better than where the Spartans were projected.
Still, Maryland has lost three of its past five games, with both victories in that stretch coming against Wake Forest -- including an overtime win against the Demon Deacons in the ACC tournament. -- Mechelle Voepel
Three players to watch[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyAlyssa Thomas and Maryand open against Quinnipiac, while Elena Delle Donne and Delaware face West Virginia.
Klarissa Bell, Michigan State: The four-team pod in College Park includes arguably the best all-around player in the entire bracket in fourth-seeded Maryland's Alyssa Thomas (see below), but Bell is a sleeper in that same category. The 5-foot-11 junior leads fifth-seeded Michigan State in scoring, albeit first among equals on a balanced ledger, but also sits near the top in rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and 3-pointers. Steals and blocks aside, she's a strong, athletic defender who frequently spends most of the game shadowing the other team's best player. She can do everything. The concern for the Spartans is there are still times like the Big Ten tournament, when she scored 20 points in a quarterfinal and then didn't hit a shot in either the semifinals or final.
Samantha MacKay, Dayton: The only solace in last year's second-round encounter between Kentucky and Green Bay, a game that shouldn't have happened until at least the Sweet 16, was knowing the committee couldn't possibly foul up a bracket that badly again. Oops. We could be headed for another regional-caliber played before its time, and MacKay is the key if No. 7 Dayton is to survive a road game against No. 10 St. John's in the first round and test the No. 2 seed in the second round. Dayton relies on a lot of scorers, but MacKay sets the tempo and, her penchant for flashy play aside, runs the offense efficiently. That won't be easy against either St. John's standout point guard Nadirah McKenith or Kentucky's pressure.
Alyssa Thomas, Maryland: Maryland's All-American junior ranks in the top 50 in the NCAA in points, rebounds and assists per game, the only player in the country to do so. She's the biggest reason the Terrapins were able to withstand losing most of their backcourt to injury before the season really got going, a forward who is capable of running an offense and getting looks inside for Tianna Hawkins and outside for a shooter like Katie Rutan -- and getting herself to the free throw line. And despite the workload, her numbers only improved once the Terps hit ACC play. Maybe we should let them get through this tournament first, but the preseason player of the year debate next fall is going to be a fun one between Thomas and Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike. -- Graham Hays
Best first-round game
(5) Michigan State vs. (12) Marist: When it comes to the NCAA tournament, whichever team is paired opposite the Red Foxes had better take a deep breath. Marist (26-6, 18-0) has a long history of making waves during March Madness. The Red Foxes have appeared in eight straight NCAA tournaments and won five tourney games since 2007. Last season, Marist defeated favored Georgia in the first round.
Senior Elizabeth Beynnon, who averages 12.2 points per game, paces the Red Foxes. But like most Marist teams, this one wins games with its aggressive defensive, strong outside shooting and great passing. Marist's balanced offensive attack makes the team very difficult to defend.
Of course, it's not like the Spartans (24-8, 10-6) are chopped liver. Michigan State is similar to Marist in that its scoring is spread out, with seven players averaging 6.2 points per game or more, and no player averaging more than Klarissa Bell's 11.1 points per game. The Spartans are talented and battle-tested, which is what playing in the Big Ten conference does for a squad.
Actually, one of the things Michigan State has going for it is that nobody overlooks Marist anymore. "They have been NCAA slayers for many years," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant told the Detroit Free Press the night the bracket was revealed. Translation: There is zero chance the Spartans will be looking past their first-round matchup.
Still, if there's one thing we can count on in the NCAA tournament, it's that Marist will be difficult to beat. -- Kate Fagan
Upsets to watch for
(10) St. John's over (7) Dayton (first round): The Red Storm are at home and are quirky enough to be tough to play against, especially if you haven't seen them. The Flyers have had a tremendous season, but they are young. St. John's has key seniors Shenneika Smith and Nadirah McKenith. If they are knocking down jump shots, Dayton might not survive.
(6) Delaware over (3) North Carolina (second round): It won't be easy for the Blue Hens to get past West Virginia in the first round. If they do, they have the benefit of being at home against the Tar Heels and will have the best player on the floor in Elena Delle Donne. That's a pretty good formula for an upset. If Carolina falls into one of its turnover tendencies or fails to get the ball inside to Waltiea Rolle, the Hens could move on. -- Charlie Creme
Projected regional semifinals
(1) Connecticut vs. (4) Maryland: Not picturing the Huskies having much trouble getting out of their home site in Storrs. The largest questions are how dominant can UConn be, how well will Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis shoot, will freshman Breanna Stewart step up in her first tournament, and how motivated is heart-and-soul Kelly Faris to get her team back to the Final Four?
Maryland, still depth-challenged, is talented enough to move on because they have Alyssa Thomas, the ACC's leading scorer and rebounder, and forward Tianna Hawkins leading the way. The Terps, who reached the Elite Eight a season ago, also have two games at home in College Park, but could face a substantial second-round challenge from Michigan State in order to advance.
(6) Delaware vs. (2) Kentucky: The Blue Hens, led by Elena Delle Donne, come into the tournament with a school-record 25-game winning streak (third-longest in the country behind Baylor and Notre Dame) and seven seniors who don't want the same early exit as last year. Delaware, playing at home, should be able to gut out a win over tough West Virginia and then defeat North Carolina to advance to the first Sweet 16 in program history. The return of Delle Donne to Connecticut (albeit Bridgeport) will end up as one of the tournament's most intriguing side stories.
The Wildcats, making a school-record fourth straight NCAA appearance and earning a No. 2 seed for the second year in a row, will have a tough road`. They have to play in Queens, possibly having to get through either under-seeded Dayton in the second round or host team St. John's. Kentucky has faced Delaware only once, back in 1996. -- Michelle Smith
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