The road to the Final Four begins at home for Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region and host to the opening rounds of NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament play in the Stanford Subregional pod. In light of recent history, it seems appropriate.
Stanford's growth from an NCAA title hopeful to an NCAA title favorite is mirrored by the personal development of Cardinal star Jeanette Pohlen as a player and a leader. Its a story that starts with the 2008 Final Four.
Stanford hosted the two opening rounds that year, advanced through the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight (the regional, coincidentally, being hosted in Spokane) and met up with Connecticut in the semifinal round of the Final Four, the first time in 11 years that a West Coast team had progressed that far in the tournament.
Stanford, which carried a nation's-best 22-game winning streak into the game, handed Connecticut an 82-73 loss behind 25 points, 13 boards and and five assists from the great Candice Wiggins. Though the Cardinal won, advancing to the title game where they lost to Tennessee, Pohlen, then just a freshman, made no real impact. She came off the bench for 13 minutes, missed the only field-goal she attempted, and settled for just two assists and a pair of points from the free-throw line.
Both teams made it back the following year, when the Final Four was held in St. Louis, Missouri, once again meeting each other in the semis. This time, the shoe was on the other foot. UConn, at 38-0, had gone undefeated all season and carried the momentum into the game. Stanford, had been beset by injuries, and the 6-0 Pohlen, now a sophomore, was playing out of position, running the point for Coach Tara VanDerveer out of necessity. Her discomfort showed, as she was totally outclassed by UConn's Renee Montgomery, a great player having perhaps the best game of her collegiate career. Montgomery was outstanding, scoring 26 points with six assists and four steals, and Maya Moore added 24, while propelling the Huskies to an 83-64 victory, then on to the national title with a win over Louisville in the title game. Throughout Stanford's semifinal evisceration, Pohlen played tentatively, taking just 10 shots, netting only two of them, and coughing the ball up four times. But VanDerveer left her talented journeyman on the floor for 38 minutes, gambling that Pohlens frustrating experience would reap benefits by increasing her confidence and resolve in future big games.
In 2010, it was dj vu all over again, as UConn and Stanford caught up with each other in the Final Four in San Antonio, this time in the national title game. Things started off well enough, as the Cardinal held the Huskies to just 12 points in the opening half, the lowest half ever in school or NCAA finals history, and carrying a 20-12 lead to the locker room. But Connecticut bounced back with a 17-2 run to open the third period, and Stanford struggled to answer as star Jayne Appel was playing through the pain of injury. Connecticut walked away with a 53-47 win, a back-to-back national title, and just 10 wins to go before overtaking UCLA's all-time record winning streak.
Flash forward to December 30, 2010 when Stanford derailed Connecticut, ending the Huskies' historic 90-game win streak. Pohlen--again assuming the role of Stanfords primary ball handler in place of freshman Toni Kokenisplayed aggressively from the start as the Cardinal led wire-to-wire in a 71-59 victory. This time Stanfords senior leader played big in her team's biggest moment, finishing with a career-best 31 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Starting Saturday, Pohlen, now a senior and the Pac-10 Player of the Year, will resume where she started, on her own home court at Maples Pavilion, attempting to close out her collegiate career by leading Stanford (30-2, 18-0, RPI Rank: 5, SOS: 8) back to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year, starting with an opening-round contest against UC Davis, the Big West Conference Tournament champion.
Stanford is the presumptive favorite to bushwhack the 16th-seeded Aggies. Before that, two other talented teams -- No. 9-seed St. Johns (21-9, 9-7) and No. 8-seed Texas Tech (22-10, 8-8), who pulled off a huge upset against Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the Dallas Regional - will take the floor at Maples Pavilion.
But for all three of the visitors, Stanfords win streaks will be etched in their collective minds: 23 consecutive wins since back-to-back road losses in December (to nationally ranked DePaul and Tennessee, the No. 1 seed of the Dayton Regional), and 61 straight wins at home, a streak that now spans four years.
Any of these teams has the potential to pull off an upset: Stanford is not invulnerable as it learned in December at DePaul, and on the right night, even the lower seeds can dominate, as Tech showed a month ago against Baylor. But it isn't likely. March 19, 2007 was the last time Stanford was sent back to class prematurely, losing to 10th seeded Florida State in a second-round NCAA game. Pohlen and her Cardinal teammates are on a quest and their journey -- to greatness or to yet another year as an also-ran -- begins, as it did four years ago, at home in Maples Pavilion.
Let's take a closer look at the match-ups in the Stanford pod.
This year, the road to Spokane goes through Spokane. Thats the foremost feature of this subregional pod of the 2011 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament.
The winner of this two-round four-team mini-tournament hosted by Gonzaga University at its McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane in the the opening two rounds of the womens NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon and Monday night will advance to the Spokane Regional's Sweet 16 Round on March 26.
No, the same building is not hosting each of these weekends. While Gonzaga is hosting the two opening-round games of the Spokane Subregional on its campus, the Spokane Arena will play host to the Sweet 16 and Elite in the Spokane regionals. Still, the 'Zag players will never have to leave the comfort of their own beds unless they make it all the way to Indianapolis and the Final Four. This quirky dynamic will undeniably affect the trajectory of the weekends upcoming events.
This year, many have been grumbling about anomalies in the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament that "force" several of the top teams in the nation to stay at or near home where they will face rematches with local area opponents whom they have already met several times this season. Still, with a field of 64 teams starting out in 16 venues scattered across the country, and bracketing rules that attempt to avoid most meetings between conference mates before the Elite Eight, somebody is going to have to travel.
And so it is that two of the top women's basketball teams from the South -- the ACC's North Carolina and the SEC's Kentucky -- have folded their long legs into cramped airplane seats and headed West, to the Albuquerque, New Mexico pod, where, as two of the upper seeds in their Regional, they will battle it out for the right to head and even farther West next week, to the Sweet 16 and the Spokane, Washington Regional.
If the seeds hold and the Tar Heels and the Wildcats meet Monday in the Albuquerque pod's second round, it could be one of the most interesting match-ups of the NCAA tourney's early stages. Heading into the NCAA tournament, North Carolina remains a tough team to figure. But the Tar Heels are hoping their play will start to make sense over the next three days in their first two games of the tournament.
In the preseason, one publication (Lindys) had Sylvia Hatchells veteran bunch ranked 14th in the nation. Another (Athlon) didnt even think the Heels were worthy of the Top 25. Picked to finish second in the ACC, North Carolina rolled through a series of lightweight opponents in their preconference seasons, then slumped late in the season to finished sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But as a sixth seed in the ACC tournament, UNC surprised, making it to the championship game, where they fell to regular-season ACC champ, and NCAA Tournament No. 2-seed, Duke. In the most recent AP poll, the Heels once again ranked 14th, but managed just a fifth-seed in the NCAA Tournament's Spokane region. The relatively low seed was a bit surprising as AP had the Heels ranked ahead of a quartet of higher-seeded teams, including No. 15 Florida State, a three-seed; No. 16 Maryland, a four-seed; No. 17 Kentucky, a four-seed; and No. 18 Ohio State, also a four seed.
As for the Wildcats, SEC power Kentucky faced one of the toughest schedules in the country (SOS rank: 17) this year. After exceeding all expectations and finishing second in the SEC last year, Kentucky was picked preseason to repeat the feat this year. Despite the loss of point guard Amber Smith to a preseason ACL tear and a couple of unanticipated stumbles along the way, the 'Cats did exactly that, finishing second to Tennessee in both the regular-season and the SEC Tournament.
The Wildcats roll into Albuquerque as the No. 4-seed of the Spokane Region. If they progress to the second round, as most expect they will, the battle between North Carolina and Kentucky looks to be an extraordinarily good game for this stage of the tournament. Even better, both teams will enjoy the even playing field of a neutral venue, since the hosting Lobos of New Mexico didn't make the NCAA Tournament cut this year.
But to set up the contest that everyone following the Albuquerque pod will be waiting for, North Carolina will have to get past a plucky Fresno State squad that appears to be a lot better than its No. 12 seed would indicate (an RPI of 47, for example), while Kentucky must put down a No. 13-seed Hampton squad with a a lot of heart, a team that is also ranked among the Top 50 teams in the country (RPI No 48, to be exact) and that ran the table in the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference this season.
All-in-all, there should be some high-quality basketball being played this weekend in Albuquerque. Let's take a closer look at the match-ups.
When President Barack Obama sat don't to fill out his bracket for the 2011 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament as he does every year, he had little doubt about how things would progress in the Dayton Regional's Knoxville pod. He made no bones about the fact that he has No. 1-seeded Tennessee picked to win all the way through a predicted match-up with second-seeded Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
Got to go with Tennessee," the President stated. "Pat Summitt is not going to let them lose. And one of the interesting things is two storied programs but they don't play against each other very often. So having a Final Four with a Tennessee-Connecticut matchup, that will be fun. It will be fun to watch the coaches on the sidelines, not just the players on the court.
At least in the opener, against 16th-seeded Stetson, the automatic qualifier from the Atlantic Sun Conference, facing nationally ranked Tennessee, playing at home in Knoxville as a preliminary rounds host, it would pretty much take a lightning strike to prove the President wrong.
Obama also has eighth-seeded Marquette moving past ninth-seeded Texas on the other side of the Knoxville bracket, a much more difficult call in what may be one of the most intriguing first-round match-ups of this year's NCAA Tournament. While Marquette boasts the better record, both teams are athletic and each features four solid-scoring starters.
Let's take a closer look at the match-ups and let our readers decide.
Will NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament records be toppled when the curtain comes up Saturday on up on the elimination games for the Philadelphia Regional's University Park, Pa. pod?
It's a distinct possibility. While the DePaul Blue Demons, the first of three Big East teams to play in the Philly Regional, will be the "big dogs" of this pod on opening night with the high seed (No. 3), the experience gleaned from a second-place finish in the tough Big East and a "sizable" advantage in height all in their favor, No. 6-seed Penn State (24-9) is hosting and will have the chance to win two at home and make a run at the Sweet 16.
The Lady Lions open against 11th-seeded Dayton Saturday morning in a rematch of a game that set multiple NCAA and school scoring records in November, when Penn State outlasted the Flyers for a 112-107 road win in double overtime in the season opener for both teams. There's no indication that either team has lost its stroke in the interim, and this time Penn State will be playing at home, and with a lot more at stake for both sides, so expect some gaudy box scores in this one!
In any event, history will be made on the other side of the University Park bracket as the midshipwomen of No. 14-seed Navy make their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance on Saturday afternoon against DePaul. It may be one-and-done for the sailors, who will be radically mismatched in both height and tournament experience, but Navy has shown itself to be a gritty little mid-major squad and, you know, stranger things have happened in March.
Let's take a closer look at the opening-round match-ups.
If anyone other than Notre Dame wins at Salt Lake, it would be headline news. This season, the Irish have defeated nine unranked teams by 35 points or more and have not even been challenged in any of those "contests." None of the other three teams at Salt Lake are ranked and, unless the Irish have a total collapse, they should emerge from this ready to take on the winner from the Charlottesville site next week.
Then again, this is March, and there is madness in the air.