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Outsports NCAA women's preview

7 have legit shot to win the title

By Frank Jakka
Outsports.com

Realistically, there are seven teams that have the necessary pieces to win the 2008 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament: Top ranked Connecticut, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, Stanford, LSU and Rutgers.These teams have a few common denominators, all needed to reach and win in Tampa – solid guard play, a threatening post presence, big-game experience and great coaching.

A look at each regional with five burning questions: the who, what, where, when and how:

GREENSBORO REGIONAL

The Greensboro Regional appears to be a battle between two Big East powers – the Connecticut Huskies and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Tennessee and Candace Parker try to repeat
Much to the chagrin of both coaches, the committee placed Geno Auriemma’s Huskies and C. Vivian Stringer’s Knights in a potential regional battle to send only one of the teams, who split regular season games, to the Final Four.

Top seeded and No. 1 overall seed Connecticut starts out playing virtual home games in nearby Bridgeport. UConn opens with first time participant Cornell, with a looming second-round match-up against much improved Texas. Potentially waiting in the wings is Virginia or Old Dominion, both of whom would have to play a perfect game to have a chance at upsetting the Huskies.

UConn’s current senior class is Auriemma’s first to have never made a Final Four, and they will be playing to not finish their careers with the distinction. Equally imposing on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, the two areas of concern for UConn are experience and free throw shooting.

The Huskies will lean heavily on 6-1 freshman and conference player of the year, Maya Moore (17.7 ppg./7.4 rpg./49 3FG%). 6-4 sophomore Tina Charles (14.8 ppg./9.4 rpg.) has developed into one of the best low post players in the country and Renee Montgomery (14.2 ppg./4 apg.) has transitioned wonderfully from point guard to shooting guard with the mid-season knee injuries to former starters Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene. If 6-2 senior Charde Houston can continue her late season form, UConn has a definite edge to not only win the regional, but the championship.

Rutgers will again look to force turnovers and apply intense defensive pressure, as the Knights hold opponents to 51.3 points per game. Guards Epiphanny Prince (13.7 ppg.), Matee Ajavon (12.3 ppg.), Essence Carson (10.3 ppg.) and 6-4 center Kia Vaughn (9.3 ppg./8.3 rpg.) all return from last season’s national runner-up squad.

Rutgers opens against Robert Morris, a game they should win, followed by a match-up against either Georgia Tech or opening round host Iowa State, who would have to use every ounce of home cooking they could muster to pull a surprise. Matched up in the regional games is California or George Washington – both of whom could give RU a challenge if the Knights can’t impose their defense or if the Knights struggle offensively.

Crucial Questions in Greensboro:

Who should win Greensboro: Connecticut. The Huskies have three legitimate scoring threats at the guard position, at the post position and a player who can take over a game.

Who could surprise: George Washington. Joe McKeown’s Colonials have tremendous talent, depth and experience at every position and are due to make a run.

What to look for in Greensboro: a UConn-Rutgers rematch. This could be one of the fiercest battles in this tournament. There is no love lost between these two programs.

Where is the best first round game: Ames, Iowa, as seventh seed Georgia Tech, faces tenth seeded host Iowa State.

When possible upsets could occur: Iowa State over Georgia Tech (Round One); George Washington over California (Round Two); George Washington over Rutgers (Round Three)

How far teams advance will be determined by these top players: Moore, Charles and Montgomery from UConn; Prince and Ajavon from Rutgers; 6-3 junior Devanei Hampton and 6-1 junior Ashley Walker from California; 5-7 senior point guard Sharnee Zoll from Virginia; Point guard Kimberly Beck and 6-4 center Jessica Adair from George Washington; 6-0 guard Brittainey Raven of Texas; Junior guard Emily Fox of Minnesota; 6-4 junior guard DeWanna Bonner from Auburn; 6-3 forward Megan Frazee of Liberty; 5-10 senior guard Amanda Rego from San Diego.

NEW ORLEANS REGIONAL

The New Orleans Regional has the most athletic and quickest teams in the country, so if you’re watching a game in this regional, don’t blink. In what could play out to be more track meet than basketball game, top-seeded North Carolina and second-seeded LSU are favorites to reach the regional final.

Coach Sylvia Hatchell is banking on the inside presence of 6-2 Erlana Larkins (13.3 ppg./9.2 rpg), 6-1 Rashanda McCants (15.8 ppg.) and 6-3 LaToya Pringle (13.8 ppg./2.7 bpg.) to control the boards and consequently tempo to ignite the Tar Heels focus on gaining as many possessions as possible. Hatchell is less concerned with turnovers as she is in forcing tempo and turning up the defensive pressure with her stable of athletes.

Carolina opens with Bucknell and potentially Georgia in round two. Georgia has been somewhat disappointing in Tasha Humphrey’s (17.3 ppg.) senior season, but the Bulldogs are highly athletic and have to be considered the most dangerous eight seed in the country.

Possibly lurking the regionals is fourth seeded Louisville, who might be the hottest team in the country. 6-1 junior Angel McCoughtry (23.7 ppg.) will attempt to deliver a Sheryl Swoopes-esque performance in carrying her team on a deep run after their performance in the Big East tournament (beating Rutgers and giving UConn a late game scare).

LSU opens against overmatched and undersized Jackson State. The Tigers are one of the few teams who can match UNC’s athleticism player for player, though Head Coach Van Chancellor’s squad emphasizes defense as opposed to offensive possessions. The Tigers have the most athletic and pure center in the game in 6-6 senior Sylvia Fowles (17.2 ppg./9.9 rpg.). Surrounded by senior guards who are all athletic and quick, Chancellor is hoping to not break the LSU streak of four consecutive Final Fours. Guard Quianna Chaney (15 ppg./39 3FG%) gives balance outside to Fowles presence inside.

Looking to tame the Tigers and adding to the top level of athleticism in this regional is Oklahoma State’s Andrea Riley (22.9 ppg.), a 5-5 sophomore guard with unlimited range and a warrior mentality. Riley has helped put the Cowgirls back on the women’s college basketball map after years of being a Big Twelve doormat. Supporting players Maria Cordero, Shaunte Smith and Danielle Green must all step up to continue the Cowgirl stampede.

Marist, last year’s Cinderella, won’t surprise this year. The secret is out on the Red Foxes as they ride into the tournament on a 21-game winning streak, gaining a number seven seed. An opening round game with DePaul, however, won’t be an easy win.

Crucial Questions in New Orleans:

Who should win New Orleans: LSU – they have a powerful, dominant post in Fowles, and senior leadership and depth at every position. In post season, offense can come and go, but defense is a staple.

Who could surprise: Louisville. McCoughtry is one of the best offensive talents in the country and she can play defense, too (4.2 spg.). The supporting cast is solid and know their roles.

What to look for in New Orleans: Speed and athleticism. North Carolina, LSU, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Ohio State, Georgia, Florida State, East Tennessee State and Jackson State have some of the best athletes in women’s college basketball.

Where is the best first round game: Norfolk, Virginia, as eight seeded Georgia, faces ninth seeded Iowa.

When possible upsets could occur: DePaul over Marist (Round One); Ohio State over Oklahoma State (Round Two); Louisville over North Carolina (Round Three)

How far teams advance will be determined by these top players: Larkins, McCants, and Pringle from UNC; Fowles and Chaney of LSU; Riley from Oklahoma State; Junior guard Shalee Lehning from Kansas State; 6-4 freshman center Jantel Lavender of Ohio State; 6-2 forward Rachele Fitz from Marist; Humphrey and 5-6 point guard Ashley Houts of Georgia; Senior guard Allie Quigley from DePaul; 5-11 guard Tanae Davis-Cain from Florida State; 6-1 senior Alex Anderson from Chattanooga; Senior guard Amanda Jackson from Miami.

OKLAHOMA CITY REGIONAL

The Oklahoma City Regional has to be the region of question marks. There is no questioning the talent, but all of the contenders here have struggled with either their identity, intensity or chemistry at some point in the season.

Top-seeded Tennessee opens with Oral Roberts, and seems to have had their intensity question answered following a strong showing in the SEC tournament, avenging a late season loss to LSU. Coach Pat Summitt has openly challenged her team to sustain their intensity for a full 40 minutes, following collapses against LSU and Rutgers and closer than expected games against Duke and Oklahoma.

6-4 junior center Candace Parker (20.8 ppg./8.6 rpg.), who will not return for her final year of eligibility, leads a potent squad hoping to duplicate last year’s title run. 5-11 guard Alexis Hornbuckle (10 ppg./2.7 spg.), 5-2 point guard Shannon Bobbitt (9.7 ppg./3.6 apg.) and 6-4 Nicky Anosike (9.3 ppg./7 rpg.) all played integral roles in defeating Rutgers last year and will look to end their final year at UT on a high note.

An interesting battle in the post could materialize in the third round if the Vols and Oklahoma both win their first two rounds. 6-4 junior Courtney Paris (18.3 ppg./14.9 rpg.) is working on her 90th consecutive double-double and will be challenged by the inside presence of Parker and Anosike. However, Oklahoma has struggled as of late – having lost their last three games, including a potentially devastating conference tournament loss to Missouri – a team that had won only two conference games in the regular season.

Another team that has struggled during the regular season is Texas A & M. The Aggies also seemed to answer chemistry issues during their victory in the Big 12 Conference Tournament. Coach Gary Blair puts a premium on up-tempo play, as the A & M depends on athleticism and quickness, though they won’t overwhelm anyone with size. Point guard A’Quonesia Franklin (7.5 ppg./4.8 apg.) makes the Aggie engine run, while 5-8 junior point guard Takia Starks (17.1 ppg.) shoots it from long range. The real x-factor is 5-10 sixth-man of the year, Morenike Atunrase (9.3 ppg./4.2 rpg.). Atunrase has returned to form from her freshman year following two years of battling injuries.

Texas A & M opens with Texas-San Antonio and could face a team who also likes to control tempo, though in a more controlled manner, in the third round against Duke. The Devils also have tremendous guard play with Wanisha Smith (9.2 ppg.), Abby Waner (10.5 ppg.) and Jasmine Thomas (7.5 ppg.). Unlike A & M, Duke has an imposing post presence in 6-5 Chante Black (13.6 ppg./6.9 rpg.).

Other teams looking to answer questions in this region include Arizona State, who is looking to regain their form and their chemistry following the influx of new faces in the post. In the state of Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue have both had to look for help from different faces following substantial injuries. Utah, the class of the Mountain West Conference during the regular season, had a blow in the conference tournament when they lost to winless conference foe Colorado State.

Crucial Questions in Oklahoma City:

Who should win Oklahoma City: Tennessee. The Vols have the best player in women’s college basketball in Parker and they have key returnees who know how to win in post season.

Who could surprise: Duke. Having adjusted to a new coach (Joanne P. McCallie), a new point guard and surviving the rugged ACC, the Devils are experienced and tested.

What to look for in Oklahoma City: Answers. Tennessee has more weapons, but can they sustain their intensity and not overlook any of their opponents? A & M is quick and experienced, but can their inside game contribute offensively? Can Duke guard Waner regain her touch and confidence? Will Oklahoma find an outside scorer to take pressure off Paris?

Where is the best first round game: West Lafayette, Indiana, as eight seeded Utah, plays at ninth seeded Purdue.

When possible upsets could occur: Temple over Arizona State (Round One); Syracuse over Texas A & M, or Notre Dame over Oklahoma (Round Two); Duke over Texas A & M (Round Three), if A & M survives Round Two

How far teams advance will be determined by these top players: Parker, Hornbuckle and Bobbitt from Tennessee; Atunrase and Starks of Texas A & M; Black and Smith from Duke; Paris from Oklahoma; Guard Charel Allen from Notre Dame; Chandrea Jones and Erica Morrow from Syracuse; Senior point guard Leilani Mitchell of Utah; Guard Ashley Morris of Temple; 6-3 senior forward Janielle Dodds from SMU; Guard Kristi Cirone of Illinois State; Junior forward Ashley Hayes from Murray State.

SPOKANE REGIONAL

The Spokane Regional should be spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as several squads here feel they are not given credit as being contenders. Two years removed from their surprise national title, Maryland is (to some) the surprise number one seed in Spokane. The Terps have all of the key components back from that youthful championship squad, and definitely have the talent to get there again.

Coach Brenda Frese, fresh from delivering twins, hopes to deliver an encore delivery in bringing Maryland back to the top. 6-2 senior Crystal Langhorne (16.5 ppg./9.2 rpg.) and 6-4 senior Laura Harper (14.3 ppg./8.8 rpg.) provide power in the paint. 5-7 point guard Kristi Tolliver (17.2 ppg./7.6 apg.) is a clutch shooter, while 6-1 junior Marissa Coleman (15.8 ppg./7.9 rpg.) is one of the most gifted players in the country.

The Terps will open agains Coppin State and possibly post driven Xavier (6-6 Ta’Shia Pillips and 6-5 Amber Harris) in round two. Of real concern could be battle tested and experienced West Virginia in the third round. Maryland, upset last year in round two by Mississippi, must control unnecessary turnovers and value possession of the ball in order to advance and earn respect on a national level.

Also looking for national respect is the Stanford Cardinal. After seeing the brackets and analyzing her roster, Coach Tara VanDerveer has to feel confident at a return to the Final Four. 5-11 guard Candice Wiggins (20.1 ppg.) is the best player in Stanford history – no small claim, and balances the inside presence of 6-4 sophomore Jayne Appel (13.8 ppg./8.4 rpg./2.2 bpg.) and 6-4 freshman Kayla Pedersen (12.4 ppg./7.9 rpg.). The guard corps of JJ Hones, Jeanette Pohlen, Jillian Harmon and Ros Gold-Onwude have all filled in the gaps around the big three nicely and their play will be crucial if the Cardinal are to advance to later rounds. Depth inside is an issue if Pedersen or Appel get into foul trouble.

Stanford opens with first time competitor Cleveland State, with the winner of Western Kentucky/UTEP waiting in the second round. Beyond that, Pittsburgh is looking to gain respect amongst all the talented teams in the Big East, while Baylor, 4-5 in their last nine games, look to regain their self respect following a second half collapse against Texas in the Big Twelve conference tournament.

Vanderbilt, playing in Tennessee’s backyard, is always searching for respect – nationally and in the state of Tennessee. A youthful group of guards lead the Commodores, while 6-4 senior Liz Sherwood holds down the paint. West Virginia is looking to solidify their up-and coming status in the Big East, as does Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Texas-El Paso looks to build upon a first ever ranking with their first ever post season appearance, in spite of being upset in the conference tournament. Wyoming appears in the NCAA tournament for the first time following last season’s WNIT championship, while Montana returns following another dominating season in the Big Sky Conference, advancing to the tournament after a two year hiatus.

Crucial Questions in Spokane:

Who should win Spokane: Stanford – they have a go to player wanting to add to her legacy in Wiggins and a solid interior presence with Appel and Pedersen. The Cardinal are talented (and due) for a return to the Final Four.

Who could surprise: West Virginia. Senior laden and tested with their Big East and non-conference schedule, the WVU Mountaineers are primed to upset.

What to look for in Spokane: Respect. Stanford will look to carry the West Coast Basketball flag all the way to Tampa. Maryland will be trying to prove that 2006 was not a fluke. Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey wants to see her team return to playing tough-minded Baylor basketball. West Virginia is under the radar and ready for a run – despite playing at lower seeded New Mexico.

Where is the best first round game: Stanford, California, where Texas-El Paso, the seven seed, plays tenth seeded Western Kentucky, led by 6-3 forward Crystal Kelly.

When possible upsets could occur: Montana over Vanderbilt (Round One); Pittsburgh over Baylor (Round Two); West Virginia over Maryland (Round Three).

How far teams advance will be determined by these top players: Langhorne, Tolliver and Coleman from Maryland; Wiggins and Appel of Stanford; Angela Tisdale from Baylor; Christina Wirth of Vanderbilt; 6-2 senior Olayinka Sanni of West Virginia; Guard Shavonte Zellous from Pittsburgh; Jareica Hughes of UTEP; Harris and Phillips of Xavier; Senior forward Kelly (23.6 ppg./10.5 rpg.) from Western Kentucky; 6-0 senior Hanna Zavecz of Wyoming; Junior guard Mandy Morales