Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2004 NCAA Tournament bracket each month throughout the season. For a glance at this month's field of 64, click here.
Feel like you've seen something like this before? You have. Sort of.
The first projections for the 2004 NCAA Tournament have a familiar look. In fact, 54 of the teams that helped comprise last season's tournament field are predicted to be back again this March. And that's because women's basketball has been inflicted with an epidemic: returnee-itis.
Taurasi, Beard, Whalen, Mazzante, Powell, Ohlde. It's no secret that many of the top stars in the top programs a year ago are back for their senior seasons, and that defending champion Connecticut brings back its entire unit. Yet, it runs much deeper than that.
How about the ACC's top three teams, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia returning 13 of a potential 15 starters? Same goes for Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas State in the Big 12. Even next-rung Big 12 NCAA participants Oklahoma and Colorado each return seven of their top 10 players.
The list goes on. Stanford (Pac-10), UC Santa Barbara (Big West), TCU (Conference USA), Utah (Mountain West), Valparaiso (Mid-Continent), Chattanooga (Southern) and Liberty (Big South) all return at least four starters. Familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt.
Tennessee's projected No. 2 seed -- a spot that also went to Texas Tech, Penn State and Stanford -- is at least partially tied to this. Despite returning numerous key players, the Lady Vols lost Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson. That just might be enough departed leadership and talent, coupled with a once-again relentless schedule, to keep Pat Summitt's club from a No. 1 seed.
Keep two things in mind as you scroll through the first projections: First, these are essentially preseason picks, so Kansas State and Duke were not yet penalized for their losses on the opening Sunday. Both remain No. 1 seeds for now (along with UConn and Texas). Of course, by winning (and beating slightly higher-ranked teams) in the Tip-Off Classic, Purdue and Texas have significant résumé stuffers to carry with them the rest of the season. As stand-alone games, though, the exact weight they carry is tough to quantify.
As it stands now, any of the four teams in the season-opening event, along with UConn, Texas Tech, Stanford, Tennessee and Penn State, should be in the mix as contenders for a No. 1 seed when Selection Sunday rolls around. A week ago, LSU might also have been in that conversation. But losses to Oregon and Penn State, especially considering the 37-point defeat against the Lady Lions, leave the Lady Tigers with a little ground to make up.
Also remember, once again, those pre-determined first- and second-round sites will affect seeding. As was the case a year ago, teams were moved to accommodate their need to play at home as a host school. The committee will always try to limit the number of seed lines a team moves, and in this case only one team was moved as many as two spots (New Mexico).
Controversy will continue around the idea of the pre-determined sites, perhaps even more so this season. Many of the sites chosen last year were the home courts of traditional powers. By rule none of those schools can host again in 2004. What that has given us this time around are a few more hosts that are projected as more middle or lower seeds. The end result could be even more high seeds playing on the road to open the tournament than last year.
For example, if MAAC favorite and sub-regional host Fairfield makes the tournament, history dictates it unlikely the Stags being anything higher than a No. 14 seed. If, in fact, Fairfield is a No. 14, then a No. 1 seed, potentially a team such as LSU, Purdue or North Carolina, would be opening the tournament on the road.
No major upsets came out of that type of discrepancy last season, but there's no question fourth-seeded Rutgers would have preferred a neutral site to Athens against fifth-seeded Georgia in the second round a year ago. No. 3 seed Mississippi State's second-round upset loss to No. 6 New Mexico probably had a little to do with the game being in The Pit.
With Fairfield, UCSB, Chattanooga, Virginia Tech and Florida State serving as hosts, the possibility of that major tournament upset might not be far away.
So, at first glance, these projections -- with all the familiar faces and teams -- might look boring right now. But we all know the march to March is anything but.
A look at this month's field of 64:
Last four in: BYU, Illinois, Missouri, UCLA
Last four out: South Carolina, Cincinnati, Florida State, Miami
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.