New Orleans Regional the toughest of the bunch

The Big Easy isn't going to be easy at all for whichever team makes it through the New Orleans Regional. That's what an initial look at the women's NCAA tournament bracket tells me.

The top four seeds in the New Orleans Regional are North Carolina, LSU, Louisville and Oklahoma State. It's the only one of the four regions where each of the four top seeds made it to at least the championship game of its conference tournament.

The Tar Heels won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles; their only losses this season were to Tennessee and UConn.

Carolina is looking for its third consecutive trip to the Final Four, while LSU seeks its fifth straight Final Four. Van Chancellor's crew won the SEC regular-season title but then fell to Tennessee in the league tournament championship game.

If we were to get a Carolina-LSU final, that's about as high-octane as it gets. You're just not going to find two quicker teams in women's college basketball; the Tar Heels are an offensive juggernaut and LSU has long been known for its smothering defense.

So that would be strength versus strength, although Chancellor has definitely brought his offensive philosophy to Baton Rouge, La.

Do North Carolina and LSU belong in the same region? No. They're both two of the top four teams in the country. But this is nothing new for the Tar Heels. Consider that two years ago, they were in the Cleveland Regional that many thought was the toughest. They beat Tennessee in the 2006 regional final to make the Final Four. So Carolina has been through this before.

And let's not forget No. 3 seed Oklahoma State, which fell in the Big 12 final to Texas A&M, and Louisville, which lost the Big East final to UConn.

The Cowgirls have skyrocketed in the Big 12 over the past two seasons, but the program hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1996. Guard Andrea Riley is one of the most explosive players in the country, but Oklahoma State's balance kept improving throughout the course of the season.

As for Louisville, the Cardinals have won 11 of their past 13 games -- with the only losses in that stretch being at West Virginia and in the Big East final on UConn's secondary court in Hartford, Conn.

Louisville could have a second-round game with Kansas State, and that's a matchup that a week ago wouldn't have seemed likely that early in the tournament. But the Wildcats lost their leading scorer, senior guard Kimberly Dietz, to a knee injury in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals. Her college career is over, and K-State's seeding was lowered accordingly.

One of the top mid-major teams in the tournament, seventh-seeded Marist, is also in the New Orleans Regional. Marist was a giant killer last year, knocking off Ohio State on the way to the Sweet 16. This season, however, Marist would have to get past DePaul and then, almost certainly, LSU in Baton Rouge.

How do I think it will end up? I believe the top four seeds will advance, and then No. 1 North Carolina will prevail. And if the Tar Heels do indeed end up in Tampa, they will know they truly had to take a rough road to get there.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.