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Lexington Region preview: Kentucky feeling right at home

Women's College Basketball, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Maryland Terrapins, Kentucky Wildcats, Washington Huskies, Penn Quakers, Stanford Cardinal, Indiana Hoosiers

Top-seeded Notre Dame is the overwhelming favorite, but can Kentucky capitalize on its home-court advantage and reach its first Final Four? A look at the top storylines in this corner of the bracket.

Three observations

1. Until the bracket was released, no one was sure it would work out that Kentucky would have a chance to be home in Lexington potentially all the way until the Final Four. That had to be a big lift to the third-seeded Wildcats and the organizers of the Lexington regional. It could be a very hot ticket.

But if seeds hold, Kentucky also will be the regional semifinalist that, historically, has had the least success in the women's NCAA tournament. No. 1 seed Notre Dame, No. 2 Maryland, and No. 4 Stanford all have won the national championship.

Kentucky has not made it to the Women's Final Four, but has advanced to the Elite Eight four times, three under current coach Matthew Mitchell. The Wildcats lost the 2010 regional final to Oklahoma, and fell to UConn in 2012 and 2013.

2. Miami's victory over Florida State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament avenged two regular-season losses to the Seminoles. And it contributed some to Florida State missing out on a top-16 seed and a chance to host the early rounds. But the Hurricanes didn't necessarily improve their own NCAA position quite as much as they'd have liked. As it turns out, both Miami and Florida State (Dallas Region) ended up with No. 5 seeds.

The Hurricanes have to go to the opposite coast, in fact, as they'll play their first-round game -- against a tough South Dakota State team -- at Stanford. Should Miami get past the Jackrabbits, they likely will face the fourth-seeded Cardinal on their home floor.

This is Miami's 11th NCAA tournament appearance, and fifth in the last six seasons. The Hurricanes have advanced to the Sweet 16 just once, in 1992. But that was before the tournament expanded to 64 teams, so Miami had a first-round bye then.

So winning two games in the NCAA tournament would be a big deal for the Hurricanes, and get them to Lexington.

3. Just like the Hurricanes have to cross a few time zones for their NCAA tournament opener, so does No. 7 seed Washington -- going in the opposite direction.

The Huskies will play their first-round game against No. 10 seed Penn at Maryland. If they win, they'll face the Terps at home, unless No. 15 seed Iona pulls a monumental upset.

But wherever the setting, Washington is glad to be back in the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row. Before that, the Huskies had missed the Big Dance for seven consecutive years. -- Mechelle Voepel

Three players to watch

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Maryland: Alyssa Thomas never did it. Neither Marissa Coleman nor Kristi Toliver did it. Walker-Kimbrough enters the tournament shooting 54 percent from the 3-point line on nearly four attempts per game. That isn't the final percentage that will go in the record books, of course, but only three times in Division I history did the national leader in 3-point accuracy shoot 54 percent or better. So she's having about as good a season of marksmanship as we've seen. And yet far from the skill of a specialist, that's just one, almost complementary, part of her game. Walker-Kimbrough ranked fifth in the Big Ten in steals, 13th in blocks and just outside the top 20 in rebounding.

Makayla Epps, Kentucky: Sometimes the story is easy. An all-conference guard and daughter of a national champion with the men's team, Epps has the opportunity for a two-week postseason run on the biggest stages in Lexington: Memorial Coliseum and Rupp Arena. If the performance goes well, it's on to the Final Four for the first time in program history. Comfortable in that Bluegrass spotlight, Epps has the right demeanor for the task ahead. She also has the right kind of game for the postseason -- Kentucky was among the biggest disappointments a year ago, losing at home in the second round, but it wasn't for a lack of production from Epps, who had 29 points and no turnovers in the loss. She looks to distribute, but she gets her own points when necessary.

Tyra Buss, Indiana: Place her in the context of the region. She averages more points and assists than Kentucky's Epps. She gets to the line as often as Washington's Kelsey Plum (which is to say, as often as anyone in the nation). She averages more steals per game than Walker-Kimbrough and very nearly as many rebounds as any player on Purdue or Miami. And she was better in all of those areas against Big Ten opposition than against Indiana's admittedly modest nonconference schedule. None of which is to say Buss is better than all of those aforementioned players who form much of the star power in the bracket, but her sophomore season proves she belongs in that company. A legendary high school scorer who nonetheless drew mixed recruiting reviews, she gets the last laugh. -- Graham Hays

Best first-round game

(5) Miami vs. (12) South Dakota State (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday): The selection committee obviously didn't think all that much of the Summit League, snubbing regular-season champion South Dakota after it lost in the conference tournament and slotting South Dakota State as a No. 12 seed. But quality at the top of that league was weighed down by the teams at the bottom. The best evidence of that is the team Miami finds itself opposite on a neutral court in California.

None of the other No. 12 seeds own a win as impressive as South Dakota State's victory over DePaul in December. And while Chattanooga might argue this point, none of those No. 12 seeds have losses as good as South Dakota State's at home against Notre Dame and on a neutral court against Maryland. For that matter, Miami has a conference tournament win against Florida State, a regular-season win against Indiana, and competitive losses against ACC teams seeded ahead of it, but its résumé isn't all that much gaudier.

After a lull in the Summit regular season, South Dakota State star Macy Miller was excellent and efficient in the conference tournament. On the opposite side, Miami's Adrienne Motley, who was brilliant in a first-round NCAA win against Washington a season ago, saw her production tail off late this season. Which star looks more the part in Palo Alto? -- Graham Hays

Upset alert

(7) Washington vs. (10) Penn: Princeton's first-round win a season ago was just the second in Ivy League history, and Washington won't just be happy to be here, as might have been true in its short-lived return to the tournament a season ago. So make no mistake, a Penn win would be an upset. But while Penn hasn't had to deal with anyone like Kelsey Plum, Washington isn't ideally suited to facing a team with two big bodies like 6-foot-3 Sydney Stipanovich and Michelle Nwokedi, that size a rare asset for an Ivy League champion. At least the selection committee didn't put Washington in one of the earliest time slots as it travels across the country. -- Graham Hays

Team with the most to prove

(4) Stanford: It could be worse (it could be Tennessee), but Stanford's unassailable place among the elite has looked increasingly assailable the past couple of years. All things are relative, considering this is a team that has 24 wins overall and went 14-4 in a conference that accounts for 25 percent of the top-four seed lines. But the Cardinal could use something more than the meek exit from the Sweet 16 they managed a season ago. This team should be capable of putting up a better fight, but it needs Erica McCall and Lili Thompson at something close to their best at the same time. -- Graham Hays

Matchup we'd most like to see

(1) Notre Dame vs. (3) Kentucky in the Elite Eight: The first-round matchup we are guaranteed to see between Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer and former star pupil Jennifer Azzi, now San Francisco coach, is compelling, too, but we use this space to look ahead. Watching Notre Dame pursue a sixth consecutive trip to the Final Four, a remarkable feat made all the more impressive by the unexpected departures of Jewell Loyd after last season and Taya Reimer during this season, by going through the Wildcats in Rupp Arena would be some real drama. -- Graham Hays

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