REGIONAL PREVIEWS: LEXINGTON | OKLAHOMA CITY | STOCKTON
Fifteen other teams are out to prove that this isn't merely the UConn Invitational. Unfortunately, that might be the tallest task in sports today. No one knows that better than Bridgeport Regional participants Syracuse and Maryland, victims of the Huskies in each of the last two Final Fours. The angst for the Orange, the Terps and every other team here is in the knowledge that getting to the Final Four means beating the extremely long odds of ending the most incredible run in the history of the sport. Meanwhile, the Huskies are hoping to extend their NCAA-record winning streak to 111 consecutive games on their way to Dallas.
Three storylines to watch
The drive for five: The Huskies are big favorites to win a fifth straight national championship and even bigger frontrunners to emerge from the region. Perhaps no three individual players have improved as much as Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Gabby Williams. They went from role players to All-Americans seemingly overnight and are the reason UConn hasn't missed a beat in keeping the winning streak alive, all while beating five teams among the top 16 seeds (Baylor, Florida State, Maryland, Notre Dame and Texas).
Maryland Madness: Was there a top-16 seed that felt worse on Selection Monday than the Terrapins? Hounded by a weak nonconference schedule that left them lower in each of the selection committee's top-16 reveals than most analysts felt they should be, the Terps swept the Big Ten's regular-season and tournament titles for the third consecutive year and still ended up with a No. 3 seed. That was bad enough, but then to be placed in the same region as UConn gives Maryland plenty of reason to play with a chip on its shoulder. The Terps also have the knowledge they can play with UConn, having lost to the Huskies by just six points on Dec. 29 in College Park.
Point guard party: A case could be made for Duke's Lexie Brown, Syracuse's Alexis Peterson and UCLA's Jordin Canada to be All-Americans. Texas A&M's Curtyce Knox (9.2) led the nation in assists per game. Temple's Feyonda Fitzgerald (7.3) was seventh. Destiny Slocum of Maryland and Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu are two of the nation's best freshmen, regardless of position. No region has nearly this kind of lead guard talent. Ironically, UConn is the one top team without a standout point guard, but that might only be because Crystal Dangerfield was slowed by injury in her rookie season -- and that Geno Auriemma's system doesn't require one.
Three players to watch
Tynice Martin, West Virginia: No player in the country enters the NCAA tournament on a hotter streak and perhaps more confident than Martin. The 5-foot-10 sophomore averaged 27.3 points in three Big 12 tournament games, carrying the Mountaineers to an improbable title. Her aggressive nature pays huge dividends when Martin's shots are falling. She averaged a Big 12-leading 18.6 ppg during the season and tied for 12th in the country in field goal attempts.
Gabby Williams, UConn: Who doesn't want to watch the best athlete in the tournament? Williams has already built a career on making the improbable play look routine. She's the rare player who can have a huge impact on a game without scoring much -- and unselfish enough to not care.
Brionna Jones, Maryland: Jones is the one individual player in the region, if not the tournament, who can give UConn problems. Her size and strength in the post is something the Huskies can't match. The 6-3 senior averages 19.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, while leading the nation with 69.8 percent shooting from the field. More importantly, she registered 19 points and 13 rebounds in the game against the Huskies, and in that game Collier fouled out and Williams finished with four fouls. Jones alone can exploit UConn's single biggest (and perhaps only) weakness: lack of depth. Of course, the Terps and Huskies have to advance to the Elite Eight first.
Games to watch
Best first-round game: No. 7 Temple vs. No. 10 Oregon: These are two programs on the rise that could really use an NCAA tournament win to accentuate what they have accomplished this season. The Ducks are playing their first NCAA tournament game since 2005 and Temple has missed the previous four tournaments. Both teams will play up-tempo in a game that should be decided by whose guards play better -- veterans Fitzgerald, Alliya Butts and Donnaizha Fountain of the Owls, or the Ducks' youth of freshmen Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, and sophomore Maite Cazorla.
Best potential second-round game: No. 6 West Virginia vs. No. 3 Maryland: Mountaineers coach Mike Carey is one of the great defensive strategists in the game. The Terps are the nation's highest-scoring team. Martin and Maryland's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are two of the most exciting wing players in the country. Expect plenty of points in the game and a difficult task for the Terps in their quest to prove the committee wrong and get to a third Final Four in four seasons.