<
>

Final Four is set -- and UConn remains the overwhelming favorite

play
What to look for in the Final Four (2:48)

SEC Now's Nell Fortner previews Mississippi State's and South Carolina's respective Final Four matchups. (2:48)

To borrow from the recent headline about the men's Final Four participants -- "Never, never, almost never and North Carolina" -- we'll describe the women's final quartet like this: "Never, back again, whole bunch of times, ridiculous amount of times."

That would be Mississippi State, South Carolina, Stanford and UConn. They will be the participants in Dallas this week, as the women's Final Four returns to a Friday-Sunday format.

Mississippi State is making its debut; UConn will be in the Final Four for the 18th time. They'll meet in Friday's second semifinal (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 9:30 p.m. ET). The other pits Stanford, in its 13th Final Four, against South Carolina (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), which is following up its first trip in 2015.

It's the third year in a row, in fact, that the Final Four includes a first-time participant; last year, No. 7 Washington, No. 4 Syracuse and No. 2 Oregon State made their debuts. This time, it's all 1s and 2s.

It's a happy time for the SEC, which had a terrific overall showing in the men's tournament and sends both the Gamecocks men's and women's teams to their respective Final Fours. South Carolina is the 10th school to do that in the same year; UConn has done that three times.

Speaking of the No. 1 seed Huskies -- who ride a 111-game winning streak into Dallas -- they're the overwhelming favorite, seeking a fifth consecutive championship and 12th overall. UConn coach Geno Auriemma got his 113th victory in NCAA tournament play on Monday, moving him past former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most ever.

And at this point, it's hard to see when the Huskies' streak might end. They are in the Final Four for the 10th year in a row, and they have claimed six of the past eight NCAA titles.

They've won this year's NCAA tournament games by an average of 36 points, with a 15-point victory over UCLA in the regional semifinals passing for a "nail-biter." In Monday's Bridgeport Regional final, No. 10 seed Oregon's upset train was derailed, which is what UConn always does. The Huskies, crushers of hope, sent the freshmen-led Ducks home 90-52.

In other circumstances, such a young team as Oregon that went so far this year -- upsetting the Nos. 2, 3 and 7 seeds in its region -- might be considered a national championship contender for next year. But with UConn starting just one senior and having two standout junior transfers waiting in the wings, along with the high school national player of the year on the way, the Huskies are in fantastic position to dominate next year too. And the year after, and ...

But before we go ahead and just give the Huskies another trophy before they actually play in Dallas, let's look at what stands in their way. They will face Oklahoma City Regional winner Mississippi State, which met a very unfortunate end last year, when the Bulldogs played UConn in the Sweet 16. UConn won 98-38.

This is a deeper, more talented and more experienced Mississippi State team. The Bulldogs played in the best game of this tournament against Baylor in the regional final on Sunday, prevailing 94-85 in overtime behind point guard Morgan William's riveting 41-point performance.

Getting to the national semifinals is a great achievement for Mississippi State, a program that didn't even beat longtime SEC giant Tennessee for the first time until last year and is still seeking its first league championship. But hey, the Big Dance is what matters most, and now Mississippi State is the ninth SEC school (not counting Texas A&M) to make the women's Final Four.

The only SEC national champion in women's hoops, though, is Tennessee, which won the NCAA title eight times. Texas A&M took the 2011 title, but that was while the Aggies were in the Big 12. Current Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer was an assistant coach on that Texas A&M national championship team.

Aggies coach Gary Blair said then that somebody needed to give Schaefer a head-coaching job. Mississippi State did just that in 2012, and the payoff has been huge.

But can the Bulldogs hope to be competitive against the Huskies? After all, UConn has been so untouchable in the NCAA tournament that the Huskies fans have had to find other things to get worked up about, such as junior Gabby Williams not being on the Associated Press All-American first team. She was on the second team, while sophomore teammates Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were first-teamers.

Too many voters got this one wrong -- Williams should have been on the first team too -- but it likely matters not a bit to her. She's busy seeking her third NCAA title, and her work on Monday -- 25 points, six rebounds, four steals and three assists -- is what she does all the time: impact every aspect of the game.

The Bulldogs, though, have more weapons -- or at least better-developed ones -- than when they faced UConn last year, including 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan, a sophomore who has emerged in the latter part of this season. William, the diminutive point guard, played the game of her life against Baylor. Can she follow it up against UConn?

On the other side of the bracket is Stockton Regional champion South Carolina, a No. 1 seed, versus Lexington Regional champ Stanford, a No. 2. The Cardinal had the smallest margin of victory of the four regional champs, edging Notre Dame 76-75.

Stanford has won the NCAA title twice, but no one on the current team was even born when the Cardinal won their most recent championship. It was in 1992, and Stanford's toughest game during that tournament came in the national semifinals, when the Cardinal survived 66-65 against Virginia.

Leading the Cavaliers then was senior guard Dawn Staley; that loss ended her college career. Now she's South Carolina's head coach and faces Tara VanDerveer -- who earned her 1,000th victory earlier this season. Those two were player and coach on the 1996 Olympic team; Staley was recently named the national team coach, coming full circle.

While UConn has to be considered a big favorite against Mississippi State, it's harder to predict which team has the upper hand between South Carolina and Stanford. The Cardinal have been the comeback kids in the postseason, rallying from deficits in four of their past five games. Stanford's inside game has been solid, but the Cardinal have really gotten a lift from guard Brittany McPhee.

The Gamecocks won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, with Mississippi State being runner-up in both. But South Carolina has had to adjust to the loss of senior center Alaina Coates, who is injured and out for the NCAA tournament.

Without Coates, South Carolina has relied on first-team All-American forward A'ja Wilson. But they've also gotten a huge boost from junior guard Kaela Davis, who had 23 points on 10 of 15 shooting in leading the Gamecocks past Florida State 71-64 on Monday.

If UConn and Stanford advance to the final, that matchup will have multiple storylines. VanDerveer took over at Stanford in 1985, the same time that Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey took over at UConn. Their teams have met five times in the Final Four, most recently in 2014. The Huskies have won four of those.

Stanford is the last team to beat UConn -- in November 2014 -- and the Cardinal also ended what's now the Huskies' second-longest winning streak (90 games) in December 2010.

And while there have been several sisters who've played together on the same team in the Final Four -- including Syracuse's Briana and Bria Day last year -- this season we have sisters on different teams: Katie Lou Samuelson for UConn and Karlie Samuelson for Stanford.

Ultimately, though, will the ending be the same old, same old -- a Huskies' five-peat? UConn will take nothing for granted. That's how the Huskies have gotten this far to begin with.