Connecticut has taken up residence at the Final Four with its 10th straight appearance and 18th overall. Stanford is back after a two-year absence, and is making its 13th trip. Those are the veterans, two programs, coached by legends Geno Auriemma and Tara VanDerveer, that make up half of the Mount Rushmore of women's college basketball.
South Carolina, with its second Final Four appearance, and Mississippi State, making its first, are the newbies. Coaches Dawn Staley and Vic Schaefer have quickly built these two programs from the ground up and have their sights set on displacing the game's traditional powers.
Before those battles play out in Dallas, let's dissect the matchups and look at the moments that propelled each team's season from good to great.
Mississippi State: The mass benching. Despite the best season in program history, Schaefer didn't like what he was seeing. Mississippi State was 29-4, but three of those losses came in the final 11 days leading into the NCAA tournament. Something was wrong, and a season of promise threatened to end in a whimper. Schaefer went all in. The fifth-year coach benched four of his five starters for the start of the NCAA tournament. Whether it was discipline or a wake-up call, Schaefer didn't say, but Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, Breanna Richardson and Victoria Vivians seemed to get the message. They embraced their roles as reserves in the first three tournament games, and after returning to their customary place as starters for the thrilling overtime win over Baylor in the Elite Eight, they helped play the Bulldogs into their first Final Four.
Connecticut: Tested tough. These Huskies weren't supposed to keep the streak alive. They weren't supposed to once again emerge as the heavy favorite for a national championship. Heck, they weren't even supposed to be the No. 1-ranked team in the country. In fact, UConn was No. 3 when No. 2 Baylor visited Gampel Pavilion in the season's second game. Having already survived a nail-biting opening win at Florida State, UConn was tied with the Lady Bears early in the fourth quarter. The 16-2 run fueled by freshman point guard Crystal Dangerfield that followed led to a 72-61 victory -- and announced to the rest of the world that new faces in different roles didn't matter. Winning a national title still means going through UConn.
South Carolina: A new star emerges. When senior center Alaina Coates went down for good with an ankle injury early in the SEC tournament (she was originally injured Feb. 19), the Gamecocks lost part of their identity. South Carolina still had 6-foot-5 All-American A'ja Wilson, but could no longer rely on dominating teams inside. With the conference title game against Mississippi State slipping away, Kaela Davis gave the Gamecocks a new look. Her seven fourth-quarter points helped engineer a comeback and a third straight SEC tournament title. The performance also propelled Davis to her best stretch of the season at just the right time. Marred by inconsistency much of the year -- her first in Columbia after transferring from Georgia Tech, where she was always the No. 1 option -- Davis has settled in as a solid No. 2 behind Wilson, scoring 20 points or more in three of South Carolina's four NCAA tournament games, including a team-best 23 in the Elite Eight.
Stanford: You gotta believe. Tara VanDerveer has said her team just keeps believing anything is possible and the Cardinal players like each other so much they just don't want to stop playing together. That belief was put to the test a few times this season, but never more urgently than it was in the Lexington Regional final against Notre Dame, when seniors Karlie Samuelson and Erica McCall looked up at the scoreboard in the second half and saw they were down 16. An offensive that often struggled this season but has been much better in the NCAA tournament came alive and the defense started getting stops. None of those were bigger than the block by McCall on Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale with 2.2 seconds left to preserve the one-point win.
(2) Mississippi State vs. (1) Connecticut
Why UConn will win the national title: For the fourth straight NCAA tournament (remember, UConn was not the favorite in 2013), the reasons the Huskies will win the championship are endless. The more difficult question is how can they possibly lose. Winning 111 consecutive games will do that. This isn't quite the statistically dominant Huskies of the past two seasons, but the numbers remain highly impressive. This team is defined by how well it shares the ball, the quality of shots that result, and the shot-making ability of everyone in the rotation. The Huskies lead the nation in assists per game and field goal percentage.
Why Mississippi State will win the national title: The Bulldogs can't win the NCAA championship without first climbing Everest, aka beating UConn. While clearly a huge underdog, Mississippi State might have the parts to construct an upset. In theory, the three ingredients to toppling UConn are: being able to score with the ultra-efficient and consistent Huskies, to have size to win in the lane, and to possess a veteran point guard who minimizes mistakes, while also putting pressure on the UConn defense.
The Bulldogs' offense has lulls at times, but has registered three of its seven 90-plus point games this season in the NCAA tournament. Schaefer has five players 6-foot or taller in his regular rotation, including 6-5 Okorie and 6-7 Teaira McCowan. Morgan William, at 5-5, is not one of those players, but the point guard averages just two turnovers per game and is coming off a 41-point, seven-assist, zero-turnover game in the regional final upset of Baylor.
1. Bulldogs' size and aggressiveness: In theory UConn's only weakness is depth. Auriemma has essentially played just six players in the NCAA tournament. Expertly defending without fouling remains a UConn hallmark, but if Mississippi State can attack the rim with control and utilize Okorie and McCowan strategically, perhaps Napheesa Collier and/or Gabby Williams could be forced into foul trouble. Maryland did it -- Collier fouled out and Williams finished with four personals -- and the Terps only lost by six back in late-December.
2. How Mississippi State handles the stage: Schaefer has been here as an assistant coach on Texas A&M's 2011 national championship team, but none of his players have, and you can't underestimate the magnitude of playing in the Final Four. That's something the Bulldogs will just handle -- or they won't. UConn sitting on the other bench adds a layer to the emotional sides. How many teams are mentally beaten even before the tip because the intimidation of the Huskies overwhelms them? That happened to Mississippi State a year ago in the Sweet 16. UConn scored the first 13 points in their matchup and was up 32-4 after the first quarter en route to a 60-point drubbing. If the Bulldogs don't have a handle on the excitement of the program's first Final Four, this game will be over quickly, too.
3. UConn knows: Conversely, the Huskies know all about big situations. While junior Kia Nurse is the only UConn player with significant Final Four minutes on the résumé or the only one playing in a similar role as last year, they have all been here. Even as Williams, Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were growing from role players into All-Americans, they met this streak head on and inflated it while playing under its weight in games against the likes of Florida State, Baylor, Maryland, Notre Dame, Texas, Ohio State and South Carolina. UConn is trained to play every game the exact same way and these players have from Nov. 14 until now.
The names you know
Gabby Williams, UConn: Distinguishing between the individual impact of Samuelson, Collier, Williams and Nurse is impossible. This program went from three stars (Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck) to none -- and still kept right on dominating the sport. Samuelson and Collier were first-team All-Americans and shared AAC player of the year honors, yet its Williams who many believe is the most impactful player in the country. The 5-11 junior leads the team in steals (2.7 SPG) and assists (5.2 APG) -- and Auriemma calls her a center. She's also second in blocks (1.3 BPG) and rebounding (8.4 RPG) behind Collier and averages 14.1 PPG.
Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State: The 6-1 junior and her 16.3 PPG gives Mississippi State its star quality and swagger. Her arrival in Starkville coincided with Schaefer's resurrection. But her brashness was likely part of the reason she found herself on the bench to start the NCAA tournament. Schaefer felt Vivians, who rarely has met a shot she didn't like, had fallen too in love with the 3-pointer, and the rest of her game was suffering. She was back in the starting lineup against Baylor and her 23 points and six assists in 45 minutes in the biggest game in program history indicated that a lesson was learned.
UConn: Kia Nurse. UConn essentially plays without positions. The Huskies are simply five basketball players executing at the highest of levels. However, they have a quarterback and that's Nurse. The junior has the most big-game experience on the roster. She triggers the defense, generally drawing the toughest perimeter assignment. And in those rare tense moments, Nurse takes charge running the offense. She has also made a remarkable 20-of-26 3-pointers in the first four games of the tournament.
Mississippi State: Morgan William: The 5-5 junior point guard was having a rather pedestrian NCAA tournament with just 11 total points in three games until her 41-point explosion against Baylor. That performance is why the Bulldogs are here. She doesn't have to score 41, but she needs to run the Mississippi State offense flawlessly, while not allowing the Huskies to take advantage of her size at the other end.
Who wins? UConn.
(2) Stanford vs. (1) South Carolina
Why South Carolina will win the national title: Coates' absence has weakened the Gamecocks up front, an area in which they were among the best two or three teams in the country. But the offense might be even better now. Wilson has more room to roam in the lane and the perimeter game has more natural flow. South Carolina still isn't an offensive juggernaut by any means, but with Wilson, Davis and Allisha Gray, the Gamecocks have three players who can create their own shot, a luxury only UConn has among the other Final Four teams.
Why Stanford will win the national title: Not only was Stanford down 16 to Notre Dame, but the Cardinal trailed Texas by nine at the half in the regional semifinals and have come back in five of their last six games. No coach in the tournament has done a better job in-game than VanDerveer. Her adjustments have been as important as Samuelson's jumpers, Brittany McPhee's dashes to the hoop, or the inside play of Erica McCall and Alanna Smith.
1. Stanford's defense: Notre Dame was the first team to score over 70 points against the Cardinal in 11 games. During that stretch they held Oregon State (twice), Oregon and Kansas State, all NCAA tournament teams, to fewer than 60. Stanford ranked 10th in the country this season in field goal percentage defense (34.9 percent). VanDerveer's switching of defenses in the second half against the Irish was a key to the comeback, but if Davis, Gray and Gamecocks freshman point guard Tyasha Harris play as aggressively as they did in the regionals, anything Stanford employs will be tested.
2. Wilson's foul trouble: South Carolina has played two teams in the tournament with size -- Arizona State and Florida State -- and Wilson was in foul trouble in each game. This is where the Gamecocks miss Coates the most. Stanford's 6-3 McCall, 6-3 Smith, and to a lesser extent 6-3 Kaylee Johnson, will be able to test Wilson's ability to defend effectively, but not too aggressively. Staley can't afford to have her star off the floor for extended periods. Although the Gamecocks played well without Wilson for stretches against Florida State, Wilson only playing 21 minutes nearly caught up to them.
3. The 3-ball: Stanford is going to shoot 3-pointers (115 more attempts than the Gamecocks on the season), and if they are dropping South Carolina could be at a disadvantage. In their three tournament games minus the explosion against Quinnipiac, the Gamecocks have made 11 total 3-pointers. McPhee and Samuelson combined to make 10 against Notre Dame alone. South Carolina is, however, the nation's seventh-best team at defending the 3 (27.3 percent).
The names you know
A'ja Wilson, South Carolina: She's a Wooden Award finalist and a first-team All-American averaging 17.9 PPG and 7.4 RPG. She's the biggest and most skilled front court player in the game. Wilson's ability to face the basket from 15 feet and shoot or drive should be one of South Carolina's biggest weapons. Wilson's presence as a shot blocker (2.5 BPG) can also cause disruption for Stanford, no matter how many bigs the Cardinal have to throw at her.
Karlie Samuelson, Stanford: With younger sister Katie Lou starring for UConn in the other semifinal, the last name will be hard to escape. Karlie is also the most accurate 3-point shooter in the country at 49.0 percent, and her long-range acumen is Stanford's greatest weapon. No player in this game is capable of igniting a spurt like Samuelson.
South Carolina: Tyasha Harris. Anytime a freshman point guard is placed in these big-game situations, the question lingers about how she will react. Harris' performance will be crucial. Her 16-point, two-turnover, 38-minute performance against Florida State was a solid indicator that she is ready. But the Final Four can be a different animal, as can Stanford's confusing defensive looks.
Stanford: Alanna Smith. The most underrated play in Stanford's win over Notre Dame? The catch Smith made in traffic on the lob pass from guard Marta Sniezek, then converting it into the game-winning layup. McCall might have the bigger numbers and more experience, but Smith's athleticism and offensive skill set might be the best among Stanford's frontcourt players.
Who wins? South Carolina