UConn has advanced to every Final Four the past 10 years and won the national championship on six of those trips. So speculating about the Huskies' path through the NCAA tournament usually has been about estimating margin of victory, not whether or not they'll win.
But ... UConn did not claim the championship last year -- a 111-game winning streak ended in overtime against Mississippi State in an epic national semifinal. That prevented the matchup many expected in the 2017 NCAA final: UConn vs. South Carolina.
However, those teams could meet in the Albany Regional final this year. The Huskies are the No. 1 seed, and the defending national champion Gamecocks are No. 2. The No. 3 seed in that quarter of the bracket is Florida State, and No. 4 is Georgia.
UConn (32-0) will open NCAA tournament play Saturday in Storrs, Connecticut, against Northeast Conference champion St. Francis (Pennsylvania), the No. 16 seed. The Huskies' second-round opponent would be No. 8 Miami or No. 9 Quinnipiac. Last year, the Bobcats upset the Hurricanes to make the Sweet 16 in Stockton, California, and UConn coach Geno Auriemma supported his fellow Connecticut school by wearing a Quinnipiac T-shirt during a news conference at his regional in Bridgeport.
South Carolina (26-6) opens Friday against MEAC champ North Carolina A&T, the No. 15 seed. The Gamecocks then would face either No. 7 seed California or No. 10 Virginia, coach Dawn Staley's alma mater.
Staley and Gamecock Nation will not like the regional placement, but the bracket has been projecting this way for a while. South Carolina's 62-51 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC tournament final didn't change it; the 32-1 Bulldogs, who won the SEC regular-season title, are the top seed in the Kansas City Regional, with Big 12 runner-up Texas No. 2.
ACC tournament champ Louisville is No. 1 in the Lexington Regional, with Big 12 regular-season and tournament champ Baylor No. 2. ACC tournament runner-up Notre Dame (the Irish tied for the regular-season title with Louisville) is No. 1 in the Spokane Regional, with Pac-12 regular-season and tournament champ Oregon No. 2.
The Gamecocks have led the nation in attendance for the past three seasons and project to again this season. But for the third year in a row, they are in a regional nowhere near Columbia, South Carolina. In 2016, they were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and last year were in Stockton, California.
In 2014, the first year the Gamecocks were a No. 1 seed, they were in a regional at Stanford, California. The one year in their recent stretch of success in which they've been close to home was 2015, when they won the regional in Greensboro, North Carolina, about a three-hour drive from Columbia.
Lexington, Kentucky, will be hosting a regional for the third year in a row, and that would have been the closest for Gamecock fans -- about a seven-hour drive -- any of these past three seasons. Alas, the bracket hasn't worked out that way.
UConn, meanwhile, has long benefited from being the "beast of the East" in regard to regional placement. This will be the sixth time in the past seven seasons that the Huskies are in a regional roughly two hours or less from their campus. Three of those have been in Bridgeport, Connecticut; two in Albany, New York; and one in Kingston, Rhode Island.
UConn has been sent outside the Eastern time zone for a regional just once in the past 11 years: to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2014. In the past 24 seasons, starting in 1995, when UConn won its first NCAA title, the Huskies' regional has been in the Central time zone five times and the Pacific time zone just once (Fresno, California, in 2007). The rest have been in the East.
As for making it to the regional, the Huskies have done that every year since 1994. Their last early-round NCAA tournament loss came against Louisville in 1993's first round.
South Carolina actually got a scare in the second round last year but held on to beat Arizona State 71-68. The Gamecocks then crushed Cinderella story Quinnipiac, and edged Florida State 71-64 in the regional final. If seeds hold this year, the Gamecocks and Seminoles will meet in a regional game for the third time in the past four years.
At the Final Four in Dallas last year, South Carolina beat Stanford 62-53 in the semis and Mississippi State 67-55 in the final.
If South Carolina were to meet UConn in the Albany regional final this year, it would pit Staley, currently the coach of the U.S. national team, against the previous Team USA coach, Auriemma.
And the Gamecocks would be looking for their first victory against the Huskies. South Carolina is 0-6 against UConn, including this year's 83-58 loss in Columbia on Feb. 1. A'ja Wilson, espnW's national player of the year, struggled offensively in that game, making just 4 of 18 shots from the field. She finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
Freshman guard Bianca Jackson was a bright spot for South Carolina with 20 points. But the Gamecocks would need significantly more scoring from other players, plus a stronger defensive effort against the likes of American Athletic Conference player of the year Katie Lou Samuelson, Gabby Williams, Napheesa Collier and Kia Nurse, all of whom scored in double figures.
So it's certainly a challenging road for the Gamecocks in trying to repeat as national champions. The Huskies, meanwhile, have every reason to feel confident; they've never lost to South Carolina, No. 3 Florida State or No. 6 seed South Florida. UConn hasn't played No. 4 Georgia since 2006; the Huskies' only loss to the Bulldogs came in 1996.
No. 5 seed Duke's last win against UConn came in the 2006 Elite Eight, when Gail Goestenkors was the Blue Devils' coach. Under Joanne P. McCallie, the Blue Devils are 0-8 against the Huskies, losing those games by an average of 28.6 points.
Still, you can be sure the Huskies will not be overlooking anyone. They were stung last season, and it will take a considerable effort by some team to make that happen again.