Stanford remains the storyline. But before we find out if the Cardinal can reach a fifth consecutive Final Four, espnW's writers each take a closer look at the region.
1. Anybody remember the comedy mini-series "Fresno," staring Carol Burnett and Dabney Coleman as dueling raisin magnates? A parody of prime-time soap operas such as "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest," it aired in 1986.
That also happens to be the last year that a Pac-12 (10) team other than Stanford appeared in the Women's Final Four. That was Southern California.
That streak won't be broken this year. No. 8 seed California, in the Raleigh Regional, is the only other Pac-12 team in the NCAA tournament field, and the Bears' odds of getting to Denver are miniscule. But Stanford, No. 1 in the Fresno Regional, could once again make it to the season's last weekend, which would be the Cardinal's fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four.
And while Stanford and its fans aren't so thrilled about going cross-country to Norfolk, Va., for the early rounds, there simply weren't that many options. Besides, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer often laments that folks on the East Coast don't stay up late to watch Stanford play. This way, they won't have to.
2. Oklahoma had injury problems and youth to deal with this season, along with having lost point guard Danielle Robinson to the WNBA. Still, the Sooners managed to tie Texas A&M for second place in the Big 12 and are the No. 6 seed in this region.
Under coach Sherri Coale, Oklahoma has advanced at least as far as the Sweet 16 eight times, including five of the past six years. The advantage the Sooners have this year is that they are playing the early rounds at home. Oklahoma faces a team it has played only once in program history, No. 11 seed Michigan, in the first round, and might face a team it has never played, St. John's, in the second.
We also just want to highlight a line from Coale's most recent blog about the beauty of March Madness: "In a world where most people would give anything for one more shot, the concept of a 64-team tournament full of flawed tryers is just what the doctor ordered."
3. No. 8 seed West Virginia and No. 9 seed Texas get a jump-start on what will be a regular-season conference matchup starting in 2012-13, when the Mountaineers dive into the pool of geographical insanity by joining the Big 12. It means the Big 12 will have something it never did before: league games in the Eastern time zone. All we ask from this NCAA matchup is that it not be as unsightly as West Virginia's 39-32 crime-against-twine victory over Georgetown in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. That means Texas needs to shoot better than 25 percent from the field, like it did in its 81-58 Big 12 quarterfinal loss to Texas Tech. -- Mechelle Voepel
Three players to watch
Tavelyn James, Eastern Michigan:
As you might have heard by now, the NCAA's leading scorer this season made the tournament. But Delaware star Elena Delle Donne isn't the only prolific scorer in the field. Tavelyn James finished second to Delle Donne in points per game and leads Eastern Michigan into an intriguing first-round game against defensive-minded South Carolina. (Tennessee-Martin's Heather Butler, who finished third in the national scoring race, also gets a shot on the NCAA tournament stage.) James is a scorer through and through, averaging just 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, but it's easier to find other people capable of doing those things than it is to find a player capable of scoring 24 points per game. She averages better than eight 3-point attempts per game but also gets to the free throw line almost six times per game. This is Eastern Michigan's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2004, but James has recent big-game experience after playing for Team USA in last summer's Pan-Am Games.
Nadirah McKenith, St. John's: A team picked to finish seventh in the Big East is now an official White House pick to reach the Final Four. No wonder St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico sounded a little baffled at the Big East tournament in trying to comprehend how the floor general of said team didn't earn first-team all-conference honors. The Red Storm rose this season on the strength of their entire roster, contributions coming from leading scorer Shenneika Smith, the hero of the win against Connecticut with a late 3-pointer, to Da'Shena Stevens, the senior whose return to form after early injury woes solidified the interior. But no position is more important on a balanced team than that filled by the person who makes sure the right people get the ball in the right places. And whether that's one of her teammates (4.7 assists per game and a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio) or herself (12 points per game, including a pair of 26-point games), McKenith keeps it running.
Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford:
Serena Williams, Eli Manning and Chiney Ogwumike? The club of younger siblings capable of challenging famous older siblings for family bragging rights has a new member. The younger and slightly taller sister of All-American and player-of-the-year candidate Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Chiney followed a freshman season full of promise with a sophomore effort that cemented her place as a star. She ranks fourth nationally in field goal percentage, and among players in the six power conferences, only Maryland's Tiana Hawkins had more offensive rebounds than Chiney. Her older sister had one of the games of the year in a win against Tennessee, but when Stanford was staring at the prospect of a rare conference defeat at home against arch rival California, it was Chiney who came through with 27 points and 18 rebounds in an overtime win. -- Graham Hays
Best first-round game
(7) Vanderbilt vs. (10) Middle Tennessee: This intra-Tennessee showdown could be the feistiest of all the first-round games. Vanderbilt technically possesses the home-court advantage, and surely the Commodore faithful will fill the arena, but Middle Tennessee will be traveling only 45 miles to Memorial Gymnasium.
Don't let the Blue Raiders' seed distract you from the truth: They're darn good. Middle Tennessee (26-6) blew through the Sun Belt Conference regular-season schedule with a record of 16-0, and many experts have picked the Blue Raiders as a team to watch in the tournament.
Vanderbilt (22-9) lost just one game at Memorial this season and has the advantage of playing grueling SEC competition, but Middle Tennessee enters the game believing it is very capable of an upset. The Blue Raiders have a trio of scorers in Kortni Jones, Ebony Rowe and Icelyn Elie, who combine for 47.4 points per game.
Senior guard Christina Foggie is Vanderbilt's go-to player. She averages 17.8 points, shoots 42 percent from beyond the arc and 84 percent from the line. -- Kate Fagan
Upsets to watch for
(13) South Dakota State over (4) Purdue (first round): The Jackrabbits will have their work cut out them on Purdue's home floor, but the Boilermakers are not invincible in West Lafayette and are prone to offensive struggles. Purdue is not a good shooting team -- and that's a South Dakota State strength.
(7) Vanderbilt over (2) Duke (second round): The last time Duke was a high seed and played a second-round game on the road, the Blue Devils were upset. Michigan State knocked off Duke as the No. 1 seed in East Lansing. Memorial Gym is a tough place to play for visitors and Vandy will have the best scorer on the floor in Christina Foggie. -- Charlie Creme
Projected regional semifinals
(5) South Carolina vs. (1) Stanford: The Cardinal have a long trip to Norfolk, but shouldn't have much trouble in the first round with Hampton. The second round might be trickier against a Texas team that Stanford beat in the season opener in Austin, or defensive-minded West Virginia, the same team that upset Notre Dame. But the Ogwumike sisters should bring Stanford back to California where they would meet up with Dawn Staley's squad, setting up an intriguing matchup between Tara VanDerveer and the player she coached in the 1996 Olympics, Dawn Staley.
South Carolina is in the tournament for the first time since 2003 and opens in West Lafayette against Eastern Michigan. The Gamecocks have five wins over ranked opponents this season and rank fourth in the country in scoring defense, which will give them the edge over Purdue in the second round. The Gamecocks have held an opponent to fewer than 60 points in 26 games this season, and have held foes below their scoring average 20 times.
(6) Oklahoma vs. (2) Duke: The Sooners are playing at home to open the tournament, which gives them a big advantage over the field gathered in Norman. Oklahoma would have to pull off a significant upset to knock off third-seeded St. John's in the second round, but Oklahoma has the talent to do it. What the Sooners lack at the moment is a sense of momentum; Oklahoma has been alternating wins and losses since Feb. 4.
Duke, meanwhile, will have to get past its early exit from the ACC tournament as well as past host Vanderbilt in Nashville. The Blue Devils, looking to return to their first Final Four since 2006, will be relying heavily on young talent, such as sophomore guard Chelsea Gray and freshman forward Elizabeth Williams, to do it. -- Michelle Smith