LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For a quartet of coaches, the Final Four is a business trip. But for hundreds of their peers, that weekend is at least a chance to talk shop if not practice it. So for Washington coach Mike Neighbors, the moment it truly hit home that the Huskies are one win away from the national semifinals came when he got a text from a colleague noting that Neighbors might not be available for the normal Final Four weekend social gatherings.
Even Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, no stranger to the idea of working rather than networking during the Final Four, said Saturday that she had to pull a second set of sideline attire out of the closet in her hotel after a Sweet 16 upset win against Notre Dame, just to reassure herself that she had, in fact, packed for a potential regional final.
No, this isn't the Elite Eight anyone expected.
And that's only partly because the Pac-12 has three entrants for the first time.
While not the most scientific method, one way to measure the chalkiness of a tournament is to add up the total of the seeds. If every regional final pitted a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 2 seed, the total would be 12. That total this season is 28, greater than any other season this century. In fact, only three of the past 16 tournaments produced an Elite Eight with a seed value of more than 22.
The tournament plows ahead toward a result everyone expects, but at least we're taking the scenic route if it's to a foregone conclusion.
It's nice to have some variety. And in terms of the Elite Eight, come for the surprises Sunday. Stay for the chalk Monday.
Sioux Falls Regional (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday)
Why No. 4 Syracuse can win: We just saw the Orange eliminate the best size the SEC and the nation had to offer, so doing the same against a sometimes erratic facsimile seems within their capability. Syracuse didn't stop South Carolina's Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson once they had the ball in their hands in the Sweet 16, but while those two players accounted for nearly half of the Gamecocks' field goals, they took barely a quarter of the team's shots. Instead, the top seed shot itself out of the game from the perimeter against a Syracuse zone pleased to let the Gamecocks do just that. If it comes down to a contest of which team's guards hit more shots, there is ample reason to expect Brianna Butler, Alexis Peterson and Brittney Sykes win that duel and earn the program's first Final Four trip.
Why No. 7 Tennessee can win: Because the thing about being erratic, as opposed to just unable, is that the good can be very good. And after a first-round test against Green Bay, the Lady Vols have looked a lot like, well, what we expected South Carolina to look like. Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves controlled the interior against Arizona State and Ohio State, and the Lady Vols averaged 5.3 points per turnover in those two wins, compared to 4.1 points per turnover in all previous games. Use size, take care of the ball and eschew the 3-pointer. It is a good look for this team, if not one consistently employed all season. Also, Tennessee already beat Syracuse once this season without getting a field goal from Diamond DeShields. What are the odds she is silent a second time?
Bridgeport Regional (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET Monday)
Why No. 1 Connecticut can win: The Huskies just beat Mississippi State by more points than any team has ever beaten any opponent in the Sweet 16. And now they play the team they set the previous record against in that category a year ago. Connecticut is operating at a level in this tournament for which it is difficult to find a parallel even in its own extensive annals. Without giving himself over to fandom, even Geno Auriemma seems intent on simply appreciating what Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck do each game.
Why No. 2 Texas can win: Because when people use the phrase "stranger things have happened," they must be talking about something, right? That's not a slight to a team that would have an excellent chance to win any other regional final. It's just the reality of playing an opponent that makes David vs. Goliath look like a No. 8 vs. No. 9 game by comparison. But the Longhorns have something the Huskies don't, which is at least something few opponents claim. Imani Boyette is a giant post presence. If she disrupts Connecticut's offensive flow, if Ariel Atkins and two or three others have the shooting game of their lives, if the Huskies play worse than they have all season, well, it wouldn't be another 50-point margin. Let's start there for a program very much on the rise.
Dallas Regional (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET Monday)
Why No. 1 Baylor can win: The top seed in the region certainly gave off the impression it was having a lot of fun during its Sweet 16 win against Florida State. The sight of coach Kim Mulkey smiling after an Alexis Jones 3-pointer during an early run -- and not smiling in the sarcastic way that makes the target fear for his or her life -- spoke volumes about someone whose sideline demeanor typically skews more toward intensity. What isn't to enjoy, especially after back-to-back 30-point games from Nina Davis? Baylor and Oregon State are the two stingiest 3-point defenses left in the tournament, but that shot matters more to Oregon State's offense than it does to Baylor's offense.
Why No. 2 Oregon State can win: What influence does Ruth Hamblin have on defense? Check the numbers the likes of Notre Dame's Turner, Tennessee's Graves and Oregon's Jillian Alleyne put up against her. Oregon State didn't win some of those games, but it wasn't because it got beat inside. And Baylor doesn't really have frontcourt players who are obvious candidates to pull Hamblin away from the basket. That's going to test Davis' nimble and creative shot making. As good as Baylor is defensively, and it's exceptional, it doesn't get there by forcing oodles of turnovers. It will help if Sydney Wiese has a chance to settle into the moment.