Trio of Final Four debutants face tallest of tasks in stopping UConn

Goliath is coming to a place so steeped in the legend of David that someone made a movie about it.

Even so, it will take more than running the picket fence of "Hoosiers" fame, Hollywood's version of slinging a stone, to stop this Connecticut women's basketball team in its pursuit of perfection -- yet again.

Indianapolis is the capital city in a state that considers itself the center of the basketball world. It is a place where the romanticism of the underdog isn't limited to the 1986 movie or even the Milan Miracle on which the film was loosely based. This is where Butler, the hometown school, came within inches of an improbable men's national championship win over Duke. It's also where Duke, trading roles, beat undefeated and supposedly invincible UNLV in a semifinal 25 years ago. It's where Reggie Miller thrived in the role of underdog with the NBA's Indiana Pacers and where the past two national championship games in women's college basketball pitted Baylor against Michigan State and Texas A&M against Notre Dame -- not Connecticut against Tennessee.

"When you get there, anything can happen," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said of the Final Four after his team clinched its ninth straight trip. "But it can't happen unless you're there."

But this? Three teams that have never been this far trying to stop a dynasty on the brink of something that can be done only by getting here all the time: Four titles in a row, a senior class of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck that never lost the last game.

The first Final Four since 2004 with only one No. 1 seed? And it's this No. 1 seed? This is asking a lot of the Hickory High magic.

Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be expected to play host to the surest thing in sports: the foregone conclusion of a fourth consecutive Connecticut championship at the expense of No. 2 seed Oregon State in a semifinal and either No. 4 seed Syracuse or No. 7 seed Washington in the final.

Undefeated and the top overall seed yet again, Connecticut won its regional final against Texas by 21 points, and that almost felt like a close call. UConn hasn't won a game by fewer than 20 points since Feb. 8. That was against the team ranked second in the country on South Carolina's home court. But as with every game this season, the Huskies still won by double digits.

No, their "B" team wouldn't make the Final Four. No, they don't get all the best players. But what they do with what they have is without equal. That begins with Stewart. Best of all time or not, she is as complete a player as the sport has seen.

There are a hundred ways to illustrate the program's precision, relentlessness and focus around her. Try one: Connecticut has 355 more assists than turnovers. The rest of the Final Four field has 42 more turnovers than assists.

There is reason to hope Oregon State can test Connecticut. The latter team's narrative of invulnerability aside, Maryland pushed the Huskies on a neutral court. The Terrapins were down just four points late. Even without its best player, Notre Dame tried at home to push its old rival the same month. It stayed close deep into the third quarter, until the visitor pulled away.

Oregon State survived in the regional final against a team with the size to battle 6-foot-6 center Ruth Hamblin, the length to frustrate Pac-12 player of the year Jamie Weisner and the full-court pressure to goad All-American point guard Sydney Wiese into turnovers. The Beavers passed the test. Regular-season champions the past two years in a conference that this year provided three teams in the Elite Eight and half of the Final Four, the Beavers are new to the stage but not unproven in the part.

Syracuse and Washington (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday) will be considered the opening act in every respect except a tip time that follows that of Connecticut and Oregon State (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET). That is unfair but also inescapable. The winner will be one of the lowest seeds to play for the title this century. Washington would be just the second finalist in that span seeded as low as seventh, alongside Minnesota in 2004. Syracuse would be the fourth finalist in that span seeded fourth or lower, after Minnesota, Rutgers in 2007 and Louisville in 2013.

That Syracuse eliminated No. 1 seed South Carolina, assumed to be one of Connecticut's main rivals, will sway about as much support as when Louisville stunned Baylor three years ago en route to a surprise Final Four appearance, which is to say, the Orange remain outsiders. That might sit just fine with Alexis Peterson, Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes, who thus far have been content to answer doubt with jumper after jumper.

That Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor led Washington to wins over Maryland and Kentucky on each team's home court and then beat longtime Pac-12 bully Stanford in a regional final will earn praise but not picks -- just like when Lindsay Whalen, Janel McCarville and the Gophers rolled through the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds en route to the Final Four more than a decade ago.

Both Louisville in 2013 and Minnesota in 2004 offered proof that anything can happen. Except both lost to Connecticut in the Final Four.

What Syracuse and Washington demonstrate is that it's fine to say Connecticut's dominance bores you, but it's asinine to say it hurts the sport. Although Syracuse now resides in a different league, as it made clear when it was unwilling to give Stewart a game in her hometown this season, the time spent alongside Connecticut in the Big East forced the program to take the sport more seriously or continue getting embarrassed.

While Auriemma has earned his reputation as someone uninterested in false humility, what he doesn't get credit for is the genuine variety. He is the first to say talent is the secret of success. He had Diana Taurasi; the rest of the country didn't. He had Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Stewart. There is more to winning than talent, but it is hard to win without. It matters that Washington has Plum, a McDonald's All-American who chose to leave her home state of California for a Washington program then in the early stages of rebuilding.

There is more talent and better talent going to more schools than ever before. There is talent to build a program such as Washington or Oregon State or Syracuse. There is talent for those teams to beat Maryland, Baylor and South Carolina.

To watch this year's tournament, as opposed to tweeting about Connecticut's margins of victory, is to see clearly that the Davids will have their day in women's basketball. When they do, it will be more because of than in spite of a program that set a merciless standard.

But asking for that day to come this weekend is asking a lot, even in Indiana.