UConn, Tennessee could meet in semis

I know, I know. You're sensing the force-feeding coming. You're saying, "Oh, great … this again." You're feeling like "the media" will hype it well out of proportion. You'll say, "Wait a minute, Voepel, didn't even you write a few years back something about, 'Deliver us from the Evil Empires?'"

Well … yes, actually I did in 2003, after UConn and Tennessee made it into the NCAA final, which meant we were guaranteed one of the two would win the national championship for the seventh time in nine years.

It was also the sixth time in those nine seasons that the two behemoths were meeting during the NCAA tournament. Then in 2004, they'd make it seven in 10 as they faced off in the NCAA final for the fourth time.

Plus, we'd had that stretch in 2000-2001 when they'd played twice during the regular season. It was women's basketball's showcase matchup, but it seemed like it was drowning out everything and everybody else.

Ah, but hasn't absence made the heart grow fonder? Or maybe more bitter, if one's heart is on either side of this rivalry, rather than the middle ground where neutral observers set up camp and make lots of popcorn.

The NCAA women's bracket came out Monday, and as was expected, UConn and Tennessee are No. 1 seeds on the same half. Meaning if they live up to their seeds, the two most successful women's basketball programs of the NCAA era will meet in the national semifinals.


Certainly there are obstacles that could prevent the 23rd meeting between UConn and Tennessee, the first since the rancorous end to the regular-season series in 2007.

Well … actually, it doesn't look like that much is in the way of coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies, the top seed in the Philadelphia Regional and two-time defending national champions, now holder of seven NCAA titles.

In the regular season, the Huskies beat Philly No. 2 seed Duke by 36 points and third-seeded DePaul by 23 in back-to-back games. No. 4 seed Maryland is a past national champion -- the Terps won that title in the last year when neither UConn nor Tennessee made the Final Four, 2006 -- but coach Brenda Frese's team is coming off an ACC tournament quarterfinal loss. The Terps do have a win over Duke on their résumé; they split their season series with the Blue Devils.

Tennessee, the No. 1 seed in the Dayton Regional, won the program's seventh and eighth NCAA titles in 2007 and 2008. The loss of all five starters hurt Tennessee significantly for 2009, resulting in an unprecedented first-round loss to Ball State. All things considered, a Sweet 16 upset loss to Baylor last season wasn't that bad for Tennessee, especially since the Lady Bears also went on to topple Duke to reach the Final Four.

But Tennessee is a stronger NCAA No. 1 seed this season than last. Shekinna Stricklen was the SEC's player of the year from a balanced Lady Vols' squad. Freshman guard Meighan Simmons has provided great speed and is improving in her decision making. Maybe most important is that Simmons truly has the winning attitude of past Tennessee champions.

Tennessee is coming off a dazzling fireworks display in its SEC tournament championship romp over Kentucky, a 90-65 victory in which the Lady Vols hit a school-record 16 3-pointers.

Seven of those were by Angie Bjorklund, a senior who has an NCAA championship ring from 2008 but would like to add another.

That 2008 Final Four also had the potential for a UConn-Tennessee meeting in what was the first year since 1994 in which the two schools had not met in the regular season. Many, many oodles of words have been written about Tennessee coach Pat Summitt's decision not to renew the series, which the school announced in the summer of 2007.

At the center of this drama is UConn senior Maya Moore, whom Tennessee understandably wanted very badly to come to Knoxville. The Orange Brigade remains largely convinced some kind of shenanigans had to have lured Moore to Storrs instead. The Blue Brigade is fed up with such talk and says Tennessee is obsessively delusional about Moore's recruitment.

You can understand why it was so tough for Tennessee to not get Moore, who came out of high school in Georgia. Had she ended up playing for Summitt, it might have meant the last two NCAA titles would have gone to Tennessee as well.

Admittedly, it might seem a lot for one player to have made the difference between a team that lost in the first round and one that won the title. But with a leader of Moore's caliber, Tennessee -- which had a lot of talent in 2009 -- would not have looked so uncharacteristically sluggish and lacking in confidence that year.

The very idea of Moore in orange, though, is enough to make UConn folks toss up everything they ate for the past 24 hours. She's the program's all-time scoring leader and is making a run at tying Diana Taurasi with three NCAA titles. Moore also has been an exceptional student and admired ambassador for the Huskies, the Big East and women's basketball as a whole.

But … through no fault of her own, she hasn't played Tennessee. And Huskies legends from Rebecca Lobo to Nykesha Sales to Sue Bird to Swin Cash to Taurasi all have interesting chapters in their college careers dealing specifically with facing Tennessee.

By the same token, the likes of Tennessee greats Michelle Marciniak, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Kara Lawson and Candace Parker have their battles against UConn to look back on. Tennessee players Bjorklund's age and younger don't.

Yes, if this matchup between UConn and Tennessee happens on April 3 in Indianapolis, it will be hyped to the max. All the old stories and grudges will surface again. Tennessee and UConn message boards will go bonkers. Alumni will weigh in with their thoughts. And fans from the other two schools in the Final Four will have their eyes rolling into the back of their heads in irritated indignation.

I fully admit, I was kind of weary of the UConn-Tennessee banter when we'd had such a glut of it by the 2004 NCAA final. Both programs were great to watch, no doubt. But it felt like the rest of women's basketball was not getting enough credit for progress made.

So I wanted somewhat of a reprieve from UConn-Tennessee and the accompanying sideshows that the rivalry always spawned, but certainly didn't want the whole thing to go away entirely.

If either school is upset before the 2011 Final Four, well-deserved kudos should be bestowed upon whoever does it. If neither UConn nor Tennessee makes it to Indianapolis, the event will still be very exciting. It's the Final Four; it stands alone now, no matter what teams are there.

But you know what? If UConn-Tennessee does happen, it's going to be fun again.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.