Final Four offers good mix

NEW ORLEANS -- If you've seen "Oz the Great and Powerful," you know the most emotion-provoking characters in film are not actually humans. China Girl, the doll, and Finley, the helpful winged monkey, are voiced by real people, but they are computer-generated imagery. They steal your heart and steal the show from James Franco, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis.

The Louisville and Cal teams are flesh-and-blood folks, but they have a fairy-tale quality that almost makes it seem as if they could have been manufactured in someone's imagination.

Meanwhile, the box-office big names -- No. 1 seeds Connecticut and Notre Dame -- are also here, ready to live up to their star power.

So when all four teams take the stage Sunday night in the Big Easy, will the heavyweights -- who will be trying to eliminate each other -- be the most dominant story? Or will that spotlight be shared with two teams, Louisville in particular, that far fewer people expected to be here?

The Cardinals are the second No. 5 seed to make the Final Four. Their matchup with Cal (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) will be the first meeting between a No. 2 and a No. 5 in a semifinal. When Missouri State made it this far as a No. 5 seed in 2001, it faced No. 3 Purdue in the Final Four.

That Cinderella story ended in the semis for Missouri State. This time, though, one of the "unexpected teams" will be in the NCAA final against either seven-time national champ UConn or Notre Dame, which has one title and is in its fifth Final Four. Those two meet in the nightcap Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), and will be playing for the fourth time this season.

Is it fair to call Cal a Cinderella, since the Bears tied for the Pac-12 regular-season title and were a No. 2 seed? Maybe not. But consider that no team from the West Coast except Stanford had made it to the Final Four since Long Beach State in 1988.

"Did I ever imagine it?" Cal's Lindsay Gottlieb said about coaching in the Final Four. "I did. As a kid, a friend and I would take like a fake tape recorder, and we would do imaginary press conferences."

Saturday, she was doing a real one at the Final Four, just like UConn's Geno Auriemma, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw and Louisville's Jeff Walz. Those three have all done this before. But even a veteran coach will tell you that there is still an appreciation for what it takes to get here.

"It's so difficult to do," McGraw said. "For us to be back here; I don't think we fully appreciated it until a couple of days [after the regional win]. Then we're able to enjoy it for a minute. Now, we've got to move on to business."

For the third season in a row, Notre Dame and UConn will meet in the national semifinals. The Irish won in 2011 and '12, and they have prevailed in seven of the past eight games of this series.

"[I am] definitely still watching them as intently as I did the first time," UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said of scouting the Irish. "Just trying to make sure the mindset's right before we go into the game tomorrow."

This is the 14th Final Four appearance for UConn and the program's sixth in a row. So the Huskies are the categorical opposite of Cal in regard to experience with the circus that is the Final Four.

But, like the Bears, the Huskies made their Final Four debut in New Orleans. That was in 1991, when UConn lost to Virginia in the national semifinals.

"I'm sure there's so much going on with Cal's kids right now," Auriemma said. "But when the ball goes up Sunday, that will be the only thing that's familiar to them."

Auriemma joked that in the future, Gottlieb will look back at her first Final Four and think about that being the good old days.

"She'll, go 'Man, that's when it all turned for me. I used to love this game,'" Auriemma said.

For his part, Auriemma was characteristically a little grumpy, acknowledging how the process leading up to a Final Four becomes more difficult each year for him to keep in balance emotionally. It must be hard to try and cheerfully bear the weight of the Final Four being "expected" instead of being considered a huge accomplishment. Then again, that's the expectation level he has set at UConn. Ultimately, there's no place Auriemma would rather be than playing in the season's final games.

Just ask Baylor. The No. 1 overall seed was a big favorite to advance out of Oklahoma City, but Louisville stopped the Lady Bears.

Cal's Gennifer Brandon said she was napping last Sunday in her team's hotel in Spokane, Wash., during the Baylor-Louisville game. Then she heard a commotion from another room as her teammates were watching the upset.

"So I woke up with maybe a minute and a half to go in the game," Brandon said. "Which was probably the most exciting part -- a lot of stuff happened. No one expected Louisville to win, and it's awesome to see that happen in women's basketball. I feel sad for Baylor, but us facing Louisville -- it's kind of fresh, new and different. It's something to embrace."

The Cardinals, who appeared in the 2009 Final Four, pulled the upset not just of this tournament, but probably the biggest in the history of NCAA play. They followed that up with an also-impressive Elite Eight victory over Tennessee.

"If we're going to continue to grow our game and get more games that are exciting to watch," Walz said, "we've got to get players not willing to go to the same schools. I'm hoping we can continue to get it where players believe in more programs."

Walz convinced the Schimmel sisters, Shoni and Jude, to come from the state of Oregon. He also got Bria Smith, who is from New York and originally planned to go to Virginia, but changed her mind when Debbie Ryan retired.

"Then, it was between us and Tennessee," Walz said. "And Bria said, 'I want to do something different,' and that's what we have to keep trying to get to in our sport."

Sunday, we'll see the gold standard, in UConn, facing another consistent power in Notre Dame. And we'll witness the eager newcomers of Cal versus the giant-killers of Louisville. A Final Four with a mix of everything.

"We are thrilled, to say the least, to be practicing on April 6, to be here," Gottlieb said. "We're soaking it all in."

As should all fans of women's hoops. It may not be the exact Final Four we expected, but it's still one to savor.