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Five burning questions off the bracket

A change in scheduling format this year means one fewer day to wait for the start of play in the NCAA tournament. But there is still plenty of time before Friday's first-round games to ponder these five questions about the bracket.

1. What is next for undefeated Princeton?

Leave it to the NCAA women's basketball committee to turn a glass slipper into glass ceiling.

Win all the games you want. Earn whatever votes you can. Make whatever history you will. It matters not to the selection committee. The first undefeated team not named Baylor, Connecticut or Notre Dame in nearly two decades, the No. 13 team in polls of both Associated Press voters who cover the sport all season and coaches who make their living within the sport, Princeton is a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament because, well, the committee says so.

And the committee knows perfection, and it hasn't been wrong yet.

This isn't about propping up a team on the strength of a hollow record and patting it on the head. Again, the only teams in the past 17 years that completed undefeated regular seasons were Baylor, Connecticut and Notre Dame. The last time a team not part of a major conference did so was 1998. At least Princeton didn't suffer the same fate as that Liberty team, drawn as a No. 16 seed against similarly undefeated Tennessee by a committee that -- wink, wink -- never lets narrative affect decisions. In the entire history of the NCAA tournament, Princeton is just the fourth mid-major to enter the event undefeated. There have been a lot of soft schedules and a lot of weak conferences over the course of those 30-plus seasons. Perfect seasons still didn't happen.

Four times teams from beyond the elite did it. Four. The same number of times No. 8 seeds reached the Sweet 16.

Some reward.

And before the establishment protests begin, Princeton didn't play a soft schedule. It tried to appease the committee. It played Charlotte, Drexel, Duquesne, Georgetown, Michigan and Pittsburgh, among others, quality teams that weren't quite as good this season as they are most seasons. It played them on the road -- it played anyone on the road. Princeton picked up 19 of its 30 wins away from home, 15 of them in true road games and four at neutral sites.

It played just four home games it wasn't obligated to play by conference affiliation.

Guess how many SEC teams played 15 true road games? If you guessed none, congratulations.

Same for the Pac-12. And the ACC. And the Big Ten.

Did the Tigers leave some doubt about their mastery of that schedule? The top five in scoring margin includes Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and South Carolina. The fifth team in that group? Princeton. It beat Michigan by 30 points in Ann Arbor. You know which teams didn't do that? Maryland, Northwestern and Ohio State, teams seeded ahead of Princeton.

All of that adds up to a No. 8 seed. All of that adds up to a potential second-round game against No. 1 Maryland on that team's home court. That's common sense?

We haven't even gotten to the best part yet, the part where the committee backs the bus up one more time for good measure. The part where the committee picked Green Bay as Princeton's first-round opponent, a chance for one of the best mid-major programs to cannibalize another before being offered to the top seed. Win and Princeton, or Green Bay for that matter, just beat another mid-major. Big deal. Lose and, well, it must not have been for real anyway.

This can't be what Princeton thought it earned. It couldn't have crossed senior star Blake Dietrick's mind when she was asked last week if what happened in the tournament would define how she remembered the season.

"It's not make or break because the season has been amazing already," Dietrick said before the bracket was released and before she knew her team's fate. "But if we were to lose that [first-round] game it would put a dark cloud over what we've accomplished. We really want to go in and prove we can compete with the best 64 in the country."

This isn't a death sentence for Princeton (and, by the way, Maryland can't be thrilled that these two giant killers with a combined record of 57-4 are its reward for a No. 1 seed and a perfect conference season, either). The Tigers shoot the 3-point well enough, defend well enough and are athletic enough to win two games in College Park, Maryland. Not 10 times out of 10. Perhaps not two times out of 10. But maybe one time.

It's still a far bigger mountain than they should have to climb to reach the first Sweet 16 in program history.

Dietrick was asked last week if she ever got the sense that opponents looked at the name on her jersey and assumed they could take her off the dribble, that they took it for granted that an Ivy League team couldn't compete at the same level as a team with a major conference pedigree. She laughed, sounded almost bemused, and rejected the idea. This was Division I basketball, she pointed out, and no team was going to take the floor without knowing full well what it faced, all the more so against a team that has won as many games in recent seasons as Princeton.

Opponents, she seemed to suggest, had too much common sense to overlook what they saw with their own eyes.

It's a shame the same can't be said of the selection committee.

2. Which No. 1 seed has the most difficult road?

Which is the less pleasant rush hour commute? Navigating Interstate 5 in Los Angeles or Interstate 95 in New York?

The correct answer is that either way, you aren't going to have much fun getting to your destination.

That's essentially the conundrum in trying to figure out which No. 1 seed, Notre Dame in the Oklahoma City regional or South Carolina in the Greensboro regional, has a more arduous route to Tampa, Florida. But if Dawn Staley's team is going to reach its first Final Four, it will do so not just the hard way but the hardest way.

The eternal example of Harvard stunning Stanford in 1998 notwithstanding, we're really talking about three games that stand between the No. 1 seeds and their presumed places in the Final Four. The first of those for South Carolina, which already beat first-round opponent Savannah State by 62 points in the regular season, would be against either Syracuse or Nebraska in the second round. That alone is manageable, and both Notre Dame (against Minnesota or DePaul) and Maryland (against Princeton or Green Bay) will have their own second-round concerns. But South Carolina needed a second-half comeback that wasn't completed until fewer than four minutes remained to beat Syracuse on a neutral court in November, a game in which Staley's team was uncharacteristically manhandled on the boards.

It's when South Carolina gets to the regional semifinals in Greensboro, North Carolina, assuming as always that the chalk or something close to it holds, that things get truly tricky.

North Carolina isn't the same team it was before forward Xylina McDaniel's injury this season, let alone the same team it was when it beat South Carolina twice a season ago, including in the NCAA tournament, but a Sweet 16 game so close to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, would neutralize any boost South Carolina gained from its own proximity to home. Perhaps even more challenging would be a game against fifth-seeded Ohio State in Greensboro instead, the Big Ten side one of the hottest teams in the field and a team with the tempo and the playmaker in freshman Kelsey Mitchell to force the Gamecocks out of their comfort zone.

Expend the energy to get through that and Florida State might await in the regional final. Where Ohio State could probe with a contrasting style, Florida State, which sits six spots ahead of South Carolina as the nation's third-best rebounding team, could go rebound for rebound, defensive stand for defensive stand, with the SEC champion.

Notre Dame has it little easier, particularly if potential Sweet 16 opponent Stanford plays like the team that won the Pac-12 tournament rather than the team that lost to Oregon immediately before that event. The Cardinal aren't the Cardinal we have grown accustomed to seeing, but playing them just to earn passage to a potential regional final rematch against Baylor, this time in Oklahoma City instead of South Bend, makes for a long weekend of work.

But with history, including its own lack thereof in this tournament, geography and style of play all in play, South Carolina's road is cluttered with obstacles.

3. Which team could crash the Final Four?

The chalk always holds. There are never any upsets. Just pick the No. 1 seeds.

Such is the grumbling that always emerges from cynics and curmudgeons looking to pick holes in the women's tournament. Don't believe it. Not entirely.

Yes, you would do well to pick a No. 1 seed to win the tournament. No, there aren't as many Cinderella runs to the Final Four as in the men's tournament. But in four of the past eight tournaments, at least one team seeded fourth or lower reached the semifinals. And only once in that span, when all four favorites made it in 2012, did the Final Four include more than two No. 1 seeds. So while chaos rarely reigns, chalk similarly rarely holds to the exclusion of surprises.

A team that is going to be a No. 1 seed in the very near future, Ohio State, offers the best of both worlds.

Cinderella now, Goliath down the road.

While attrition reduced the standing of a number of potential contenders over the course of the season, Texas' Nneka Enemkpali, Tennessee's Isabelle Harrison and former Duke guard Sierra Calhoun among those whose absences by dint of injury or transfer changed the landscape, Ohio State met its adversity early and has been getting better ever since. Both young and short-handed because of season-ending injuries in the fall, the Buckeyes lost to Virginia, Georgia, Wichita State and Pittsburgh in the season's opening month. But they also won 12 of their final 15 games, beating tournament teams Iowa (twice), Minnesota and Nebraska in the process, and pushed Maryland to the wire in the Big Ten championship game -- a three-games-in-three-days crush they won't face in the NCAA tournament.

As much as any team on the No. 4 or No. 5 seed lines, Ohio State has momentum. Not coincidentally, it also has Mitchell, espnW's national freshman of the year. A truly special talent with a complete offensive game but nonetheless a willingness to pass the ball, Mitchell not only led the nation in scoring but clinched that distinction by scoring 31 points on 11-of-20 shooting against the Terrapins after playing 123 minutes in three days. So much for hitting the wall. And while the Buckeyes lack depth, they don't lack top-end talent. Ameryst Alston is a championship-caliber secondary scorer, and Alexa Hart, another freshman, continues to emerge as a defender and shot-blocker with offensive skills. Foul trouble is a concern. Fatigue is a concern. Talent? Not so much.

Ohio State is a poor rebounding team without much size in a region with some of the biggest, baddest teams in the bracket. Yet the Buckeyes have been that team all season. They trust their tempo will trump an opponent's size.

That it is not an easy road ahead is a bit of an understatement. Ohio State would likely have to beat both James Madison, underseeded as a No. 12, and No. 4 North Carolina, the latter on its home court, just to reach the Sweet 16 and a potential game against No. 1 seed South Carolina in Greensboro. Survive all of that and No. 2 Florida State, one of the strongest, most physical teams in the field, might await in a regional final. That is, well, daunting.

But chalk is boring.

4. Where are the best places to be for the opening two rounds?

We've already discussed why College Park and Chapel Hill are the best places to spend the first two rounds, but they aren't alone.

Berkeley, California (No. 4 California vs. No. 13 Wichita State; No. 5 Texas vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky)

The Bay Area in general is a good place to be this weekend, with interesting games also on the schedule at Stanford, but California hosts the only first- and second-round pod in which all four teams are currently receiving votes in the AP Top 25. The result is the perfect blend for postseason basketball. Should the chalk hold, a second-round game between Cal, with Pac-12 Player of the Year Reshanda Gray and standout point guard Brittany Boyd, and Texas, now wounded without Enemkpali but once ranked in the top five and still talented and able defensively, will be one of the most attractive on the board.

Yet to get to that point, both major conference teams have to go through quality mid-major programs with the talent to make this a part of the bracket that could doom your pool chances. Led by Alex Harden, Wichita State beat Ohio State earlier this season and pushed Tennessee to the wire in Knoxville. Western Kentucky ran its own gantlet early in the season, going 2-2 in a nine-day stretch against teams that ultimately made the NCAA tournament.

Corvallis, Oregon (No. 3 Oregon State vs. No. 14 South Dakota State; No. 6 George Washington vs. No. 11 Gonzaga)

The Pacific Northwest should offer one of the best atmospheres for the first two rounds. Oregon State fans embraced the turnaround engineered in short order by coach Scott Rueck and made Gill Coliseum the most crowded gym in Pac-12 women's basketball this season. What was perhaps the biggest mess of a program in the country just a few years ago is now hosting NCAA tournament games as the Pac-12 champion. That's going to be fun.

But ambiance goes only so far, and the real selling point here is the basketball that could be on display.

Playing at home against a No. 14 seed, teams that are 0-84 all-time in the NCAA tournament, No. 3 Oregon State should win its opening game. But if you wanted to make things interesting, you would want a physical team that isn't new to the postseason and can knock down 3-pointers. In other words, you would want South Dakota State. Even if Oregon State pulls away, the other first-round game between No. 6 George Washington and No. 11 Gonzaga is a matchup of two teams with a lot of size and a desire to shed the mid-major label with which they are often saddled.

Tampa (No. 3 Louisville vs. No. 14 BYU; No. 6 South Florida vs. No. 11 LSU)

Featuring South Florida coach Jose Fernandez in the role of Charlie Bucket from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." The lone team hosting a higher seed in the first two rounds, the result of a scheduling conflict in Louisville, Kentucky, Fernandez and the Bulls were the bracket's golden ticket winners. Although after years of playing their conference tournament games on or near Connecticut's home court in the Nutmeg State, maybe they were due a break.

A second-round renewal of a not-so-classic Big East rivalry between Louisville and South Florida would be intriguing because it would come in a place where South Florida was 12-2 this season and would challenge Louisville coach Jeff Walz to come up with a scheme to keep Courtney Williams off the scoreboard and Alisia Jenkins off the boards. But the first-round games make that encounter anything but a given. LSU was much better than a No. 11 seed down the stretch and we've seen what Danielle Ballard can do in March. And while it was a surprise winner in the West Coast Conference, BYU has two stars in Lexi Eaton and Morgan Bailey who helped it to the Sweet 16 a season ago.

5. Who are five players to catch while you can?

The seeds suggest these five players won't be around when the second week of the tournament begins. Even if that's so, they have the talent to make their stays memorable. All the more because all of them can return next season.

Jonquel Jones, George Washington: It's safe to say she is the best player from the Bahamas in this year's bracket. But Jones is also closer to being one of the best players in the tournament than many realize. The 6-foot-4 junior averages a double-double and nearly two blocks per game but also runs the floor like a wing and can shoot the 3-pointer. Think former Xavier All-American Amber Harris. She'll have her hands full with a big Gonzaga frontcourt and a possible second-round encounter with Oregon State's Ruth Hamblin, but they'll have their hands full with her, too.

Whitney Knight, Florida Gulf Coast: The best all-around player you probably haven't seen is also the biggest reason that Florida Gulf Coast is a No. 7 seed and, at least by seed, favored to win a tournament game for the first time. The 6-foot-3 Knight does a little bit of everything and a lot of most things for the Eagles. From game to game, she might hit 6 of 9 attempts from the 3-point line, block seven shots, collect double-digit rebounds or score 25 points. The scary part for first-round opponent Oklahoma State and even Florida State, is that she may yet do all at once.

Kelsey Plum, Washington: She cooled off slightly from what was a near historic offensive pace in the first half of the season, but a whole lot of Pac-12 defenses still got scorched trying to slow the sophomore. She may be the best in the country at blending 3-point shooting and an ability to get to the free throw line. She and the Huskies have to get through Miami first, but the potential for a second-round game against Iowa is almost too good to be true. At the pace such a game would likely be played, Plum could go for 40 points and it still might not guarantee a win.

Lexi Eaton, BYU: Eaton has as much potential as just about any player in the field to shoot a team into the next round. Not unlike former Louisville star Shoni Schimmel, whose team she faces, she is a fearless offensive player who appears convinced that any shot can be a good shot if she's the one taking it. Eaton attempted five 3-pointers per game in the regular season (and hit a very healthy 40 percent of those attempts), but she also got to the free throw line more than 200 times. If her fuse lights, settle in for some fun viewing.

Amanda Zahui B., Minnesota: What more needs to be said other than Zahui B. piled up 39 points and 29 rebounds in a game against a team, Iowa, that is a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. With a healthy Rachel Banham back in the lineup next season alongside Zahui B., Minnesota may have a new version of the Lindsay Whalen-Janel McCarville combination that produced a Final Four run. But for now, after a first-round game against DePaul in which the first team to 90 may win, Zahui B. could test just how much Notre Dame has solved its rebounding issues.