We've arrived, a little earlier than in previous years, at the start of the NCAA tournament. And while many people might want to jump straight to the ending -- one they think they can already write -- we refuse to do that.
We are going to soak in the process of reducing a field of 64 teams down to one champion over the course of three weeks.
Because whether conventional wisdom suggests this in an exercise in inevitability, that Connecticut will be cutting down nets like last year, and the year before that, there are still 63 other teams determined to make sure they're hoisting the championship trophy in Tampa.
Before the first games tip off (ESPN2/WatchESPN, noon ET Friday), let's take a moment to appreciate the journey. We have plenty of time to focus on the end result, let's not miss all the great stuff in the middle.
The return of host bids
It's back to the future for the women's tournament with the return of automatic host seeds in the first and second rounds. For years, we've batted around the scenarios with predetermined sites: What happens when a better/higher seed has to play on a lower-seeded team's home floor? Is it fair that some of the nation's best programs submit bids to host bids year after year, giving them a competitive advantage? Which team could ride its host bid into a Cinderella appearances in the Sweet 16?
This season, however, it was back to being an earned privilege for the best 16 teams in the country. And there was a palpable sense of intrigue around those teams playing for the right to open the NCAA tournament at home.
For some, like Stanford, this is old hat. The Cardinal have played at Maples during the NCAA tournament seven times in the last nine years, including this season's opportunity to host.
For others, like their rival across the bay at Cal, it's a much newer experience. The Bears -- who were the last team to receive a coveted No. 4 seeding in this tournament -- haven't played in an NCAA game on their home floor since they were ousted by Santa Clara in the opening round in 1992. Most of the Bears' players weren't even born then.
"One view could be, 'Gosh, there is some pressure to playing at home,' but our team has made it entirely a positive," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "There are only 16 teams that get to do it. How cool is it that a bunch of our fans get to come to our gym to watch us play? We have a group that likes to travel, but people don't always have the money or the ability to book tickets at the last minute. This is a great thing."
Gottlieb said her team will be staying in a hotel before the game, and the NCAA was already in Haas Pavilion, changing over the court, to its trademark black and blue.
"This is a big stage and a big moment," Gottlieb said. "It's definitely a tournament atmosphere."
The Tigers are unbeaten at 30-0, something not even vaunted Connecticut can claim. They have the President Obama's support -- not to mention his niece on the roster. But they were not given a host seed in this tournament. Instead, they were given a No. 8 seed. It's one of the toughest spots in the tournament bracket, because after a first-round game against a No. 9 seed, a No. 1 seed almost always awaits. Can Princeton prove it's better than the committee says it is? Can the Tigers become the first Ivy League team since 1998 to win a game in the tournament?
Don't sleep on the Buckeyes
This is the team that is quickly becoming the favorite sleeper pick of the bracket after a run to the Big Ten title game -- and a near defeat of Maryland for the conference tournament crown. Kevin McGuff's fifth-seeded team, led by the best freshman in the country this year, Kelsey Mitchell, is a lot of people's pick to disrupt the bracket in a big way. Mitchell is averaging 25.0 points and 4.1 assists, and junior Ameryst Alston averages 19.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
And people are already salivating over a potential second-round date with fourth-seeded North Carolina -- although No. 12 seed James Madison is up first (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 1:30 p.m. Saturday).
While it feels as if Dawn Staley's work is still only beginning in turning the Gamecocks into a perpetual power, this was a breakout year, with South Carolina holding the nation's No. 1 ranking for much of the season. A dominant win by Connecticut in the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in February has taken away some of the hype, but none of the desire from Staley -- or her junior star Tiffany Mitchell -- to lead this program to its first Final Four.
South Carolina is a No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season but lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
Tampa, Take II
The last time the women's college season ended in Tampa, in 2008, the Lady Vols were the champions. It remains their more recent championship.
Is this the year, even with Isabelle Harrison out because of a season-ending ACL injury, that Tennessee returns to the Final Four? And if it happens, the entire sport will be riveted by the possibility of a matchup with Connecticut in the national semifinals.
It rhymes with "wowie"
Every tournament, the national spotlight finds a player. This year, it might well be Amanda Zahui B., the Minnesota forward with eye-popping numbers who landed on espnW's all-America first team. A player who can put up 39 points and 29 rebounds in a game the way she did in a late-season win over Iowa is a must-see.
And that's what March/April Madness is: must-see. From beginning to end. Because the journey counts as much as the final destination.