The women's NCAA Tournament tips off today. We offer an overview of what to look for:
No place like home
The tournament needs opening-weekend games on campuses to help with attendance, but it creates unfair situations where the top seeds have to play what amount to road games in the second round. Who's at the biggest disadvantage? Three potential upsets that stand out: No. 2 seeds Auburn and Texas A&M must play their second games at No. 7 seeds Rutgers and Notre Dame, respectively, while Louisville, slighted as a No. 3 seed, must play its second game at sixth-seeded LSU. Of those three, Notre Dame was most dominant at home, going 12-2, its only losses to Rutgers and Louisville. Rutgers went 13-4, with Tennessee, Connecticut and Pittsburgh among its home losses. LSU wasn't that strong at home, going 11-6, but all six losses were to teams that made the NCAA Tournament. Two top seeds — Duke and Oklahoma — could have second-round games on the road against ninth-seeded Michigan State and eighth-seeded Iowa, respectively, but both are strong enough they should be able to move on, regardless of location.
The arguments for which conference is the nation's best are often won in the postseason — take last year, when the Big East and Big 12 met five times in the second round, with the Big East sweeping all five games. If the seeds hold, the Big 12 and ACC appear to be the power leagues, with four top-four seeds each; the Big 12 has three teams (Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Baylor) as No. 1 or 2 seeds. The conference that emerges strongest from the opening weekend might be the one whose teams can fare best away from home — the SEC has second-seeded Auburn at Rutgers and eighth-seeded Florida at Connecticut; the Big East's second-best team, Louisville, has a second-round game at LSU. If the ACC wants to show its depth, it'll need Sweet 16 wins from third-seeded North Carolina and Florida State, who would match up with Auburn and Texas A&M.
What America expects to see
ESPN.com has a great feature called "The National Bracket" — nothing to do with the president, but showing the picks from all the submitted brackets. Only one first-round game was picked more often as an upset: ninth-seeded Michigan State at home against Middle Tennessee State. Similarly, there's just one game picked as an upset in the second round: Tennessee is getting 71 percent of the vote to beat Iowa State. The only other second-round game where the higher seed is getting less than 70 percent? Cal gets 60 percent to hold seed against Virginia. The nation is calling for a Connecticut-Oklahoma final, but even then, Connecticut is getting 89 percent of the votes to win that game.
Greg Auman, Times staff writer
Can a midmajor survive?
Two midmajors made it to the Sweet 16 last season in Old Dominion and George Washington — neither made the NCAA cut this year. Only six teams outside the major six conferences drew No. 10 seeds or higher, and it's a tough path for any to make it past the opening weekend. The easiest path is for fifth-seeded Xavier, which would have to beat Pittsburgh in the second round. Tournament darling South Dakota State, seeded seventh, has another midmajor in TCU in the first round, but faces second-seeded Baylor next. The real sleeper is 10th seed TCU, which knocked off Maryland and Cal in the regular season.
Don't expect many upsets
We say it every year: The first round of the women's tournament does not generate a lot of upsets. Last year's 32 games netted three upsets, the biggest being 11th-seeded Florida State over sixth-seeded Ohio State. By comparison, the men's opening day Thursday had four upsets in half as many games. Even the second round is tame: The lowest seeds to make the Sweet 16 last year were sixth-seeded George Washington and Pittsburgh. Last year's final eight teams were all No. 1 and 2 seeds: The talent is concentrated enough in a few places that it's hard to crack the elite level of women's basketball. It's odd to think Tennessee would overachieve just by reaching the Sweet 16, but that's this year for the Vols, who as a young No. 5 seed face a second-round challenge against fourth-seeded Iowa State. Win there, and they face top-seeded Duke.