TAMPA — There has been drama and surprises, upsets and disappointment, with intriguing paths cleared to elite showdowns before anyone even gets to the Final Four in three weeks at the St. Pete Times Forum.
All this, and the Women's NCAA Tournament hasn't even started yet.
The field of 64 was unveiled Monday night, with unexpected twists from the top — overall No. 1 Connecticut might have to face Big East rival Rutgers in the region final — to the bottom, where Florida State earned a surprising at-large bid to keep the host state from getting shut out.
Credit geography for much of the intrigue, as another No. 1 seed, North Carolina, might have to face second-seeded LSU in New Orleans. A third No. 1, Tennessee, could face fourth-seeded Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
But the best TV drama during ESPN's announcement of the brackets came with the final region to be unveiled, Spokane. Live cameras showed Stanford, expected by most to earn the No. 1 seed after dominating the Pac-10 tournament, as well as Maryland, which had lost to Duke in the ACC semifinals.
Maryland got the nod, jumping for joy while Stanford sat on a couch in silent disbelief, offering up a golf clap when the Cardinal drew the No. 2.
"The most important thing for us is not the seed, not the RPI," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said on ESPN, "but the young ladies I'm sitting with right here. … We'd love to play Maryland for a regional championship."
Judy Southard, chairman of the NCAA selection committee, said Maryland — with four starters back from its 2006 national champions — won out because of its 13 wins against RPI top 50 teams (Stanford had 11) and its 22-3 record against top-100 teams (Stanford went 16-3).
No team west of Austin, Texas, has made a Women's Final Four in the past 10 years, and VanDerveer said the West Coast bias might have worked against her.
"You're sleeping while we're still playing," she said. "If the world was fair, it would turn the other way so you could watch us more."
Top-ranked Connecticut remains the favorite to reach its first Final Four in four years, even if it first must beat Rutgers, which handed the Huskies their only loss. Both coaches were surprised to draw the same region.
"I didn't think there was any way on God's earth that this would happen," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer told the Associated Press. "I just assumed that they would ask us to go through North Carolina; they have a very similar style to our play, and we didn't see them this year. If I were a betting woman, I would have lost all my money today."
There was as much surprise when FSU (18-13) earned an at-large bid despite no wins against any team in the NCAA field. The Seminoles were the consensus "biggest surprise" among ESPN.com's experts. The site's projection hadn't included FSU among the first eight teams to miss the field.
FSU coach Sue Semrau was "ecstatic" to see her team earn a No. 11 seed. She thought her team's chance for a fourth consecutive NCAA bid was only "50-50." Her team was rewarded for an ambitious schedule that included nonconference losses to Georgia, Texas A&M and LSU.
"After last year's (Sweet 16) run, we felt like we needed to challenge ourselves in the nonconference in addition to the conference," Semrau said.
Southard said the committee took into account that FSU guard Tanae Davis-Cain missed nine games with an unspecified suspension, which corresponds to 30 percent of the season, the penalty for anyone involved in the academic misconduct scandal.
"I can't say that Florida State was the last team in," said Southard, noting that eight of FSU's losses were to teams in the RPI top 15.
USF (16-15), which won three of its past four, earned a spot in the 48-team Women's NIT and plays at Florida Gulf Coast, which went 21-8 in a transition year to Division I. FGCU, in Fort Myers, played three RPI top 100 teams and lost all three, including to Florida (78-52) and FSU (93-53). The game will be Friday, and the winner plays Monday against Florida (18-13), which earned a first-round bye.
Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.