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Two-Time Champions Don't Rate No. 1

Connecticut settles for No. 2 seeding as Duke, Tennessee, Texas and Penn State get No. 1 nods in a year where little is clear-cut.

March 15, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

The 2003-04 college women's basketball season was supposed to be one of the most competitive ever because of a bumper crop of seniors and a batch of teams returning with their lineups intact.

For the most part, it was truth in advertising.

Connecticut, Duke, Tennessee and Texas took turns being kicked out of the No. 1 ranking. Some newer faces such as Houston and Loyola Marymount have staked claims on the national landscape and mid-major teams such as UC Santa Barbara, Texas Christian and Wisconsin Green Bay have hope of somehow bum-rushing their way past the second round.

To put it another way, it's the kind of year when, for the first time in six years, two-time defending champion Connecticut did not get a top seeding. The four teams awarded that No. 1 honor were Duke, Tennessee, Penn State -- the first Big Ten team to get one since 1999 -- and Texas. Connecticut got a No. 2 seeding.

"I will say as a result of increased parity, it made it more difficult to determine the No. 1s and very difficult in the middle of the bracket," Cheryl Marra, chairman of the NCAA selection committee, said Sunday.

"There is more parity overall. And we have more teams that are true bubble teams than ever before."

No wonder Connecticut is acting as if it is wearing a crown of cactus. The 25-4 Huskies haven't had this many losses in a season since 1998-99, when they were 29-5 and reached the Sweet 16.

And the lineup ready to take the title has grown beyond Tennessee, Duke and Texas to include, at the very least, Penn State, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Oklahoma and Kansas State.

Just as important, the aura that has surrounded the Huskies the past couple of years is not there. Since Duke beat Connecticut in Hartford on Jan. 3, opponents don't fear the Huskies -- although it should be noted that the other three losses were to Notre Dame, Villanova and Boston College, Big East teams that know the Huskies inside and out.

This is not to say that Connecticut cannot equal Tennessee's mark of three consecutive NCAA championships. But it won't be a surprise if the Huskies don't.

But there will be other teams more disappointed about their placement than Connecticut. Stanford can't be thrilled with its sixth seeding in the Midwest Regional, with a first-round game at Tempe, Ariz., even if it is in the back yard of Nicole Powell's hometown of Phoenix. Arizona, seeded ninth in the West, and UCLA, seeded 10th in the Mideast, were also given draws that suggest short tournament stays.

On the flip side, the Big East has eight teams in the tournament. And even though Connecticut is seeded second, it won't have to leave the state before the Final Four. The Huskies play their opening-round game in Bridgeport, and the East Regional semifinals and final are in Hartford, where they played several home games.

"What stood out was the Big East had eight teams with RPIs less than 30," Marra said. "They had done what they needed to do to position themselves to get in the tournament."

As far as the Huskies' regional placement, Marra said: "Bridgeport is the host, so Connecticut technically is not hosting ... Connecticut fell into a great situation."

Fell, or was pushed?

Then again, in a season like this one, the Huskies need all the help they can get.



Fab Five

Five players to watch in NCAA women's tournament:


* 2003 Associated Press player of the year; struggled in her last nine games (10.8-point average) and is reportedly bothered by back and ankle pain that improve with rest; known to rise in the NCAA tournament (26.2-point average in last season's title run).


* 2004 player of the year; got even better in her last nine games (24.3 average, 53.6% shooting); six steals from being the first NCAA player (male or female) to record 2,500 points and 400 steals.


* Three-time Naismith Award finalist for player of the year; led Cardinal to four Pac-10 titles but the team has won only four NCAA tournament games during that span.


* Won 2003 national scoring title with 27.5 average; scored less this season but won more as she remained the first, last and best option on a team that took its first Conference USA title.


* All-time Big 12 scoring leader with 2,193 points; a top WNBA post prospect but does she develop like Ruth Riley or fade like Michelle Van Gorp?



*--* PLAYER PTS FG% 3PT% FT% REB AST STL BLK TO Taurasi 15.5 45.2 39.5 80.5 3.9 4.9 1.7 0.8 2.3 Beard 20.2 50.8 33.7 78.6 5.2 3.8 2.3 1.3 2.3 Powell 20.0 42.1 35.8 86.0 11.1 3.8 1.9 0.4 2.6 Jones 22.5 41.6 36.9 73.4 5.5 2.4 3.2 0.6 2.6 Ohlde 17.0 57.4 0.0 68.7 6.8 3.8 0.8 1.7 2.2


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