Let The Madness Begin

By Jeff Lippman - March 05, 2008

If ever there was a time to get excited about women's basketball, it's now, this year. The game has more recognizable stars then ever and each is unique. Whether it is Candace Parker soaring to the rim - remember, these are the last opportunities to see Her Airness wearing the gold and baby blue of the Lady Vols - or the fabulous freshman up in Storrs who might just be Parker's equal, this season has had it all.

But before we can look back at what an incredible season it was, we must continue to look forward, because women's basketball never sleeps. Some teams still have regular season games to go, but as of today, March 5, the postseason has begun. March Madness is upon us. And by the end of the day, the Sun Belt will have five teams whose seasons will be at an end.

So without further ado, come along with me on a women's basketball journey throughout March. Each conference tournament will be previewed and then reviewed each day until March 17, the fateful day known as Selection Monday, when the 64-team NCAA Tournament field is revealed.

March 5

Sun Belt - First Round
Game 1: No. 8 North Texas vs. No. 9 New Orleans
Game 2: No. 4 Arkansas State vs. No. 13 Florida Atlantic
Game 3: No. 5 South Alabama vs. No. 12 Louisiana-Lafayette
Game 4: No. 6 Louisiana-Monroe vs. No. 11 Troy
Game 5: No. 7 Florida International vs. No. 10 Denver

The first round of the Sun Belt Tournament features five games located at the arenas of the higher seeds to which the quarterfinals will be played March 8 in Mobile, Ala.

While I fully expect one of the league's top seeds (Western Kentucky, Ark. Little-Rock and Middle Tennessee State have byes) to capture this automatic bid, that doesn't mean there aren't other possibilities here.

Game 1's winner meets No. 1 Western Kentucky in the quarters and No. 8 North Texas was able to defeat the Hilltoppers earlier in the season, but that was at home, a luxury the teams playing today won't be afforded during the tournament. Expect Arkansas State to make quick work of Florida Atlantic in Game 2, where the winner will meet the winner of the Game 3 between South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette. The No. 2 seed, UALR, will meet the winner of FIU-Denver, with No. 3 MTSU getting the winner of Louisiana-Monroe-Troy.

Atlantic Sun - Quarterfinals
From Nashville, Tenn.
March 5:
Game 1: No. 2 Jacksonville vs. No. 7 Stetson
Game 2: No. 1 ETSU vs. No. 8 Mercer
March 6:
Game 3: No. 3 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 6 Campbell
Game 4: No. 4 Belmont vs. No. 5 Lipscomb

The A-Sun starts in media res of their conference tournament. The top two seeds (East Tennessee State and Jacksonville) play the two lowest seeds (Stetson and Mercer), respectively, followed by action on March 6 between the No. 3 and 4 seeds (Gardner-Webb and Belmont) taking on the No. 6 and 5 seeds (Campbell and Lipscomb).

With a conference record of 14-2, ETSU ran through the conference and will pretty much be the home team playing in Nashville. Only Gardner-Webb and Florida Gulf Coast managed to defeat the Bucs in conference this season, and in Gardner-Webb's case, ETSU served them payback Feb. 25 by beating them by 12 points in their own gym. This is the Bucs' tournament to lose.

March 6

ACC - First Round
From Greensboro, N.C.
Game 1: No. 5 Georgia Tech vs. No. 12 Miami (11 a.m.)
Game 2: No. 8 NC State vs. No. 9 Clemson (3 p.m.)
Game 3: No. 7 Boston College vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech (6 p.m.)
Game 4: No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 11 Wake Forest (8 p.m.)

The big girls get started early. The ACC Tournament is a long and tiresome process, especially for the teams playing on the tourney's first day. Last year, if you won your first round game, unfortunately you didn't win another, as the four teams who earned byes all advanced to the semifinals. This season that could change.

The team that has the best chance to change it plays before most of the school's students will even probably awaken. An early 11 a.m. start shouldn't faze No. 5 Georgia Tech in their game against lowly 2-12 Miami. But wait, just to make things interesting, of Miami's two ACC wins this year, one of them came against the Yellow Jackets on Feb. 7, and their previous game was close as well. The Buzz have come up with some big wins this year and would meet No. 4 Virginia in the quarterfinals if they can edge the Hurricanes.

Last year's darlings and tournament runners-up, Kay Yow's NC State bunch, didn't have the same type of season this year, going 6-8 in conference and earning the No. 8 seed. But don't count the Wolfpack out as a team who could make a run. The Pack have won four of their last six games, with their only losses coming against No. 2 seed Maryland and No. 1 seed North Carolina and Yow has led them to a 2-1 record in each of the last two ACC Tournaments. The No. 9 seed Clemson, at 4-10, shouldn't pose too much of a problem for first team All-ACC selection Khadijah Whittington and State but No. 1 North Carolina awaits in what would be a rematch of last year's final.

With No. 10 Virginia Tech and No. 11 Wake Forest combining for four ACC wins this year, I don't see No. 7 Boston College or No. 6 Florida State having a problem in their opening games. FSU has more sunshine at the end of their tunnel, however, as they would play No. 3 Duke in the quarterfinals, a far preferable pairing than BC gets with Maryland.

SEC - First Round
From Nashville, Tenn.
Game 1: No. 8 Ole Miss vs. No. 9 Mississippi State (noon)
Game 2: No. 7 Florida vs. No. 10 South Carolina (2:30 p.m.)
Game 3: No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 12 Alabama (6:30 p.m.)
Game 4: No. 6 Auburn vs. No. 11 Arkansas (9 p.m.)

How great is it that the two best conferences - yes, the Big 12 and Big East were impressive this year, too - start their tournaments this early?

The SEC was chock full of surprises this year and just looking at the tourney bracket many stand out. For starters, last year's champs, LSU earned the No. 1 seed by going undefeated in conference play after beating Tennessee, the No. 2 seed, on Valentines Day in Knoxville. The other two teams earning first-round byes are both somewhat surprises, as No. 3 Vanderbilt lost so much from last year's team and No. 4 Kentucky was picked sixth in the preseason.

Perhaps the biggest surprises are the teams who have opening round work to accomplish. Take No. 5 Georgia, for instance. Picked to finish third in the preseason, Georgia underachieved this season and could only muster an 8-6 conference record to miss the first-round bye. Andy Landers' group shouldn't have too much trouble with an Alabama team that could only muster one SEC win and eight total on the season, but if senior All-American candidate Tasha Humphrey is to win her first SEC title, the 'Dawgs still have a long way to go.

No. 6 Auburn was another team who showed a lot of promise during the preseason schedule but faltered when the trials of their conference weighed on them. The Tigers' Nell Fortner still has a lot of talent on her roster and DeWanna Bonner could take them on her shoulders. Auburn meets Arkansas, who, if you remember correctly, started the season 15-0, only to finish it 2-12 for a lousy total of 17-12. They won just two conference games and should not get in Auburn's way. Vanderbilt will get in their way in the quarterfinals, however.

If No. 7 Florida has any hopes of grabbing an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, the Gators (17-12, 6-8) must beat South Carolina and then at least give Tennessee a good effort. Still, UF's chances are slim in my estimation.

Although Ole Miss became darlings of the postseason with an incredible NCAA Tournament run last year, that won't happen this year. And in the most inconsequential game of the day, the Rebels and Bulldogs of Mississippi State play for the right to get pounded on by No. 1 LSU.

Big Ten - First Round
From Indianapolis, Ind.
Game 1: No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Penn State (noon)
Game 2: No. 6 Indiana vs. No. 11 Northwestern (2:30 p.m.)
Game 3: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Illinois (5 p.m.)

For a conference that deserves three - maybe four - NCAA Tournament bids, the games that will be played during the tournament's opening round don't have much bearing on tourney implications unless you count who gets to play spoiler for the other teams.

No. 4 Minnesota and No. 5 Michigan State already know they are playing each other on day two of the tournament, with the winner of that game getting closer to earning an at-large bid.

No. 2 seed Iowa would meet the winner of Michigan-Penn State, but the Hawkeyes are most likely a lock for the NCAAs regardless of whether they win or lose.

Purdue, the No. 3 seed, would have to win the entire tournament to gain entry to the Big Dance with an overall record of 15-14. The Boilermakers would meet the winner of Indiana-Northwestern.

No. 1 Ohio State is another lock for the NCAA Tournament, but could use a strong conference showing to prove they really belong. The Buckeyes meet the winner of Wisconsin-Illinois. If the Badgers get past the Illini, they could very well upset OSU in the quarters.

Conference USA - First Round
From Orlando, Fla.
Game 1: No. 7 Memphis vs. No. 10 Tulsa (noon)
Game 2: No. 6 Marshall vs. No. 11 Tulane (2:30 p.m.)
Game 3: No. 5 Southern Miss vs. No. 12 UCF (5:30 p.m.)
Game 4: No. 8 East Carolina vs. No. 9 Rice (8 p.m.)

After an unbeated 16-0 regular season in conference, UTEP looks like they are the class of Conference USA, and the only team out of the conference to make the Big Dance.

Thursday's opening round should prove nothing more than four teams earning the right to play another day by beating four teams who will be headed home for the summer.

West Coast - First Round
From San Diego, Calif.
Game 1: No. 2 Santa Clara vs. No. 7 San Francisco (3 p.m.)
Game 2: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 8 Pepperdine (5:30 p.m.)
Game 3: No. 3 San Diego vs. No. 6 Portland (9 p.m.)
Game 4: No. 4 Loyola Marymount vs. No. 5 St. Mary's (11:30 p.m.)

The WCC gets underway with four games featuring all eight conference teams. With only eight programs, the schedule is the customary 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, etc. format.

Gonzaga was by far the best team in the WCC this season going 13-1 in conference compared to Santa Clara who was next best at 8-6. Both the Broncos and San Diego could pose potential upset bids for the 'Zags, but I wouldn't expect it.

MAAC - First Round
From Albany, N.Y.
Game 1: No. 7 Loyola vs. No. 10 Rider (noon)
Game 2: No. 8 Canisius vs. No. 9 Niagara (2 p.m.)

The MAAC gets underway with two games featuring four teams of which none have a winning record. Rider has three conference wins and should fall to Loyola and Canisius-Niagara could be an epic battle, but honestly, Marist is going to win this tournament and earn the conference's sole bid.

The Red Foxes went 18-0 in the MAAC this year and are ranked No. 24 in the AP. It's their conference to win.

Southern - First Round
From Charleston, S.C.
Game 1: No. 7 Furman vs. No. 10 Wofford (3 p.m.)
Game 2: No. 8 Appalachian State vs. No. 9 UNC Greensboro (5:30 p.m.)

Wofford has nine total wins, but only two in conference and UNC Greensboro has four conference wins, but only six total. Either way, both teams aren't very good and neither should advance much further in this tournament.

Chattanooga, on the other hand, is the No. 1 seed and favorite to win after going a perfect 18-0 in conference this year and finishing the regular season 26-3.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 01:08 PM on March 05, 2008

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