by Clay Kallam
The Man in the Moon was eclipsed for a few days, digesting the results of the first round of the Big Polka … and for fans of teams like, say, Ohio State, that digestion required some serious help from Pepto-Bismol, or perhaps a margarita or five.
But now we’re into the Sweet 16, the land where Cinderellas go to die, so the big kids on the block don’t have to worry about the little sisters any more. Or do they?
The first game Saturday night matches two of the perennials in the women’s game, Georgia and Stanford – but the stories are a bit different.
Stanford and Tara VanDerveer have adjusted quite nicely to life in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century, and their 34-game schedule is blemished only by a loss to some team from Connecticut. With Jayne Appel hampered by injuries, the likely No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA Draft is just the third best player on her team, behind power forward Nneka Ogwumike and 6-4 “small” forward Kayla Pedersen.
Georgia, on the other hand, has been on the decline, as Andy Landers hasn’t really changed too much over the years. His plan has always been to recruit like crazy, scream at his kids during games and win on sheer talent. Lately, though, he hasn’t had the talent advantage he had in the past and after a blistering start, the Bulldogs went 5-7 down the stretch before beating 12 seed Tulane by five and knocking off the Oklahoma State Rileys in overtime.
Allison Hightower is the real deal, but it’s hard to see Stanford losing this one – not only are the Cardinal the better team, they are a mere 100 miles from home and should have a few thousand fans in otherwise empty Arco Arena.
The late game is a rematch from last year’s tournament, when Gonzaga upset Xavier in the first round. This time, they meet in the Sweet 16, and once again, Gonzaga is the underdog. But the seventh-seeded Bulldogs have played two of the most exciting games in the tournament so far, slipping past North Carolina and No. 2 seed Texas A&M to get to the Sweet 16. They rely on the sterling point guard play of Courtney Vandersloot and a bevy of long, skilled and not necessarily blindingly quick wings – oh, and there’s that three-point shooter, Tiffanie Shives.
Xavier has Ta’Shia Phillips on the inside and Amber Harris wherever she wants, a combination that’s almost impossible to guard. The 29-3 Musketeers are the No. 3 seed, and should be favored, except for the fact that they’re on the West Coast and playing at 11:30 p.m. East Coast time. The Zags are hoping for a quadruple overtime in the first game so that Xavier will wind up playing at 3 a.m. body-clock time, and thus fall prey to Gonzaga’s uptempo style.
It says here that the late night does in the X-Women, Stanford thumps Georgia, and then, in the Elite Eight, Gonzaga goes back to Spokane on a pumpkin.
Up in orbit, it looked like Nebraska would be vulnerable to UCLA, but the Cornhuskers rolled into Sunday’s late game after a relatively easy win. Kentucky, their opponent, also had an easy time, as the Wildcats got to play a Big 10 team – which is almost like drawing a bye. Liberty made Kentucky work a lot harder than Michigan State did, and Nebraska will be the biggest challenge the Wildcats have faced since playing Tennessee – and they lost to them by 16 and 18.
Nebraska, though, didn’t have the toughest Big 12 schedule, and there more than a few who thought Big Red should have been the fourth-best No. 1 seed instead of third. The semi-home court may help, though it may also be hard for local fans to bring themselves to root for Nebraska to do anything but crash and burn.
Oklahoma will present the same quandary for Missouri ticketbuyers, but the biggest problem for the Sooners will be Notre Dame. Irish coach Muffet McGraw is known for her postseason magic, and she’s got freshman sensation Skylar Diggins to lead her 29-5 team.
It’s no accident Oklahoma has twice as many losses, and the Sooners will be 25-11 after this one – and then the Irish will take down Nebraska and move on to the Final Four.
This is not the Tennessee of myth and legend, as the Volunteers don’t have a point guard and don’t have overwhelming talent. They are also very young, but then again Pat Summit has won 106 NCAA tournament games – yes, that’s right, 106 tournament games – so she has an idea of what to do at this level.
Tennessee also got eliminated in the first round last year, a whip that Summit has not been shy about applying to her sometimes struggling charges. Still, there are only two losses on the season, and the Volunteers won their first two tourney games by a total 61 points, so they’re playing pretty well right now.
Baylor didn’t play at all well in Berkeley, really, especially a brutally ugly 49-33 win over hapless Georgetown. In a way, though, that’s good news, because a team will always have a bad game in the tournament, and the trick is to win it. Well, thanks to Brittney Griner blocking 13 shots in the second half (yes, the second half), the Bears survived to play again.
Now they get Tennessee, a team they lost to in the first game of the season, and Griner has had a full season of college basketball. Call this an upset special, as the MitM fairly glows with the thought of Baylor in Indianapolis.
Of course, even after beating Tennessee, Baylor will have to get by the winner of Duke and San Diego State – and the Bears will have to battle to beat the Blue Devils. Yes, San Diego State has been impressive, but they’ve only beaten two decent but unspectacular BCS teams (underachieving Texas and play-no-one West Virginia) to get this far. Duke will shut down the Aztecs on defense, and get more than enough offense to roll into Monday’s final against Baylor.
Once there, though, the long arms of Brittney Griner will change everything, and Baylor will win close and late.
Oh, excuse me, I drifted off there for a second …
Isn’t UConn in this bracket? So is there a reason to pay attention?
In a word, no. Iowa State barely got by Green Bay, and would have to make 80 percent of its threes to hang with the Huskies, who are better in every department.
So much for the early game Sunday. The late game will pit Florida State and Mississippi State in a battle that features two players fighting for first-round recognition in the WNBA draft: FSU’s Jacinta Monroe and MSU’s Alexis Rack. Florida State will probably win, but watch out for Mississippi State’s Congo connection – and of course, Rack, who could explode for 30 with hardly any provocation.
Then, of course, the winner advances to play UConn on Tuesday, and … sorry, my eyes sort of glazed over then.
What were we talking about?
Wait ‘till next week, and the MitM will be Dead Wrong in Public once more. Until then, wake me when Connecticut isn’t playing.
To read more from Clay Kallam, and more about women’s basketball, go to Full Court Press.