Brittney Griner and Baylor’s path to a second straight national championship will have a familiar feel.
Then again, so will the whole NCAA women’s basketball tournament. For the first time ever, the top four seeds are the same for consecutive seasons. Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford all earned No. 1 spots when the field was announced Monday night.
Unlike the men’s side, where it was a topsy-turvy season with major upsets seemingly every week, women’s basketball hasn’t had the same parity. The top six teams in the final Associated Press poll only had two losses outside of each other, the fewest by far since writers began voting for the AP’s No. 1 in the 1994-95 season.
“To think that the rest of the field is going to catch up to Baylor or Notre Dame or the top four or five teams in the country this year is probably unrealistic,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “But I think all those teams between five and 12 are way better than they’ve ever been.”
The women’s basketball madness gets started Saturday — the first step en route to the Final Four, which begins April 7 in New Orleans.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey hopes to make it there with her Lady Bears, who will be trying to become the fourth different school to win consecutive national championships, joining Southern California, UConn, and Tennessee. Mulkey grew up in Louisiana.
Last season, Baylor was trying to becoming the first team to win 40 games in a season. Now they are just focused on the title.
“Nothing’s different this year,” Griner said. “Our goal is to win the six games and win the national championship.”
Standing in the way could be Tennessee. The Lady Vols, who have made every NCAA tournament since it began in 1982, are the No. 2 seed in Baylor’s region. This will be the first time that coach Pat Summitt won’t be on the sidelines. Summitt stepped down after last season because she had been afflicted with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“The whole season has been different, and at times, it’s hard,” said longtime assistant Holly Warlick, who took over this season and guided the Lady Vols to an SEC regular season title. “Other times, it’s OK. But I still have her there. She’s still around these young ladies. She’s still there in spirit and everything else, and she’s still a vital part of this team.”
While Tennessee set the standard in women’s basketball, Stanford has been one of the most dominant teams lately.
The Cardinal will try and reach the Final Four for a sixth straight season and end Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer’s 21-year drought without a national championship.
Led by junior star Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford may already have the most impressive win this season, ending Baylor’s 42-game winning streak in November. That’s the only loss that the defending national champion Lady Bears suffered this season.
The Cardinal, who will open up against Tulsa at home on Sunday, could face No. 2 seed California in the regional final. The Golden Bears shared the Pac-12 title with Stanford this season after ending the Cardinal’s 81-game conference winning streak in January.
Notre Dame will be trying to make it back to a third straight national championship game. The Irish, led by senior guard Skylar Diggins, have already had an incredible season losing only to Baylor. Notre Dame won its first Big East tournament championship last Tuesday and also went undefeated in the conference in the regular season.
Unlike the other three No. 1 seeds, who are playing at home, the Irish will open up on the road against Tennessee-Martin. Potentially they could face host Iowa in the second round.
“Lower seeded team playing on higher seeded floors is part of our format,” NCAA selection committee chair Carolayne Henry said. “We looked at putting Notre Dame in Columbus. But to make our bracket work we weren’t able to put Notre Dame there.”
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said the Irish will just have to live with it.
“It’s disappointing that we didn’t get a neutral site. I thought that the committee would take care of the No. 1 seed, but you’ve got to play good teams,” she said. “If we’re the No. 1 seed, we ought to be able to take care of business in the first round, at least.”
The Irish swept all three meetings with Connecticut and have dominated the series recently, winning seven of the past eight meetings, including the past two in the Final Four.
To get to a third straight title game they’ll likely have to beat UConn again. The Huskies will open on Saturday against Idaho, which will be making its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1985. It’s been a somewhat disappointing season for the Huskies, who didn’t win either the Big East conference regular season or tournament title for the first time in 19 years.
UConn lost four of its five games against the other top seeds, faltering down the stretch in each of the losses.
One intriguing story line for UConn before a potential rematch with Notre Dame could be if Elena Delle Donne and Delaware can advance to the regional finals in Bridgeport, Conn. Delle Donne was originally enrolled at UConn before transferring to Delaware before her freshman season. She’s put her team on her back, leading the nation in scoring the past two seasons.
The sixth-seeded Blue Hens will be hosting the first two rounds and the games are already sold out. Delaware is one of 15 sites that have host teams in the tournament. The only one that doesn’t is Columbus. Ohio State didn’t make the cut, and perennial NCAA tournament team Rutgers also missed out on the field. The Scarlet Knights had been to the last 10 NCAA tournaments.
While Rutgers and Ohio State will be missing, three schools — Wichita State, Quinnipiac and Cal Poly — are making their first appearance in the field.
The Big East, which is set to be reconfigured next season, led all conferences with eight bids.