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Original Issue

Surprise Party? With neutral-site regionals forcing more top seeds to travel, the road to the Final Four could--for once--be loaded with potholes

Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith thinks this is the year the
women's NCAA tournament finds its inner Cinderella. "I don't
know why, but I think there are going to be upsets," says
Delaney-Smith, who is something of an authority on the subject,
having orchestrated the only win by a 16th seed in men's or
women's tournament history, the Crimson's 71-67 upset of
top-seeded Stanford five years ago. "There are more good players
out there and better coaching. I think the tournament will be a
lot less predictable this year than usual." ¶ Predictable? For
years the women's tournament has seemed like the most scripted
show on television. The favorites virtually always advance
through the field unmolested, and nearly half the time
Connecticut or Tennessee walks off with the trophy. It's not
that lesser teams haven't had the will to wreak large-scale
office-pool mayhem like their male counterparts, it's just that
the deck has been cruelly stacked against them.

For one thing, the pool of talent has been relatively small, and
a disproportionate number of the best players have flocked to the
coaches who have had consistent success and media
buzz--Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Connecticut's Geno Auriemma.
More important, since the tournament expanded to include 64 teams
in 1994, the top four seeds in each region have historically
hosted three other teams in the first and second rounds as a way
to boost attendance. Thus, the bottom four seeds in each region
have rarely had neutral floors. Not surprisingly, their rate of
success (chart, page 76) is only slightly better than that of the
Washington Generals: Since 1994 teams seeded 13th to 16th have
accumulated a dismal 4-144 record, and no 14th or 15th seed has
ever won a game. (Over that same span men's teams seeded 13th to
16th have gone 17-144, and 14th and 15th seeds have won eight
times.) Women's teams seeded 10th, 11th and 12th have done much
better (61-168), in part because they play on neutral courts in
the first round. "Until we get to neutral sites and level the
playing field, you're not going to see many upsets," says LSU
coach Sue Gunter. "You wouldn't see that many in the men's game
if they were [awarding home court advantage to favorites] the way
we are."

This year, in a baby step toward neutrality, the tournament
committee assigned sites for the first two rounds in
July--ostensibly eliminating the automatic home court advantage
to the top seeds--but the choices were not entirely equitable.
Home court advantage was conferred on many of the usual suspects
that could promise sufficiently large advance ticket sales, like
Connecticut, Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and Stanford. Top
contenders Duke, LSU (both No. 1 seeds) and Texas (a two seed)
will have to play away from home for their first two games. The
Blue Devils don't have too much to complain about, as they will
travel all of 20 miles to Raleigh for their first-round game. But
LSU, which suddenly has a rabid fan base thanks to hometown star
Seimone Augustus, the SEC newcomer of the year, is seeing its
27-3 record and SEC tournament championship rewarded with a trip
to Eugene, Ore. "Our kids know we don't get a home game," says
Gunter, "so we just have to get ready for the road."

Predetermined sites may shake up the brackets slightly, but
what's more likely to crumble the chalk is greater parity. "There
is no dominant team this year," says Duke coach Gail Goestenkors.
"We're all vulnerable, and the predetermined sites will make some
teams more vulnerable than others."

How crowded is the field with bona fide contenders? In addition
to the Final Four perennials of Connecticut and Tennessee, there
are five former champions among the top 12 seeded teams (North
Carolina, Purdue, Stanford, Texas and Texas Tech). Every
tournament team has lost at least once, no one more dramatically
than defending champion Connecticut, which saw its NCAA-record
70-game winning streak and nine-year Big East tournament title run
end against then No. 14 Villanova in the league championship
game. Though his players hardly knew how to react--after all, it
had been two years since UConn had last visited the loss
column--Auriemma said after the game that "this could be the best
thing to happen to us."

With the burden of an undefeated season lifted (just in time) and
the young Huskies refocused, Connecticut could be more dangerous
than ever. On the other hand, Villanova's victory gives hope to
every Cinderella wannabe in the tournament. The Wildcats, whom
Goestenkors calls "the Princeton of the women's game" because
their style is so unusual, showed that patience, execution and
great defense can overcome superior talent.

Moreover, playing on the road can sometimes work in an underdog's
favor. Arkansas's Gary Blair, the only coach to have taken a seed
as low as nine to the Final Four, says getting away from home
"and its built-in pressures" helped his Razorbacks make it that
far in 1998. "We were 13 days on the West Coast and about out of
per diem, but we really bonded as a team," he says.

For the first time all 63 tournament games will be televised.
That's a dramatic leap from eight years ago, when only four games
were shown on ESPN, and Final Four weekend--in which Rebecca Lobo
led UConn to its first title--was on CBS. To accommodate this
year's expanded TV schedule and minimize conflicts with the men's
tournament, the semifinals and final have been moved to a
Sunday-Tuesday format, making the women's championship game (to
be broadcast on ESPN on April 8) the final game of the college
basketball season.

Who will still be playing then? After Oklahoma, a 10 seed, has
taken out second-seeded Villanova and fallen to top seed
Tennessee in the Mideast, and three seed Kansas State has
squeaked by top seed Connecticut in the East, the two teams left
standing will be Duke and LSU. Duke will win it all, which should
suit the Razorbacks' Blair just fine. "I'd love to win it," he
says, "but if it can't be me, I just hope it's someone else who
hasn't won it before. I'm getting tired of looking at Geno and

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN ADVANTAGE, VOLS Tennessee, a one seed, could play four games at home, while Duke, another one seed, has to hit the road.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB CHILD/AP HAPPY RETURNS? Player of the year favorite Diana Taurasi still gives the Huskies a good chance of repeating.


Upsets in the 21-year history of the women's tournament are rare,
and breakthroughs into the Final Four by teams seeded fifth or
lower are few and far between.

SEED WON LOST 1st 2nd 3rd/4th

1 265 68 16 11 16
2 190 81 3 4 13
3 149 82 2 4 4
4 119 84 0 2 4
5 63 80 0 0 1
6 54 80 0 0 2
7 45 80 0 0 0
8 38 80 0 0 1
9 35 64 0 0 1
10 29 64 0 0 0
11 19 52 0 0 0
12 13 52 0 0 0
13 3 36 0 0 0
14 0 36 0 0 0
15 0 36 0 0 0
16 1 36 0 0 0

NOTE: The field expanded to 64 teams in 1994.

Villanova's recent victory over UConn gives hope to every
Cinderella wannabe in the tournament.