10 first-round storylines to follow


The women's version of March Madness tips off at 11 a.m. ET Saturday at 16 sites around the country, with early rounds concluding Monday and Tuesday. Here are 10 things to look for/ponder/debate during the opening steps of the Big Dance:

1. Leagues of legends?

Who said this: "I think we have the toughest conference in the country. We beat each other up. On any given night, anybody can win. You have to bring your A-game."

Answer: Almost every coach, although some do add the qualifier "one of the toughest conferences" because they know that saying  the toughest is over the top.

UConn's Geno Auriemma of the new American ("We have no real geographic link, but we're all in the United States!") Athletic Conference isn't going to say this about that amalgamation of orphans, castoffs, left-behinds and biding-their-times. But he doesn't need to. He can just say, We got Breanna, and you don't. (Hmmm ... rings a bell, doesn't it?)

So which league really was the toughest to play in this season? Hah, as if there could be a consensus on that. But the conferences that received the most NCAA bids were the SEC and ACC, with eight each. We'll see how many live on to the Sweet 16.

2. Speaking of Breanna ...

UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart did not play in the Huskies' NCAA tournament opener last year because of a sore Achilles tendon. Still, the Huskies somehow muddled through without her in a 105-37 victory over Idaho.

In UConn's subsequent five games, Stewart had a combined 104 points and 31 rebounds. She was the most outstanding player of the Women's Final Four.

Let's see what kind of numbers she produces in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Starting with Prairie View (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET Sunday), which won the SWAC's automatic bid but has a 14-17 record coming into the NCAA tournament.

To make it more interesting, how about Stewart playing 1-on-5? At least for one half?

3. Quick quiz

In honor of the Women's Final Four city: Which team won the NCAA women's hoops championship the year that the Indigo Girls' song "Nashville" was released? Hint, if needed: That song was on the "Rites of Passage" album. Answer below.

4. Hail the newbies

Five schools are in the Division I NCAA tournament for the first time. So here's a big welcome to North Dakota, South Dakota, Akron, Wright State and Winthrop.

Meanwhile, the program breaking the longest drought from its previous appearance is Fordham, which was in the NCAA field just once before, in 1994.

(Incidentally, Breanna Stewart made her "first appearance" in 1994 too. She was born in August of that year.)

5. The one and only

Just one program has appeared in all 32 previous NCAA tournament fields: Tennessee. The Lady Vols are a No. 1 seed this year for the 22nd time, and they are seeking their 19th appearance in the Women's Final Four.

Tennessee has advanced at least as far as the Sweet 16 every year except one. That was 2009, when Ball State stunned an admittedly subpar (by Tennessee standards) Lady Vols team, 71-55 in the first round.

The odds of a Tennessee first-round loss this year are approximately 999 trillion-billion-gazillion to 1, not that we want to make No. 16 seed Northwestern State (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET Saturday) feel bad. But the Southland champs have to go against Tennessee on the Lady Vols' home court, Thompson-Boling Arena.

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