ST. THOMAS - Ask anyone involved with Paradise Jam who the favorite is in the ultra-competitive St. John Division and you'll get the same answer: Tennessee.
So The Daily News decided to go outside the tournament umbrella for a different perspective, tracking down Fox college basketball analyst Brenda Van Lengen to get the expert's take on who will come out on top.
"Tennessee is definitely the favorite."
So much for a second opinion.
It seems the Lady Vols are a unanimous choice to win a tournament championship in the most prestigious division lineup ever assembled at Paradise Jam, and with good reason.
"They return the core of a team that went to the Final Four, plus some outstanding young players who were injured last year," Van Lengen said.
The Lady Vols finished 30-5 last year and made their 20th NCAA Tournament semifinal appearance in the last 29 years under head coach Pat Summitt. Tennessee returns eight players from a year ago, including three starters, and adds red-shirt freshman phenom Candace Parker after the 6-foot-3 forward sat out all of last season with a knee injury.
Tennessee is ranked No. 1 in the USA Today-ESPN coaches poll and No. 2 in The Associated Press poll.
Van Lengen will do color commentary for the live television broadcast of tonight's games for cable network Fox College Sports, joining play-by-play man Mark Brown. Van Lengen has done plenty of studying on Tennessee's Paradise Jam competition and admits nothing will come easy for the Lady Vols with No. 9 Michigan State and No. 10 Maryland in the mix.
"That division is loaded," she said. "There are three teams ranked in the top 10 in the United States, and add to that Gonzaga, which had a 23-game winning streak last year. Tennessee is the favorite, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Maryland or Michigan State win it either."
Michigan State was the National Championship runner-up last season, advancing to the NCAA title game after defeating Tennessee in a Final Four matchup. Maryland is an up-and-coming team that shot up the rankings last year with an impressive 22-10 record and a second-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. The Terrapins did it with a young team featuring five freshman and are expected to improve again this season after welcoming their third consecutive top 10 recruiting class. The Terps could throw a scare into Tennessee and Michigan State.
"I think Maryland is a team that can really pull off some wins," Van Lengen said. "I don't know that I would even call them upsets, but I guess to the average fan it might seem like an upset."
In the bracketed St. Thomas Division, Van Lengen gives the edge to Minnesota over Virginia, Alabama and Nevada. Minnesota was a Sweet 16 team last season and comes to St. Thomas off a big win over then-No. 11 Stanford on Sunday.
"Minnesota is just two years removed from a women's Final Four appearance. They're one of the top teams in the Big Ten and I think they're definitely a favorite," Van Lengen said.
Virginia, who was ousted from the NCAA Tournament last year by Minnesota, could give the Golden Gophers a fight for the division title. The Cavaliers are a perennial Tournament team, making 21 appearances in the NCAAs all-time, and have one of the top coaches in women's college basketball in Debbie Ryan.
Alabama could be a tough out for both those teams. The Crimson Tide plays in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference with the likes of Maryland, North Carolina and top-ranked Duke and is unlikely to be intimidated by a challenge.
From top to bottom, Van Lengen, who is working Paradise Jam for the second time, ranks this year's field among the very best she's seen anywhere.
"It's very exciting to have this level of competition in November," she said. "Normally, you'd have to be at a conference tournament or a Final Four to see this many good teams. It's really like bringing a Final Four, or an Elite Eight, to the Virgin Islands."