Tennessee. Connecticut. Maryland. North Carolina. Those No. 1 seeds — all familiar powerhouses to college basketball fans and all previous winners_ anchored the NCAA women's tournament bracket, with the Lady Vols opening defense of their championship in the Oklahoma City Regional.
Connecticut and Tennessee didn't meet this season for the first time in 13 years. That could change April 8 in Tampa with the national championship on the line.
"It's Tennessee and Connecticut. I think there's always a lot of hype," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose team led by All-American Candace Parker opens up Sunday against Oral Roberts. "My mind is not on anything else but getting our team better."
Before the two could meet, Connecticut must get through new rival Rutgers. The Huskies are the top seed in Greensboro, and the Scarlet Knights are No. 2. Rutgers handed Connecticut its only loss this season.
"With so many teams to choose from it's kind of ironic," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "I guess Rutgers is the No. 8 seed in the country? I find that hard to believe, but I guess they are. If I were them, I'd be questioning a little bit what's going on."
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer stared at the television in disbelief when the announcement was made that the Scarlet Knights would have to face Connecticut to advance to the Final Four.
"I didn't think there was any way on God's earth that this would happen," Stringer said. "I am just stunned and shocked. This is a mindblower. I just assumed that they would ask us to go through North Carolina, they have a very similar style to our play and we didn't see them this year. If I were a betting woman I would have lost all my money today."
The No. 1 seeded Huskies (32-1) will open against No. 16 Cornell on Sunday in Bridgeport, Conn.
UConn, ranked atop the AP poll for 12 of the final 13 weeks, is hoping to get to the Final Four for the first time since 2004. The Huskies lost to LSU in the regional final last season. Connecticut's four seniors have added motivation: If they don't make it to Tampa, they would become the first Huskies' class in 20 to have never made it to the Final Four. The Huskies are led by freshman star Maya Moore, who became the first Big East freshman to win Player of the Year.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, however, was clearly frustrated by her team's draw. She had lobbied for the Tar Heels to be sent to Greensboro — about an hour west of the Chapel Hill campus — after they won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament there last week.
Instead, her team might have to face second-seeded LSU in New Orleans for the right to go to the Final Four. If that happens, it would be the fourth time in six years North Carolina has had to face a lower-seeded team playing close to home.
"I don't really have any thoughts," Hatchell said when asked about the draw. "We're just ready to play.
"I'm going to wait until after the tournament's over to say anything."
The Tar Heels open play on Sunday against Bucknell.
LSU and senior Sylvia Fowles have made the last four Final Fours. First-year coach Van Chancellor hopes to continue the streak and finally win a national championship for the Lady Tigers.
The only real surprise among the top seeds was Maryland getting the No. 1 in Spokane over Stanford, which was No. 2. Maryland lost in the semifinals of the ACC tournament to Duke.
"I tell you, we're ecstatic," said Terps coach Brenda Frese of the No. 1 seed. "We obviously feel like you play the entire season for this moment. The fact that our non-conference schedule really prepared us for now, to play in one of the toughest conferences, to go 30-3. I think it's a tribute to our team and to our program, just how hard we worked throughout the course of the entire season."
Frese delivered twin boys in late February, but is back as the Terrapins seek their second national championship in three seasons.
Stanford, behind preseason All-American Candice Wiggins, has won 18 straight games and is trying to become the first Pac-10 team to make the Final Four in a decade.
"I think sometimes it's hard (because) people don't see us play," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "If the world was fair, it would turn the other way. We have a great team, great leaders. We have great players. We're really excited about playing in the tournament."
While the Big East and Big 12 both have eight teams in the tournament, there are nine first-timers — Cleveland State, Cornell, East Tennessee State, Fresno State, Miami (Ohio), Murray State, Texas-San Antonio, UTEP, and Wyoming.
"I want to congratulate our players," UTEP coach Keitha Adams said. "Young ladies, you've made history today."