Connecticut’s path to another perfect season could include a renewal of the most heated rivalry in women’s college basketball.
The undefeated Huskies earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Monday night and will open against Southern in Norfolk, Va.
Geno Auriemma’s Huskies have won an NCAA record 72 straight games, but none of them have come against Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols. The two pre-eminent teams in the sport broke off their annual matchup in 2007 in a testy split.
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The two teams could meet in the national semifinals in San Antonio if both come through their regions. "I’m not surprised that they would line us up with Connecticut if we both come out," said Summitt, whose team earned a record 20th No. 1 seed. "They want to see that matchup. We’re a long way from thinking about that matchup."
Auriemma isn’t focusing on that game – yet.
"I would venture to say that after that game is over, if we are fortunate enough to win it, I think there will be a lot of coaches and players on our team that will be smiling a little bit," Auriemma said.
Ten teams have entered the NCAA tournament unbeaten; only five have emerged victorious. UConn and Auriemma have done it three times, including last season.
Stanford and Nebraska earned the other No. 1 seeds.
The Cardinal, the last team to beat Connecticut, earned their first No. 1 seed since 1998. Tennessee earned the No. 1 seed a year after getting bounced from the tournament in the first round. And Nebraska has its first No. 1 seed in school history after winning its first 30 games this season. The Cornhuskers lost their only game of the season in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.
"We evaluated Nebraska’s resume, and even though they lost in the Big 12 tournament we felt that it was important to keep them on that first line," NCAA selection committee chair Jane Meyer said.
The Huskies (33-0), too, have run through their opponents this season, winning by an average of 35 points. In search of its seventh national championship, UConn is looking to become the fifth team to win consecutive titles. Tennessee last did it in 2007 and 2008.
Awaiting the Huskies in the second round could be former assistant Tonya Cardoza and the Temple Owls. They face James Madison in the first round. It’s the second straight year that Auriemma could face his former assistant. Last season Temple lost in the first round to Florida.
While other teams look to make history in the tournament, the Lady Vols had enough of that last year. Tennessee, a No. 5 seed last season, lost in the first round to Ball State, marking the first time in the program’s history that the team didn’t advance out of the opening weekend.
Tennessee will open up at home against Austin Peay in the Memphis region. The Lady Govs (15-17) are the eighth team in NCAA history to make the tournament with a losing record. They upset Eastern Illinois to win the Ohio Valley tournament. The Lady Vols and Austin Peay are two of six teams from the state of Tennessee in the field.
ACC champion Duke earned a No. 2 seed and will host the first two rounds. The Blue Devils will play Mid-Eastern champion Hampton in the opener. LSU meets Hartford in the other game at Cameron.
If Duke gets through to the regional semifinals, a meeting with former coach Gail Goestenkors and Texas could await. The selection committee placed the Blue Devils and Longhorns in the same corner of the bracket, but that matchup didn’t materialize last year.
"You can’t think that far ahead anyway," Duke senior Joy Cheek said.
Five teams will be making their debut in the NCAA tournament – Dayton, Princeton, Arkansas-Little Rock, Portland State and Northern Iowa.
Baylor freshman Brittney Griner, too, will get her first taste of the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bears earned a No. 4 seed and will play Fresno State in the first round. Griner, who drew national attention coming into college as a dunking phenom, made headlines again on March 3 after throwing a punch in a game against Texas Tech. She was suspended for two games by the school for her actions.
But it all comes back to UConn.
The Huskies could face No. 2 seed Ohio State in Dayton in the regional finals – if the Buckeyes can get by third seed Florida State.
"There are some teams in our bracket that are a lot better than people give them credit for," Auriemma said. "I like when you are playing teams that you’re seeing for the first time, and are seeing you for the first time."
That’s certainly not the case with the Cardinal (31-1), who beat the Huskies in the 2008 NCAA tournament semifinals. Stanford will open this year’s tournament hosting UC Riverside in the Sacramento region.
Louisville became just the third team to play in the national championship game and not make the tournament the next season. The Cardinals are one of seven schools that are hosting first- and second-round games that won’t be playing in the NCAA tournament.
The Big East and Big 12 each garnered seven bids. The SEC and ACC each had six. In all, 12 conferences received multiple bids – the highest number since 2001.