Not Even Connecticut Is Clearly No. 1

Times Staff Writer

As usual, there were plenty of questions after the selection of the 64 teams for the NCAA women's basketball tournament was complete.

Such as:

* What is the Big East doing with seven teams? Did Villanova's upset of previously undefeated Connecticut in the conference tournament reshuffle the deck that much, to include Miami?

* Why does Conference USA have as many teams in the tournament -- five -- as the Big 12? The latter conference may be down slightly this year, but did that mean Conference USA rose that high?

* It's not hard to argue for Big Ten selections Purdue, Penn State, Minnesota and Ohio State. But Illinois and Michigan State? The bubble might have been expected to burst for the Spartans or the Fighting Illini when one or the other was taken.

But, also as usual, the most oft-asked question out there was ...

Who looks like a winner?

Connecticut, Duke, Louisiana State and Tennessee gained the No. 1 seedings in the tournament, which begins Saturday and ends with the championship game April 8 in Atlanta.

Connecticut (31-1), which has made the NCAA tournament each year since 1989, won its third national championship last year, having also won titles in 1995 and 2000. The Huskies, top-ranked in the Associated Press, had a 70-game winning streak, the longest in women's Division I history, before losing to Villanova, 52-48, last week in the Big East Conference tournament final.

Any prediction is a crapshoot in a tournament that looks so wide open. But Duke -- which was No. 1 until it lost to Connecticut, then regained that status in the coaches' poll (though not the Associated Press poll) when Villanova ended the Huskies' winning streak -- appears to have the path of least resistance.

The Blue Devils (31-1), whose only loss was to Connecticut, are seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Regional. Texas Tech is the only team in the bracket that can make Duke sweat. That includes that underwhelming 18-12 Miami squad.

About the only thing Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors expressed concern about was the amount of time the Blue Devils have had to wait since winning the ACC tournament on March 10.

"It's just too long," Goestenkors said. "[The wait was] made longer this year because they pushed our tournament back. It's tough. The kids right now are so antsy to play somebody else. It's just a long time to wait without that competitiveness that you can only get from a real game."

Another disadvantage for Duke is that it won't open the tournament at home. Because the NCAA selected its tournament sites early -- in part because ESPN is contracted to televise every tournament game -- the closest the Blue Devils will be to Durham is when they plays their first two games in Raleigh, N.C.

NCAA officials are trying to eventually have all the women's tournament games played at neutral sites, as the men's games are now, so what happened this year is considered a step in that direction.

Still, three teams could play every game in their home arena until the Final Four.

New Mexico, No. 6 in the Midwest, will play host to two early-round games and the regional semifinals and final. Stanford, No. 3 in the West, has the same deal. Ditto for Tennessee, seeded No. 1 in the Mideast.

New Mexico, Tennessee and Stanford were smart enough to bid for the opening-round games and the regional semifinals and finals at the same time, and were lucky to get both. This will be the last time that can happen. Starting next season, schools can bid to be host of the opening two rounds or regional semifinals and finals, but not both.

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