When it came down to the final top-seed, it was the Tennessee Lady Vols who did enough for the committee to earn that seed. However, this is a pretty solid regional all around. The Louisville Cardinals showed last season that they can compete with anyone by taking down the vaunted Baylor Lady Bears in the Sweet 16. However, Tennessee is still your favorite and then from their contenders and dark horses, it gets really tough. This is a very even regional.
While the Lady Vols are your odds on favorite to make it to Nashville, there about four teams that can really apply pressure or even upset Tennessee in the right environment. First it's Louisville as mentioned above, West Virginia Mountaineers, Maryland Terrapins and the Texas Longhorns.
Darkhorse: #2 West Virginia
I know this isn't the most attractive selection and seems like I'm just going down on the chalk. Bear with me though, especially if you've never seen the Mountaineers play. They are a hard nosed defense that takes on the same personality as their coach. They don't make excuses for anything and they just come play. They're going to hit you hard and then hit you with their ability to attack the basket. Asya Bussie is just a down right super star, we saw her flourish in the Big 12 season and tournament. She's been basically the only player that has been able to limit what Nina Davis of Baylor can do.
We haven't even mentioned Bria Holmes. The Sophomore can put a lot of points on the board fast. She scored 19 in the first half in the loss to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game. Holmes is averaging 15.1 PPG, to lead her team.
While this team is hard nosed and aggressive, it has really helped to benefit their defense. The Mountaineer defense ranks 22nd overall by allowing just 58.4 PPG. They also rank 17th by letting their opponents shoot just 35.7 percent from the floor.
There aren't many teams that can pound the boards in this region with Tennessee the way West Virginia's bigs can. Bussie is the primary ball magnet. She can be stopped and limited. She scored zero points in the loss in the Big 12 Championship game, so if you can neutralize her, you could beat West Virginia.
Marist won their conference tournament for the 10th consecutive year just earlier this week. The Red Foxes aren't just your typical small school one-and-done. They've taken out Ohio State, Gonzaga , DePaul, and Iowa State over the years.
Oh, and they beat tournament team Oklahoma earlier this season 76-69. Marist is 27-6 on the season, with a loss coming to the Buckeyes 62-59. Marist led by 10 in the second half for Ohio State made their comeback. They're balanced set, keeping you on your toes defensively. Then when you're on offense, they're often changing up their defensive sets, forcing you uncomfortable for most of the contest.
Last season when Michigan State finally handed the Red Foxes a first round exit, the head coach of Michigan State, Suzy Merchant raved about Marist.
"When your name comes up and Marist comes up right after it, you think you pulled the unlucky number because they are a very good team," Spartans coach Suzy Merchant said. "The way they play makes it really difficult to get victories."
So, Iowa, already with a resume of tough opponents as they went through the very tough Big 10 Conference schedule. They'll add another one to their resume, trying to the school's first national championship.
Sleeper: #4 Maryland
Led by Player of the Year Candidate, Alyssa Thomas, the Terrapins played Notre Dame closer than anyone else this season, falling 87-83 back on January 27th. So, they've battled against some of the nations best schools and competed well.
Thomas is a player of the year candidate due to her ability to score and rebound. She finished with 24 double-doubles this season and won the ACC Player of the Year award as the Terrapins finished 24-6 on the season. Thomas is averaging 18.9 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game this season.
Head coach Brenda Frese has said on numerous occasions that Thomas could go down as one of the greatest basketball players ever at Maryland.
Outside of Thomas, the Terrapins can be deadly from beyond the arc. They're 28th in the nation at 36.1 percent from three-point range. They have four players shooting better than 37 percent this season. When you try to stop them on the perimeter, they hit you inside. That's where Thomas has excelled, helping Maryland to shoot 49 percent from the floor.
Maryland's defense might be their undoing though. Their not a very sound defensive team and have fallen into bad habits that could see them in an early round exit if they don't play up to what they are expected to do. We saw that in the loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
Player to Watch: Alyssa Thomas
Already spoke about her up in the sleeper department. She gives Maryland a real ability to score in the post and keep teams off balance. She can share the ball just as well as she can rebound the ball. In the Maryland losses, Thomas continued to do her team's dirty work, by piling up the points and rebounds. However, a lot of turnovers were her undoing. If we're going to watch a player like Thomas, ACC Conference Player of the Year, help this Terrapin program deep in the tournament, we're going to need her to take better care of the ball.
Marquee Match-up: #1 Tennessee vs. #3 Louisville
Louisville proved to the entire world last year that they can take down almost anyone when they took down Brittney Griner and the Lady Bears. They marched themselves all the way to the Final Four. Their back, just as everyone expected, and they're a nice match up with the Lady Vols.
Louisville might have the shooters to compete with Tennessee, but the key will be can Louisville pound the glass for 40 minutes, competing with one of the nation's top rebounding schools. If they can even keep it neutralized, you just won leg of the game and now you just have to focus on the rest.
While I think Tennessee would still win this game, I do think we'd be in for a very exciting match up. It would be very physical and intense, and just a real bruiser. Even though, West Virginia is better than Louisville, in my opinion, they would not provide such a marquee match up as a perennial power and a team that went to the Final Four last season.
Favorite: #1 Tennessee
Short and sweet: They're the best team in this bracket. Might be one of the best teams since Pat Summit stepped down and they're back to where they should be for this program. They pound the glass almost better than anyone in the nation and play lock down defense.
While I figured Baylor still deserved the nod over Tennessee, the Lady Vols know their resume. Winners of their last 13 of 14, including sweeping their way into the SEC Championships. They provided a tough schedule, with losses to Notre Dame earlier this season. That goes a long way with such a young roster.
How young? So young they start just one senior. She's pretty special though, Meighan Simmons. She's leading the Lady Vols in scoring at 16.2 PPG.
While their is youth here, a lot of it is experience and that will help the Lady Vols go deep into this bracket if they stick to the game plan. Hopefully that youth doesn't backfire and become a handicap for Tennessee.