No. 1 seeds prepare for Indianapolis Final Four

Since the NCAA began sponsoring women’s basketball in 1982, only once have all four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four.

If that were to happen again this year, the Final Four in Indianapolis would feature highly anticipated and powerfully balanced matchups with the defending champion, Connecticut (32-1), against its archrival, Tennessee (31-2), in one semifinal and Baylor (31-2) against Stanford (29-2) in the other on April 3.

These No. 1 seeds, announced Monday, have won a combined 18 national championships, are coached by the nation’s highest-profile coaches, and have clearly separated themselves from every other team in the country without being able to dominate one another. During the regular season, UConn beat Baylor, which beat Tennessee, which beat Stanford, which beat UConn.

“I don’t feel there’s a clear Number 1 this year as there was the past two years,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has won two national titles and whose Cardinal ended UConn’s record 90-game winning streak in December. “But I think there’s been clearly a top four.”

As UConn begins its quest for a third consecutive title Sunday at home against No. 16 seed Hartford in the Philadelphia Regional, the Huskies will have the best player in the country in Maya Moore, but also the thinnest bench and the smallest lineup among the No. 1 seeds.

If Huskies coach Geno Auriemma wins his eighth national title, he said, “It would be the most improbable, no question.”

Fortunately for UConn, the 6-foot-5 freshman center Stefanie Dolson has emerged as a force in the middle, delivering a career-high 24 points twice in the Big East tournament. If the Huskies make their accustomed run to the Final Four, though, they will probably have to do so with only one reliable bench player — guard Lorin Dixon.

Dolson cannot afford to get into foul trouble as she did against Baylor’s 6-8 Brittney Griner in November, when she played only 12 minutes before fouling out. Since then, UConn’s front-line depth has vanished. Forward Samarie Walker transferred to Kentucky, and the sophomore reserve center Heather Buck, lacking in confidence even when healthy, missed the Big East tournament with a stress reaction in her left foot.

“Our guys know what to expect come tournament time; that gives you a little confidence,” Auriemma said. “At the same time, you keep your fingers crossed about injuries and foul trouble.”

Coach Pat Summitt is seeking her ninth national championship at Tennessee and her first appearance in the Final Four since winning consecutive titles in 2007 and 2008. The Lady Vols, seeded first in the Dayton Regional, are tall, deep, and stocked with more interchangeable parts than perhaps any team.

“I think Tennessee is the deepest team,” VanDerveer said. “It isn’t dependent on one person; they can bring people in without dropping off that much.”

The Lady Vols’ towering front line ranges from 6-6 to 6-3. Shekinna Stricklen (12.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 67 assists, 42 steals) is the Southeastern Conference player of the year and can play all five positions. And this may be Summitt’s most threatening team from the perimeter; the Lady Vols made 16 3-pointers in the final of the SEC tournament.

“Tennessee may be playing the best of any team right now,” said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who won the national title in 2005, the last time the women’s Final Four was held in Indianapolis.

Only in 1989, however, did all the No. 1 seeds reach the Final Four. Texas A&M, seeded second to Baylor in Dallas, has lost to the Bears three times this season by a combined 15 points. Xavier, seeded second to Stanford in Spokane, missed the Final Four a year ago because of two blown layups against the Cardinal, while third-seeded UCLA held an 11-point lead before losing to Stanford on Saturday in the Pacific-10 tournament.

“Connecticut is still the team to beat,” Mulkey said. “But Stanford gave us hope that not everyone else is playing for second place.”