While at Navy Pier on a foggy, chilly Thursday night, on my way to the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, passing by the Haagen Daas stand, I chanced upon several members of the UT-Martin women's basketball team, seeded 15th in the tough Des Moines Regional, and playing the #2-seed Tennessee Lady Vols at the Allstate Arena come St. Patrick's Day.
I introduced myself, and we had some very pleasant talk about their trip to Chicago (they loved it, and it was their first time here), and then I asked them a quintessential question of this most unusual 2012 tourney:
"How do you feel about taking on Tennessee when you're playing for Pat Summitt's alma mater?"
A look of pain crossed their eyes. "I feel so bad for her," one offered. "It's really bittersweet for us," said another.
Summitt's early-onset dementia and handing the Lady Vols' day-to-day reigns of power to her assistants resulted in an inconsistent (22-9) season and a largely celebratory #2 seed is just one of the backstories of a tournament that by definition, is fraught with change, upsets (Lehigh vs. Duke in the Men's NCAA, anyone?) , and a group of teams that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw observed, at least in the Big East, "has more parity than ever before."
No longer is UConn (29-4) a sure Final Four team. Though Geno Auriemma's Huskies are seeded #1 in the Kingston Regional and the owner of the NCAA's longest winning streak (men or women). the Huskies barely held off McGraw's Fighting Irish((30-3) #1 seed, Raleigh Regional, for the Big East crown this year.
Another interesting element: At what point in American history have we been able to talk about a 6'8 American-born women's basketball player who can dunk as well as Michael Jordan and is two inches taller, with a 7'4 wingspan? The Baylor Bears' center, Brittney Griner, is just one of the remarkable elements of the 2012 Women's NCAA run to the Championship.
Other compelling storylines:
With the exception of perennial Stanford (31-1), seeded #1 in the Fresno Regional) the usual suspects--UConn (29-4),l, Tennessee (24-8) and Rutgers (22-9) seeded #6 in the Kingston Regional are no longer shoo-ins for the Final Four.
Kentucky (25-6), seeded #2 in the Kingston Regional, very nearly upset Tennesse in the SEC Championship and was the regular-season champ.
Maryland (28-4) #2 in the Raleigh Regional: Coach Brenda Frese and her Terrapins suffered a humiliating loss to Georgetown in last year's Regional. Word is she's fiercly determined to get her team back to the Final Four this year. And what Brenda wants....Brenda often gets.
Texas A&M (22-10), #3 in the Raleigh Regional. Playing at home, the defending 2011 champion Aggies will have a comfort zone that may allow them to move to the Regional matchups with ease.
At the Des Moines Regional at Allstate Arena:
I'm looking for DePaul (22-10) to have a compelling run past BYU. Predicted score: 65-60. Anna Martin and defense rule the day.
Tennessee dominates#15 seed UT-Martin, 70-40. Glory Johnson and a talented, if inconsistent team, dominates.
You can follow the action live today, starting around 3:00 pm. I will be Twittering/Facebooking from the Allstate Arena. Follow me @alisonsmoran or Alison Moran on Facebook. Hope to see you there!