By Doug Feinberg
AP Basketball Writer
Geno Auriemma and his UConn Huskies hope to achieve history by the end of this NCAA tournament.
The top-seeded Huskies (34-0) are trying for a record ninth NCAA title, which would break a tie with Tennessee for most all-time. Standing in the way of undefeated Connecticut’s run could be Notre Dame. The Irish were also unbeaten this season and earned the top seed in their own region. It’s only the second time that two teams entered the tournament undefeated.
Despite not playing this season, the former Big East rivals know plenty about each other having met 12 times over the previous three seasons. The unbeaten wouldn’t meet until the national championship game on April 8 in Nashville. Notre Dame isn’t intimidated by Connecticut; the Irish have won seven of the past nine meetings with the Huskies.
Tennessee and South Carolina also earned No. 1 seeds. While it’s the 22nd time that the Lady Vols have earned a top spot, it’s the first for the Gamecocks. The Huskies, Lady Vols and Gamecocks all could have to play on an opponent’s home court with a trip to Nashville on the line. Stanford, Notre Dame, Louisville and Nebraska, who are all hosting regionals, were a combined 52-3 at home this season.
The Lady Vols, who won the SEC tournament championship, are the top seed in the Louisville Regional and would also like nothing more than break the tie with Connecticut and win their ninth NCAA title. They open up against Northwestern State and will be trying to end a five-year drought of not making the Final Four. The Lady Vols won’t have an easy path. West Virginia is the second seed. Host Louisville is the three seed and Maryland is the four.
Tennessee lost to Louisville in the regional final last season and could have to beat a Cardinals team that lost just once at home this year and that was to UConn.
Like their SEC rivals, the Gamecocks also may have to win on an opponent’s home court to reach the Final Four.
If the seeds hold true, South Carolina would face Stanford, which hasn’t lost at home this season. Before that contest is a potential rematch for the Gamecocks with North Carolina. The Tar Heels and their stellar freshman class, led by Diamond Deshields, beat the Gamecocks in December. The Tar Heels also could have coach Sylvia Hatchell back on the sidelines at that point. The Hall of Famer battled leukemia during the regular season.
While Hatchell’s status is unknown for the tournament, Baylor will be missing coach Kim Mulkey for the first game. She is suspended for the first round game against Western Kentucky for comments she made last season after losing to Louisville in the regional semifinals.
“I haven’t talked to the team in depth about me not coaching in the first game,” Mulkey said. “I’ll watch it on television at home. … I always tell the team something could happen to me on that sideline and you should be able to coach yourself.”
Connecticut could have to beat host Nebraska in the regional semifinals if both teams make it that far. The Huskies have made it to the Final Four in a record six straight seasons. They hope to make it to Nashville to keep that streak alive.
If the Huskies do win the national championship it would be the fifth time they went undefeated in a season. This would be the first time that they won 40 games, joining Baylor as the only teams ever to accomplish that feat.
The defending national champions have won games by an average of 36 points. They open up at home against Prairie View A&M on Sunday night. The Lady Panthers became the ninth team to reach the NCAA tournament with a losing record when they won the Southwestern Conference championship.
Other teams in Connecticut’s region include second-seeded Duke. The Blue Devils have been hampered by injuries with star guards Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones sidelined for the season. UConn blew out Duke by 22 points in mid-December.
Tennessee will be making its 33rd straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, getting into the field ever year. Five teams will be making their first trip — Akron, North Dakota, South Dakota, Winthrop and Wright State.
While those schools will be getting their first taste of the NCAAs, Chattanooga’s Jim Foster became the first coach to take four different teams to the NCAA tournament.