The team to beat is Baylor, but three hungry and battle-tested squads are ready to give Griner & Co. their best shots in Denver
Having coached in four Final Fours and a pair of national championship games in her 20-year career, Gail Goestenkors of Texas has faced her share of superteams. So where does Baylor rank? "They are one of the best I've ever seen," says Goestenkors, whose Longhorns lost twice to the Lady Bears this year. "You have to have a good inside-outside presence, and they have All-Americans in [junior center] Brittney Griner and [sophomore guard] Odyssey Sims. Their other players are tremendously athletic and work their tails off. That's the thing with championship teams: Players embrace and understand their roles, and at Baylor they do."
It will be a major upset if the Lady Bears (34--0) fail to win the NCAA final in Denver on April 3. The 6'8" Griner, who averages 23.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.1 blocks, is the favorite for player of the year honors and a near-certain U.S. Olympic team selection. Sims is the nation's best on-ball defender as well as a dependable scorer (14.8 points per game). Junior forwards Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope and junior guards Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden form a deep and athletic rotation. Baylor can become the seventh team to win a title without a loss, but, says coach Kim Mulkey, "Six games are what matter to us right now. That's what we failed to achieve last year [when the Lady Bears lost to Texas A&M in the regional finals], and it motivates every one of us."
The memory of last year's championship game defeat to A&M has driven Notre Dame (30--3), and especially 5'9" junior point guard Skylar Diggins (17.0 ppg), to win the school's first Big East regular-season title. The Irish are second in the nation in points (79.6), third in field goal percentage (47.3%), and have the two-time Big East defensive player of the year in 6'2" senior forward Devereaux Peters (12.2 points, 9.4 boards per game).
It's indicative of how dominant UConn has been in recent years that its 29--4 record can be seen as disappointing. But after the Huskies beat Notre Dame for their fifth straight Big East tournament title, no team can afford to take them lightly. UConn leads the country in scoring defense (45.7 points per game), and every player in the rotation except 6-foot freshman forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who averages 14.8 points, has Final Four experience. Sophomore 5'7" point guard Bria Hartley is a big-game player—she had 25 points in a 66--61 loss to Baylor on Dec. 18—and if 6'5" sophomore center Stefanie Dolson can play well more consistently (she has as many two-point games as 22-point games), UConn can earn its fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four.
Stanford (31--1) coach Tara VanDerveer is tired of hearing that the Pac-12 conference is down this year. "Our team knows we can play with anyone," she says. "We just want the chance." Skeptics say that a soft nonconference schedule makes the Cardinal vulnerable in the Big Dance, but 6'2" senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike (21.8 ppg and 10.5 rpg) is a tournament-tested player, having led Stanford to three consecutive Final Fours. She'll get help from a pair of sophomores—6'3" forward Chiney Ogwumike, her sister and the conference's defensive player of the year (15.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg), and 5'11" shooting guard Toni Kokenis (9.5 ppg). Depth at guard remains this team's biggest question mark. Both freshman Amber Orrange and senior Lindy La Rocque (each has a 1.74 assist-to-turnover ratio) have been unsteady.