UConn’s pursuit of a ninth national championship begins at Gampel Pavilion Sunday and would pick up speed in the Lincoln (Neb.) Regional. The Huskies (34-0), the defending national champion, have appeared in six straight Final Fours since 2008 and will be attempting to make their 15th in Geno Auriemma’s 29th season.
And if the Huskies win the title, their 40-0 season will complete a fifth perfect season, all accomplished since 1994-95.
Here’s how the Huskies bracket breaks down:
No. 1 UConn vs. No. 16 Prairie View
UConn: The Huskies come to the tournament on a 40-game winning streak dating to its first-round win over Idaho in last year’s tournament. They are by far the most dominating defensive team in the nation, with perhaps the country’s player of the year, sophomore Breanna Stewart, at the core of an All-American lineup.
Prairie View: Well, the SWAC tournament champion is the only team in the tournament with a losing record (14-17), not hard to figure when you remember it lost its first 11 games and didn’t win until Jan. 6. Playing UConn and Baylor twice each in the first round of the last four NCAA Tournaments is usually what results.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Winthrop
Duke: The Blue Devils should be credited for having great toughness and resilience by earning a two seed despite losing their starting backcourt, Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones, to knee injuries. They played excellent in the ACC tournament, losing to Notre Dame in the title game. But let’s face it, UConn just hammers them every time they play.
Winthrop: The Big South champion is making its first NCAA tournament appearance after beating top-seeded High Point in the title game. That was its first title game appearance since 1996. The Eagles will be facing Duke for the first time since 1986, Winthrop’s first year as a NCAA Division I program. Senior guard Dequesha McClanahan, the three-time Big South Player of the Year, was the tournament MVP.
No. 3 Texas A&M vs. No. 14 North Dakota
Texas A&M: Gary Blair is one of the sport’s most engaging personalities. He won a national championship in 2011 with Danielle Adams. But their only two shots ever at UConn (2011 and 2012) ended in two losses by a combined 61 points. The Aggies are one of 12 schools to have qualified for at least nine consecutive NCAAs, joining Baylor, Connecticut, DePaul, Duke, Georgia, Marist, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt.
North Dakota: Big Sky Conference player of the year Madi Buck is the one primarily responsible for her team’s first trip to the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament. North Dakota was picked to finish eighth and ninth in a pair of pre-season polls, but become the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament by developing its depth and quickness.
No. 4 Nebraska vs. No. 13 Fresno State
Nebraska: When the Cornhuskers bid to host this regional they never anticipated that UConn might be waiting from them in a possible Elite Eight game. But Nebraska, the Big Ten champion, has a solid player Jordan Hooper, who played on last summer’s World University Games team with UConn’s Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Bria Hartley. And Connecticut Sun fans will also notice the retired Huskers’ No. 23 jersey of forward Kelsey Griffin hanging in the arena.
Fresno State: The Bulldogs have bounced around too, moving from the Western Athletic Conference two years ago. Success has followed. They won the Mountain West Conference tournament championship for the second straight season to earn its seventh consecutive NCAA bid. Bree Farley scored 26 in its title game win over top-seeded Colorado State. Taylor Thompson, a 5-foot-5 guard, was named tournament MVP
No. 5 North Carolina St. vs. No. 12 BYU
NC State: A lot has changed around the Wolfpack since the Kay Yow era, especially since it famously knocked UConn out of the NCAAs with an Elite Eight win in 1998. This is their first trip to the tournament in four years and its first season with Coach Wes Moore, who came over after 15 seasons at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
BYU: In honor of former UConn All-American Kara Wolters, there is a new “Big Girl” prowling the paint. Jennifer Hamson, the 6-7 senior center, averages 18.3 points, 11.2 points and 4.0 blocks per game. Hamson is the West Coast Conference player and defensive Player of the Year. She ranks second in the nation in blocked shots (128).
No. 6 Gonzaga vs. No. 11 James Madison
Gonzaga: The Zags don’t have the national profile of their men’s team, but they have produced one of the best young point guards in the WNBA, Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot, a three-time conference player of the year. This is their sixth straight NCAA bid, but its No. 6 seed is the highest in program history.
James Madison: The Dukes won the Colonial Athletic Association’s regular season and tournament championships. They are making their ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but first since 2011. Senior guard Kirby Burkholder is the Colonial Athletic Association’s player of the year. The CAA’s defensive player of the year is their Nikki Newman.
No. 7 DePaul vs. No. 10 Oklahoma
DePaul: No doubt Geno Auriemma missed his great friend, DePaul coach Doug Bruno, during their first season apart in many years. But Bruno’s program stands to benefit long-term from UConn’s departure for the AAC and he led it to the Big East regular season and tournament titles this season. The Blue Demons have won seven games in a row, 16 of the last 17 and set program records for points scored (2,763), 3-pointers (285) and assists (654).
Oklahoma: Bubbly Sherri Coale, Oklahoma’s fiery and fashionable coach, begins this tournament, the 15th straight for the Sooners, in the unusual position of being a No. 10 seed. The Sooners were one of the last four at-large teams selected after going 4-11 against the tournament field during the regular season. The days of the Paris twins seem so long removed.
No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 9 Saint Joseph’s
Georgia: If UConn plays Georgia in the second round Tuesday, it will be their first meeting since the Elite Eight in 2006, which was their first meeting since 2000. In fact, it’s strange that these national powers have played only four times since 1996. The Bulldogs, coached for the last 35 years by Andy Landers, won their first 11 games before losing their first four SEC games.
Saint Joseph’s: While the tournament selection committee bypassed AAC teams like South Florida and Rutgers, it offered an invitation to the Hawks after a fifth-place finish in the Atlantic 10. They have three players averaging double figures. Natasha Cloud averages 11.5 points, a team-high 6.7 rebounds and has 233 assists (7.8 per game) this season.