The NCAA women's basketball tournament will start with some grumbling over travel and an outcome in doubt.
Heck, there might even be a few upsets in the early rounds, something rare in the women's tournament.
A year ago, the only thing that could have kept Connecticut from winning the national championship might have been failing to get to the arena on time.
They have the talent to repeat and they're ranked No. 1. But they're relying on three freshmen who have never experienced the NCAA tournament, leading scorer Diana Taurasi has ankle and back problems, and Villanova showed UConn was vulnerable.
By ending the Huskies' 70-game winning streak with a 52-48 upset in the Big East tournament championship game, Villanova gave hope to everyone else.
"Connecticut was so dominant last year, it was almost like everybody else was playing for second," said Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, whose team is seeded second in the Midwest Regional.
"I do think we've got a little different look this year. There are several teams that probably have enough of a total package and a chance to get it done."
One of UConn's starters is two-time former Alaska Player of the Year Jessica Moore, a junior center who played for Colony High School. Two other former Alaska Players of the Year are seeing action for ranked teams in the tournament - sophomore center Azella Perryman is at No. 9 Stanford and freshman guard Natalie Jones is at No. 22 Arizona. Perryman and Jones both went to East Anchorage High School.
The sprint to the Final Four in Atlanta begins Saturday with 16 first-round games in eight campus arenas. The remaining 16 first-round games will be played Sunday at eight other sites.
Connecticut (31-1), seeded No. 1 in the East Regional, plays first-time qualifier Boston University at home Sunday. The Huskies are aiming for a second straight title and third in four years.
"We're just looking forward to starting a new season and trying to win six games," freshman Barbara Turner said. "Seventy victories was great and we appreciated it. But the most important thing is winning six games."
The NCAA's new format of picking the 16 regional sites in advance has created a system that many coaches feel is unfair. Some higher seeded teams will be playing at home because they had winning bids for those sites, while others are going on the road.
Among those playing at home is sixth-seeded New Mexico in the Midwest. The Lobos expect a sellout crowd of 16,151 in the Pit for their game with Miami on Saturday night. That would be the largest crowd for a non-Final Four game in the women's tournament.
"I expect our fans to be exceptionally loud," New Mexico coach Don Flanagan said. "That's an obvious advantage for any home team. I'm just hoping we don't get caught up trying to do too many things and lose our focus."
Third-seeded Mississippi State plays No. 14 Manhattan in the other game at New Mexico.
Mississippi State is one of those teams with a high seed that had to travel. LSU, No. 1 in the West, also is hitting the road. The Lady Tigers play Southwest Texas State in Eugene, Ore.
Villanova, seeded second in the Mideast, goes to Oklahoma to play St. Francis on Sunday; second-seeded Texas has a West Regional game with Hampton in Cincinnati on Sunday, and third-seeded North Carolina plays Austin Peay in a Mideast game at Colorado on Saturday.
Along with playing on the road, Villanova faces another challenge.
"Now we're a marked team," coach Harry Perretta said. "Everybody wants to beat the team that beat" UConn.
If Villanova beats St. Francis, the Wildcats might have to face 10th-seeded Oklahoma on its home court. Then there would be a possible meeting with top-seeded Tennessee in Knoxville to get to the Final Four.
Tennessee, 40-0 in NCAA tournament games at home, is hosting the Mideast Regional as well as first- and second-round games.
"There's always a miracle," Perretta said. "Last week proved that."
Because some of the lower seeded teams are at home, chances for early upsets have increased. New Mexico certainly would stand a chance against Mississippi State and its talented duo of LaToya Thomas and Tan White, as would Oklahoma against Villanova, which relies on patience, 3-point shooting and defense.
Other teams at home include 10th-seeded Cincinnati in the West, 12th-seeded Old Dominion in the East and sixth-seeded Colorado in the Mideast.
Previously, the 16 highest seeded teams in the tournament hosted the first two rounds, resulting in few upsets. Of the 128 teams that have advanced past the second round since 1995, only 21 were seeded lower than fourth.
"We could see a few more (upsets) this year," said Cincinnati coach Laurie Pirtle, whose team hosts seventh-seeded Arkansas. "It's been talked about a lot. It's been talked about so much that maybe it won't happen. We're sure going to try."
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