On the eve of the NCAA women's regionals, two questions loom:
(1) Can anyone in the Sweet Sixteen field beat coach Gino Auriemma's undefeated, No. 1-ranked Connecticut Huskies?
(2) If, so, how? UConn seeks to improve to 36-0 and to defeat the last of six Big 10 teams in the original field of 64 when it plays Penn State (23-11) at ll a.m. Saturday in the Mideast Regional at US Cellular Arena in Milwaukee.
Old Dominion (27-5), second-round victor over Purdue, plays Kansas State (26-7) in the second game.
How dominant have the Huskies been this season? Consider this: UConn is 15-0 against teams that made the NCAA tournament. And the Huskies" average margin of victory in these 15 games is 29 points per game (84.8 to 55.8).
That sounds pretty close to unbeatable, but Pat Summitt, winner of six NCAA titles at Tennessee, said she feels UConn could be stopped short of running the table and matching the 39-0 record Tennessee had as the last unbeaten NCAA champion in 1998.
"Connecticut, Connecticut, Connecticut. You hear so much about them." Summitt said. "But you can't believe all you hear. Penn State has to believe it has a shot. If it believes all it hears, it's beaten before it steps on the court.
"As for Connecticut, you never say that you cannot lose. If you think that way, you"ll get beat."
Apparently Auriemma agreed with Summitt. Before his team crushed St. Francis (Pa.) by 49 points and Iowa by 38 in the first two rounds, Auriemma said, "We don't think we"re unbeatable. We can lose. There were seven or eight games in the regular season we could have lost."
Summitt conceded that the Huskies have "a fine-tuned offense and a very aggressive defense. No one has taken them out of their rhythm on offense, except Virginia Tech (59-50), and then Connecticut beat Virginia Tech by 35 (77-42) at home."
UConn's real power shows up when one examines whom it has beaten. Fourteen of the Huskies" victories came over teams seeded No. 10 or higher.
UConn beat two of the other three No. 1 seeds in this tournament, Vanderbilt by 19 points and Oklahoma by 14. No. 2 seed Tennessee also lost by 14 to UConn, as did No. 7 seed Old Dominion. And UConn's games against Tennessee and Old Dominion were on the road.
Seeds of other NCAA teams beaten by UConn include No. 4 North Carolina, No. 5 Florida In ternational, Louisiana Tech and Boston College twice, No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 9 Villanova twice and Iowa and No. 10 Syracuse.
Next to UConn's 59-50 victory at Virginia Tech, its closest games of the season have been the 14-point victories over Oklahoma, Tennessee and Old Dominion.
Here is further evidence of UConn's strength:
The five starters average between Swin Cash's 15.2 points per game and Tamika Williams" 10. Diana Taurasi averages 14.4, play maker Sue Bird 13.7 and Asjha Jones 13.5.
Only 13 opponents have led in games against UConn. Only seven of those leads have lasted longer than one minute.
The Huskies shot 52.2 percent from the floor this season. Their defense helped limit opponents to 31.6 percent shooting.
In the last 12 games since their 59-50 scare at Virginia Tech, UConn has outscored its opponents an average of 39.8 points per game.
Don't tell this to Purdue, Iowa State or Baylor, but the move into the regional semifinals sharpens competition, because it takes the four top seeds off their home floors where they played their first two rounds.
Three of the 16 seeds-No. 2s Purdue and Baylor and No. 3 Iowa State-lost second-round games at home. Iowa State was upset by No. 11 seed Brigham Young, cost ing the Cyclones the opportunity to stay in Ames for the Midwest Regional.
Tennessee will oppose BYU in one Midwest semifinal. North Carolina plays Vanderbilt in the other game.
Bill Jauss is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.