Weekend in New England: March Madness in November

Vanderbilt's victory in the semifinals of the Women's preseason NIT sets up a fascinating Vanderbilt-Connecticut doubleheader Sunday and Monday. The women face the top-ranked Huskies in Storrs, Connecticut on Sunday, and the Vandy men take on the Connecticut men Monday evening in Hartford.

What a way to welcome in the college hoops year! It's only November, but this already feels a little bit like March Madness.

Both Vandy's men's and women's basketball teams will be heading north to Connecticut this weekend, and both will find out whether or not their respective programs are ready for prime time. And what a rare treat for Vandy fans in the Constitution State, who get the chance to witness an unprecedented men's/women's SEC vs. Big East twofer!

The preseason WNIT organizers got exactly the final they wanted on Thursday night, when both the #3 Vanderbilt and #1 Connecticut women's teams played their way into the finals. Vanderbilt advanced by defeating Colorado 72-51, while the Connecticut women roared past North Carolina, 94-74. Neither the Commodores nor Huskies have broken much of a sweat in their first three games.

The final is set for Connecticut's Gampel Pavilion at 5:00 EST (4:00 Nashville time). The Huskies boast one of the great traditions in all of women's college basketball, and this year's version is both talented and deep. Like Vanderbilt, Coach Geno Auriemmo's team boasts a preseason All-American and Naismith Award candidate in senior point guard Sue Bird.

This dream matchup between two of the nation's elite powers will be televised by the Oxygen Network. Women's college basketball seldom gets any better than this... at least not at this time of year. For Jim Foster's Commodores, it's a chance to make an early statement to the national press: knock off the number one team in the nation in their building, and who knows? You might wake up the next week in the top spot yourself.

The following night at 7:30 EST (6:30 Central), Kevin Stallings' men's team faces UConn in a regularly-scheduled weeknight game at the Hartford Civic Center. The game will be televised by Fox SportsNet in some regions of the country.

It's the season opener for UConn. Last year coach Jim Calhoun's team went 22-12 and failed to make the NCAA Tournament, but played two games in the NIT. Of course, Jim Calhoun's Huskies won a national championship in 1999. Both Vanderbilt and Connecticut were criticized for soft out-of-conference scheduling last year, hence this game. It will be the first meeting ever between the two teams. Connecticut will return the favor by playing at Memorial Gym in the 2002-03 season.

The Commodores get a little bit of a break by the fact that this game is in Hartford rather than Storrs. The weeknight crowd at the Civic Center, which seats 16,235, is likely to be partisan and rowdy, but the atmosphere is probably not as intense as what the women will see at Gampel the night before.

The young Vandy's men's team will find out if it is ready to face a "name" team in a hostile setting. A win, frankly, would be somewhat unexpected, and could signal that Stallings' rebuilding efforts are ahead of schedule.

The Commodore men follow up this New England trip with a trip to Hawaii, where they will play three more games over the Thanksgiving break.

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