The University of Connecticut women's basketball program has been here before in the fall of 2004.
Six months earlier, Diana Taurasi kicked the ball high into the New Orleans Arena stands as the Huskies celebrated a third straight national championship. But when the 2004-05 campaign began, there was no Taurasi, no Maria Conlon and very little thought of making it four in a row.
"We weren't thinking that back then," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "Back then it wasn't as pronounced as it is now. It's a different cast of characters. The lead actor in the play had moved off-Broadway. It's like watching The Producers without Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Even though we were trying to do the same thing in 2005 we are now, it's not the same feeling. If Diana could've stayed another year or was a year younger … But it was a different time."
Auriemma's current Huskies begin what they hope is a run to an unprecedented fourth consecutive NCAA title when they visit No. 6 Ohio State on Monday.
It was a different time in 1998-99, too, but in many ways the Tennessee Lady Vols of that season were similar to the Huskies of now. Tennessee had rolled to a third straight national championship in 1998 by going 39-0, returned its core players, and led by Player of the Year Chamique Holdsclaw was the prohibitive favorite to win it all again.
"We expected to win," said Missouri State coach Kellie (Jolly) Harper, then the Lady Vols' senior point guard. "I don't know if we ever thought about it or looked at it like we can win four in a row. Our goal was to win a national championship."
Much of the attention that is coming with UConn's bid coincides with Player of the Year Breanna Stewart's stated desire as a freshman to win four national championships while in college.
But doesn't every player that goes to an elite program believe that? Harper did when she joined coach Pat Summitt's program.
"When Chamique and I signed during our senior year of high school, we said, 'We're going to win four national championships at Tennessee,' " Harper said. "Looking back, we had to be crazy to say that. But coming into each season, our goal as a team was to win the national championship.
"When you're in high school you can say that but you really don't know what it means or what goes into all of it. Looking back, I totally appreciate that we left with three. It's easy to talk about but really hard to do. Everything has to go right for you. You have to continue to get better every day and be playing your best ball in March. You have to have your best players step up. You have to hope you stay healthy. And as much as you make things go your way and you make your own breaks, you have to be a little lucky."
Tennessee took a 46-game winning streak into its second game of the 1998-99 season at Purdue. But it was the Boilermakers with Stephanie White that got the 10-point win.
It set a tone for the Lady Vols' season.
"It was shock, disappointment," Harper said. "It was November. But even then, we acted like we play for the national championship and that we win the national championship. After we lost, we won 24 straight but it didn't seem like anything came easy. It was like we were struggling and we were trying to find ways to get out of it."
Tennessee swept the SEC regular season and tournament titles and took a 31-2 record into the NCAA East Regional final against Duke in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The Lady Vols had beaten the Blue Devils by 14 in the regular season. But they fell into an 11-point second-half hole and their rally fell short. Holdsclaw was 2-for-18 from the floor and both she and Harper fouled out in the final minute of the 69-63 loss.
"I remember I fell down when I fouled out and I was still in the lane," Harper said. "I didn't know if I could get up and walk to the bench it hurt so bad. I'll never forget it.
"After the game I walked into a room and saw Pat. I don't know if she saw me, but she was crying and it's the only time I've seen her cry. It wasn't for herself, it was the team and the seniors that she felt so bad for."
What went wrong?
"It's not like we didn't work hard or didn't have the energy to win it or go to the Final Four," Harper said. "I went into coaching soon after, but I don't think that at the time I could understand it. The sense of urgency we needed, the sense we needed to keep getting better day by day, I don't know if we had that. For us, we thought we were going to play for the national championship and it was like we would just get there and we didn't take care of all the things that we needed to get to that point."
While the 2004-05 Huskies returned three starters, they didn't have the talent to win it all. Freshmen had to play key roles. The players that complemented Taurasi so well for two years weren't good enough to take center stage.
Still they went 25-8, won the Big East Tournament title, and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 in Kansas City. They led No. 1 Stanford by six at halftime but couldn't hold on and lost 76-59.
"It was a disastrous year, and I don't mean that sarcastically," Auriemma said. "It was the kind of year you look back and think, 'If this is how it's going to be coaching at Connecticut, I don't want to be here much longer.' After coaching icons, we have a normal team. It made us feel like, 'Wow. How lucky have we been?' This is normal. What we were doing, wasn't normal."
UConn wouldn't get back to the Final Four until 2008. But the Huskies have a record run of eight consecutive trips since.
There are 18 players, including Harper and UConn seniors Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck, who have three national championship rings. No one has four.
Harper tried, and she was asked what advice she'd give the UConn trio.
"You have to believe in the process and the vision that you have to take you there," she said. "Enjoy the process in November and December and beyond that takes you into March and the tournament. You have to take care of the little things. Just because you have the best players doesn't mean that you'll have the best team. A lot goes into it. It sounds simple, but it's not. It's a great challenge and you have to be ready for it."