Caitlin Clark, Paige Buckeyes and the NCAA failing. These are the top 10 takeaways of the Women’s basketball tournament and March Madness.
The first two rounds of the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament are in the books. After a first day that saw zero seed upsets, the rest of the first two rounds saw things get wackier. While the Sweet 16 in the Mercado region features all of the top four seeds, each other region had at least two teams outside of the top four seeds make it to the Sweet 16. Parity is alive and well in women’s basketball.
10 key takeaways from the opening 2 rounds of the Women’s NCAA Tournament
Star players can still lose in the first round
March is supposed to be about stars, but some of the biggest stars in college basketball were unable to get their teams out of the first round as they suffered upset losses. Rutgers, ranked 15th in Her Hoop Stats’ rating system, should have rolled past BYU, but even 30 points from projected first-round pick Arella Guirantes couldn’t keep the Scarlet Knights from being upset. Meanwhile, Arkansas and their fifth-ranked scoring offense took on Wright State but were held to 62 points. It was Arkansas’ 256th-ranked defensive rating that ended up mattering more, as the Razorbacks fell by four to the Raiders, despite star Chelsea Dungee going for 27 points.
*Sigh* we have to talk about the officiating
I try not to focus too much on bad calls, but it’s hard to ignore some of the questionable ones made in the Texas A&M/Troy game. A 15-seed has never won a game in the women’s tournament, but the Trojans looked poised to do it on Monday. But a potential three-point play by Tyasia Moore was ruled a charge in the final minute, preventing the Trojans from taking a one-point lead. Then, an even-more questionable call on what many thought was a missed over-and-back call that should have gone against A&M’s Destiny Pitts prevented the Trojans from getting a final possession. While you can’t say with 100 percent certainty that the calls were wrong, it’s never great to have the officiating become such a big part of the narrative.
There’s a lot of debate online about who the best Freshman in the country is. I’m not going to get into that debate right now, but let’s just say that no player defined the first two rounds of this tournament like Caitlin Clark, who outscored Kentucky through the first half of Iowa’s second-round contest. Clark finished that game with 35 points, as well as seven rebounds and six assists. And we’re going to get Clark going up against the other star Freshman in the country in the Sweet 16!
Speaking Of Paige Bueckers…
UConn is heading to the Sweet 16 and while the inside play of Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards was a huge part of that, the biggest story from the Huskies is how Freshman Paige Bueckers has shone on the national stage. She had a team-high 24 points in a 102-59 win over High Point in the first round, then followed that up by scoring 20 points in an 83-47 win over Syracuse. UConn is rolling in the early stages of this tournament.
While we’re on big wins: Baylor
The Lady Bears entered this year’s tournament as a two-seed. The 2019 champions out of Waco have been one of the nation’s best defensive teams all year, but a couple of losses kept them from grabbing a No. 1 seed. But in the first two rounds, Baylor just rolled. 101-52 over Jackson State in the first round, then a 90-48 win over Virginia Tech in the second round. In that second win, Baylor was without star NaLyssa Smith for much of the first half because of foul trouble, but the team still rolled because they have so many weapons. Best known for their inside game this year guards Moon Ursin and Dijonai Carrington combined for 42 points, which was just six fewer than the Hokies scored as a team.
Natasha Mack had a nice run
While Oklahoma State’s season is over, their star big, Natasha Mack, was one of the stars of the opening rounds. Mack, regarded as one of the top bigs in the upcoming WNBA Draft if she leaves Stillwater, was dominant in the first-round win over Wake Forest, scoring 27 points and pulling down 15 boards while blocking four shots. She struggled more against No. 1 seed Stanford in a second-round defeat, but that first game showcased why Mack is regarded as one of the nation’s best bigs.
Ashley Joens will have Iowa State poised for a deep run next year
For much of Wednesday’s game against Texas A&M, Iowa State looked like they were heading for an upset spot in the Sweet 16, and the biggest part of that was their star junior, Ashley Joens. In the first round against 10-seed Michigan State, Joens scored 33 points, the most of any player in the first round. Against A&M, Joens scored 32 points while also pulling down 18 rebounds.
The biggest issue for the Cyclones is that they don’t really have a defensive mode that can help them eke out close games. But they have one of the best offensive attacks in the country, and the fact that this team relied on multiple Freshman players this year should mean that their ceiling is even higher next season as those players get more comfortable with the college game.
Jordan Nixon’s buzzer-beater
Remember earlier when I said we needed to talk about the officiating in A&M’s first round win? We probably could talk about officiating in their second round game as well, but I’d rather just focus on Texas A&M’s Jordan Nixon, the star of the game.
Here’s Nixon going coast-to-coast for the game-winning overtime layup. After hitting the shot to tie the game in the final seconds of the fourth quarter just to get the Aggies to the overtime period, Nixon came up big again. The Notre Dame transfer finished with 35 points as well as seven assists, asserting herself as A&M’s go-to player.
That was something the Aggies needed in this tournament, and Nixon’s regular-season performances had suggested that she could be that player, so much so that I tweeted this after the team’s win over South Carolina:
Oregon’s still really good
The Ducks lost three key players to the WNBA after last season, with Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally, and Ruthy Hebard all being first-round picks, plus Minyon Moore graduating. You’d be forgiven then for expecting this team to take a huge step back like the 2019-20 Notre Dame team did after they lost most of their key players to the pros. You’d be wrong because here the Ducks are: the Sweet 16.
While Oregon saw their offensive rating drop from 123.5 last year to 105.5 this season, that still ranked in the 95th percentile. They saw their win percentage drop from 93.9 percent down to 65.2 percent and entering the tournament had lost five of their last six games, but none of that mattered, as the six-seed Ducks are still alive, led by 22 points in the second round from Sedona Prince.
Prince, who went viral last week for calling out the NCAA’s inequality issues in regards to training facilities in the tournament bubble, had played 30-plus minutes just once all season before this game and had recorded just one 20-point game. With Freshman guard Te-Hina Paopao out for the first two games with a foot injury, someone needed to step up. Prince did.
This hasn’t been a great tournament for 3-seeds or the SEC
Of the four No. 3 seeds in this year’s tournament, only Arizona is still alive, and it took a strong second-half effort against BYU just to keep the Wildcats alive.
Meanwhile, Tennessee lost by 15 to Michigan, continuing a strong tournament for Big 10 schools, who’ve all looked a lot better on defense than we expected. UCLA, dealing with foul trouble to star Michaela Onyenwere, fell to Texas even though Texas only got five points from presumptive No. 1 pick Charli Collier. And Georgia fell by seven to the aforementioned Oregon squad, making them one of four SEC schools to fall in the second round. The SEC has been regarded as the best conference in the country, but SEC teams just couldn’t muster up the scoring they needed to advance to the Sweet 16.
So, what should we make of all the losses by three seeds? Not too much. The top eight teams in this tournament are all championship contenders, but it seemed like there was a chasm between those teams and everyone else. So far, that seems to be true.
As for the SEC, maybe we’ve hyped the conference up a little too much? With Texas A&M just barely winning their first two games, the only SEC team that’s really been impressive has been South Carolina. This could have just been a fluke, but the Big 10 having double the Sweet 16 teams as the SEC is definitely a shock considering the narratives surrounding the two conferences.