We’re breaking down everything you need to know for the NCAA Women’s Tournament, including, favorites, Cinderellas, sleepers and more.
The NCAA has revealed the bracket for the women’s basketball tournament, with South Carolina, Stanford, NC State and Louisville earning the top seeds.
This year’s field feels as wide open as it’s ever been and a wild two weeks of conference tournaments has prepared us for anything. For example, who predicted Kentucky would go on a run and win the SEC Tournament?
Now that we have the bracket, let’s take a look at some of the key things that fans should know about this year’s tournament and, of course, make a few predictions.
Easiest and toughest paths to the NCAA Women’s Final Four
Let’s see which of the favorites have the easiest/toughest paths to the Final Four.
For me, the easiest path belongs to South Carolina. Their two-seed is Iowa, a team that is really fun to watch offensively but that would also really struggle to contain Aliyah Boston. Monika Czinano is a really good center, but she just hasn’t really had to deal with a player of Boston’s caliber. The No. 3 seed is Iowa State, which has struggled against teams like Baylor and Texas that have some size. The No. 4 is an Arizona team that lost three of its last four games. The Gamecocks should walk to the Final Four.
On the other side, I think Stanford has a tough one. Texas is the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Region and already beat Stanford once this season, using their stifling defense to slow down the Cardinal. And to get to that rematch, you likely have to get past Maryland, which might be my favorite of the four-seeds. The team lost two of three to end the year but ran off an eight-game win streak before that which featured wins over Iowa and Ohio State. The Terrapins only lost by seven to South Carolina and while Maryland does have an 18-point loss to Stanford on its resume, it also has a non-conference win over Baylor. Oh, and LSU is the No. 3 seed. Hard to bet against Kim Mulkey in March, right?
Potential first-round upsets in the NCAA Women’s Tournament
Let’s take a look at a few games where the lower seed feels like it can pull off the win. And just to avoid having to write about all four of the 8/9 matchups, I’m only looking at teams seeded 10th or worse. Let’s break this down by region.
There are two games here that really catch my eye. First is the No. 5 and No. 12 with North Carolina and SFA. These teams match up really, really well. Per Her Hoop Stats, the teams have virtually the same national ranking in points per game, opponent points per game, opponent points per 100 possessions, margin per 100 possessions and pace. Both teams play quickly. They play small. SFA is just slightly better from 3, which I could see making the difference here.
Arizona/UNLV in the No. 4 and No. 13 is another. The Wildcats have struggled lately. UNLV is 17th in points per 100 possessions. There’s not really a marquee win on the team’s schedule this year, but there was a 12-game win streak at one point.
This region feels pretty chalky. South Dakota has some really talented players and I’m looking forward to the Hannah Sjerven vs. Shakira Austin matchup in that No. 7 and No. 10 game against Ole Miss, but I lean Ole Miss.
A lot of interesting ones here, to the point where breaking them all down would take a while. I see four potential upsets: Florida Gulf Coast over Virginia Tech in the No. 5 – No. 12, Delaware over Maryland in the No. 4 – No. 13, Jackson State over LSU in the No. 3 – No. 14 and Arkansas over Utah in the No. 7 – No. 10. LSU and Maryland will more than likely not lose, but I think the teams they’re playing are better than their seed lines.
The one to really watch here is Arkansas and Utah. The Razorbacks really fell off offensively this year, but a Mike Neighbors-coached team can explode any night. And Utah ranked in just the 27th percentile in scoring defense.
Some more upsets could be brewing here. UMass over Notre Dame in the No. 5 and No. 12. Princeton over Kentucky in the No. 6 and No. 11. Florida over UCF in the No. 7 and No. 10. For that Kentucky game, there’s the obvious concern that the team went from a bubble team to a six-seed because of its SEC Tournament run. Add in that Princeton had the second-best defensive rating in the country this year and this one becomes really intriguing.
It’s a little harder to define a Cinderella in the women’s field than the men’s field, just because the top of the bracket has always been stronger in comparison to the bottom than it has been on the men’s side, making it less common for double-digit seeds to make runs. No double-digit seed made the Sweet 16 in 2021, while four double-digit seeds made the Sweet 16 on the men’s side.
So for the purposes of this, let’s think of Cinderellas as teams ranked fifth or lower.
The first team that comes to mind here is Oregon. When the Ducks are good, the Ducks are good. Injuries slowed the team down this season, but this team beat UConn and Arizona. It beat Utah twice. It has some really strong players with Te-Hina Paopao, Nyara Sabally and Sedona Prince and it plays in a region where it gets a Tennessee team that I don’t have a ton of confidence in as the No. 4 seed.
There’s also Kentucky. Yes, I posted above that Kentucky is on upset watch, but this team also beat South Carolina last week and has one of the best players in the country in Rhyne Howard. If the Wildcats didn’t use up everything they had in the SEC Tournament and can avoid an upset against Princeton, there’s a decent run possible, especially if UConn isn’t firing on all cylinders.
And keep an eye on Ohio State. The No. 6 seed in the Spokane Region has wins over Maryland and Iowa this season and while the team struggled against Michigan and Indiana, it does have two wins that are better by Her Hoop Stats Rating than No. 3 seed LSU’s best win.
Top players to watch
There are five big names to watch in this tournament and women’s college basketball fans should be excited that three of the five will be back next season. Those five, in alphabetical order, because I’m not trying to get in any Twitter fights here, are South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith.
First, let’s address the inclusion of Bueckers on this list. Last season’s National Player of the Year, Bueckers missed most of this season with a knee injury. She played in 11 games, but appeared in just five since returning from the injury, never playing more than 18 minutes and scoring in double figures once. A healthy Bueckers is an offensive force, but is she ready to ramp up to a full workload?
As for the other four, here are some quick notes on them:
Aliyah Boston: If you sat me down and made me pick who I think the best player in the country is, I’d have to say Boston. She’s just a force inside. Per CBB Analytics, Boston shot 70 percent at the rim this year. She ranked in the 98th percentile at her position in Hakeem Percentage, a metric that combines steal rate and block rate.
Caitlin Clark: Last year, Clark played second fiddle to Bueckers among the national media in the race to see who the best freshman in the country was. This year, Clark got her due. She led the nation in points per game for the second year in a row. She led the nation in assists per game. She also added 8.1 rebounds per contest as well. Clark does everything for Iowa offensively. She’s the best guard in the country right now.
Rhyne Howard: There’s been a lot of chatter about Rhyne Howard and how her numbers never really improved over her time at Kentucky, but part of that is just because she was incredibly good the moment she stepped foot on campus. She averaged 20.6 points per game this season and led Kentucky on a run in the conference tournament. When Howard is on, she’s on, to the point that I don’t know how you slow her down.
NaLyssa Smith: Baylor changed coaches this offseason and then after some players transferred out, the team was left with virtually no depth. So what did Smith do with the extra playing time she got? Oh, just finished seventh in the country in scoring and 11th in rebounding while also blocking 1.2 shots per game. She also worked on expanding her range some, which is good for her pro evaluation. Smith plays with a ton of energy and runs the floor well. She’s a huge mismatch for most teams to deal with.
WNBA Draft prospects whose stock could change
Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith are essentially locked in as the first two picks. Howard fits what Washington, who picks first, needs. Smith fits what Indiana needs. If we’re talking about how this tournament changes what teams think about players, we don’t need to talk about Howard and Smith.
The player I do think we should talk about: Iowa State’s Ashley Joens, who might have more volatility than anyone else when it comes to where she’s at in various mock drafts. I’ve seen her as high as No. 4. I’ve seen mocks where she isn’t in the first round at all. Joens is a big wing who scores well and shoots well. She can play multiple positions. If she can string a couple of strong games together in the tournament, she’ll inch up draft boards.
NC State’s Elisa Cunane has a lot at stake. Heading into this season, she was a potential lottery pick, but her offensive growth just kind of stalled out. But if NC State goes on a run and Cunane plays a big part of that, she can go from a fringe first-rounder up to being someone who is in play in the middle of the first.
Final Four and National Championship picks
I’ll have an expanded piece coming tomorrow about these Final Four picks, but for now, let’s quickly run through my picks.
The Greensboro Region is the easy one, as South Carolina matches up well with every team.
In the Wichita Region, I’m going with No. 2 seed Baylor. Louisville is a really good team, but NaLyssa Smith will be the best player on the floor when the teams meet up. Foul trouble could change this as Baylor runs just seven deep, but the team can score inside and outside. This tournament is also going to be the time that the country learns how good Sarah Andrews is.
In the Spokane Region, I’ve got to go with defending champion Stanford. Yes, I wrote above about how tough this team’s path to the Final Four is. And yes, the Texas defense has shown it can slow down the Cardinal. But Stanford has won 21 games in a row. The three losses were by a combined 12 points.
In the Bridgeport Region, I’m tentatively going with UConn, just because we have to assume that by the Sweet 16, Geno Auriemma is going to be able to give Bueckers big minutes. It’s a relatively good draw for UConn too. Indiana is the No. 3 seed and doesn’t inspire confidence. NC State is really, really good, but UConn has won 10 games in a row, each by at least 14 points. Sure, the strength of schedule is weaker than NC State, but with Azzi Fudd coming on as a shooter and Christyn Williams playing solid, I think UConn can make a run.