March Madness: 5 dark horses that will be Cinderella stories in the NCAAW Tournament

FGCUÕs Tishara Morehouse reacts after scoring against Old Dominion University during a game at Alico Arena on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. FGCU won 81-62.Tkv0398
FGCUÕs Tishara Morehouse reacts after scoring against Old Dominion University during a game at Alico Arena on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. FGCU won 81-62.Tkv0398 /

Every low seed wants to become the next March Madness Cinderella. These teams actually have a chance of pulling it off in the NCAAW Tournament.

After a rollercoaster Conference Championship Week, the final bracket for the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball has been revealed. It was a particularly bumpy ride for the mid-major conferences, where top seeds captured less than half of the 26 available championships and their associated auto-bids to March Madness.

No. 2 and No. 3 seeds grabbed seven championships apiece, while No. 7 seeded Monmouth in the CAA was the lowest-ranked team to win a bid to the NCAA Tournament, overwhelming No. 1 Towson by a final score of 80–55. But now that the bracket has been revealed, who’s got the best chance at making a run to the Sweet 16 and beyond?

Here are five mid-major dark horses poised to make their March Madness Cinderella dreams a reality:

5. FGCU Eagles (ASUN) — Seed: No. 12, Region: Greenville 2; Area: Villanova

Despite losing last season’s top-scorer Kierstan Bell, the 30–3 Eagles have once again dominated the ASUN conference. Their success is due in large part to double-digit scoring from off-ball guards Sha Carter, a grad transfer and three-time DII All-American, and red-shirt junior Alyza Winston. ASUN Player of the Year point guard Tishara Morehouse leads FGCU in scoring and assists and brings tournament experience from last year’s dramatic win over Virginia Tech.

Since mid-January, FGCU has been undefeated and won the ASUN title with a convincing 24-point victory over Liberty. Even missing starter Sophia Stiles to injury, the Eagles’ bench proved its depth, with shooting guard Emma List and forward Maddie Antenucci scoring season-highs in the ASUN title game. They enter the NCAA Tournament for the second-consecutive year, drawing the No. 5 Washington St. Cougers in the first round.

While the Pac-12 Cougars are certainly battle-tested, having upset UCLA for the conference title, the Eagles’ efficient offense, which includes a top-10 3-point percentage nationally, should draw your eye to this corner of the bracket. If they advance, FGCU could contend with No. 4 Villanova and Maddy Siegrist, who averages 28.9 points per game. However, FGCU’s scoring power and perimeter defense, which limits opponents to 28.8 percent from 3, should at least give Villanova a scare.

4. Gonzaga Bulldogs (WCC) — No. 9, Seattle 4; Palo Alto

Even as they dropped a nail-biter WCC final to No. 12 Portland, the Bulldogs are in position to make waves in March Madness. Gonzaga, who leads the country in 3-point percentage at 41.5 percent, are led by a pair of offensive machines — forward Yvonne Ejim, one of the country’s best interior defenders and top-100 rebounder, and WCC Player of the Year, point guard Kaylynne Truong, who averages just under three made 3-pointers per game and ranks in the top-50 nationally in assists per game. Both Ejim and Truong average just over 16 points per game, while off-ball guard Brynna Maxwell, a grad transfer out of Utah, spreads the floor, shooting a 49.4 percent clip from 3 on 5.5 attempts per game.

Earning just one of two at-large bids for a mid-major team, Gonzaga will face the No. 8 Mississippi Rebels in the first round. At a neutral site, Her Hoop Stats projects a virtual coin toss between the two teams, with the Bulldogs earning a slight edge. Mississippi is an accomplished team in its own right, but their struggles with distance shooting (they sit at 29.4 percent from 3 on the season) could be a chance for Gonzaga to take over.

Advancing past Mississippi, Gonzaga’s next opponent would likely be No. 1, Stanford. While an upset would take a herculean effort, Pac-12 teams have proved throughout the season that it isn’t an impossible task. Particularly if they follow in the steps of UCLA’s Pac-12 Tournament upset — quieting off-ball guard Hannah Jump and forcing either Cameron Brink or Haley Jones into foul trouble early — the Bulldogs shouldn’t count themselves out.

3. South Dakota St. Jackrabbits (Summit) — No. 9, Seattle 3; Blacksburg

The 2022 WNIT champs have arrived — after dominating last year’s invitational tournament, the Jackrabbits made their presence in the Summit League known, going 18–0 in conference play and grabbing non-conference wins at Louisville, Mississippi St., and Kansas St. They’re led by Summit League Player of the Year forward Myah Selland, but it’s a roster that’s as deep as you can find in the mid-majors. From sharp-shooting guard Paige Meyer, to the dominant post presence of Kallie Theisen, there’s a reason seven members of the team earned All-Summit League honors.

The Jackrabbits rank in the top-35 for rebounds per game and are 13th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. While they don’t shoot the ball all that well, they’re extremely careful with it, and limit their opponents to just 34.8 percent shooting. They’ll take on the No. 8 USC Trojans in the first round, a team that’s somehow significantly worse at shooting the ball from the field, but has one of the best defenses in the country. If South Dakota St. leans on their top-35 3-point percentage and picks their shots wisely, they could walk out of the first round with a win.

Things get dicier in the second round when they’d likely face No. 1 Virginia Tech, perhaps one of the hottest teams in the country. With a top-30 scoring defense and a high-efficiency offense, there are few things the Hokies can’t do, including winning their first ACC championship. But the Jackrabbits at their very, very best could have the momentum and the offensive pieces to make Virginia Tech’s road to the Sweet 16 a bit rockier.

2. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (C-USA) — No. 11, Seattle 4; Durham

After beating Louisville early in the season, the Blue Raiders have been on a tear, dropping just two games in conference. They’re led by forward Kseniya Malashka and point guard Savannah Wheeler, who both get to around 15 points per game. Forward Courtney Whitson is the team’s leading rebounder, with 7.9 per game, and has kept the team afloat with multiple 15+ point performances. Middle Tennessee combine a top-25 scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 56.1 points per game, with a high-efficiency offense — from 2-point range, the Blue Raiders shot 52.0 percent, good enough for top-20 in the country.

They’ll take on the No. 6 Colorado Buffaloes in the first round, who emerged from the Pac-12 with a top-50 scoring defense. While nothing else stands out in particular, the Buffaloes have been decent in transition and are top-30 in steals per game. By being well-matched with Colorado, the Blue Raiders have a decent shot at securing the upset. Her Hoop Stats puts the likelihood of a Middle Tennessee victory, on a neutral court, at a stunning 64.1 percent.

No. 3 Duke would be their most likely opponent in the second round. The Blue Devils have the second-best scoring defense in the country, and coming out of the powerhouse ACC makes it all the more impressive. Though, if Middle Tennessee can execute their offense, which is a decently-sized “if”, they could have a shot at overwhelming Duke on the offensive end.

1. Princeton Tigers (Ivy) — No. 10, Greenville 2; Salt Lake City

After dropping two early conference losses, the Tigers roared back to a 15-game win streak, which included a come-from-behind win over Harvard in the Ivy title game. Led by Ivy Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen, the Tigers are one of the slowest teams in the country by possessions per game. Most of that is by design — they limit their opponents to just 52.8 points per game, force an average of 18.5 turnovers per game, and have the fourth-best scoring defense of teams in the tournament. Forward Ellie Mitchell, who is top-15 in rebounds and top-40 in steals per game nationally, is a significant portion of that defense.

With just two players averaging double-figure scoring, that defense will come in handy when they take on No. 7 NC State in the first round. Taking on the Wolfpack, who average 71.1 points per game, will be no simple task, but the Tigers return largely the same roster that took last year’s Indiana squad to the wire in the second round. With tournament experience up and down the Tigers’ roster, and NC State leading scorer Diamond Johnson’s injury status remaining unclear, Princeton could very well come away with an upset.

Next up would likely be the No. 2 Utah Utes, whose fast-paced, high-volume offense should be familiar to the Tigers from one of their closest Ivy League competitors, Columbia. If the Tigers stick to their defensive foundations and get key contributions from off-ball guards Madison St. Rose and Grace Stone, they could put up another well-rounded fight for a spot in the Sweet 16.

All stats from Her Hoops Stats unless otherwise noted.

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