The women’s NCAA Tournament field is set and now the fun begins with 68 teams vying for the national championship and cutting down the nets in Dallas.
There’s a new format to March Madness, with two regionals in Seattle and Greenville, South Carolina, instead of the usual four. Here’s a look at what could happen over the next few weeks. This guidance will be 100% accurate — until the first round tips off on Friday.
Chalk rules: A No. 1 seed has won the national championship the past 10 tournaments and 14 of 15. The only time that didn’t happen was in 2011 when coach Gary Blair led Texas A&M to the title as a No. 2 seed. Since 2005, at least two of the No. 1s have made the Final Four every year except for 2016. This year’s overwhelming betting favorite is top-ranked and defending national champion South Carolina, the only undefeated team in the tourney.
Lack of major upsets: There is a feeling that parity continues to find its way into women’s basketball with 19 losses by top 10 teams in the AP Top 25 poll to unranked schools. Still, it’s hard to pick against the top teams in the tournament as no 14 or 15 seed has ever won a game (the women’s tournament was the first to see a 16 seed upset a top seed when Harvard beat Stanford 71-67 in 1998). Two came close last season with Jackson State falling late to LSU and UT Arlington hanging tough with Iowa State.
Beware the 12: No. 12 seeds have had success, just like in the men’s bracket the last few seasons, beating some of the 5s. At least one 12 has made it out of the first round in four of the last five tournaments, including two last season.
And now the picks:
GREENVILLE REGION 1
Analysis: South Carolina won’t have to leave the state to reach the Final Four if it wins, playing its first two games at home and then traveling 90 minutes to Greenville for the regional. The Gamecocks (32-0) have been tested this season and still found a way to win every game. Dawn Staley’s squad is looking to be the 10th team to finish a season unbeaten by winning a national championship. Second-seeded Maryland and No. 4 UCLA both played South Carolina during the season, giving them familiarity if there’s a rematch.
Players to watch: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Cherita Daugherty, Southern Utah; Diamond Miller, Maryland; Charisma Osborne, UCLA.
Bracket Buster: Sixth-seed Creighton is the team most likely to spoil brackets. Last season as a 10-seed the team made the regional final before falling to South Carolina. Host Notre Dame is missing star Olivia Miles and the third-seeded Irish could fall to the Bluejays.
First-round picks: South Carolina, South Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA, Creighton, Notre Dame, Arizona, Maryland.
Second-round picks: South Carolina, UCLA, Creighton, Maryland.
Regional semifinal picks: South Carolina, Maryland.
Regional champion pick: South Carolina.
GREENVILLE REGION 2
Analysis: Indiana has been the second-best team most of the season behind South Carolina and earned the first No. 1 seed in school history. Led by Mackenzie Holmes in the middle and a dominant defense, the Hoosiers will be looking to reach their first Final Four. There’s a lot of star power in the region including Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, LSU’s Angel Reese and Utah’s Alissa Pili.
Other players to watch: Leigha Brown, Michigan; Kaitlyn Chen, Princeton; Charlisse Leger-Walker, Washington State.
Bracket Buster: UNLV is one of three 30-win teams in the country, yet the Lady Rebels haven’t faced many teams as good as Michigan this year. Florida Gulf Coast knocked off Virginia Tech as a 12 seed last season and could do it again this time if they beat Washington State.
First-round picks: Indiana, Oklahoma State, Florida Gulf Coast, Villanova, Michigan, LSU, Princeton, Utah.
Second-round picks: Indiana, Villanova, Michigan, Utah.
Regional semifinal picks: Indiana, Utah.
Regional champion pick: Indiana.
SEATTLE REGION 3
Analysis: No one had a worse string of injuries than UConn this season and yet Geno Auriemma has the Huskies playing their best basketball heading into the tournament. They’ve made every Final Four since 2008 and there’s no reason to think that streak can’t continue if star guard Azzi Fudd keeps getting healthier. Virginia Tech is the one seed and has had a stellar year behind Elizabeth Kitley.
Other players to watch: Ashley Joens, Iowa State; Myah Selland, South Dakota State; Jacy Sheldon, Ohio State.
Bracket Buster: No. 9 seed South Dakota State ran through the Summit League and also beat Louisville and Kansas State this season. The Jackrabbits have enough talent to put a scare into the Hokies in the second round. No. 12 seed Toledo beat Michigan earlier this season and has won its last 16 games. Iowa State could be victim No. 17.
First-round picks: Virginia Tech, South Dakota State, Iowa State, Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio State, Baylor, UConn.
Second-round picks: Virginia Tech, Iowa State, North Carolina, UConn.
Regional semifinal picks: Virginia Tech, UConn..
Regional champion pick: UConn.
SEATTLE REGION 4
Analysis: Stanford is in its usual spot as a No. 1 seed but has looked vulnerable this season, struggling on offense at times. The second-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes have had no problem scoring and are one of the hottest teams after winning the Big Ten Tournament behind star Caitlin Clark. No. 4 Texas was picked in the preseason top five before struggling with injuries and fitting transfers in. Vic Schaefer has had a lot of success in March and this could be another one of his great coaching jobs.
Other players to watch: Cameron Brink, Stanford; Rori Harmon, Texas; Ta’Niya Latson, Florida State; Hailey Van Lith, Louisville.
Bracket Buster: No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee has won 10 straight games and had an early season victory over Louisville so Colorado should beware. Drake has been playing well lately, sweeping its way to a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title. Louisville has been playing better lately, but needs to be sharp against the 12th-seeded Bulldogs.
First-round picks: Stanford, Gonzaga, Louisville, Texas, Middle Tennessee, Duke, Florida State, Iowa.
Second-round picks: Stanford, Texas, Duke, Iowa.
Regional final picks: Stanford, Iowa.
Regional champion pick: Stanford.
THE FINAL FOUR
Analysis: There should be some familiarity in the Final Four, which will likely see three teams from last season’s national semifinals returning. South Carolina will likely face Stanford in a rematch of a November game that the Gamecocks won in overtime, while UConn will likely face Indiana.
Pick: South Carolina and UConn will meet again and the Gamecocks will win back-to-back titles.
Analysis: The teams played in February and the Huskies gave the Gamecocks one of their stiffest tests of the season. UConn didn’t have Fudd for that game (knee injury). Fudd is back, but she won’t be enough for the Huskies to stop the Gamecocks from becoming only the fourth different school to win consecutive titles (USC, UConn and Tennessee).