By: Jeffrey Newholm
“The sun never sets on the British Empire” it once was said of England’s colonial holdings from around the world. Until, that is, the shot heard ’round the world, when an unknown militiaman fired on advancing redshirt troops to start the Revolutionary War. In women’s basketball, there’s no doubt who hit the shot that will forever dull any favorite’s aura of invincibility. When Morgan Williams hit the overtime Final Four winner to snap UConn’s 111 (yes, one hundred eleven) game winning streak, Mississippi State proved that the bigger the dog, the harder she falls. This year, the Huskies and Bulldogs are the top two seeds and on a potential collision course in the final game in Columbus. But several other teams will have a say in who gets to cut down the nets. I’ll take a look at the four regions and detail the #1 seed, a sleeper, the best matchup, and my sweet 16 picks. (Disclaimer: please don’t make any bets off my predictions, they’re terrible).
Note: All probabilities based off FiveThirtyEight’s statistical analysis
Kansas City Regional
#1 Seed: Mississippi State
When Vic Schaefer took over as coach in 2012, he inherited a program that was but a doormat for the Vols’ sneakers. The team slowly built into a respectable contender until a breakthrough upset of Baylor in last season’s Elite Eight. After the unthinkable upset in the semis, surely basketball would never be the same in the state of Mississippi. The team rocketed to an undefeated regular season, drawing upwards of 10,000 fans to a raucous arena affectionately called “the hump”. However, the team seemed winded in a loss to South Carolina in the SEC final, taking a lot of the air out of the squad’s balloon.
Texas and Mississippi State definitely have the biggest name programs, but the Lady Bruins may be due for a breakthrough. The #1 recruiting class of 2015 has matured to build a program that’s, unthinkably, stronger than the men’s. The team will host its first two games in the friendly confines of Pauley Pavilion and have the second best odds to turn the tables on the Bulldogs in an Elite Eight matchup. Word of warning to excited fans: don’t get too cocky over an upset, as your team could be next!
Best matchup: #5 Maryland vs. #12 Princeton
Yes, Princeton only has a 18% chance to win this game. However, the Tigers have a bone to pick as the Terrapins ended their undefeated run in the round of 32 in 2015, despite Princeton being Obama’s Final Four favorite. But this time the game is in neutral Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Terrapins have been struggling of late after losing several long-time stars from previous seasons. With NC State not being the most imposing host, there’s even a small chance the Tigers could make a rare mid-major run to the Sweet 16.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Mississippi State: Syracuse has some tournament success, but the Bulldogs are too well coached to be tripped up this early
- NC State: merely good ACC also-ran escapes weaker pod
- UCLA: Bruins’ time is now, although Iowa’s star Junior Megan Gustafson deserves honorable mention
- Texas: I think the Longhorns are a greatly overlooked and sneakily strong power, and won’t have a problem against unproven underdogs
#1 Seed: Louisville
The second biggest upset in women’s NCAA history came in the 2013 Sweet 16, when the unheralded Louisville Cardinals shocked Brittney Griner’s Baylor Bears and eventually reached the final game. The Cardinals have proven to be tantalizingly close to a repeat the past four years, but lightning hasn’t quite struck again. After racing through the ACC at 32-2 and shockingly jolting to a 40 point lead in January against Notre Dame, the team justly earned its first top seed.
Stanford doesn’t sound like the usual sleeper, but the team has returned to earth after dominating the Pac-12 for a decade. However, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer coaches with the big dance in mind and has steered the Cardinal to eleven Final Four appearances. With Louisville sporting a spotty tourney track record, Stanford could be poised for an upset in unfriendly Lexington, if the young team can keep its composure.
Best matchup: #6 Oregon State vs. #11 Western Kentucky
The underdogs have pretty slim odds in this region, but the Lady Toppers have a fair shot against one of the best Pac-12 programs. Behind Tashia Brown’s 22 points a game, the Toppers blew through the Conference USA Tournament to become one of the refreshingly many mid-major teams who have a chance to win in this tournament. Also of note is Missouri’s showdown against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, definitely one of the scariest teams from weaker conferences.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Louisville: Cardinals have frustrated fans since triumph over Bears, but they won’t waste first opportunity to host as top seed
- Stanford: Missouri has picked up a rather testy reputation this season, but that won’t help Tigers play in Palo Alto
- Tennessee: Lady Vols have never lost a playoff game at home, and it won’t happen this year with the program on its way back up
- Baylor: Losing point guard Kristy Wallace to injury was shock to extremely strong team, but Bears recovered to win Big 12 tournament and are way too good to fall in very weak pod
#1 seed: Notre Dame
The biggest story in the women’s game before UConn’s streak stole every headline was the UConn-Notre Dame rivalry. The Lady Irish battled the Huskies five straight years in the Final Four and was the only team able to beat them consistently. However, the Irish haven’t won the title since 2001 and many would have accepted a down year this season after an avalanche of injuries. But Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw refused to waste a year and somehow pushed her seven healthy scholarship players to win the ACC for the fifth year in a row. With the Irish on the same side of the bracket as UConn, fans could see an appetizing rematch on Good Friday should both teams advance.
Sleeper: Ohio State
There’s really nothing sleepy about the Lady Buckeyes, who won the Big Ten Title and have the second best odds to beat Notre Dame. But the opportunity to host the Final Four should provide an enormous incentive for future #2 WNBA pick Kelsey Mitchell and company to fight the Irish tooth and nail in the regionals. Otherwise OSU could have the least enviable task in basketball: ungracious hosts for someone else’s party.
Best Matchup: #5 DePaul vs. #12 Oklahoma
The Lady Blue Demons celebrate every trip to the Sweet 16, and covet a breakthrough to the Elite 8 or beyond. But first they have to play the dreaded team that, according to experts, “definitely shouldn’t have made it”. The 16-14 Sooners have a rather bland resume, but records reset to 0-0 come March and the Sooners have a healthy 40% chance to win.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Notre Dame: The Lady Irish haven’t had the same amount of press the last three years, but they’re still a powerful program, and favorites to reach another Final Four
- DePaul: Texas A&M is a program past its peak, while Doug Bruno’s Demons are hungry to reach the game’s biggest stage for the first time
- Ohio State: It’s nice to see LSU recovering after some years of terrible play, but the Bucks are a solid team that managed not to become overhyped
- Oregon: Last year’s #10 seed, Elite Eight team proved again that the tournament means almost everything in college
#1 seed: UConn
When Gonzaga almost finished undefeated last year, the team had tee-shirts printed for the potential occasion. When UConn finished the regular season undefeated this year, the players didn’t even crack a smile in the handshake line. Despite Hall of Fame coach Geno Aureimma’s best efforts to schedule aggressively to balance out a weak conference schedule, the diversified Huskies plowed through the season anyways with only two nail-biters. Anything short of an 11th straight Final Four would be a disappointment, although South Carolina could await as a challenge in Albany.
Sleeper: South Florida
Coach Jose Fernandez recruits girls from around the globe to compete for the Bulls, who aim for a first ever berth in the Sweet 16. Despite finishing 26-7, 19th in the polls, and second in the American, USF could only earn a #6 seed. So what’s a team to do with a perceived slight? Use it as motivation of course.
Best Matchup: Miami-Quinnipiac
Usually the high versus mid-major matchup is billed as Cinderella versus the evil stepmom. But in this case it’s the intriguing 8-9 showdown of the region. Tricia Fabbri’s Bobcats stunned the Hurricanes in the round of 32 last year and will take a short bus trips to take on the ‘Canes in Storrs Saturday. Miami is at a definite disadvantage having to potentially play its first two opponents in their home state.
Sweet 16 Picks:
- UConn: It’s hard to imagine the Huskies losing in Connecticut, where the team hasn’t fallen since 2013
- Georgia: Bulldogs just edge Dukies at home
- South Florida: Regional game against Gamecocks probably team’s ceiling, but this is next step in program’s incremental improvement
- South Carolina: Team takes anger at tough draw out on overmatched teams in raucous Columbia
Upsets for top seeds are very rare in the first weekend in women’s play, so usually this this is the time for top teams to tune up before action heats up in the regionals. But there are enough strong mid-majors to throw some lug nuts into the favorites’ perpetual motion machine, and the hosting system will ensure 16 amped-up home crowds. However it turns out, the 2018 NCAA women’s first weekend promises to be a perfect compliment to the madness in men’s hoops.