By: Jeffrey Newholm
Last weekend the men’s tournament was set abuzz with a 16 seed beating a 1. While not quite as dramatic, the first weekend of the women’s tournament also had some results that made fans squint twice at scoreboards. Two Mid-American Conference teams made the Sweet 16 and the Lady Vols lost a tournament game at home for the first time. But the top eight seeds are all still standing, with a strong possibility of an appetizing UConn-Mississippi State rematch in the final on Easter Sunday. I’ll take a look at the eight matchups this weekend and pick champions from each region.
Note: all probabilities based on FiveThirtyEight’s statistical analysis
Kansas City Regional
#1 Mississippi State vs. #4 NC State
After UMBC’s big win Friday night, some optimistic fans thought a 1 seed could fall in the women’s tournament. The Mississippi State Bulldogs wouldn’t have any of that unlikely tomfoolery, bludgeoning Nicholls State 95-50. After easing by overmatched Oklahoma State, the dogs have a 60% chance to get to Columbus, with the other regional teams unproven. The Wolfpack are in their first Sweet 16 since 2007 and with a 22-23 tournament record have little experience in the later rounds. The team also had a easy path to make it this far, having to defeat just Elon and a Maryland team in a very down year. But it should be noted that seven of the team’s eight losses were quite close. Also, similarly overlooked Louisville and Syracuse teams were dismissed by scribes in the past few years and stunned fans with trips to the final game.
#2 Texas vs. #3 UCLA
Jimmy V famously beseeched us to “don’t give up, don’t ever give up” Longhorns coach Karen Aston takes this advice to an extreme, pressing Baylor down to the last second in the Horns’ first two blowout losses to the Bears. Although they haven’t broken through for a big win this year, also falling just short against UConn, the Horns bear striking resemblance to last year’s Bulldogs and Bo Ryan’s 2014 Wisconsin men’s team. That is, they didn’t win conference but played very well outside the limelight. When the opportunity comes very soon, will Texas be ready to pounce? Like Texas, the Bruins are good enough to be a contender but not good enough to win any trophies. Cori Close took over a bad team and won the NIT with America’s #1 recruiting class in 2015. The team came up just short to Texas and UConn in the last two Sweet 16s and are incrementally building into a program John Wooden would be proud of.
Final Four Pick: Mississippi State
On selection Monday, Bulldog fans and players were going wild when ESPN announced the team was a 1 seed. That is, except for coach Vic Schaefer. The colorful motivator sat with a grimace, plotting what his team would need to do to meet its goals. The Bulldogs are playing on another floor than the rest of division one, and the regional teams are surely but elevator operators waiting to escort Mississippi State to the penthouse.
#1 Louisville vs. #4 Stanford
When Louisville’s chariot was finally turned back into a pumpkin during its Cinderella run in 2013, the game’s color commentator boldly proclaimed that the Cardinals would definitely be back. While historians insist nothing’s inevitable, someday may finally be today for the Cards. The team busted to a 32-2 record and, despite the worries of some, had no problem at home in the first two rounds. But they’ve gotten a tough draw against one of the game’s best programs. Despite having a 13% chance of winning, Stanford can’t help but eagerly anticipate another shot at busting brackets. The Cardinal ended Notre Dame’s five year Final Four run in 2016 and, like Duke men’s team, is primarily built with the tournament in mind. Tara VanDerveer must keep her young team’s eyes focused on the task immediately ahead and not behind at an up-and-down season.
#2 Baylor vs #6 Oregon State
Kim Mulkey’s team has put up some eye-straining numbers lately, including setting a record with an 119-30 playoff win last year. However the Bears keep tripping over their heels in the regionals, losing in the Elite Eight four years in a row. They have a healthy 90% chance to win this game, but Oregon State is no pushover. Underseeded State beat the Bears in the 2016 playoffs and are now the only team to beat Tennessee in the Volunteer State in a playoff game. With the sixth best record since the 2015 season, and the #2 three point shooting percentage this year, State is a team the Bears would be advised not to overlook. But sadly overlooking underdogs fells teams every March.
Final Four pick: Baylor
One of the worst fallacies sports prognosticators fall for is gambler’s fallacy. Like the cardsharp who sees the ball fall on black five times in a row and says, “the next one must be red!”, I’ve picked the Bears to break through the past two years. Alas, they fell short again. Well I’m at it once more as Baylor has plowed through the schedule as if the other women were rubble. And the team has constructed a well-oiled tractor that’s too powerful not to build a final weekend team this time.
#1 Notre Dame vs. #4 Texas A&M
Do you know what “sdaojghadslkhglkadsjglkadjsglks” means, as Tweeted by the NCAA women’s account? Well neither do I, but apparently it’s something along the lines of “freshman Chennedy Carter hit the biggest shot in school history”. The Aggies, who I dismissed as past their peak last week, proved they’re still a contender and advanced to play the perennial power Lady Irish. Notre Dame survived an endless series of injuries to become a team many already say “would be a great matchup vs. UConn”. But after being upset two years in a row Muffet McGraw is properly focused on just the task at hand: a stacked region.
#2 Oregon vs. #11 Central Michigan
After an elite eight run as a 10 seed last year, the Ducks have taken control of the west coast pond. Sophomore Sabrina Ionescu already has the NCAA record with 10 triple doubles, and Kelly Graves has done a lot of good work in a short time window. Ironically the longtime Gonzaga coach now must confront his own Cinderella adversary. The Chippewas didn’t just deny Ohio State an opportunity to play at home in the finals, they did so emphatically, 95-78. CMU is the second biggest underdog of the Sweet 16 with just a 7% chance to win, and it will be important to avoid complacency to have just made it this far.
Final Four pick: Notre Dame
Technically Oregon is the favorite to advance with a 55% chance. But Notre Dame, despite seemingly every skilled player being out for the season, keeps finding a way to win. Also, the Irish have a long history of regional success while the Ducks are just now starting to play very well. Notre Dame-Oregon will be a terrific showdown, but the Irish will pull a rabbit out of the hat while the Ducks will disappear again into the offseason.
#1 UConn vs. #5 Duke
The Huskies certainly turned some heads with a 140-52 win over St. Francis, leading to the usual “bad for the game” complaints. (Attendance at its highest since 2008, by the way). But more impressive was its 71-46 win over a Quinnipiac team that played smart. The Bobcats slowed down the game to prevent UConn fast breaks, but to no avail as the Huskies methodically ground the Cats out. Duke knows it’s up against steep odds (98%, unthinkably), but couldn’t have a more impressive win of their own in the round of 32 by besting Georgia 66-40. The Blue Devils also have the added incentive of playing against Azure Stevens, the All-American forward Geno pirated off Duke. Coach Joanne McCallie says her team is up for the challenge, but cancelling the series against UConn in 2015 really hurts as the Huskies haven’t lost to a team it hasn’t played in the present or preceding year during this decade.
#2 South Carolina vs. #11 Buffalo
A’ja Wilson has had to do too much for defending national champion South Carolina and the team had a huge scare against North Carolina A&T in the first round. But the Gamecocks did shockingly hand Mississippi State its only loss and plays a physical style of ball that matches up well with any team. The Bulls will take a much shorter trip to Albany after stunning South Florida and Florida State in Tallahassee. Buffalo’s stifling defense and defiant attitude gives the team a healthy 25% chance to beat a Gamecock team that seems to be limping to the finish.
Final Four pick: Uconn
The Huskies’ aura of invincibility took a major hit last year, and experts immediately thought South Carolina would be a tough Elite 8 game. But UConn has proved that it knows how to close out a talented team in a low scoring game, and in February the Gamecocks couldn’t keep up with just Wilson playing well. A monster performance by Wilson Monday could place bets on hold, but it will be very difficult to slay the beast for the first time in a virtual road game.
While upsets have ruled the day for men, the top teams still control the women’s bracket. And that’s OK. I find an excellent team playing excellent ball to be must-see TV, and all the top women’s teams can put on a show. And as 2017 proved, as soon as we’re ready to hand someone a trophy, a dark horse stampedes in to remind us that a march towards April is never a straight line.