By Jeffrey Newholm
Leaving aside ESPN incompetence that led to the bracket leaking, there’s never been a more exciting time to watch the women’s tournament. A season full of drama has resulted in 64 teams who will battle for four spots in Tampa and of course just one to take home the walnut and bronze. NBS will examine all four regions and survey the 1 seeds, a sleeper, the best matchup, and Sweet 16 predictions. (As always, use serious discretion when wagering on my terrible picks).
#1 seed: Baylor
Behind prized recruit Lauren Cox and intimidating presence Kalani Brown, Baylor is again a top seed. They ended UConn’s four-year regular season winning streak and suffered a sole loss to Stanford. There’s but one reason to expect them to lose in the weakest region. But it’s a big one: six regional upsets in a row. With losing too soon getting really, really old, the Bears will have to go beyond blowouts of misfits and compete against teams not afraid of the storied school.
Sleeper: South Carolina
The 2017 national champions probably didn’t want to see the team relegated to a sleeper. But the school did earn a waiver to play in North Carolina despite a venue conflict. Even better, the team finally has a favorable regional draw despite a quick out in the SEC tourney. Gamecock coach Dawn Staley is no stranger to being the underdog (although it’s much rarer now) and won’t throw away a season because of alleged rebuilding.
Best matchup: California-North Carolina
Let’s ignore the problem that this is likely the who gets to lose to Baylor game. The Tar Heels were spared the terrifying NCAA investigation and finally recovered from losing the 2013 recruiting class. California tries to rekindle the glory of the 2013 Final Four magic while transitioning past horrid sexual assault allegations. The coin will smile on one team, giving the women at least a measure of validation, if not a Sweet 16 breakthrough.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Baylor: first two rounds are very rarely a problem for Bears. And they love to devour delicious sub-regional cupcakes
- South Carolina: Staley’s style leads to close games but no one else here is that tough
- Kentucky: NC State limped to the finish with injuries and wildcats survived crash tests of close games
- Iowa: Megan Gustafson is too talented to let her team lose to suspect opposition
#1 Seed: Mississippi State
The Bulldogs were supposed to have a big off year after graduating almost all key players from the back-to-back finals run. Well, I suppose that’s no consolation to the other 15 teams. Vic Schaefer has piggybacked off Morgan William’s Final Four magic wonderfully. Teaira McCown is a Mack truck destroying all pretenders in the paint, and UConn transfer Andrea Espinoza-Hunter can shoot out the lights in the mile-away gym. The dogs finally won the SEC tourney and have one small item to check off the to-do list: the NCAA championship.
The Knight women won’t win the beauty pageant with their physical style of play. Thankfully, NCAAW super-fans couldn’t care less about physical appearance. Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has quickly propelled UCF into the tournament and perhaps further. If the Knights can slow the pace of play to a crawl, they can beat any team in their pod.
Best Matchup: South Dakota State-Quinnipiac
In the past the committee has been very unfair to mid-majors, even giving undefeated teams 8 and 16 seeds. Not so here as two dominant programs face off immediately. With Syracuse a rather average 3 seed Oregon could be in for a blowout delight in the Sweet 16, or perhaps an olive pit booby trap.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Mississippi State: South Dakota is an intriguing 8 but probably isn’t ready to beat a top 4 behemoth
- Miami: dicey due to Hurricane’s propensity to play to the level of opponent but ‘Canes are definitely most talented
- South Dakota State: Jackrabbits have been oh-so-close to regionals and now is finally time
- Oregon: Portland State would love to play in their home city but 15 has never won and skilled Ducks triumph despite losing momentum
#1 Seed: Louisville
It’s a good sign when a formally just-ok school overcomes a mainstay to earn a top seed. And that’s just what Jeff Walz did with a convincing 29-3 record and ACC title. The Cardinals earn the nod over UConn, who was penalized for a very weak conference schedule. There’s not much more to doubt as the school continues to build off its 2013 finalist run. That just would be such an unfair Elite 8 matchup!
A stretch to call the 3 seed a sleeper? 28-4 too good? Consider how little the press has talked about the Terrapins this season. But Brenda Frese has turned her program into the school’s best while dominating a once competitive Big Ten. Frese was rather miffed at the lack of coverage in a 2015 Tampa semifinal and would love to lunge at the UConn Beast another time.
Best Matchup: Rutgers-Buffalo
The Scarlet Knights are in a terrible spot due to the extremely unfortunate absence of C. Vivian Stringer. They may be the higher seed but won’t earn sympathy from the Bulls, who are an asset in a surging athletics program. Hopefully, Connecticut fans don’t save all their popcorn for the nightcap because the prelude deserves plenty.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Louisville: no problem against three unremarkable opponents
- Oregon State: Gonzaga’s injuries too much to play through in Corvallis
- Maryland: Tennessee could make a run but hasn’t proven consistency
- UConn: advances to 26th straight Sweet 16 despite first 2 seed since 2006
#1 Seed: Notre Dame
Last year seemed to be a down year for the Irish with many injuries. But then Arike hit two-count ’em-two buzzer beaters to clinch the title. Chemistry was an issue early with those players back but ND dominated the end-season, easily winning the ACC tournament. Notre Dame is playing in a favorable location and wants to win its third-best third title, but hopefully a little more easily this time.
Doug Bruno is amongst the most respected NCAA coaches but can’t get past the third round. But with an exhilarating Big-East final horn squeaker, the Blue Demons may finally have the opportunity. The Cyclones are far from unbeatable and Bruno’s bruisers would have the rare opportunity to host a sectional. There may never be a better opportunity to finally march into the finals.
Best Matchup: Marquette-Rice
The Golden Eagles are trying to escape the shadow of the men but, trust me, that’s very, very hard. After losing an opportunity to host the Eagles must now face the unheralded Owls. But there’s one player who should be heralded worldwide- the Owl’s 6′ 9″ Nancy Mulkey! The Sophomore transfer has a great chance to pull off a result that would leave MU very upset as the cameras rush to the men yet again.
Sweet 16 Picks
- Notre Dame: Central Michigan would have a much tougher time in the round of 32 against tourney’s most balanced team
- Marquette: close call against fairly good Aggies but
Warriors GoldGolden Eagles finally make a name for themselves
- DePaul: enough wait-till-next-years. Demons not only bust into regionals, but they also have legitimate hopes of elite or finals run
- Stanford: Talented Cardinal quietly earn 2 seed and historically match up well with Irish
While the bracket leaked, the excitement over a very talented NCAA pool will overflow and sink the favorites’ battleships. In no other year this decade has so many teams have realistic Sweet 16 and Final Four chances. But wait: what if it’s *sigh* Notre Dame and UConn again? Judging by the excitement of 2018’s classic, that’s a worst-case-scenario coming with no complaints.