By Jeffrey Newholm
The men’s tournament (this year excepted) usually is less exciting later. Thankfully, the women are the opposite, and this year doesn’t promise otherwise. The top eight teams are still dancing (perhaps more like stomping) and there’s no reason to expect scenarios other than heavyweight showdowns form the Elite 8 on. So hide the remote from your spouse because there’s no looking away now! I’ll cover all eight Sweet 16 matchups, and then not-so-boldly predict Final Four teams. (But as the NCAA says, please don’t bet on it)
#1 Baylor vs. #4 South Carolina
The Bears have been upset in the regionals no less than six years in a row. But this year, really, feels different. It doesn’t even feel like a workwomen-like dissection for the 33-1 team but rather a boring march through ankle-deep water. South Carolina features a balanced roster of good players who’ve reached a sixth straight regional for the program. But this feels like a gap year before a #1 ranked recruiting class arrives in the fall.
#2 Iowa vs. #3 NC State
The hopes of the Hawkeyes begin, end, and pass through senior star Megan Gustafson. She scored 45 points in a momentum-building Big Ten Finals triumph and shoots 70.1% from the field this season. But Iowa hasn’t made the Final Four since 1993 and very nearly became the first 2 seed to lose its opener. The Wolfpack are 28-5 but aren’t at full strength due to injuries. Also, their 72-95 setback against the Irish in February raises questions about the team’s ceiling this season.
Final Four Pick: Iowa
Logically and statistically the Bears are definitely the favorite. Problem is, I’ve picked Baylor repeatedly only to be wrong each time. Baylor doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt until they remove the upset yoke. Gustafson and Iowa instead advance in another Elite 8 thriller.
#1 Mississippi State vs. #5 Arizona State
Last year’s heartbreaker to Notre Dame in the last game started a rebuilding process for the Bulldogs. Which lasted all of 0 games. Vic Schaefer led a re-toothed program to a 32-2 record and a first SEC tourney title. But State is tired of making it and losing. Eventually, the champion’s hardware must be brought to Starkville, or else dour expressions will return to each warrior. The Sun Devils, by contrast, appeared beyond excited just to make the regionals. They’re a very consistent team who has started the same 5 61 games in a row. But this game is a much sterner test.
#2 Oregon vs. #6 South Dakota State
Sabrina Ionescu recorded her record (men or women) 18th triple-double in a 91-68 win over Indiana in the second round, although she cheesily missed a shot on purpose to get the last board. But she rarely misses shots period for a Ducks team focused on process, not the outcome. Still, by playing in front of a new fanbase in Portland, there’s never been a better shot at the semifinal. The Jackrabbits are this bracket’s sole mid-major, and the first regional Summit League team ever. SDSU is consistently excellent but can’t be happy just to be here against an Oregon team that’s much more than one woman.
Final Four Pick: Mississippi State
This is a tough choice between the Bulldogs and Ducks. But I pick State because they enter Portland with a lot more momentum and have a better history in the tournament recently. Oregon had too much fun in an Elite 8 loss to Notre Dame last year and unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have changed.
#1 Louisville vs. #4 Oregon State
Louisville has overcome fixation on goal attainment and is now good enough to play well for its own sake. Asia Durr is a good player but far from a one-woman team, or even an unbalanced one. Winning the tournament is the last goal needed, but will be tough in a competitive field. OSU has become one of the most reliable programs in women’s basketball during this class’s run. Transfer Destiny Slocum proves to be a great ringer snatched from declining Maryland. But State struggled last weekend, needing overtime to beat Boise State, of all teams.
#2 UConn vs. #6 UCLA
It’s a down year for the Huskies. No, really. With its first 2 seed since 2006 and multi-loss season since 2013, there’s legitimate drama in Albany. To make matters worse, UConn gave up 25 offensive rebounds to Buffalo-yes, Buffalo in the second round. The Bruins wait for Friday with renewed confidence. The top 2015 recruiting class built a strong foundation and then passed the baton to an invigorated group of women ready to improve on a 2017 near-miss in Bridgeport.
Final Four Pick: Louisville
What! But haven’t the Huskies gone to 11 Final Fours in a row? But past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, and struggles are more recent. UConn hasn’t benefited from playing in the stinky American while the Cards have built to this moment for seven years. If ever there was a time for the streak to end, it’s now.
#1 Notre Dame vs. #4 Texas A&M
Perhaps you’ve heard of a certain shot, or two, from Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale. But the Irish are both lucky and very, very talented with an all-star roster. Last year finally silenced worries from a title drought and another would establish ND as the game’s premier program. The Aggies have one of the sport’s most startling talents in Chennedy Carter but haven’t made it past a Sweet 16 ceiling since 2014. And this year is the toughest attempt yet.
#2 Stanford vs. #11 Missouri State
Stanford makes is 12th straight Sweet 16 appearance as Tara VanDerveer’s excellent system provides success another time. Despite another big graduation loss, the Cardinal proves methods help individuals achieve excellence even with new names in the rotation. The Bears have had success before, reaching the Final Four in 1992 and 2001. Now Jackie Stiles, the hero and then NCAA leading scorer in 2001, is back as a coach. Stanford isn’t the toughest out but getting past the Irish would be extremely difficult.
Final Four Pick: Notre Dame
Last year the Irish were short-sold and weren’t supposed to even make the Final Four. But with a treasure chest of talent that also works as a fluid organism, a loss in Chicago is unthinkable. It would take a special effort even in championship Sunday to upset Notre Dame and it almost certainly won’t happen in front of a favorable crowd.
If the men’s tournament has produced yawns, consider the women’s regional an alarm of beautiful music. While some of the 16 teams have better chances than others, it’s a tremendous honor to play at least three tournament games. But only four can make it to Tampa, so let the sweet sound of March basketball rise until pretenders’ efforts are ultimately silenced.