Now that the women’s field of 64 is set, the ESPN roundtable looks at the biggest eye-popping decisions, including Maryland falling to a 3-seed and South Carolina getting shipped west for the second straight year. (2:03)
The UConn women replaced three departing stars with three emerging ones. They are on a 107-game winning streak and are trying to claim their fifth national championship in a row. It would be the 12th national title overall and the seventh perfect season for the program.
That’s the boilerplate paragraph for the women’s NCAA tournament, which starts on Friday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, noon ET) at 16 sites around the country and will end on April 2 in Dallas. Obviously, UConn is the big favorite. Is that a cloud that hangs over the women’s tournament?
You can look at it that way, and some do. What’s the fun of an event in which the ultimate conclusion seems preordained? The thing is, nobody reduces the men’s NCAA tournament to only its final. Each game can be its own mini-event, as one team celebrates staying alive and the other mourns the end of its season.
And in terms of unpredictability, the Women’s Final Four — other than UConn — was a huge surprise last year. The Huskies were the only No. 1 seed to make it that far, and they were joined by three schools doing it for the first time: Oregon State as a No. 2 seed, Syracuse as a No. 4 seed and Washington as a No. 7 seed.
So there was plenty of drama in games that UConn wasn’t involved in last season. There will be plenty of it this year, too, with the other No. 1 seeds — Notre Dame, South Carolina and Baylor — all having at least three losses coming into the tournament (the Gamecocks have four).
And the Huskies enter this March Madness with something they didn’t have last year: three single-digit victories. Sure, a win is a win, and they’re 32-0. But they beat Florida State by two points in November, Maryland by six in December and Tulane — which isn’t in the NCAA field — by three in February.
The Terps are the No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport Regional behind UConn and Duke. Maryland tied for the Big Ten regular-season title and won the league tournament, and its senior stars Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough are trying to make the Final Four for the third time in their careers.
The Seminoles, who came so close to ending the Huskies’ streak in the season opener, hit a rough patch at the end of the season and are a No. 3 seed in the Stockton Regional. But with some time off since its ACC tournament loss to Miami, Florida State — one of the best programs to have not made a Final Four — might be ready for a big run.
The Stockton Regional has somewhat of an upset-potential vibe with a No. 4 seed in Miami that might go a long way … or might not get to California. No. 2 seed Oregon State did a terrific job of reloading and winning the Pac-12 regular-season title after big senior losses from last season. The Beavers look to be a good bet to make the regional, but could be challenged in the Sweet 16.
And Stockton’s No. 1 seed, South Carolina, isn’t thrilled about being placed in a region in California for the third time in the last six years. But the Gamecocks, who won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles and are a No. 1 seed for the fourth year in a row, have more concerns than geography. They were vulnerable to upset in SEC play, losing to both Tennessee and Missouri, and they have lost a key part of their team to injury. Senior center Alaina Coates, who was initially hurt in the loss at Missouri on Feb. 19 and then again in the SEC tournament, is out for the NCAA tournament.
That means a change in style for the Gamecocks, who are still led by SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson. But if seeds hold and they make a regional final against Oregon State, that could be where the absence of Coates affects them greatly, if not before.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, in the Oklahoma City Regional, No. 1 seed Baylor also has an injury issue. Senior guard Alexis Jones, who transferred from Duke and has been a key part of the Lady Bears the past two seasons, has been out since Feb. 20 with a bone bruise.
Baylor has played well without her, but the team missed her in the Big 12 championship game. Baylor lost to West Virginia, ending its streak of six consecutive league tournament titles.
Yet, few coach better after disappointments than Baylor’s Kim Mulkey. She had her own issues in February after making controversial remarks following a Baylor victory. She later apologized for that and now hopes the focus is back on her Lady Bears going for what would be their fourth Final Four in program history.
The last two times they’ve been in the Oklahoma City Regional, though, it ended badly for them: They lost to Louisville in an epic upset in the Sweet 16 in 2013 and to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight in 2015.
Speaking of the Irish, they’re a No. 1 seed for the sixth consecutive year and in the Lexington Regional for the second year in a row. Last year didn’t go well; they were defeated in the Sweet 16 by Stanford, which then lost to Washington.
Notre Dame lost its conference opener at the end of December to NC State and fell in nonconference games to UConn earlier that month and to Tennessee in January. But the Irish have won 14 in a row — including their fourth consecutive ACC regular-season and tournament titles — and are led by a savvy senior point guard in Lindsay Allen.
There are some obstacles for the Irish, though, including a possible Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Kentucky at home in Lexington. And No. 2 Stanford or No. 3 Texas might await in the final. The Cardinal won the Pac-12 tournament. And while the Longhorns have been on a late-season skid, they at one point were one of the hottest teams in the country aside from UConn.
This brings us back to the Huskies and the Bridgeport Regional, where they’ll be parked for the second year in a row. That’s assuming they get through two games at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. And although one of them could be against underseeded No. 8 Syracuse, which played in the national championship game against UConn last year, it seems extremely likely we’ll see UConn in the Bridgeport final.
Duke hasn’t come close to beating the Huskies since 2006 — in an NCAA final in Bridgeport, incidentally, but under a different coach — but has strong guard play led by former Maryland standout Lexie Brown. She transferred to Duke and might face her old teammates in the Bridgeport semifinals.
Yes, in the end, UConn is still the heavy favorite to defend its title once again. But unlike last year, when it seemed nothing short of the Huskies not showing up would have beaten UConn, there are at least examples to point to this season of the team looking plausibly vulnerable.
Are the Huskies expected to lose? Nope. Could they lose? It’s at least in the realm of possibility. And as for what’s possible in the rest of the bracket? There is plenty to watch that doesn’t seem at all predictable.