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Basketball

A look at the top seeds, players, and sleepers in the womens' NCAAs

Photo: Fred Beckham/AP

Breanna Stewart will lead UConn into a tournament they will be expected to roll through.

Let the Madness begin ...

Lincoln

by Richard Deitsch

State of the No. 1 seed

You know the consternation you've experienced attempting to fill out this year's men's bracket? That's not the case here. Pencil UConn in for the Final Four. Better yet, write it in pen. The Huskies will not be challenged in the Lincoln Regional, even with a potential matchup with host Nebraska in the regional semifinals. Connecticut has defeated seven Top 10 teams this season by an average of 18 points and no opponent has come within single digits in 34 games. (Baylor lost 66-55 in Waco on Jan. 13 -- the closest any team has come to the Huskies.) UConn has also already faced the No. 2 team in this region, a 22-point road victory over Duke last December. This region is a layup.

Upset pick: James Madison (11) over Gonzaga (6)

CAA champs James Madison are a dangerous No. 12 seed featuring senior shooting guard Kirby Burkholder, the conference player of the year who pulled down 8.3 rebounds per game as a six-foot guard. The Dukes nearly picked off No. 10 North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Jan 2, missing a game-tying 3-pointer. Gonzaga has a gaudy 29-5 record but they've fattened up that win total on average opponents. This feels like an upset.

Sleeper team: Oklahoma

Hard to find a sleeper team in a bracket that includes Connecticut but No. 10 Oklahoma has better talent than its seed. The Sooners were 9-9 in the No. 1 RPI league in the country (the Big 12) and have enough scorers (led by senior guard Aaryn Ellenberg, who has averaged 18.8 points this season) to win two NCAA games. The problem is they are maddeningly inconsistent and a weak rebounding team.

Player to watch Breanna Stewart, UConn

As expected, the sophomore forward played like a Player of the Year candidate this season, but think back to this time last year. Last year's postseason was Stewart's coming out party when she averaged 20.8 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting a team-best 56.3 percent (40-71) from the field and 60 percent (9-15) from beyond the 3-point arc in five tournament games (she missed the opener against Idaho with a left calf injury). Given her size (6-foot-4), length (7-foot wingspan) and inside-outside skills (she can play the wing or the post), there is no defender in this region who match up with her.

Prediction

UConn. Go ahead and purchase your ticket for Nashville today, Huskies fan.

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP

Kayla McBride's versatility will make her a valuable performer for Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame

by Richard Deitsch

State of the No. 1 seed

Despite losing Skylar Diggins (who accounted for 25 percent of the scoring) and two WNBA players (Natalie Novosel and Devereaux Peters) from a national runner-up two seasons ago, Notre Dame went undefeated through the ACC tournament including a 6-0 record against top-10 teams.

The Irish are blessed with multiple scoring options (sophomore guard Jewell Loyd, senior guard Kayla McBride and senior forward Natalie Achonwa) a trio of offensive players who not only score but score efficiently and share the ball. Notre Dame leads the nation in field goal percentage (.511), ranks second in assists (20.7), fourth in assist/turnover ratio (1.42), and has an average margin of victory of 25.6 points per game this season.

Upset pick: Chattanooga (11) over Syracuse (6)

No. 11 Chattanooga won 29 games in Jim Foster's first year at the school, and the postseason berth makes Foster the first coach to take four different women's programs to the Division I women's basketball tournament. Foster's Mocs have not lost since last Nov. 30 and have an eight-deep rotation led by senior forward Taylor Hall (14.9 points). Sixth-seeded Syracuse has four wins over RPI top 25 teams (No. 14 Texas A&M, at No. 21 North Carolina, No. 22 Saint Joseph's and No. 24 Texas), three of which were either on the road or a neutral site. There's not a lot of upsets to find in this region so we'll take a (not-so-confident) flyer on Chattanooga.

Sleeper Team: Kentucky

The Wildcats are a No. 3 seed here (not exactly a sleeper seed, we know) but a couple of things to keep in mind: First, Kentucky defeated the No. 2 team in this region (Baylor) 133-130 back in December in a four overtime classic in Arlington, Texas. They also nearly topped Tennessee in the finals of the SEC Tournament, instead suffering a tough 71-70 loss that could have gone either way. Kentucky has Top 5 talent and if they can get on a roll, the Wildcats will be a very tough out.

Player to watch: Kayla McBride, Notre Dame

McBride has started all 32 games for Notre Dame this season, averaging 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game with a 1.82 assist/turnover ratio. She can play both guard positions as well as spell wing players for a breather. Best of all, she's a money player and has been a one-woman torturer of UConn coach Geno Auriemma. In four games against UConn in 2012-13, McBride averaged 21.5 points per game.

Prediction

Notre Dame. They move on in the aptly named Notre Dame Regional.

Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP

West Virginia's Bria Holmes (left) could lead the Mountaineers to a surprisingly deep tourney run.

Louisville

by Lindsay Schnell

State of the No. 1 seed

Tennessee has won seven in a row heading into the tournament, including an upset of then-No. 4 South Carolina that sparked Tennessee's championship run through the SEC tournament and secured the top seed. The Lady Vols haven't been to a Final Four since 2008, an eternity for one of the most dominant programs in collegiate sports.

Tennessee is led by the inside-outside duo of junior post Izzy Harrison (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and guard Meghan Simmons (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg), the team's lone senior. Improved play from freshman guard Jordan Reynolds, who had 11 points off the bench in UT's 71-70 SEC Championship win over Kentucky, could be key to a deep run.

Upset pick: Georgia Tech (10) over LSU (7)

The Lady Tigers are playing at home, but they've lost seven of their last eight. Georgia Tech averages 79.7 points per game, and the Yellow Jackets have played plenty of good teams close -- they're overdue for a big road win.

Sleeper team: West Virginia

The Mountaineers were the surprise No. 2 seed, but they'll hardly be favored in a region that boasts Tennessee and a team playing at home (Louisville). Still, the Big 12 regular season co-champs who took Baylor down to the wire in the conference title game will be a tough out, with four players who average 10 points or better. West Virginia is led by 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Bria Holmes (15.1 ppg, 47.5 field goal percentage).

Player to watch: Alyssa Thomas, Maryland

Nicknamed "The Female LeBron" for her versatility and ability to dominate other teams physically, the senior can play any position. She averages 18.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, but notching a triple-double isn't out of the question.

Prediction

Louisville. When senior guard Shoni Schimmel (17 ppg, .374 from 3), gets hot from outside with a rowdy, pro-Louisville crowd behind her, the Cardinals are hard to guard.

Photo: Michael Conroy/AP

Penn State's Maggie Lucas is one of the best pure scorers in women's college basketball.

Stanford

by Lindsay Schnell

State of No. 1 seed

The Gamecocks have risen to new heights this season -- they won the SEC regular season championship for the first time in school history -- and have done so with suffocating defense. They allow opponents to shoot just 34 percent against them and block 7.3 shots per game, second best in the country. South Carolina has to travel across the country, but they'll do so happily after being awarded the first No. 1 seed in program history.

South Carolina isn't playing its best basketball heading into the tournament having lost two of its last three, but the Gamecocks are loaded with talent, and their top four scorers each shoot better than 51 percent from the field. They are led by All-America candidate Tiffany Mitchell, a sophomore who averages 15.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

Upset pick: Florida (11) over Dayton (6)

The Gators didn't necessarily finish the season strong, losing two of their final three, but they have a handful of wins over ranked teams this season, and play in the toughest conference in America. Expect a big game from senior point guard Jaterra Bonds, who averages 15.6 points and 3.8 assists.

Sleeper team: Penn State

Senior guard Maggie Lucas is one of the best pure scorers in the country, averaging 21.4 points per game. She's automatic from the line, shooting 95.1 percent. But with a veteran supporting cast that includes seniors Ariel Edwards (15.4 ppg) and Dara Taylor (4.9 apg, 2.86 spg), the Nittany Lions could crash the regional party.

Player to watch: Ruth Hamblin, Oregon State

The nation's leader in blocked shots with 133, the 6-foot-6 sophomore from Canada has emerged as a defensive star for upstart Oregon State, which is playing in its first NCAA tournament since 1996. Hamblin's presence inside -- she also averages 10 points and 8.7 rebounds per game -- changes games for opponents on both sides of the ball.

Prediction: Stanford

Arguably the best player in the country, Chiney Ogwumike (26.8 ppg, 12.6 rpg) will lead her team back to the Final Four after their streak of five in a row was snapped last year.

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