NCAA women's tournament regional previews: UConn the team to beat
By Richard Deitsch
State of the No. 1 seed
If UConn plays its "A" game at the Final Four—the Huskies have advanced to the national semifinals every year since 2008 and it's the lock of the tournament that the streak will continue—it will cruise to a 10th national title in Tampa. At 32-1, it is the most complete team in women’s college basketball, leading the country in offense (89.7 points per game), scoring defense (47.7), field goal percentage (54.2) and field goal percentage defense (an absurdly low 30.1, or 3.2 percentage points better than second-place Montana).
The Huskies start three of the nation’s 10 best players in junior forward Breanna Stewart, senior wing Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and junior point guard Moriah Jefferson. Sophomore forward Morgan Tuck (13.5 points) has been sensational after returning from microfracture surgery on her right knee that caused her to miss most of 2014. The talent is so ridiculous that senior center Kiah Stokes (132 blocks), a likely first-round WNBA pick, comes off the bench. This is the country’s best team, and by a lot.
Upset Pick: (12) Western Kentucky over (5) Texas
For those filling out a bracket, here’s a No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed on which to gamble. The Longhorns have some huge wins on their schedule including Tennessee, Texas A&M and Stanford, but all of those victories came before January. After starting the season 13-0, Texas went 9-10 over its last 19 games. The RPIs are very close (Texas is No. 21; WKU is No. 27) and the Hilltoppers ended their season on a 12-game winning streak. The team's two best players, forwards Chastity Gooch (17.0 points) and Alexis Govan (16.7 points), are seniors. The template looks good for the lower seed.
Sleeper Team: (6) South Florida
The Bulls finished the season 26-7, but keep this in mind: Three of those losses were to UConn, and one was a one-point loss (65-64) at East Carolina. South Florida played the Huskies fairly tough in the AAC tournament final and star junior guard Courtney Williams put up 26 points against the defending champs. Along with Williams (20.2 points), the Bulls have an inside force with junior forward Alisia Jenkins (12.9 points and 11.6 rebounds). They are better than their No. 6 seed. Oh, and one more thing: South Florida will host the first two rounds.
Player to Watch: Moriah Jefferson, UConn
Stewart, the co-favorite for the Player of Year title with Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd, will draw the lion’s share of attention at the Final Four, so use the opening rounds to focus on Jefferson. She’s relentless as an on-ball defender and arguably the quickest guard in the country. She’s also great with the ball, ranking sixth (3.06) in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
No less than the Kentucky men, Connecticut is the prohibitive favorite and will sail through the region.
By Richard Deitsch
State of the No. 1 seed
Maryland coach Brenda Frese is a terrific tournament coach and she enters this year’s jamboree with one of the most balanced offenses in the country. The Terps (30-2) average 80.2 points per game, sixth-best in the nation, and have four starters (senior wing Laurin Mincy, sophomore guard Lexie Brown, sophomore center Brionna Jones and sophomore guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough) who average between 12.1 and 13.7 points per game. As Mincy told The Baltimore Sun, “You can’t scout just one person.” This is a team soaring with confidence. Maryland's last loss came against Notre Dame on Dec. 3, which followed a loss to Washington State. Since then it's won 24 straight games and went a perfect 18-0 in Big Ten play.
Upset Pick: (9) Green Bay over (8) Princeton
The committee screwed unbeaten Princeton, the No. 13 team in the nation (and No. 12 in RPI), by downgrading it to a No. 8 seed. Then to add more insult, the Tigers drew a perpetual tough out in mid-major power Green Bay. Plenty of experts think Princeton will be motivated to prove the committee wrong, but I like how the Phoenix (No. 23 RPI) competed this year against higher competition including UConn. Though they eventually lost 89-53 to the Huskies on Nov. 30 in Florida, the game was tied at 26-26 with just over four minutes remaining in the first half. Most mid-major teams are intimidated against UConn at the start of games, but Green Bay showed no fear. I like the No. 9 over the No. 8 here in a game between two teams that deserved better from the committee.
Sleeper Team: (7) Chattanooga
You will underestimate No. 7 Chattanooga at your own peril. The Mocs are 29-3, they last lost on Dec. 1 and included among those 29 wins was a 67-63 win over then-No. 4 Tennessee at home on Nov. 26. That was no fluke: Chattanooga also defeated Tennessee in 2012. If both Chattanooga and Tennessee win their opening round games, they will meet next Monday night in Knoxville. That’s going to be a terrific game, and make sure to watch out for Chattanooga sophomore center and leading scorer Jasmine Joyner (12.0 points and 8.2 rebounds), who played just 12 minutes against Tennessee in the Mocs’ regular-season win because of early foul trouble.
Player To Watch: Jonquel Jones, George Washington
George Washington head coach Jonathan Tsipis, who spent nine seasons on the coaching staff at the University of Notre Dame, is well-acquainted with impact players and has one in junior forward Jonquel Jones, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. The 6'4" forward, a native of the Bahamas, averaged a double double this season with 15.5 points and 12.4 rebounds. At 29-3 with one of the best players in the region and an excellent game coach, the Colonials (No. 11 RPI) will be a very tough out.
This is a soft region (I think Tennessee and Duke are overrated) and Maryland hasn’t lost in months. Look for the Terps to return to the Final Four.
Oklahoma City region
By Lindsay Schnell
State of the No. 1 seed
When does it get to be Notre Dame’s turn again? The Irish have evolved into one of the top teams in the women’s game, but haven’t won a title since 2001 despite four consecutive trips to the Final Four. Many believe that Notre Dame, with potential Player of the Year Jewell Loyd, has the best chance to beat Connecticut this postseason. Loyd’s response to Notre Dame losing two All-Americans? She upped her scoring (from 18.6 a game to 20.5) and distributing (3.1 assists compared to 2.1 last season), and can get a shot anytime she wants.
She’s not the only threat, though. Point guard Lindsay Allen has evolved into a terrific facilitator, handing out 5.2 assists per game. She chips in 9.9 points a contest as well. But the most impressive piece is freshman Brianna Turner. A 6’3" forward, Turner has filled in better than anyone could have anticipated for the departed Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame’s anchor inside the last couple years. Turner accounts for 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and leads the country in field goal percentage at 66.7. The Irish already lost once to UConn, 76-58 on Dec. 6, but if given another chance, the result could be dramatically different.
Upset pick: (10) Arkansas over (7) Northwestern
An at-large selection from the powerhouse SEC, the Razorbacks (17-13) know how to beat talented teams. This season they recorded wins over Iowa, Oklahoma and LSU, all NCAA tournament teams. The group led by first-year coach Jimmy Dykes (former Razorback letterwinner and ESPN broadcaster) protects the perimeter, allowing opponents to hit only 28.6 percent of long distance attempts. If 5’10” senior guard Calli Berna (5.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game) is steady, the Razorbacks will be able to handle pressure from Northwestern, which forces 19.2 turnovers per game. Don’t be surprised if versatile 6’3" forward Jessica Jackson (14.9 points, 6.2 rebounds) goes off. Also worth pointing out: Northwestern (23-8) is playing in its first NCAA tournament since 1997. Teams new to the dance often get star-struck.
Sleeper team: (4) Stanford
How does a team that’s been to six Final Fours in the last seven years become a “sleeper?” Easy: Stanford (24-9) had one of its worst regular seasons of the last 15 years, dropping five games in conference, including inexplicable losses to Pac-12 bottom feeders Oregon and Arizona. But the Cardinal have rallied recently, gritting out wins over UCLA, No. 9 Arizona State and No. 24 California to win the Pac-12 tournament.
Stanford revamped its offense this year to become more guard-centric, and if 5’7” senior Amber Orrange (13.2 points, 42 percent from three) and 5’7” sophomore Lili Thompson (13.4 points) get going, the duo is tough to slow. Six-foot-three senior forward Taylor Greenfield plays so well in the postseason (13.7 points in the conference tournament compared to 4.6 in the regular season) her teammates have nicknamed her “Tournament Taylor.” And don’t forget: Stanford is the only team to beat mighty Connecticut this year, topping the Huskies 88-86 in overtime on Nov. 17.
Player to watch: Samantha Logic, Iowa
A 5’9” senior guard for the third-seeded Hawkeyes, Logic runs the show for Iowa, handing out eight assists a game, third-best in the country. She also happens to be the NCAA's active career assists leader with 869. A product of Racine, Wis., Logic stuffs the stat sheet with 13.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. She is the only player in NCAA history to record at least 1,400 career points, 800 rebounds, 800 assists and 200 steals, and with those numbers, it’s easy to understand why Logic has accounted for five triple doubles in her career. If she's on, she could lead the Hawkeyes all the way to the regional final.
Watch for Baylor and super sophomore Nina Davis to advance to the regional final, where Notre Dame’s Loyd will show why she should take home the Wade Trophy. Expect the Irish to advance to another Final Four.
By Lindsay Schnell
State of the No. 1 seed
Ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks this season, South Carolina (30-2) is anxious to get over the Sweet 16 hump and has the pieces to do it. Led by guard Tiffany Mitchell, who is often compared to Dwyane Wade, the Gamecocks pride themselves as a defensive stopper, locking teams up and allowing opponents to score just 52.6 points and shoot 34.5 percent from the floor. Two-time SEC Player of the Year Mitchell (14.4 points, 51 percent FG) is the motor, slashing to the hoop and pulling up for jumpers. South Carolina is tough inside too, with 6’4” sophomore Alaina Coates (10.6 points, 8.1 rebounds) and 6’5” standout freshman A’ja Wilson (13.3 points, 6.8 rebounds), both of whom come off the bench.
Wilson can score with either hand in the paint, hit a 15-footer and alter tons of shots defensively. Point guard Khadijah Sessions doesn’t do much offensively and instead focuses on the defensive end, where she locks down the perimeter. But the Gamecocks’ most important piece is senior guard Aleighsa Welch (9.1 points, 6.4 rebounds), a 6’0" forward who can play inside and out. She’s the heart of USC’s roster, the Gamecocks’ undisputed leader and the one who told SI in January, “I’ve already been to two Sweet 16s. It’s not cool anymore.”
Upset pick: (11) Arkansas-Little Rock over (6) Texas A&M
UALR doesn’t bring a lot of size to the matchup, as the Trojans' leading scorer is 5’8” guard Taylor Gault (15.5 points per game), but A&M can't do much inside anyway. The Aggies have a terrific one-two punch in perimeter players Courtney Williams (14.5 PPG) and Courtney Walker (14.4), but they’re limping into the tournament, having lost three of their last four. The SEC is stacked with talent, but TAMU (23-9) has no business losing to LSU (twice) and Missouri. UALR, meanwhile, allows just 51 points per game, the fifth-best scoring defense in the country. It loves the long ball too, hitting 37.5 percent from three, 10th in the country. The Trojans (28-4) set a program record for wins and took home the Sun Belt regular season and tournament championships.
Sleeper team: (5) Ohio State
Fifth-seeded Ohio State (23-10) features the top scorer in the country, speedy 5’8” guard Kelsey Mitchell, who drops in 25 points per game. A candidate for national Freshman of the Year, Mitchell can score by outracing opponents to the basket or from long distance; she’s attempted 319 three-pointers this season, the most in Division I, and hits 38.2 percent). She’s scored more than 30 on seven different occasions and has an impressive motor considering she plays 37 minutes a game.
She’s hardly the only one to stop though because Ohio State has four double-digit scorers. Besides Mitchell, Ameryst Alston, a 5’9” junior guard, averages 19.3 points per game. Ohio State has no problem getting buckets, as it scores 80.7 a game. It has momentum too, having won six of its last seven. The Buckeyes' only loss came to No. 4 Maryland, the top seed in the Spokane region, and the Terrapins barely escaped with a 77-74 win in the Big Ten tournament championship.
Player to watch: Brittney Martin, Oklahoma State
Regardless of if she’s playing the 2, 3 or 4, Brittney Martin is a threat for a double double. A strong, athletic 6’0” junior, Martin averages 13.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.6 assists for 10th-seeded Oklahoma State. A long wingspan and big hands help her to harass guards on the perimeter and snatch rebounds from bigger post players. She likes the postseason too: In the Cowgirls’ 73-66 second round win over Purdue in the 2014 NCAA tournament, Martin scored 20 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. Her high release makes it tough to block or change her shot, and she’s particularly good when she’s fading away.
Second-seeded Florida State will provide formidable competition for South Carolina, but the Gamecocks are playing just three hours from home and will bring an intimidating crowd. Count on seeing USC in Tampa.