With the 2016 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship tipping off on Friday around the country, we offer 10 observations for a tournament that is bound to conclude as it did last year: with UConn cutting down the nets after the final buzzer.
1. UConn senior All-America forward Breanna Stewart has played in 17 tournament games during her career. Here are her averages: 19.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 54% shooting (119 for 221) from the field. In her three title games, Stewart has averaged 17.3 points and 11.0 rebounds while shooting 61% from the field. These are astonishing numbers when it comes to the crunch time of the sport, and you should expect to see similar results over the next three weeks. People can debate whether Stewart is the greatest women’s college player in history, but this much is true: She’s clinched the title of greatest tournament player in the history of the sport.
2. Tennessee is one of the tournament’s most interesting teams given its pedigree. It has been a perplexing and disappointing season for the Vols. Can they make a deep tournament run? Well, they did play better late in the year, but they open with a tough Wisconsin–Green Bay group on Friday in Tempe, Ariz. (Green Bay’s Kevin Borseth is an excellent coach and his teams can shoot.) The winner of that game—maybe the best of the first round—will likely face No. 2 seed Arizona State on the road. Tennessee’s No. 7 seed is the lowest in school history. “We’re just going to be grateful for where we are because we didn’t play our best basketball this year,” Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “We earned what we got.”
3. I’m going with chalk (all four No. 1 seeds) to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis, but if you asked me the most likely No. 1 seed to be picked off? I’d say Baylor. The Lady Bears enter the tournament with many of the assets you need to win a title, including veteran leadership at the point (senior Niya Johnson, who leads the nation in assists), scoring on the wing (Alexis Jones) and the post (Nina Davis), and solid defending (third in the country in field goal percentage defense at 33%). They also have post size. But they’ll face a very dangerous team in the regional semifinals—No. 5 Florida State—and then a potentially interesting challenge with No. 2 Oregon State, which led the nation in field-goal percentage defense (32%) and has size to match with Baylor. Oregon State can score big at three positions, with senior guard and Pac-12 Player of the Year Jamie Weisner (17.3 points), 6'6" senior center Ruth Hamblin (11.9 points) and 6'1" point guard Sydney Wiese (12.8 points).
4. Here are SI.com’s bracket breakdowns for each of the regions:
• Sioux Falls
5. The good news for Kentucky: The Wildcats drew a dream draw as the No. 3 seed in the Lexington region, setting up the possibility of four home matchups (the first two games will be at Memorial Coliseum; then Rupp Arena) on the road to the Final Four. The bad news for Kentucky: Notre Dame and Maryland (the best No. 2 seed) are in Kentucky’s region.
6. If you were holding a WNBA draft for every player in women’s college basketball, regardless of class, South Carolina forward A’ja Wilson would be taken after Stewart. At 6'5" with an improving outside stroke, Wilson has an inside-outside game that’s going to be nasty over the next two years. She had 12 double-doubles this season, raising her scoring average to 16.4 points (from 13.1 points), and led the SEC in blocks (3.1 per game). Wilson should be more of a force this tournament after gaining valuable experience last year with South Carolina’s long run. You need players with game-changing talent to defeat Notre Dame or UConn, and Wilson has that kind of ability. She’ll be the preseason POY pick next year.
7. What a run for Western New York basketball fans, as a pair of schools—St. Bonaventure and Buffalo—reached the tournament this year, including Buffalo’s first-ever tourney bid. (Impressively, Buffalo won the Mid-American Conference Championship as a No. 8 seed.) St. Bonaventure, seeded 10th, faces seventh-seeded Oklahoma State in Corvallis, Ore., on Friday, while 14th-seeded Buffalo plays at third-seeded Ohio State on the same day. Both schools are likely gone after the first round, but what a ride for those fans.
8. I appreciate the season-long work ESPN puts into women’s basketball and particularly the grind of writer Graham Hays. Here are his five burning questions leading into the tournament.
9. Obviously, UConn is going to roll over Robert Morris in the first round, but I was curious to see what the differential has been over the past five years for UConn’s NCAA tournament opening games. The Huskies’ average margin of victory in tournament openers since 2011 is 50.4 points, so if the Colonials can go under 50, they should consider it a win.
UConn’s opening round results:
• 2015: 89–33 over St. Francis
• 2014: 87–44 over Prairie View
• 2013: 105–37 over Idaho
• 2012: 87–47 over Prairie View
• 2011: 75–30 over Hartford.
10. Shout-out to the schools making their first NCAA tournament appearance: Buffalo, Central Arkansas, Duquesne, Jacksonville and Iona.