Women’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 preview & picks
Get all of Richard Deitsch’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
We have reached the Sweet 16 stage of the women’s tournament, and predictably, all of the No. 1 seeds remain alive. But the opening rounds did see a pair of No. 2s—Maryland and Arizona State—get knocked off on their home courts by plucky No. 7 seeds (Washington and Tennessee). The conferences expected to do well have been successful: The Pac-12, the No. 1 RPI conference all season, has four teams (Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, Washington) in the Sweet 16 for the first time in tournament history. The SEC, the No. 2 RPI conference, also has four teams alive, including Kentucky, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Tennessee. Three teams (Florida State, Notre Dame and Syracuse) represent the ACC (No. 4 RPI). The pre-tournament prediction of all four No. 1 seeds landing in Indianapolis stands, but let’s take a look at the upcoming games.
No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Syracuse
ESPN2, 7 p.m. Friday
These teams met in last year’s tournament—a 97–68 South Carolina second-round pasting—and it’s hard to see Syracuse pulling off the upset given South Carolina’s size advantage in the frontcourt with 6’5” All-America forward A'ja Wilson and 6’4” center Alaina Coates. The Gamecocks also have an excellent wing player in Tiffany Mitchell and deep postseason experience under coach Dawn Staley. All that said, Syracuse has had a fantastic season (27 wins) and the Orange are better than their No. 4 seed would indicate. They play an up-tempo three-guard offense (Alexis Peterson, Brianna Butler and Brittney Sykes, plus a quality center in Bria Day) that can score in transition or from a set play. This game should be tighter than last year but the result will be the same.
Winner: South Carolina
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 7 Tennessee
(ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. Friday)
Look who’s back in the Sweet 16: Tennessee (21–13) set a school record for losses this season and entered the tournament with its lowest seed ever, but they’ve turned the narrative around with tournament wins over Green Bay and Arizona State. Point guard Diamond DeShields has averaged 19.7 points in her last six games and Tennessee finished with 42 points in the paint against the Sun Devils thanks to strong games from center Mercedes Russell and forward Bashaara Graves. They have found offensive continuity at the right time.
But Tennessee now faces the most prolific scorer remaining in the tournament. Ohio State sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell put up 45 points (including five three-pointers) on West Virginia and has 72 points in two NCAA games. The Lady Vols played an effective 2-3 zone against Oregon State, but that won’t work against the sharp-shooting Mitchell. Forward Shayla Cooper had 15 points and 10 rebounds against West Virginia and will need another strong game against a bigger Tennessee front line. I think Mitchell brings them home.
Winner: Ohio State
No. 3 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Washington
(ESPN, 7 p.m. Friday)
Do Kelsey Plum and Talia Walton, the Huskies’ top two scorers, have one more big game left in them? Washington can’t without that duo playing at the same level as earlier tournament games given the Huskies are down to a six-woman rotation due to injuries. Plum had 32 points, seven assists and six rebounds against Maryland and Walton hit the dagger three-pointer with under two minutes left to put the Terps away. But Washington will have to win again on the road as Kentucky will play at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats have balanced scoring with junior guard Makayla Epps, senior guard Janee Thompson and junior forward Evelyn Akhator, but there’s a big X Factor: Epps sprained the AC joint in her shoulder during the third quarter in a win over Oklahoma. Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell said she would shut down until game time and she is expected to play. I’m leaning toward Washington here given the status of Epps but this is a toss up.
No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Stanford
(ESPN, 9:30 p.m. Friday)
Stanford survived against No. 12 South Dakota State, which outplayed the Cardinal for most of the game and were up eight with under four minutes to play. Credit point guard Lili Thompson for a clutch three-point play with 8.2 seconds left, and forward Erica McCall for strong play on both sides of the court. But the road ends in Lexington for Stanford. These teams played in the Sweet 16 last year with Notre Dame winning 81–60 in Oklahoma City. Nothing should change. Notre Dame has matchup advantages across the court, especially where Stanford is strong—at point guard and in the post. Look for Irish point guard Lindsay Allen and forward Brianna Turner to have big games.
Winner: Notre Dame
No. 1 UConn vs. No. 5 Mississippi State
(ESPN, 11:30 a.m. Saturday)
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer has earned his reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the nation (the Bulldogs allow just 54.7 points per game), but he’s running into a giant here. UConn has too much firepower and the Bulldogs are not a strong offensive team outside of sophomore guard Victoria Vivians. Las Vegas has UConn has a 33-point favorite and I might take Mississippi State if you asked me to bet. But this is going to be a rout.
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA
(ESPN, 2:00 p.m. Saturday)
The Texas backcourt led the way against Missouri behind a career-high 22 points from freshman Ariel Atkins, and they’ll need to be just as good against UCLA, which has a terrific sophomore guard in Jordin Camara. I really like this UCLA team. They lost in overtime to Notre Dame on Nov. 28 and fell by only three to South Carolina, and that game had been tied with four minutes to play. But I wonder how much travel will be a factor given UCLA is coming across the country to play in Bridgeport to play a game at 11:30 a.m. ET/8:30 a.m. PT. Also, how does UCLA guard 6’7” Imani Boyette and 6’5” Kelsey Lang? I’m taking UCLA but it’s more of a gut pick. Texas is the favorite.
No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 5 Florida State
(ESPN, 4 p.m. Saturday)
Florida State is a tough team to get a handle on here. They have a nice inside-outside game with junior guard Leticia Romero, sophomore forward Shakayla Thomas and senior center Adut Bulgak, but they are inconsistent. For example, the Seminoles beat Miami on Feb. 28 and a couple of days later, lost to them in the first round of the ACC tournament on March 4. Baylor has great depth and size across the floor and All-America caliber players in junior forward Nina Davis, redshirt junior wing Alexis Jones and senior point guard Niya Johnson. This looks like a runaway.
No. 2 Oregon State vs. No. 6 DePaul
(ESPN, 6:30 p.m. Saturday)
DePaul took out No. 3 Louisville on its home floor and have a great shot to take down another high seed here. Coach Doug Bruno loves playing up-tempo basketball (the Blue Demons are the No. 6 in the nation in scoring) and has scorers around the court with senior guard Chanise Jenkins, the Big East Player of the Year, senior guard Megan Podkowa and junior Jessica January, who had 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists against Louisville. OSU has had a historic season, including a school record 30 wins and have three first team All-Pac-12 selections including senior guard Jamie Weisner (17.0 points), the Pac-12 Player of the Year, 6’6” senior center Ruth Hamblin and junior guard Sydney Wiese, who at 6’1” is a tough matchup. This will be a close game.
Winner: Oregon State