- This may be one of the most competitive women's NCAA tournament fields in quite some time. With anyone from UConn to Stanford likely to make a run to the Final Four, we predict which eight teams have the best chance of lifting the trophy in Tampa.
It’s tradition around here to release our “Magic Eight” list of the teams we believe could win the NCAA tournament. We typically release it about a month or two away from the Final Four and we exclude two teams from the top eight of the AP poll and include one team from outside the top 15. A couple things about that: I’m not really into the whole tradition thing, so this will be coming out after the conference tournaments are over and we have a better idea of who each of the top teams are. And as much as I’d love to pick upset-minded Miami, a proven team like South Carolina or a genuine surprise in Syracuse, we’ll go a bit more straightforward here because I like to keep disappointment to a minimum.
Thirdly, I’m not quite as analytics-driven as some of my men’s basketball colleagues, so I won’t be regurgitating stats in an attempt to convince you why one of the most dangerous teams in the country does not reside in the ACC or Pac-12 and isn’t named UConn. Not to say there won’t be stats below—because there will be plenty—but this will be more based on team chemistry, how teams played this season and how things shook out in conference tournaments as we edge closer to Tampa.
So with all that out of the way, welcome to the women’s Magic Eight, where a season of unpredictable upsets, interesting stories and a dogfight for the top seeds will coalesce into me either riding off into the sunset in victory or turning off my Twitter mentions for a couple weeks.
Rarely has the No. 1 ranked team in the country received so little attention. We get it, the Big 12 isn’t a stacked conference like the ACC or even the Pac-12, but give Baylor some credit for looking nearly unbeatable on a nightly basis. The Bears are legit on both sides of the ball—see them holding UConn to 57 points and beating them by double digits in Waco—behind incredible seasons by Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. The two form the impenetrable wall that is Baylor’s defense, discouraging all who venture into the paint. Baylor’s lone loss of the season came against Stanford, a game in which Cox and Brown struggled. Don’t expect that to happen again.
Few teams can match the length that Baylor has inside as well as the threat that the Bears pose from the perimeter (they’re hovering around 37% at time of writing). Rewatching UConn struggle to get much going against Baylor should be all the credentials this team needs. If Cox is fully active on the defensive end, Brown is fully engaged on both sides of the ball and Juicy Landrum and Chloe Jackson pull the strings, this team should look forward to booking its ticket to Tampa.
We all know the story by now. Geno Auriemma is a legend and he’s looking to take his refitted Death Star to the national championship after being being blown up in the semifinals two years running. But this team feels different than ones before. The Huskies' depth, or lack thereof, has been taken advantage of this season, with UConn having already dropped games to Baylor and Louisville. UConn struggles against quicker guards and aggressive post players, hence its two losses, and could face an uphill battle as it tries to make it to the championship game.
That, combined with a relatively unproven rookie guard in Christyn Williams, could mean that the Huskies are actually vulnerable heading into the tournament. But they still have senior leaders Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson—the former of which has been playing out her mind as the latter gets healthy for the team’s tournament run—alongside the steadying presence of Crystal Dangerfield and Auriemma pulling the strings. UConn has never looked more mortal, but this team putting it all together and making a fun to the championship game is far from implausible. P.S.—Even if we don’t see a ton of Samuelson until later in the tournament, good luck getting a shot off while Olivia Nelson-Ododa is patrolling the inside.
This conversation might as well start and end with Asia Durr. The newly minted ACC Player of the Year has been incredible all season, no more so when she dropped a 47-piece on NC State by going 11 for 17 from three. If Durr gets hot, you might as well warm up the busses because it’s not going to go well for you or your squad. A small window is enough for her to get a shot off and the Cardinals do a very good job of getting her open.
That combined with the floor-stretching Kylee Shook and ACC Sixth Player of the Year Dana Evans—who is second on the team in scoring and gives opponents another matchup problem to deal with in the second unit—and the Cardinals can keep coming at you. One concern for Louisville is the health of Sam Fuehring, who had to leave the ACC title game because of an ankle injury and missed her team get smacked without her on the court. If Fuehring can recover in time for the big games and stays healthy the rest of the postseason, Louisville could be poised to make some serious noise over the next few weeks. We also need to see what the severity of Arica Carter’s knee injury is. But Durr is the straw that stirs Louisville’s drink and for anyone that thinks stopping Durr isn’t that tough, I have two words for you: Nite Nite.
Frankly, it’s hard to get a read on this Notre Dame team. Occasionally it resembles the injury-plagued crew of last year that rallied together and used two incredible Arike Ogunbowale shots to lift the national championship trophy. Other times, it looks like a team trying to figure out exactly what it has and where it’s going. After losing to UConn in South Bend, there were questions about exactly how good this team was. That loss—and head-scratching ones to North Carolina and Miami—notwithstanding, Brianna Turner appears to have returned to full form after her season-ending injury last year. She’s imposing in the paint and her 2.7 blocks per game this season would make even Lauren Cox blush. There’s a reason she was voted ACC Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in her college career.
Jessica Shepard has been sneakily fantastic all season as the team’s second leading scorer and Jackie Young is a great option as well. And opponents also have the constant threat of Marina Mabrey lurking on the perimeter waiting to hand out buckets. Then there’s Ogunbowale, last year’s Final Four hero and the one who will likely be nothing short of incensed that Asia Durr beat her to ACC Player of the Year and will take that out on whoever the Fighting Irish face as they try to book their tickets to Tampa. Notre Dame has one of the most fearsome starting fives in women’s college basketball, but could run into problems with depth as a trip to Tampa becomes a more realistic possibility. If the Fighting Irish are going to repeat as champions, it’s going to take everything from those five players and a masterclass by Muffet McGraw to send her seniors away with the greatest of parting gifts.
You know the deal by now: This is the Sabrina Ionescu Show. Most of Oregon’s offense runs through her and she’s more than capable of shouldering the load. Ionescu, as you’ve probably heard, is a walking triple double who broke the record for triple doubles in a season (for men and women’s basketball Division I) this year with seven and also has a record 17 in her college career ... as a junior.
A player who is capable of grabbing the rebound, taking off, initiating the fast break and making the right decision down the court is rare and makes the Ducks incredibly dangerous heading into the Big Dance. The one thing standing in their way is injuries. Backup guard Taylor Chavez is likely out until some point during March and coach Kelly Graves has said that Ruthy Hebard likely won’t return to peak form for the rest of the year. While Chavez isn’t statistically a huge focal point for the team, the lack of cover for her minutes will put more miles on Ionescu and Maite Cazorla as the postseason progresses. The accumulation of minutes seemed to get to the Ducks in the latter stages of the Pac-12 tournament, as the team seemed to run out of gas a bit in the title game.
That coupled with a less-than-100% Hebard means Ionescu and Co. will have to not only be cautious with minutes, but carry more of the load if Oregon is to reach its first Final Four. But you can bet a player nicknamed “Bazooka Mode” won’t let the Ducks go out quietly—especially if this happens to be here last year in Eugene.
This isn’t the team that lost 88–48 to Oregon in Maple Pavilion a month ago. In fact, beating the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game after getting mollywhopped in the teams’ February meeting is a helluva way to solidify your Final Four case. Oregon has been dealing with a recent spate of injuries but Stanford proved that it’s still not only one of the best teams in a crowded Pac-12 conference, but a team to fear as March turns to April. Tara VanDerveer is a legend whose résumé is more than storied. There’s a reason that Stanford has won 13 of the 18 Pac-12 tournament titles.
Many scouting reports will likely focus on multi-faceted big Alanna Smith, and for good reason. Smith has been a revelation for the Cardinal, with her long-range shooting (39.5% from three) helping make room for Stanford’s other key players to get the offense humming. Those other key players are Kianna Williams and DiJonai Carrington, the latter of whom dropped 22 points on Oregon in the tournament final. The Cardinal guards averaged a combined 28.3 points while Smith adds an additional 19.6 per game to contend with. A scary moment in the title game when Smith rolled her ankle might be something to watch out for, but with plenty of time before the start of the tournament, expect Stanford to be at full strength. Finding a way to stop the Cardinal in a highly competitive game is an unenviable task and could see VanDerveer collect her third national championship if the team makes it to Tampa.
It’s the year of the big in women’s college basketball, so let’s cease with the pleasantries and get right to the point: Megan Gustafson is a problem. The phrase “walking bucket” doesn’t feel like enough. When you can straight up bully your way to the basket 80% of the time and either get sent to the line or bury a basket—and with it, a bit of your defender’s confidence—you’ve got something special. Nowhere was that more clear than when Gustafson dropped a 45-piece on Maryland in the Big Ten title game.
Sure the Terrapins were going small often to try to dig themselves out of deficits and were asking a lot out of Kaila Charles—who rose to the occasion with 36 points (Blair Watson was the only other Terp to get more than two buckets)—but the game showed that when Gustafson is locked in, it’s a matchup nightmare. The 45 points were a season-high and should make teams nervous. If that’s what Gustafson is capable of when playing the best team in the Big Ten and a fellow Final-Four hopeful, what can she do on college basketball’s big stage? She leads the country in points and will happily give you lefty buckets all day. She also draws a lot of attention, which means more open looks for the likes of Mackenzie Meyer, Tania Davis and Hannah Stewart. The Hawkeyes may be a bit of a dark horse going into the tournament—if you can count a team with the nation’s leading scorer as a dark horse—but if Gustafson is firing on all cylinders and her supporting cast steps up to the occasion, we could see Iowa makes its first trip back to the Final Four since 1993.
It’s the year of the bigs in women’s college basketball—oh hi there Megan Gustafson, Lauren Cox, Kalani Brown, Brianna Turner, Jessica Shephard and Napheesa Collier, to name but a few—so it’s only right we talk about Teaira McCowan here. At 6’7”, few players are going to be able to match up with McCowan in March, and even fewer will be able to overcome her stifling defensive presence.
Mississippi State, as with Baylor, seems like it hasn’t gotten quite the media attention that other teams in the top five have received, but it's nothing to sneeze at. The Bulldogs have reached the past two title games, losing in tragic fashion after being up by as much as 15 to Notre Dame last year before Arike Ogunbowale’s shot broke their hearts. Despite graduating four seniors–Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, Morgan William and Roshunda Johnson—this team has hardly skipped a beat, losing only two games this season and rolling Arkansas en route to a SEC tournament title. With Vic Schaefer on the bench and a guaranteed top-three WNBA pick in McCowan, it’d hardly be a surprise to see Mississippi State make another march to the Final Four.