Carolyn Kieger woke up Monday morning hopeful, but realistic. The third-year Marquette women’s basketball coach, fresh off a Big East tournament championship, believed her team deserved a six seed but figured the Golden Eagles would likely be awarded a seven. So when the bracket revealed Marquette as a five, Kieger was understandably caught off guard.
“Oh my gosh,” Kieger cried into the phone Monday night after the selection show ended. “I am so excited! Shocked, but excited.”
The Golden Eagles (25–7) will take on 12th-seeded Quinnipiac (27–6) of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference on Saturday. If they win, they’d advance to play the winner of Miami-Florida Gulf Coast.
Marquette has been a fringe top-25 team all season, mostly because of sporadic play. It would follow up incredibly impressive wins with head-scratching losses, like when it went on the road and beat Pac-12 regular season champ Oregon State 74–73 in Corvallis and then lost at Santa Clara, 65–62. In January, it upset No. 18 DePaul in overtime, then lost six days later to Providence. You get the picture.
But the Golden Eagles come into the NCAA tournament on an eight-game winning streak, headlined by their 86–78 win over No. 1-seeded DePaul in the Big East tournament championship game on March 7. That victory gave Marquette a perfect 6–0 record against top 25 teams this season, and sealed its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2011. The difference between now and all the uneven play midseason? Confidence.
“I told our team when we went into that Big East tourney, ‘The most confident team is going to win,’” Kieger said. “This team, we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve never seen our group so focused.”
Some of the Golden Eagles’ inconsistence this season can be attributed to youth. Marquette’s five top scorers are sophomores, led by 6-foot guard Allazia Blockton, who averages 17.2 points and six rebounds per game. So many underclassmen means Marquette will be good for years to come, but why wait for the future? Kieger believes her team is ready to make a run now, and plans on drawing on some of those big wins from earlier in the season—especially the victory at Oregon State—to remind her team that its capable of knocking off favorites.
“We talk about the Oregon State game a lot, particularly because I felt like we executed nearly flawless down the stretch,” Kieger said. “We played very mature that night. From a confidence standpoint, looking back at it, that win is really what’s propelled this run from us.
“I don’t even know if our girls understand (the importance of) the five seed. I’m really going to make sure our team knows how much respect they got. But still, once it begins, if you’re a five, a 12, whatever, it doesn’t matter.”
She’s right about that. And yet people would be wise to take a close look at the five seeds this year.
Twelve over five might be a common upset in the men’s tournament, but don’t count on it happening this year on the women’s side. Besides Marquette, Ohio State, Tennessee and Texas A&M all earned five seeds. Ohio State boasts one of the top scorers in the game in point guard Kelsey Mitchell (23 ppg), and Tennessee’s roster is stacked with talent. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair won the title in 2011. Each five seed is capable of making noise this month. While women’s basketball critics complain about Connecticut’s dominance (the undefeated Huskies are favored to win their fifth consecutive title), Kieger believes parity is growing every year.
“Yes, UConn is the top dog right now,” she said. “But the fact that teams 2–30 could beat each other on any night, people don’t give that enough attention.”
Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff agrees. McGuff has seen the expansion of talent throughout women’s basketball, and he’s had experience coaching it, too. Before Ohio State, McGuff coached at Washington and recruited Kelsey Plum, now the all-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball, to Seattle. Connecticut deserves credit for staying at the top and setting a standard, he says. But other teams are gaining traction.
“Other programs are working hard to catch them, and more schools are committing to finding success in women’s basketball,” McGuff says, adding that while there are more good players than at any other time in women’s college hoops, not all of them reside in Storrs. “We’re starting to spread the wealth a little. No one can get past the fact that UConn is so dominant, but there is a lot of parity—and hopefully that shows up in the tournament regardless of if UConn loses or not, and hopefully people notice.”
Toughest Draw: Maryland
How is it the No. 4 ranked team in the country wound up with a No. 3 seed? All season long there’s been chatter that Maryland, which is loaded with star power, passed the “eye test.” But what we discovered Monday is that the committee cares a lot about non-conference scheduling, and Maryland’s was not particularly tough this year. Yes, the Terps played UConn, losing 87–81 at home, and they won the Big Ten tournament for the third consecutive year, but their non-conference wasn’t enough to impress and for that, they were given the three seed in the Bridgeport Regional, where the other top three teams (No. 1 seed UConn, No. 2 seed Duke and No. 4 seed UCLA) are all capable of reaching a Final Four.
The Terps are pretty talented themselves though, and provide lots of matchup problems with 6’3” senior center Brionna Jones (19.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 69.8% from the field), 5’11” senior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (18.6 points, 44.7% from three) and 5’7” freshman point guard Destiny Slocum (11.5 points, team-best 186 total assists). Don’t be surprised if Maryland pulls off the impossible and finds its way to Dallas.
Players to Watch
LEXINGTON REGIONAL: Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State: You’ve probably heard a lot about Kelsey this season—Kelsey Plum, that is, the other left-handed point guard who can get buckets. But don’t forget about the one in the Midwest. Mitchell is a 5’8” speedster who can score in bunches, too, often because she beats defenders down the court. She’s got unlimited range (she shoots 37.4% from three), and plays in an offense that allows her to attack the rim relentlessly.
STOCKTON REGIONAL: Leticia Romero, Florida State. One of the premier transfers in women’s college basketball, Romero made headlines a couple years ago when her spat with the Kansas State athletic department—the Wildcats would not initially release her from her scholarship—went viral. The 5’8 guard from Spain eventually found a home in Tallahassee, where she’s the only player in women’s college basketball shooting at least 50% from the floor and from three, plus 90% from the free throw line.
OKLAHOMA CITY REGIONAL: Chantel Osahor, Washington: You’ll remember Osahor from last year’s Final Four, because she’s the one who shoots a flat-footed three-pointer. But Pac-12 opponents know her for much more than that, because the 6’2” senior is one of the best post defenders in the league. She leads the nation in rebounding, at 15.3 per game—and throws killer outlet passes after those boards—and sets screens for days. She also averages 15.7 points per game.
BRIDGEPORT REGIONAL: Alexis Peterson, Syracuse: If you like threes, you’ll like Peterson, the Orange’s 5’7 guard who has taken 214 long-distance attempts this season (she’s hit on 36.4% of those tries). She can score (23.3 points per game), help her teammates score (7.1 assists) and led Cuse to the Final Four last year. Don’t underestimate the value of experience.
Here’s all you need to know about Sabrina Ionescu, the Ducks’ rookie guard who averages 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game was named Pac-12 and ESPNW freshman of the Year: She has already notched four triple doubles this season. The Pac-12 career record is six. The Ducks are back in the NCAA tournament after a 12-year drought, and drew a 10 seed. They’ll play 7th-seeded Temple on Saturday.
Matchup I Want to See
I’d get scolded by coaches for looking ahead but … UConn forward Gabby Williams and UCLA forward Monique Billings could both make a great case for most improved player in the country. The 5’11 Williams and 6’4 Billings are both tremendous athletes who can sky for rebounds and, because of their ability to move so well around the paint, present matchup problems for everyone. But they’d be able to keep up with each other. Williams, a junior, does everything for her team: score (13.2 points per game), rebound (8.4), hand out assists (team-leading 168, to just 74 turnovers) and grab steals (team best 86). Billings, also a junior, cleans up the glass for UCLA (10.7 rebounds per game) and often turns those boards into putbacks (16.8 points per game). If the first couple rounds go chalk, we’ll see these two in the Sweet 16.
Final Four Prediction:
Picking all No. 1 seeds is boring, so I’ll take UConn, Stanford, Baylor and Florida State. (I reserve the right to change this prediction if South Carolina’s Alaina Coates is, in fact, at full-strength when games start). Smart money is on UConn to win its fifth consecutive title, though if Stanford makes it that far, it matches up well with the Huskies. Still, I’ll pick UConn.