I know you came here for a bracket breakdown but we really need to begin with what exactly happened Monday afternoon with the bracket leak. As Kevin Draper at the New York Times points out, this exposes the mistakes that can happen when a media outlet intentionally delays the distribution of information so it can prepare topics and graphics for something that’s billed as a TV event you have to watch.
Moving up the show two hours after the leak was an interesting choice—made all the more interesting by keeping its original event scheduled for 7 p.m. that essentially functioned as a way to further breakdown the bracket. But mistakes happen, even with events of this magnitude. It’s been three years since the last one, when a Twitter user leaked the men’s tournament bracket, much to the delight of those who abhor the drawn-out process of reveals on television.
There are surprises—UConn isn’t a No. 1 seed?(!!)—but we’ll get into that and more below. It’s almost time for the speculation to end and the actual basketball to begin and, after last year’s incredible Final Four, this year could prove to be just as exciting. So without further ado, let’s discuss the top seeds, the hardest region, the best first-round game, a team that could bust brackets, players you should watch and who my champion is.
State of No. 1 Seeds
By now you’ve heard that all the talk around UConn—”this is the first time the Huskies haven’t been a No. 1 seed since 2006” or “how will Geno Auriemma’s team respond to this new adversity?” The answer to the latter question is something we will address later, for now, let’s marvel at how strong the field is for this year’s tournament.
Baylor, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Louisville all secured No. 1 seeds and there is PLENTY to talk about concerning those four teams. I touched on each of these teams in our Magic Eight but now, with the benefit of a revealed bracket, let’s briefly re-assess. I’ll also use this space to see who has the best case to make the Final Four.
Baylor will likely be ecstatic about its region. Despite potential collision courses with South Carolina, NC State and Iowa, the Bears have proved themselves as massive threats on both sides of the floor. South Carolina has struggled against ranked competition this season—and was thoroughly smacked in the Big 12/SEC Challenge by Baylor in December—while NC State started the season on a 22-game winning streak before running into a bit of poor form itself.
Big Ten champion Iowa is an interesting upset case—and Bears fans would love watching Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox take their shot at Megan Gustafson—but it looks like Baylor has a strong case as a lock for the Final Four.
There seems to be a serious dearth of conversation surrounding the Bulldogs, despite the fact that they’ve been in the national championship the past two years, losing in heartbreaking fashion last year. Teiara McCowan is enough of a reason to believe that a third straight trip might be in the cards for Vic Schaefer and the squad. This team may be different than the ones of year’s past—no Final Four dagger from Morgan William, no feel-good stories about a coach and his daughter trying to win a championship in her last year—but Mississippi State is still incredibly dangerous. McCowan and Anriel Howard will make sure of that.
Whether those two seniors can end their last season in college basketball is another story, however, as Oregon sits at the bottom of the Portland region with plenty to prove and a game-changer of its own in Sabrina Ionescu. The health of Ruthy Hebard and Taylor Chavez will likely play a major factor in whether Mississippi State gets to Tampa—not to mention a Miami team that’s had a penchant for taking down big teams this season. Will this year mark a third straight heartbreaking postseason for the Bulldogs or will the towering McCowan finally bring some hardware to Starkville?
You all saw what happened in the ACC tournament against Louisville. O.K., so Louisville was dealing with injuries to Arica Carter and Sam Fuehring, but the Fighting Irish looked dominant in the championship game. Muffet McGraw’s squad has one of the best starting fives in the country. There’s literally no one you can neglect to keep track of or Notre Dame will feed that player and suddenly a five-point deficit turns to 15. Jackie Young has been a revelation, the pairing of Breanna Turner and Jessica Shephard in the post is frightening and that’s before you get to Marina Mabrey and 2018 Final Four hero Arike Ogunbowale waiting to give you buckets.
Stanford is a very credible No. 2 seed that defeated Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament championship after getting blasted by the Ducks earlier in the year. Tara VanDerveer is a legend who thrives in March and her Cardinal pose a huge threat to upset the Fighting Irish. That being said, Notre Dame has been dealing with having the “national champions” target on its back all season and still managed to win the hardest conference in women’s basketball. Getting to Tampa will be difficult, of course, but with a loaded starting five, the Fighting Irish could be looking at another trip to the national championship and we all know what Ogunbowale does in national championships.
Yes, Louisville is the No. 1 seed in the Albany region. Yes, UConn is also in this region. Here’s the thing: Louisville plays in the ACC, a conference that sent eight teams to the tournament and has two No. 1 seeds in the field. Oh and the Cardinals only lost three games in the regular season. UConn lost to Baylor and *checks schedule* Louisville, so while it’s strange to see the Huskies as a No. 2 seed, Louisville has earned the right to be considered one of the top four teams in the country. How the Cardinals rebound from a lopsided ACC tournament championship loss to Notre Dame will be interesting to watch.
The health of Sam Fuehring and Arica Carter will also be something to watch but we know what you’re here for. You’re here to watch Nite Nite. Asia Durr is liable to put on a show this year as late March threatens to bleed into early April. Whether Louisville can get past a UConn team that Geno Auriemma has no doubt stirred into a frenzy over their No. 2 seeding will be must-see tv if both teams make it to the Elite Eight.
This is tough because the NCAA appears to have done a really good job at balancing the bracket this year. That is also due to the deepness of the field this year. The tried and true “you might as well sharpie UConn into the national championship" narrative has been replaced by one of the deepest fields in recent memory. I’m tempted to pick the Albany region with Louisville, UConn and whoever wins the first-round matchup between UCLA and Tennessee—more on that later—but I’m going to choose the Portland region as the hardest region in the tournament.
A region with a potential Elite Eight matchup of Mississippi State and Oregon could be wildly entertaining but let’s not skip ahead so quickly. Miami, Syracuse and Texas could all spring upsets in the right conditions, something that the Hurricanes proved with wins over Notre Dame and Louisville during a 10-day period in February. Whether those teams can actually make some noise in the next week or so is yet to be determined but it’d make for a fantastic story.
First-Round Game(s) to Watch
Inject every aspect of UCLA-Tennessee into my veins. The Lady Vols were on the bubble after having an up-and-down season and looking unmotivated and unconnected at times. But when they’re clicking, they can pose quite a challenge to whoever is in their way.
Enter UCLA: A Pac-12 team that got off to a slow start before kickstarting its season with an upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State and then going 10–2 after that win, including a win over Oregon and a three-point loss to Oregon State. This will be a grudge match between women’s basketball royalty and a team lost in the shuffle of the Pac-12’s resurgent teams. Sounds like a good time to me.
Honorable mention: California-North Carolina. Any chance to watch Kristine Anigwe is welcome, plus seeing what a UNC team that showed enough composure to knock off Notre Dame in late January is capable of two months later could prove to be fascinating. But I mostly just want to see Anigwe go for another 32 and 30.
One Bracket Buster
It’s hard to pick a bracket buster when the top eight teams are so solid but I’ll say UCLA. If the Bruins manage to get past the Lady Vols, it’s not inconceivable for UCLA to beat Maryland and set up a Sweet 16 meeting with UConn. It may not bust your bracket but it’s certainly something to watch.
Players to Watch
There are too many great players to name here so I’ll try to keep these short and choose a few players that aren’t getting a ton of shine:
Katie Lou Samuelson: After sitting out the AAC tournament, it will be interesting to see how healthy Samuelson is for the NCAA tournament. The Huskies might not need their All-American for their first game against Towson, but her return will likely correspond with whether UConn can make it to the Elite Eight and attempt to get past No. 1 seed Louisville.
Lauren Cox: Kalani Brown gets a ton of attention for Baylor so let’s focus on here frontcourt mate, shall we? Cox has helped form the backbone of the Bears’ crushing defense and recorded 81 blocks in 32 games this year. She’s a human wall that also happens to be Baylor’s second-leading scorer. Watching teams try and deal with her and Brown in the post is going to be fun.
Megan Gustafson: If you haven’t had a chance to watch Gustafson go to work, I’m sorry. Log onto YouTube, watch a few games and come back. I’ll wait. Are you good now? Great, so let’s discuss how few things are more guaranteed than a Gustafson bucket when she barrels into the paint. Don’t sleep on her pulling up from deep either. She led the nation in scoring for a reason.
Kristine Anigwe: All I really have to say is a player who drops 32 points and 30 rebounds in a regulation college basketball game is something worth tuning in for. Anigwe is set to be a high pick in the WNBA draft this year so try and get a glimpse of her before she’s vacuuming up rebounds in the W later this year.
Alanna Smith: One of the catalysts to Stanford’s incredible season this year, Smith has been a revelation for Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal this season. She shoots nearly 40% from three and can operate inside as well. As the game continues to evolve and you see bigs creeping out toward the perimeter, March could be the place where Smith not only shows off her shooting but her ability to defend and pass as well.
As I’ve said many times in here, this is one of the deepest fields in recent memory, so picking a champion is hard. I picked UConn back in December, but that was before losses to Baylor and Louisville. It’s tempting to stick with it and bet on Katie Lou Samuelson coming back fully healthy and helping Napheesa Collier, Crystal Dangerfield, Christyn Williams and Megan Walker lift the trophy in Tampa.
But something is still nagging at me. This year’s Huskies aren’t like some of the storied teams of yesteryear. They are vulnerable and have looked a bit skittish in tight games. UConn demolished then-No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend but suffered losses to the two other No. 1 seeds it faced… which is why I’m going to choose Baylor to win the national championship.
Picking the No. 1 overall seed to win it all shouldn’t feel like I’m going out on a limb—and maybe I’m really not—but Kim Mulkey’s team has been massively impressive this season. I’m a sucker for tough defense and this Baylor team is one of the strongest defensive teams I’ve ever seen. Just thinking about getting shots inside between Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox should give opposing coaches the shakes.
Every challenge that the Bears have faced—other than a five-point loss at Stanford in December—they’ve overcome. Plus it’d be boring to pick UConn or Notre Dame so let’s have a little fun and say that the Bears bring a title to Waco.