Women's Bracket Breakdown: Players to Watch, Expert Picks and More

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After a topsy-turvy ride through months of pandemic basketball, the women’s tournament bracket is set. And there’s greater uncertainty here than usual. There hasn’t been a clear-cut consensus for a front-runner: Five teams received multiple No. 1 votes in the Associated Press poll in the last five weeks (Stanford, UConn, NC State, Texas A&M and South Carolina—and that doesn’t even include national-scoring leader Maryland or perennial heavyweight Baylor). There are all sorts of questions about COVID-19—from what to expect from teams who had unequal experiences in the regular season to what it means that UConn’s Geno Auriemma announced he tested positive for the virus right before Selection Monday. It all adds up to a remarkably unpredictable tournament, but right here, SI has everything you need to help fill out your bracket.

Get a printable version of the women's bracket here.

WOMENSBBALL

COVID CATCH-UP

The pandemic will shape March Madness in two key ways: the bracket structure and the level of uncertainty.

There’s an obvious physical component to the former: Every team will be in San Antonio for the duration of the tournament. (There are multiple sites for the early rounds, and beginning with the Sweet 16, all games will be played at the Alamodome.) This means that geography and travel did not have to be considered in assembling the bracket, so it can be close to a true S-curve, “snaking” down through teams ranked 1–64. In theory, that should provide a more competitive tournament, just setting up the best matchups without any need to account for putting certain teams in certain regions...

...but the flip-side is that we know less about these teams, and how to properly rank them, than we typically would at this point in the year. The virus disrupted schedules for programs all over the bracket. There was less nonconference play than usual. There were teams that were forced off the court for lengthy stretches and teams that played without their coaches for a while. (Stanford played on the road for two months!) How should we analyze teams like, say, No. 6 seed Rutgers, which could only play 18 games due to COVID-19, and No. 8 seed Oregon State, which could only play 17? There are just many more question marks here than usual.

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, that the virus doesn’t have an opportunity to shape much else at the tournament. But Monday’s news that UConn's Auriemma tested positive and would miss at least the team’s first tournament game is an unfortunate reminder that nothing is guaranteed. (Auriemma is currently self-isolating without symptoms and no other positive tests have been reported in the program; he will be temporarily replaced by associate head coach Chris Dailey.) If a team does have to withdraw once play has begun, for any reason, its opponent will simply advance to the next round on a “no contest”; no replacement teams can be added to the bracket after Tuesday.


State of No. 1 Seeds 

Stanford 

The Cardinal enter the 2020–21 tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, which marks the 10th top-seed bid in program history. Stanford (25–2) closed its season with a 14-game winning streak, taking home the Pac-12 tournament trophy along the way.

Senior guard Kiana Williams has led Stanford’s offense while the team has been anchored by Haley Jones and a top-10 defense. The Cardinal do great work in transition as they boast the fourth-best points-per-game differential in the NCAA.
Stanford has proven tough to beat as it pushes the floor and makes teams pay with weapons both inside and on the perimeter. Coach Tara VanDerveer has her team operating at a high level in search of the team’s first national title since 1992.

stanford-womens-bracket-breakdown

NC State

There were questions as to whether the Wolfpack would be awarded a No. 1 seed with steep competition, but the selection committee rewarded the team’s recent strong play. NC State (20–2) is entering the NCAA tournament on an eight-game winning streak, including four wins over top-50 NET teams, and solidified its bid with its second straight ACC championship title.

Junior Elissa Cunane has starred again for the Wolfpack this season, leading the team in points (16.8) and rebounds (8.2) per game. Cunane is one of four players who have averaged double-figures in points this season, with ACC Sixth Player of the Year Jada Boyd adding a key weapon off the bench.

NC State defeated a top-ranked team twice this season, defeating both South Carolina and Louisville—the latter of which it defeated again in the ACC championship. The Wolfpack have proven to be dangerous against top talent and its strong play in the ACC tournament earned them a No. 1-seed bid.

South Carolina

The Gamecocks have dominated in the paint this season on the way to earning a No. 1 seed. South Carolina (22–4) came away as SEC tournament champions after top seed Texas A&M was knocked out by Georgia.

The Big Three of Aaliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson have been South Carolina’s motor this season, with the trio combining for 42.2 points per game. The Gamecocks have been dangerous in transition, ranking first in the nation in blocks (7.1) and fourth in rebounds (47.7) per game.

Boston, Cooke and Henderson puts Dawn Staley’s team in a good place to take advantage of its seeding while attempting to win its second championship in the last five seasons.

UConn

The Huskies (24–1) impressed in their first season back in the Big East, earning yet another No. 1 seed. The big news for UConn, though, came earlier Monday when it announced Auriemma will be away from the team through at least March 24 due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Auriemma led a young UConn roster to a Big East championship title. The team’s core is powered by Paige Bueckers, who has had a sensational season as she leads the Huskies in points (19.7) and assists (6.1) per game.

The young group will likely be without Auriemma through the first weekend of the tournament, but it boasts a talented roster that has impressed on defense and offense. With a leader like Bueckers, UConn has the weapons to continue its strong season and allow Auriemma to have a healthy return to the sideline at a later date. 


POTENTIAL BRACKET BUSTERS

Stephen F. Austin is a No. 12 seed, but take a look at its stats, and it should be clear that this team is worth keeping an eye on for a possible upset. The Southland Conference champs lead Division I in steals and in forcing turnovers, per Her Hoop Stats. They’re third in effective field goal percentage and fifth in overall defensive rating—in other words, a two-way force, and they have a good chance to knock off No. 5 seed Georgia Tech.

Another mid-major analytical darling that could manage to bust some brackets? The No. 11 seed Florida Gulf Coast, which makes more three-pointers than any other team, facing off against No. 6 seed Michigan, which is coming off a rocky end to the regular season.


First-Round Games to Watch

No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Middle Tennessee 

Tennessee has been led by offensive forces Rae Burrell and Rennia Davis, and will be tested in what could be a tough road to the Final Four. Middle Tennessee enters the first-round matchup fresh off a Conference USA tournament championship and boasts the second-highest leading scorer in the NCAA in Anastasia Hayes, who averages 26.5 points per game. Middle Tennessee will likely be motivated to take down its state rival, which can make for a competitive first-round contest.

No. 5 Iowa vs. No. 12 Central Michigan 

Caitlin Clark will have the chance to continue her impressive season into the Big Dance. The Iowa freshman has had a standout year while averaging 26.7 points per game, but she will face a talented guard against Central Michigan, which has been led by Micaela Kelly’s 23.9 points per game. Iowa will be a team to watch as it has the potential to face No. 1-seed UConn in the Sweet 16.

Natasha Mack

No. 8 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Wake Forest 

This matchup pits Natasha Mack and Oklahoma State against a Wake Forest program that is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988. The Demon Deacons may enter the contest with extra motivation to make a run after breaking their 33-year streak outside the Big Dance. With the winner likely facing No. 1 seed Stanford in the next round, a competitive matchup is to be expected with history on the line.

No. 6 Rutgers vs. No. 11 BYU

The Cougars’ selection came as a bit of a surprise as they recorded just three wins against top-50 NET programs during the season (all against Gonzaga). Meanwhile, Rutgers enters the tournament on a hot streak, having won nine straight games before falling to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. The Scarlet Knights boast a strong defense, making their matchup against BYU more intriguing as the Cougars will likely want to prove they are worthy of an at-large bid. 


Players to Watch

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

Boston is the interior anchor for the Gamecocks and plays a vital role in the team’s game plan. The sophomore forward has been fun to watch while making teams pay in the post and making her presence known on the boards. With South Carolina as a No. 1 seed, Boston will have an opportunity to shine as the team competes for a national championship.

Naz Hillmon, Michigan

Though Michigan enters as a No. 6 seed, the Wolverines will be a team to watch thanks to Big Ten player of the year Hillmon. The forward has impressed in her junior season while averaging 25.1 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Michigan may not enter the tournament as a top favorite, but Hillmon gives the team a chance at going on a run with her ability to dominate a game.

Paige Bueckers, UConn

It goes without saying that Bueckers’s freshman season lived up to expectations, but now she will be tasked with leading an inexperienced Huskies group. Auriemma’s early absence also provides a challenge for UConn on its road to the Final Four. Bueckers will likely have to face another top freshman in Iowa’s Clark, which will be another tough test during her first time in the Big Dance as UConn attempts to win its first national championship since 2016.

Dana Evans, Louisville

The No. 2 seed Cardinals will have to get past top-seeded Stanford in the Alamo Region, but they have a chance to surprise thanks to two-time ACC player of the year Evans. The senior guard has led Louisville with averages of 20.0 points, 4.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Though the Cardinals may have a tough path, Evans is a player to watch for her veteran presence and leadership on the court. 


CHAMPIONSHIP PICK

Emma Baccellieri: Stanford. The deal was sealed for me with its wildly dominant performance in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament… but not that sealed. One of the joys of this tournament is just how open it is, with a lot of parity among the top few seeds, and I think any of the top-five teams here has a strong chance of making a serious run at the title.

Elizabeth Swinton: UConn. The Huskies are already experiencing hurdles with Auriemma testing positive for COVID-19, but this group has proven tough to beat with the best scoring margin in the country (31.5). Bueckers has led four players who have averaged double figures in scoring while the team has allowed just 50.5 points per game. Opponents have had a difficult time out-playing the Huskies for a full 40 minutes, and until that happens, it is hard to count UConn out of another title. A UConn-Stanford final would be a fun one, but the Huskies’ balance and slight edge on defense may be enough to put them over the top. 

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