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Women’s Bracket Breakdown: State of the No. 1s, Players to Watch and More

Now that the field of 68 has been revealed, we’re analyzing the top storylines, players and games to watch.

After months of thrilling college basketball action, the women’s NCAA tournament is finally here. For the first time, the bracket will feature 68 teams, as the full field was unveiled Sunday. Also new this year is the NCAA’s use of March Madness branding for the women’s event, a decision made after last year’s tournament highlighted a number inequities between the men’s and women’s competition. South Carolina, Stanford, North Carolina State and Louisville were named as No. 1 seeds on Sunday. But, as a number of conference tournaments showed, upsets could occur at any point. Sports Illustrated has everything you need to help fill out your bracket.

Stanford’s Haley Jones, South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and UConn’s Paige Bueckers.

State of the No. 1 Seeds:

South Carolina

Don’t be fooled by the Gamecocks dropping the SEC tournament final to Kentucky; South Carolina is fully deserving of being the No. 1 team in this year’s tournament and the headliner in the Greensboro region. Sporting the country’s top defense, the Gamecocks allow five fewer points per 100 possessions than Stanford, who has the No. 2 unit in the country. And while South Carolina’s offense has at-times struggled, as was especially apparent in the fourth quarter of its final two SEC tournament games, it features a number of versatile and dynamic players, namely star forward Aliyah Boston and guards Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson, capable of breaking down different types of opposing defenses.

South Carolina also comes into March Madness knowing it can defeat a number of the field’s other top teams, considering it did as much during the regular season. Among other contenders they’ve topped already include Connecticut, Maryland, Stanford, LSU and NC State. “Going into the NCAA tournament it doesn't feel good,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said after her team’s 64–62 loss to Kentucky. “But we've got a lot of feel-goods throughout the season that we'll draw on.” Their draw could feature a matchup between two of the best players in the sport, as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and the No. 2 Hawkeyes loom large at the bottom of the draw, but it still would be relatively surprising to see the Gamecocks fall short of Minneapolis.


Last year’s reigning champions, Stanford is eyeing its fourth title in school history as it begins its NCAA tournament run as the headliner of the Spokane region. The Cardinal are 27–3 on the season and have made the second weekend of the tournament every year since 2006-07. There’s no reason to expect that streak to end this time around as Stanford enters the draw having won 20 consecutive games, with just five of them being in single-digits.

The Cardinal feature the Pac-12 Player of the Year, in junior guard Haley Jones, and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year as well, in sophomore forward Cameron Brink. But beyond the two individual standouts, the roster features great balance and versatility. Six players average more than 21 minutes per game and eight average 10 or more minutes per contest. They get contributions from their entire team, making them especially difficult to defeat. Blocking their way, however, could be No. 4 Maryland, No. 3 LSU and No. 2 Texas, the latter of whom already topped the Cardinal earlier this season.

NC State

After the Wolfpack took home their third ACC championship in as many seasons, coach Wes Moore said his team’s conference title was as rewarding and challenging as any his team had won. The reason, he explained, was he thought this year’s group went through a lull in the middle of January and into February. The doldrums of the season seem like a long time ago for NC State (29–3), the No. 1 seed in the Bridgeport region. The Wolfpack haven’t lost since Feb. 1 against Notre Dame and all three of their defeats this year came against conference foes.

NC State has the second-best offense in the country, per HerHoopsStats, at 116.5 points per 100 possessions, and possesses a number of talented players in both the front- and backcourt. No player, though, is more central to its success than senior center Elissa Cunane, who averaged 13.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 52.6% shooting from the field. Last year, Moore’s group made history, being named a No. 1 seed for the first time ever. It fell, however, in the Sweet 16 when No. 4 Indiana eked out a three-point win. Not since 1998 have the Wolfpack even made an Elite Eight, let alone a Final Four. This year’s path could include a dangerous Oklahoma team, the Big Ten tournament runner-up Indiana and Big East champion UConn, playing what will likely feel like a home game.


The Cardinals likely moved back up to the No. 1 line after Baylor dropped the Big 12 championship game to Texas on Sunday. But a possible late change hours before the bracket release should take nothing away from what Louisville accomplished this season. After dropping its first game of the season to Arizona, it lost only three more times. The Cardinals defeated opponents by an average of 17.1 points per game this season, good enough for 10th in the nation. Both their offense and defense are also top-10 in the country, per

It’s hard to overlook, however, that they have lost two of their last five games heading into the NCAA tournament, including on March 4 when they dropped their lone ACC tournament contest to Miami. Fourth-quarter struggles plagued them vs. the Hurricanes as they shot only two-of-nine from the field in the game’s final 10 minutes, scoring a mere seven points. The Wichita region features Baylor, Michigan and Tennessee, among others, creating a difficult road ahead. But the Cardinals have made the Elite Eight in the last three NCAA tournaments and could certainly make a second Final Four appearance since 2018.

Potential Bracket Busters

No. 7 UCF

It may be a No. 7 seed in the Bridgeport region, but don’t be surprised if UCF makes a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The AAC champions are No. 3 in HerHoopsStats’s defensive rating, allowing just 74.8 points per 100 possessions. If the Knights are able to improve on their offensive production—they are just outside the top 100 in offensive rating—they have the makings of a team that no opponent would want to play. They take on in-state rival Florida in the first-round, and could face the Huskies in the round of 32. That game would take shape in front of a raucous UConn crowd, but the Knights have a defensive unit that could create problems for Geno Auriemma’s group.

No. 11 Princeton

Want another potential sleeper? Look no further than back-to-back-to-back Ivy League champion Princeton. The Tigers might be one of the smallest teams in the country—forward Ellie Mitchell is their tallest starter at just 6’1”—but they play a style of basketball that is both exciting to watch and disruptive for their opponents. Per, Princeton is No. 5 in the country in defensive rating, holding opponents to just 50.9 per game. It’s won 17 consecutive games and went undefeated in Ivy League play. As important to their résumé, the Tigers also picked up nonconference victories over Villanova, FGCU, Buffalo and Temple. They entered the Ivy League conference tournament at No. 24 in last week’s AP poll and would have likely made the dance even without beating the Lions on Saturday. Their first-round matchup vs. Kentucky in the Bridgeport region will surely be highly-contested, but the Tigers’ defense makes them a difficult out no matter who they play.

No. 12 Stephen F. Austin

Stephen F. Austin could put some teams on upset watch in the Greensboro region after the Ladyjacks emerged as one of the country’s top defensive teams this season. Winners of both the WAC regular season and conference tournament, they allow just 76.3 points per 100 possessions, fifth-best in the country, and have an offense led by two seniors, Stephanie Visscher and Aiyana Johnson, who average more than 14 points per game. First-round opponent North Carolina also features one of the top defenses in the nation, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see its offense ground to a halt.

First-Round Games to Watch

No. 7 Colorado vs. No. 10 Creighton (Greensboro Region)

Creighton is a dangerous team in the Greensboro region mainly because of its reliance on three-point shots. The Blue Jays average the third-most three-point attempts per game in the country, shooting 36.8% as a team, 11th-best in the nation. While they finished third in the Big East and have dropped each of their last two games, any team that scored 90 or more points six times this season can’t be counted out.

By comparison, Colorado is fairly average on offense—scoring 65.4 points per game—and is more prolific on the defensive end. The Buffaloes should be on upset watch.

No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Princeton (Bridgeport Region)

Two of the hottest teams in the country meet in this first-round matchup, which could be the most exciting of any in the entire bracket. As stated above, Princeton sports one of the country’s top defenses and has won 17 consecutive games. Kentucky, on the other hand, hasn’t lost since Feb. 10 and recently picked up what might be the most impressive win of the entire season, defeating South Carolina in the SEC tournament title game.

No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 FGCU (Spokane Region)

ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley exited the NCAA tournament last year with a sour taste in her mouth, scoring only six points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field in a 42-point loss to Baylor. She responded this year, however, playing consistently like one of the best bigs in the country. Kitley recorded an ACC-high 15 double-doubles, while averaging 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.45 blocks per game. She’ll lead the Hokies into a first-round matchup against the Eagles, who pride themselves not on post play but on stretching opponents from the perimeter. FGCU attempted the most three-pointers in college basketball (961), making the second-most (319). No player is more important to FGCU’s style of play than guard Kierstan Bell, who averaged 24 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this season.

No. 6 BYU vs. No. 11 Villanova (Wichita Region)

There were no guarantees the Wildcats would hear their name called on Sunday, but after drawing BYU in the first round, fans will be treated to a matchup featuring two of the best guards in the country. Villanova is led by star junior Maddy Siegrist, who averaged 25.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season on 49.8% shooting from the field.

BYU, on the other hand, has watched Shaylee Gonzalez continue to blossom and lead the Cougars to a 26–3 record. She averaged 18.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Both were recently honored as the Player of the Year in their respective conferences, meaning that one of the sport’s brightest stars will be receiving an early exit.

Players to Watch

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

No player in college basketball was as consistently forceful on both ends as Boston. The junior forward enters the tournament, and Greensboro region more specifically, in the midst of a 24-game double-double streak, the longest in SEC history. She finished the regular season No. 1 in win shares and PER, according to, stifling opposing offenses thanks to her size and strength. Boston is the favorite to take home Player of the Year honors, but, perhaps more important, she is hoping to get redemption for a missed layup that would have sent the Gamecocks to last year’s title game.

Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Howard, much like Caitlin Clark with Iowa, enters March Madness having led her team to a conference championship. The Wildcats’ result, however, was a surprise, as they entered the SEC tournament as the No. 7 seed. The Kentucky senior is one of the sport’s most effective slashers, averaging 20.6 points on 44.5% shooting. If you needed more reasons to watch Howard, consider that she is likely to hear her name called within the top three picks of the 2022 WNBA draft just over a week after the NCAA tournament concludes.

Khayla Pointer, LSU

Unlike the aforementioned players, Pointer entered this season with relatively little fanfare. That changed quickly this season. LSU had not made the NCAA tournament since the 2016-17 campaign, but Hall of Fame coach Kim Mulkey has made an immediate imprint on the program during her first year in Baton Rouge. Pointer’s play has been key to the Tigers’ quick turnaround. The senior guard was a first-team All-SEC selection, averaging 19.2 points and 5.2 assists per game. She was among the country’s best playmakers and, coupled with her experience, is the kind of guard who could lead her team on a deep run through the Spokane region.

Naz Hillmon, Michigan

It wouldn’t be shocking if the senior forward carried Michigan out of the Wichita region and to the Final Four. The 6’2’’ big is a force on both ends, averaging 21 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Earlier this year, she accomplished a feat no other Wolverine player—man or woman—had done in school history, notching 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. Last season, Michigan advanced to its first-ever Sweet 16, where it lost to Baylor in an overtime thriller. The Wolverines look to advance to at least the Elite Eight this year, with Hillmon being the catalyst for determining how far they go.

Championship Pick: South Carolina

The Gamecocks were the most dominant team in the country during the regular season and have the best player in the sport on their roster in Boston. A conference championship game loss against Kentucky should also only motivate them further. Couple that with having significant NCAA tournament experience—they lost a heartbreaker versus Stanford in last year’s Final Four—and this group seems poised to take home the school’s second title in its history. 

More College Basketball Coverage:

What We Learned From Women’s Conference Tourneys
• With Kierstan Bell Back, FGCU is in ‘March Mentality’
Aliyah Boston’s Journey to the Face of Women’s CBB