The NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament is set to begin the weekend, with first round games kicking off on Sunday and Monday. We know that this will be unlike any other tournament we've seen before and may ever see again, as the NCAA has created a "bubble" in the San Antonio area in hopes of keeping the players, coaches, and teams safe and the virus out.
Needless to say, the anticipation is immense. It has been just under two years since Kim Mulkey and the Baylor Bears cut the nets down following an exhilarating championship game victory over Notre Dame. Will UConn find their way back to yet another Final Four en route to a championship? Will Dawn Staley, Tara VanDerveer, Gary Blair, or Brenda Frese lead their teams to another national championship? Will Jeff Walz earn his first as a head coach? Will Baylor repeat? Will a team like Arizona, Indiana, or Tennessee catch fire at the right time?
Let's get to it. Let's take a look at each region and who I think will cut the nets down in San Antonio.
Best Player: Dana Evans (Louisville)
Evans has been one of the best players in the country and is the heart and soul of a very good Louisville team. She was recently named a first team AP All-American and also a finalist for the Naismith Award. She is averaging 20.0 PPG, is shooting just over 35% from beyond the 3-point line, and is one of the best free throw shooters in the country at 92%. Evans is a star, a likely first round pick in the WNBA draft and is capable of leading the Cardinals to a championship.
Other players to watch: Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas), Kiana Williams (Stanford), Veronica Burton (Northwestern), and Hannah Sjerven (South Dakota)
Best first round matchup: No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 UCF
Ok, so anyone that knows me knows that this is not the type of game I am likely to pick here. I am a fan of fast, high-paced basketball, and this will certainly not be that. The Oregon-South Dakota matchup, which is a close second here, might be that, but Northwestern and UCF will be the exact opposite. UCF is first in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 49.9 PPG, while Northwestern gives up just 61.5. Burton and Lindsay Pulliam can really score for the Wildcats, but will they score enough against a stout UCF defense? I never thought I'd say it, but sign me up for this one.
Double digit seed most likely to reach the Sweet 16: No. 11 South Dakota
South Dakota is coming off of a Summit League Tournament championship, after beating Omaha in the championship game by 23 points and the Coyotes have plenty of experience on their side coming into the tournament, as they are led by three seniors in Sjerven, Chloe Lamb, and Liv Korngable. They have also played a relatively challenging schedule, which included a 10-point loss to South Carolina and a four-point loss to Gonzaga. They played five games against tournament teams this year and while their 1-4 record is far from great, they drew a decent matchup in an Oregon team that has lost five of their last six games.
Elite Eight preview: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 3 Georgia
I think this region comes down to Stanford and Georgia. Georgia may come as a surprise to some, but head coach Joni Taylor has had this team rolling and a run all the way to the SEC Tournament championship game may have provided some much needed postseason experience. Now, the NCAA Tournament is vastly different, but if they can get by a second round matchup with either South Dakota or Oregon -- both of whom present difficult matchups for Georgia -- I think they beat Louisville.
On the other side of the bracket, I don't see any team getting in the way of Stanford. Led by senior point guard Kiana Williams, and do-it-all wing Haley Jones, the Cardinal are just too tough on both ends of the floor. I have also said all season long that they are the deepest team in the country. I think that comes into play over the next three weeks. Arkansas or Missouri State can give them a run, but the Cardinal present too much scoring for Missouri State and too much defense for Arkansas.
River Walk Region
Best Player: Paige Bueckers (UConn)
Bueckers has lived up to all of the preseason hype and then some. The AP All-American and Naismith Award finalist averaged 19.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and just over 6.0 APG, as she led the young Huskies to a Big East regular season and tournament championship and another No. 1 seed.
Other players to watch: NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), Anastasia Hayes (Middle Tennessee), Kamilla Cordoso (Syracuse), Caitlin Clark (Iowa), and Naz Hillmon (Michigan)
Best first round matchup: No. 8 Syracuse vs. No. 9 South Dakota State
I love, love, love this matchup. Syracuse guard Tiana Mangakahia is back in the tournament and if you haven't seen freshman Kamilla Cordoso play yet, mark your calendars. Averaging 13.7 PPG and 8.3 RPG, Cordoso's season has been very much under the radar, as many freshmen around the country have had really fantastic seasons. South Dakota State, a team that had been in the top-25 for a number of weeks, faltered in their league tournament, losing to No. 8 seed Omaha. I choose to believe that was an anomaly, as the Jackrabbits have beaten the likes of Iowa State, Gonzaga, Missouri State, and South Dakota this season -- that's five wins over tournament teams.
Double digit seed most likely to reach the Sweet 16: No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast
I actually have FGCU reaching the Sweet 16 this year. They have two players averaging better than 17 PPG in Kierstan Bell (24.3) and Tishara Morehouse (17.7). Not only do they boast the fifth beast scoring offense in the country, but also a top-50 (45th) defense. UCF is their best win, but their ability to score and defend will give them a chance to win.
Elite Eight preview: No. 1 UConn vs. No. 2 Baylor
This is a collision course between UConn and Baylor. I think Tennessee, Kentucky, and Iowa could pull an upset, but it's unlikely. Bueckers will lead a younger UConn team to a win against NaLyssa Smith and the reigning national champion Baylor Bears. Both teams are elite offensively and defensively, so this will be an epic matchup. In the end, I think the defense of Didi Richards and the experience of the Bears is too much. Also, DiJonai Carrington will leave her mark in this one.
Best Player: Aari McDonald (Arizona)
The senior came back to Arizona for exactly this: a chance to play in the tournament and win a national championship. McDonald did not disappoint this season, as she averaged 19.3 PPG and 5.1 RPG for the Wildcats. McDonald is also one of the best defenders in the country.
Other players to watch: Elissa Cunane (NC State), N'dea Jones (Texas A&M), Ali Patberg (Indiana), Diamond Johnson (Rutgers), and Charlisse Leger-Walker (Washington State)
Best first round matchup:
No. 7 Iowa State vs No. 10. Michigan State
The 16-10 Cyclones have had an interesting season. They beat Baylor at home, but also lost to Texas three times. Junior Ashley Joens is a terrific scorer, scoring just over 23 PPG and freshman Lexi Donarski can shoot it as well. They have been inconsistent, but the Cyclones can score in bunches. The Spartans started the season 8-0 and finished 6-6 over their last 12 games. Junior Nia Clouden is the player to watch for the Spartans. She will need to have a great offensive game for Michigan State to pull off a small upset.
Double digit seed most likely to reach the Sweet 16: None, BUT…
I don't see any double digit seed with a legitimate chance to get to the Sweet 16, so I'm not going to mess around, BUT keep your eyes on Rutgers. They are a No. 6 seed that I could see getting all the way to the Elite Eight and maybe even to a Final Four.
Elite Eight preview: No. 1 NC State vs. No. 2 Texas A&M
I can see this bracket becoming a real mess heading into the Elite Eight with Arizona, Rutgers, Indiana, and Gonzaga all capable of pulling upsets to disrupt a 1 vs. 2 regional final. Also, NC State and Texas A&M could have their hands full in the second round with Washington State and Iowa State, respectively. That said, I think chalk prevails and we get the Wolfpack and the Aggies for a trip to the Final Four.
Both teams posted terrific regular seasons, are talented, and experienced. Elissa Cunane and Jakia Brown-Turner lead the charge for the Wolfpack, while four seniors N'dea Jones, Aaliyah Wilson, Kayla Wells, and Ciara Johnson are as experienced as any group in the country. There isn't much setting these two teams apart. In the end, I think the Aggies get it done.
Winner: Texas A&M
Best Player: Aliyah Boston (South Carolina)
Boston is a first-team AP All-American selection and a finalist for the Naismith Award. She is also one of the most important players in the country to her team. Boston is a triple-double threat every time she plays, averaging 13.7 PPG and 11.7 RPG, while accumulating 74 blocks on the year. Her ability to impact the game on both ends of the court is unlike any other player in the country.
Other players to watch: Charli Collier (Texas), Michaela Onyenwere (UCLA), Ashley Owusu (Maryland), Zia Cooke (South Carolina), and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (Georgia Tech)
Best first round matchup: No. 7 Alabama vs. No. 10 North Carolina
The Tar Heels were one of the last four teams in on Selection Monday, but now that they are in, Courtney Banghart and her team have their sights set on winning games. They have five players averaging double figures, led by Janelle Bailey. They can put up points and have proved they can beat really good teams, as shown in their win over NC State. No. 7 seed Alabama surprised some people this year, finishing with a 16-9 record and and 8-8 mark in the SEC. Jasmine Walker, Jordan Lewis, and Ariyah Copeland all average greater than 15 PPG. This is going to be an up-and-down battle and a fun game to watch. The first to 75 likely wins it.
Double digit seed most likely to reach the Sweet 16: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
Zya Nugent is SFA's leading scorer at just 12.7 PPG, so they aren't going to go out and score 80 points consistently like some other teams in this bracket, but they are deep and balanced. Nine players are averaging ten minutes per game or more and have played in every game this season. They also boast the fifth best scoring defense in the country. Depth, balance, and defense. That, plus a fairly decent draw, could propel SFA to the Sweet 16.
Elite Eight preview: No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 2 Maryland
I'm already excited about this potential matchup. South Carolina has been one of the best teams in the country since day one and Maryland has put together one of their best seasons in recent memory. Maryland is the top-ranked scoring offense in the country at 91.3 PPG. All five starters average 10 PPG or more with Ashley Owusu (18.3) and Diamond Miller (17.2) setting the pace. Graduate transfer Katie Benzan is also the most efficient 3-point shooter in the nation.
For the Gamecocks, Boston and sophomore guard Zia Cooke have been elite all year long and there is arguably no better guard-forward combination in the country. Destanni Henderson is also an assist machine.
In the end, the balance of Dawn Staley's team is too much to overlook. Maryland's defense, while it has been better over the past month, is still a major concern, and Boston's ability to impact the game on both ends will prove to be too much.
Winner: South Carolina
Stanford over South Carolina
Kiana Williams, Haley Jones, and freshman sensation Cameron Brink get it done in a game that will likely be the best game of the entire tournament between two outstanding and evenly matched teams. Stanford's depth will have an impact in this one as well.
Baylor over Texas A&M
The run for Texas A&M and their core of senior starters will come to an end in this one, mostly thanks to NaLyssa Smith. Smith is a star and her talent and experience will be on full display.
Stanford over Baylor
After all is said and done, the depth and balance of the Stanford Cardinal will help Tara VanDerveer earn her third national championship and first since 1992.