Arike Ogunbowale of Notre Dame after sinking a thrilling game-winning shot in the 2019 championship game. (Photo courtesy of The Globe and Mail.)
Before 64 of the top women’s basketball teams begin their emotionally grinding three-week journey, here’s a preview to help guide you through the madness.
The top seeds across all four regions will be tough with up to 11 teams having a reasonable claim to winning the entire tournament. Luckily for us, the tournament is already broken down into neat little regions that are already named.
To start, we’ll take a trip to the region hosting the top team for most of the country in the Baylor Lady Bears. The Lady Bears have been the unanimous top ranked team in the AP Poll since late February in part to an undefeated Big 12 season. The Lady Bears beat the former top team, Connecticut, in early January to close the non-conference portion of their schedule in which their only loss was by five during a trip to Stanford. The Lady Bears will be looking to make their first final four since 2012 when they won it all.
The Iowa Hawkeyes will be their main challengers as the two seed after finishing the season ranked eighth and going 26-6, including beating Maryland for the Big 10 championship. Megan Gustafson will be leading Iowa as they search for the upset after winning ESPNW’s Player of the Year award after leading the nation by averaging 28 points per game.
North Carolina State is a three seed after a dominant season, but they lack any high-quality wins with their two best wins coming against Miami and Florida state near the end of the season. The Wolfpack, along with the Hawkeyes, will be happy that Florida State can’t meet them until the elite eight. The Seminoles beat both of those teams this season but still couldn’t do better than a five seed without any other ranked wins.
An underdog to watch out for from the Missouri Valley Conference are the Drake Bulldogs. The Bulldogs have spent the season just within or creeping outside the top 25 and were ranked #21 before losing in the conference championship game. Dropping to the 10 seed as a result, Drake still has an RPI rank of 20, thanks to a win over South Carolina, ranked 15th, and a nine-point loss to Iowa in a game that could happen again in the second round.
The defending champion, Notre Dame Irish, are the top seed in the Chicago regional. Late-season losses to North Carolina and Miami shouldn’t overshadow how they got a top seed. A pair of wins over fellow top-seed Louisville, North Carolina State, Florida State, Syracuse, Oregon State, Iowa, DePaul and Marquette show this team can beat anyone.
The only real challenge in this region should be the Stanford Cardinals as the two seed, the team that knocked Notre Dame out in both 2016 and 2017. The Cardinals finished the year ranked sixth after winning a highly competitive PAC 12 championship by beating Oregon, to go along with being the only team to beat Baylor this season. With both Iowa State and Texas A&M ranked outside the top 10 as the three and four seed, Notre Dame and Stanford appear on a collision course.
One team Stanford will have to be careful of is a potential matchup with BYU in the second round. The Cougars swept Gonzaga, a top-20 team the last two and a half months, across three games this season to win the West Coast Conference.
Since I know you’re here for the underdogs, keep an eye on the Rice Owls who finished the year 28-3 in Conference USA, but only managed a 12 seed. Rice lost their only game against a top-25 team, an 11-point loss to TEXAS A&M, but have also gone undefeated since Dec.18.
Albany will be host to a highly anticipated Louisville-Connecticut showdown, although the region is also loaded with Maryland, Oregon State and Gonzaga all lurking. Louisville is the top seed after losing three games all season, with two, being to the Fighting Irish.
If the Cardinals want to make consecutive Final Fours they will need to get by one of the greatest dynasties in sports history as Connecticut is the two seed after losing two games all year. One was to Baylor, but much more importantly their second loss was on New Year’s Eve at Louisville, which was a nine-point loss.
Maryland was the Big 10 regular-season champ and had a win over South Carolina. Oregon State was a top-15 team all season thanks to wins over Oregon and South Carolina to go with a 10-point loss to Notre Dame. Finally, Gonzaga lost to two teams this season, BYU three times and Notre Dame so they should be on the hunt for revenge.
A sneaky upset could come from Buffalo, a team that finished fourth in the MAC before winning the tournament to make it this far. The Bulls only lost by seven to Stanford though during the regular season, which they can use as motivation against top teams.
The final region is based out of Portland with many expecting a Mississippi vs Oregon final, which would be a home game for the two seed. The Bulldogs will be making the long trip as the top seed after they lost two games by eight points each; one was to Missouri while the other was at Oregon. A cruel fate could doom the Bulldogs with the selection committee doing them no favours this year.
Oregon isn’t unbeatable though having dropped games to Michigan State and UCLA, which were unranked, along with defeats to the other top teams out west in Oregon State and Stanford in the PAC 12 championship game. Sabrina Ionescu will be expected to put up her usual triple-double as Oregon battles for a championship.
Lacking any true upset hunters in this region keep an eye on a pair of teams from the Summit league that sit just outside the top 25: South Dakota and South Dakota State. South Dakota picked up a pair of big wins over Iowa State and Missouri this season and will look to pull off some surprises as an eight seed. South Dakota State lacks such wins but did only lose to Baylor by six and Oregon by eight so they know they can scare top teams as a six seed.
My pick to win it all is Oregon, due to the star talent of Ionescu, along with the fact that they are the one team I can confidently pick to reach Tampa for the Final Four.