They’re coming in hot: Five teams on fire heading into the women’s NCAA tournament
Fans of women’s college basketball are familiar with the dominance of the reigning NCAA champion in South Carolina, led by defending National Player of the Year Alia Boston. And it’s almost impossible to miss junior Caitlin Clark’s tear that led Iowa to back-to-back Big Ten titles.
But March is a brand new game, and other teams are waiting in the wings to make a statement once the NCAA Tournament kicks off.
Gamecox and Indiana appear to be in first place and are expected to make it to Dallas and the Women’s Final Four. But from there, there is great uncertainty about who will join them. Many teams have been inconsistent in regular season or conference play. Some programs look ready for big breakthroughs but don’t have much success in past tournaments to build on. Injuries can tip the balance a lot, with some programs like Notre Dame and Texas depending on the health of Olivia Miles and Sonia Morris in the coming weeks.
Ahead of Sunday’s 68-Team Bracket (8pm ET, Sportzshala/Sportzshala App), take a look at some of the teams that have just finished impressive runs or are about to peak at the right time, teams you might not want to see in the corner of your team grid.
Virginia Tech: New Kids in the Neighborhood
Write down: 27-4 (ACC NCAA auto-berth)
Bracket projection: No. 1 seed in Seattle, Region 3
It may seem odd that a projected 1st seed is included here, but unlike others vying for this spot, the Hokies are in truly uncharted waters: they last made it to the second weekend of the tournament in 1999, long before as coach Kenny Brooks took over and never got past the Sweet 16. They also hadn’t hit the “we’ve arrived” moment in March either. Not fully healthy and facing a tough matchup on Florida’s Gulf Coast at last year’s NCAA Tournament, Virginia Tech lost in the first round.
Brooks praised his group—one, he points out, not the full McDonald’s All Americans—for its maturity, camaraderie, selflessness, and understanding of the moment and opportunity in front of the team. This was demonstrated in the Hokies’ current 11-game winning streak, culminating in the program’s first ACC tournament crown, the first time since 2012 that a player with 3 seeds or below won the tournament.
Two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Keatley and Tournament MVP Georgia Amour may have been the most powerful one-twos in the last few weeks of the season, while Kayana Traylor, Kayla King, Taylor Soule and D’Asia Gregg are unbeatable. role players. If the Hawks can continue to deliver that kind of inside-out performance and stay defensively tough, their run to the ACC may not be the only story they’ll make in March.
UConn: down but not out
Write down: 29-5 (NCAA Big East auto berth)
Bracket projection: No. 2 seed in Greenville Region 2
For most of February, the Huskies looked like the shell of the team that pushed South Carolina to its limits on February 5, and even coach Gino Auriemma no longer took fatigue as an excuse. Losses to Marquette and St. Johns are one thing, but UCLA had a hard time getting rid of conference-losing Xavier in the regular season finale.
A week later, Huskies danced in confetti at the Mohegan Sun Arena, Big East winners after a convincing weekend with comfortable UConn-style victories over 10th-placed Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova by an average margin of 24 points. Sophomore guard Azzie Fudd is back, and while her performance has been low (8.3 points on 32.1% shooting in 23 minutes per game), it’s reasonable to expect her to be more productive throughout the month. Auriemma said that she only had two team practices before the Big East tournament.
While Fudd’s prowess in shooting and attacking cannot be overestimated, Oriemma has maintained throughout the season that the fate of his team will depend primarily on the posts of Alia Edwards and Dorka Juhas. Both have had spells of inconsistency this season (most recently Edwards in February), but the duo wreaked havoc when it mattered in Uncasville, and life should only get easier for them when Fudd became a strut.
The February Husky fight now seems like a distant memory. It’s March and they know what that entails in a place like UConn.
Tennessee: How far can talent take you?
Write down: 23–11 (claimed at large; runner-up in SEC Tournament)
Bracket projection: Seeding No. 5 in Seattle Region 3
Despite high preseason expectations, Tennessee had its own well-documented problems this year, failing to clinch a ranking victory amid a grueling non-conference schedule until last weekend’s disappointing LSU in the SEC semi-finals. The Vols won’t get as far as they did in the first half against the Tigers, but the way they rallied to close a 17-point gap in the last 20 minutes and take out LSU showed growth from their previous close losses. such as Virginia Tech and Stanford.
Tennessee hasn’t always shown their potential this season, but the Vols are a team that few will be happy to see on their side of the net, given the talent they boast in potential first-round WNBA draft picks Ricky Jackson and Jordan Horston. Despite losing against South Carolina 74–58, the players said their SEC tournament streak had bolstered their confidence in what they could do in the rest of March, with coach Kelly Harper noting that her team was playing with more tenacity and toughness than earlier. Could Greenville mark the start of a Tennessee finally living up to its promise? If so, then expect the X factors of Gillian Hollingshead and Tess Darby to increase significantly down and around the perimeter, respectively.
State of South Dakota: Double Seed Cinderella
Write down: 28-5 (automatic berth Summit League NCAA)
Bracket projection: No. 11 seed in Greenville Region 2
Last year, 10-seeded South Dakota was one of the Cinderellas of the NCAA Tournament as the Coyotes beat 7-seeded Ole Miss and 2-seeded Baylor to advance to the Sweet 16 (and were within striking distance to upset Michigan with the third seed is also running). Who said their Major League rival wouldn’t have a similar run this year? The Jackrabbits have been great in conference play this season, as well as 4-4 against the Power 5 or Big East programs, with wins over tournament teams Mississippi State and Louisville and a narrow loss in a relatively tight game against South Carolina.
In addition, the Jackrabbits are the reigning 2022 WNIT Champions, which has historically led to success in the NCAA Tournament. The program had its first weekend as recently as 2019, so perhaps this year it will take the next step. Senior sixth year and two-time Major League Player of the Year Maya Selland was in the race and is sure to benefit from the experience. South Dakota State will also enter March Madness with great momentum, winning 21 games in a row and officially confirming their bid for the NCAA Tournament with a 93–51 rout of Omaha, the fourth-highest win of any conference tournament final since 2000 and the biggest. following UConn’s 56-point victory over South Florida in 2017.
Ohio State: the most intriguing wild card
Write down: 24-7 (bid at-large; 2nd in Big Ten Tournament)
A crushing 105-72 loss to Iowa in the Big Ten championship game showed that the Buckeyes were not infallible. But in a tournament where most teams are unfamiliar with their opponents, you probably don’t want your first time going against the trademark Ohio state press to be in a win-or-go-home situation. Shooter Taylor Mixell may be their most famous player, but Coty McMahon has established himself as one of the best freshmen in the country, and Jaycee Sheldon, who has missed most of the season with an injury, is back and ready to make an impact on both ends.
Even last year, coach Kevin McGuff nearly led his team to an Elite Eight bid after upsetting LSU, and that team’s big experience is coming back into the tournament. Starting the season with a 19-0 record, Ohio State has lost six of its last 10 games of the regular season, causing ratings and outside expectations to plummet. But their semi-final victory over Indiana, in which they rallied 24 to the final (one of several big comebacks they’ve had this season), meant they weren’t the kind of team to joke around with. If the Buckeyes can show the same energy and resilience that they showed in the second half against the Indiana, it will be tough for them regardless of the opponents.