DOUG FEINBERG / AP Basketball Writer
The women’s NCAA Tournament field is set and now the fun begins, with 68 teams trying to win the national championship — starting with the first-ever First Four games.
The tournament returned to some normalcy this year after it was played in its entirety in San Antonio last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The top 16 seeds will host the first rounds, with the Final Four in Minneapolis.
When picking a bracket there are a couple of rules to live by:
NO. 1 RULES: A No. 1 seed has won the national championship the past nine years and 13 of the last 14. All four of the 1 seeds have reached the Final Four three times since the 2012 tournament.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE UPSETS GONE?: Looking to pick a 14, 15 or 16 seed for an upset? Might want to look elsewhere as there has been only one victory by any of those seeds in the 38-year history of the tournament. That was when 16th-seeded Harvard knocked off No. 1 Stanford in 1998. The No. 14, 15 and 16 seeds are winless since. Last season 13th-seeded Wright State knocked off Arkansas. There have only been 10 wins by 13 seeds in the tournament. Only three double-digit seeds made it out of the first round last year when games were played on neutral sites.
WATCH OUT FOR THOSE 12s: Just like in the men’s bracket, the 12 seeds have some success in recent years upending the 5s. At least one 12 has made it out of the first round in four of the last five tournaments.
And now the picks, with a small disclaimer that it’s no fun to just pick all the favorites to win, so there are some potential upset choices in here:
Analysis: South Carolina has gone 11-0 when playing other Top 25 teams this season, although the Gamecocks enter the NCAAs coming off a loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game. Dawn Staley’s team is the favorite to win the national championship and it’s hard to see anyone in the region knocking them off before a potential matchup with No. 2 Iowa in the regional final.
Players to watch: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina, Caitlin Clark, Iowa, Ashley Joens, Iowa State, Aneesah Morrow, DePaul.
Upset watch: If DePaul makes it through the play-in game against Dayton, the Blue Demons could make a run to the second weekend of the tournament. Morrow is the best freshman in the country and Doug Bruno’s team loves to put points on the board. They led the country in scoring at 88.3 points a game. Georgia should be on alert. Other teams that could pull off opening round stunners include No. 12 Stephen F. Austin and 13th-seeded UNLV.
First-round winners: South Carolina, Miami, Stephen F. Austin, Arizona, DePaul, Iowa State, Colorado, Iowa.
Second-round winners: South Carolina, Arizona, DePaul, Iowa.
Regional semifinal winners: South Carolina, Iowa.
Regional champion: South Carolina.
Analysis: There’s a lot of talent in this region, led by Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon. The two met in December, with the Wolverines coming away with a six-point overtime win. They could meet again in the Sweet 16 for a chance to face off against No. 1 seed Louisville. The Cardinals might have to get past a seasoned Oregon team.
Other players to watch: Hailey Van Lith, Louisville, Maddy Siegrist, Villanova, Shaylee Gonzales, BYU, Sedona Prince, Oregon.
Upset Watch: No. 13 Buffalo is no stranger to playing Power Five schools, having competed in a tournament in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving. Bulls star Dyaisha Fair can take over a game and Tennessee is struggling heading into the tournament with six losses in its last 10 games. Watch out for Belmont, too, which knocked off fifth-seeded Gonzaga last year in the opening round.
First-round winners: Louisville, Gonzaga, Oregon, Buffalo, Villanova, Michigan, Ole Miss, Baylor.
Second-round winners: Louisville, Oregon, Michigan, Baylor.
Regional semifinal winners: Louisville, Michigan.
Regional champion: Michigan.
Analysis: No other region has three different coaches who have won national championships, including Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, who cut down the nets last year. The Cardinal are definitely the favorite to get back to the Final Four with most of the team back, including Haley Jones — the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four in 2021. The Cardinal will need to potentially get through Brenda Frese’s Maryland squad and maybe even Kim Mulkey’s LSU team or Texas, which handed Stanford one of its few losses this season, to get to Minneapolis.
Other players to watch: Angel Reese, Maryland, Kierstan Bell, Florida Gulf Coast, Khayla Pointer, LSU, Rori Harmon, Texas, Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech.
Upset watch: Florida Gulf Coast has Bell, one of the most prolific scorers in the country. The Eagles like to shoot a lot of 3-pointers, which could cause fits for the Hokies and Kitley.
First-round winners: Stanford, Georgia Tech, Florida Gulf Coast, Maryland, Florida State/Missouri State, LSU, Arkansas, Texas.
Second-round winners: Stanford, Maryland, LSU, Texas.
Regional semifinal winners: Stanford, Texas.
Regional champion: Stanford.
Analysis: N.C. State drew the short straw among No. 1 seeds, having to go to Connecticut and potentially face UConn in its home state in the regional final. The Huskies have advanced to every Final Four since 2008 and now that they’re healthy look poised to make it back to another one. The Wolfpack have a deep team led by versatile post Elissa Cunane.
Other players to watch: Paige Bueckers, UConn, Ayoka Lee, Rhyne Howard, Abby Meyers, Princeton, Macee Williams, IUPUI.
Upset watch: No. 13 IUPUI has already beaten Iowa this season and barely lost to Michigan in overtime, so the Sooners better watch out. Oklahoma does have a talented group that can score, led by 3-point shooter Taylor Robertson. Kentucky is one of the hottest teams in the country, running through the SEC Tournament to the title, but the Wildcats better look out for a strong Princeton team.
First-round winners: N.C. State, Kansas State, Notre Dame, IUPUI, Kentucky, Indiana, UCF, UConn.
Second-round winners: N.C. State, IUPUI, Indiana, UConn.
Regional final winners: N.C. State, UConn.
Regional champion: UConn.
THE FINAL FOUR
Michigan crashes the Final Four party as a 3 seed, joining stalwarts South Carolina, Stanford and UConn. As good as Hillmon is in the post for the Wolverines, Boston is the best post player in the country for the Gamecocks and Staley’s squad has enough around her to reach the championship game.
UConn hasn’t reached the title game since 2016 and that drought will continue against Stanford as its hot 3-point shooting will propel the Cardinal to a second straight championship game. The Huskies did a great job overcoming an enormous amount of injuries this year and will be poised to win the title in 2023.
Stanford and South Carolina met in late December and the Gamecocks rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat the Cardinal at home. The rematch will go Stanford’s way and a repeat champion will be had for the first time since UConn won four straight from 2013-16.