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Women’s Tourney Tips Off New 68-Team Format
At long last, the first full slate of games in the first women’s 68-team NCAA tournament gets underway Friday, when three No. 1 seeds (South Carolina, Louisville and Stanford) will begin their quests for a national championship. While top seeds usually reign supreme in the women’s draw—87 of the 156 No. 1 seeds in the first 39 years of the event have made it to the Final Four—there is still plenty of intrigue.
A number of conference Players of the Year winners will take the floor, as will some of the sleepers we outlined earlier in the week. Early on in the women’s draw, don’t expect a ton of major upsets. Instead, favorites tend to handle their business—No. 13–16 seeds have won only 11 total games in the tournament since 1994. Still, there is a lot to keep an eye on. Here are four games we will be closely watching.
No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 FGCU (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
This matchup is one of the most interesting stylistic clashes of the first round. Few teams in the country exhibit the kind of offensive firepower the Eagles have. FGCU leads the nation in three-pointers attempted and ranks second in threes made. Star guard Kierstan Bell is the driver of their offense, averaging 24 points per game. The Eagles will try to defend ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, who recorded a conference-high 15 double-doubles, while averaging 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. She also enters March Madness looking to erase the memory of her performance last March, when she scored only six points on 2-of-12 shooting in a 42-point tournament loss against Baylor.
No. 8 Nebraska vs. No. 9 Gonzaga (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The Bulldogs are one of the teams I’m most excited to watch. Winners of both the WCC regular-season and conference tournament titles, they have incredible depth (seven players average between 18.8 and 25.6 minutes per game) and don’t rely on any single player to carry the load (no one averages more than 11 points per game). Instead, the Bulldogs play sound basketball on both ends of the floor. Per HerHoopsStats, Gonzaga ranks in the top 20 nationally in offensive and defensive rating. Nebraska, similarly, has a balanced offensive attack, featuring four players who average double-digit points. But the Cornhuskers could have their work cut out for them thanks to the difficult first-round draw.
No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Illinois State (4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Should Iowa be on upset watch? No. But fans should tune in to this game, and every game, the Hawkeyes play. For starters, as my colleague Wilton Jackson wrote earlier this week, star guard Caitlin Clark is perhaps the sport’s biggest box office draw, emerging as an offensive player whose numbers this year will stand among the sport’s best for some time to come. But if you want an off-beat additional reason, senior center Monica Czinano, who earned a spot on the Associated Press honorable mention team for her prolific play, is also chronicling firsthand how equality is being enforced at the women’s NCAA tournament. Thanks to her access, she will provide a unique look behind the curtain on a topic certainly worth monitoring after last year’s controversy.
No. 6 Georgia vs. No. 11 Dayton (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Dayton comes into its matchup with momentum after blowing out DePaul in its First Four contest Wednesday. In the win, senior guard Erin Whalen played her best game of the year, scoring a season-high 28 points on 58.8% shooting from the field. Equally impressive: While the Flyers allowed star freshman Aneesah Morrow to score 28 points, no other Blue Demon was in double figures. We’ve seen double-digit seeds go from First Four to the Final Four in the men’s bracket. Perhaps Dayton could start a similar trend.
(P.S.—For a full schedule of Friday’s games, plus complete brackets and predictions, keep coming back to our NCAA women’s tournament page.)
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(P.S.S.—Don’t forget the men’s tournament continues Friday, with Auburn, Duke and Purdue among those in action.)
Bracket Busters: Peacocks and Spiders and Aggies, Oh My!
First, it was a double set of No. 12 seeds ousting two No. 5s, as Richmond ousted Iowa, 67–63, and New Mexico State got past UConn, 70–63. Then, Thursday’s first round gave us Saint Peter’s. The No. 15 Peacocks took down No. 2 Kentucky—a team many bracket-fillers had reaching the Final Four—in overtime in Indianapolis, 85–79. Needless to say, there was likely plenty of paper-tearing and remote-throwing. A few nuggets from Thursday’s upsets:
• Only 4% of entrants in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge selected Saint Peter’s to pull off the upset.
• According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Spiders’s win over Iowa was their ninth as a 12th seed or lower, five more than any other team since tournament seeding began in 1979.
• The difference-maker for the Aggies against UConn: Teddy Allen.
• Bracket: A look at how the tourney shakes out.
• Predictions: Forde and our group of college hoops gurus make their picks.
• Regional previews: Breaking down the four paths to New Orleans.
• Bracket: Which teams will make the trip to Minneapolis?
• Predictions: Is it South Carolina’s time? Check out our experts’ picks.
• Regional previews: Pickman weighs in on the players, games and bracket busters to watch.
Your March Moment?
Share your best Day 1 snapshots with us, whether it’s the moment you tore up your bracket (we’re looking at you, Wildcat fans!) or when your favorite pet decided to take part in the festivities. Reply here, or email us at [email protected].