This article is part of our March Madness series.
One of the most tumultuous seasons in women’s basketball history is rolling toward a conclusion with the NCAA Tournament, beginning with a quartet of play-in games Wednesday and Thursday, and then the tournament proper on Friday. Get your brackets ready, prepare those notes, and dive into what should be a dramatic build to the Final Four in Dallas.
With the necessary caveat that my wife — who chooses entirely based on mascots and vibes — usually outpaces my bracket picks each year, here are the ways March Madness ought to play out if, of course, it wasn’t a month that produced sensational surprises.
Best matchups to watch
Both Friday and Saturday offer treats aplenty in the realm of closely contested games. The must-see game on Friday, if you only pick one — and if you do that, examine your life choices — is in the Greenville 2 region, where seventh-seeded NC State takes on the No. 10 seed, the Princeton Tigers. For those of you who haven’t been immersed in the Ivy League all season, the Tigers are largely the same team who beat Kentucky and lost to Indiana by a point in last year’s NCAA Tournament, minus Abby Meyers (now at Maryland) but with the spectacular freshman Madison St. Rose. NC State was expected to contend for an ACC title, but a combination of underperforming and injuries (particularly to Diamond Johnson) left them at 20-11 this season. Had I been seeding, I’d have flipped these two.
|Greenville 2||7||NC State||89.4||10||Princeton||83.7||86.4|
|Seattle 4||7||Florida St.||86.2||10||Georgia||85.4||85.8|
|Seattle 3||8||USC||84.5||9||SD State||85.7||85.1|
|Seattle 3||5||Iowa State||91.0||12||Toledo||80.0||85.1|
|Seattle 3||6||North Carolina||89.7||11||Play-in||80.4||84.8|
Also on Friday, you’re not going to want to miss Ta’Niya Latson (the best freshman in the country) and seventh seed Florida State take on the fightin’ Katie Abrahamson-Hendersons of Georgia. Coach Abe’s teams — at Albany, Central Florida and now in Athens — are an extension of herself, endlessly fighting for every possession and rebound. Meanwhile, FSU, under Brooke Wyckoff, plays at the seventh-fastest pace in the country without sacrificing defense in the process. This will be a battle of philosophies as much as baskets. And the winner here, regardless, is all of us: either a Latson-versus-Caitlin Clark second-round matchup with Iowa, or a chance to see how Coach Abe schemes against Clark, assuming the second-seeded Hawkeyes defeat 15 seed Southeastern Louisiana. (No guarantee — SE LA nearly took down LSU earlier this season.)
Likeliest first-round upsets
It’s on Saturday when we start to see the closest games and biggest opportunities for double-digit seeds start to converge. And once we move past the 8-versus-9 and 7-versus-10 games, we see No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast University, led by Karl Smesko, with a chance to once again cause heartache for a higher seed in March. All the Eagles did after last season’s 30-3 campaign (which included an upset over fifth-seeded Virginia Tech in the NCAA Tournament) was to improve to 32-3 this season, with a more efficient offense and defense, all despite losing Kierstan Bell to the WNBA. The FiveThirtyEight model has FGCU as the seventh-likeliest lower-seeded team to win in Round 1, and well above any other team seeded 11th or lower.
|Seattle 3||9||S. Dakota State||8||USC||59.9%|
|Greenville 2||9||Miami (FL)||8||Oklahoma State||48.5|
|Seattle 4||10||Georgia||7||Florida State||48.2|
|Greenville 1||9||Marquette||8||South Florida||42.7|
|Greenville 1||10||West Virginia||7||Arizona||42.7|
|Greenville 2||12||Florida Gulf Coast||5||Washington State||41.6|
|Seattle 4||11||Middle Tennessee||6||Colorado||40.6|
|Greenville 2||10||Princeton||7||NC State||29.4|
Looking slightly deeper into the list of upset possibilities, it also won’t be an easy task for Villanova, the No. 4 seed (in its first-ever hosting of an NCAA pod), facing 13-seed Cleveland State in a battle of former Rollie Massimino employers. The Vikings finished 30-4, playing an impressive brand of defense (13th in the country in points per 100 possessions allowed), and guard Destiny Leo, the Horizon League Player of the Year, can go off (four 30-plus point games this season). But as ever with Villanova, who can guard Maddy Siegrist is the question … and the answer, so far in her college career, has been: no one.
Most vulnerable top seed
The top seeds this year look reasonably safe until they run into a more powerful juggernaut on the path to the Final Four. That’s the case with Maryland and Notre Dame, seeds No. 2 and 3 in the Greenville 1 region, respectively — both are on a collision course with not just each other, but also South Carolina if they make the Elite Eight. Seattle 4 region No. 3 seed Duke faces a similar fate with Clark and Iowa looming, and UConn is probably standing in the way of Seattle 3 region No. 3 seed Ohio State. But OSU has a real risk to get picked off before it even goes that far; we give the Buckeyes a 32 percent chance of failing to make the Sweet Sixteen, highest among all top-three seeds.
|Region||Seed||Team||Final Four %|
|Greenville 1||3||Notre Dame||3.9%|
|Seattle 3||3||Ohio State||7.8|
|Greenville 2||3||Louisiana State||25.2|
|Seattle 3||1||Virginia Tech||25.7|
It’s hard to argue any No. 1 seed is in much danger until at least the regionals, but subjectively speaking, the team with the most obvious pathway to an early exit is Stanford. The Cardinal are 28-5 this season, but saw their Pac-12 tournament hopes dashed early by UCLA. They’ve lost two of their last three. They do not shoot the three-ball well at all (with the huge exception of Hannah Jump) and they are merely good, not typically Tara VanDerveer-esque at the defensive end, 45th in the country in points allowed per possession. Mississippi, the No. 8 seed, can defend with anyone and might just pull off an upset at Maples. Otherwise, it is easy to envision fourth-seeded Texas winning a Vic Schaefer-type 62-60 game in the Sweet 16, with Rori Harmon knocking down the game winner.
Friskiest double-digit seed
As we mentioned above, Florida Gulf Coast has a strong chance to win in the round of 64 as a 12-seed, and that can also propel the Eagles to even greater heights. According to the FiveThirtyEight model, they have nearly a 10 percent chance to make the Sweet Sixteen, tops among any team seeded 10th or lower.
|Region||Seed||Team||Sweet 16 %|
|Greenville 2||12||Florida Gulf Coast||9.8%|
|Seattle 4||11||Middle Tennessee||7.9|
|Greenville 1||10||West Virginia||5.3|
|Greenville 2||13||Cleveland State||3.4|
|Greenville 2||11||Nevada-Las Vegas||3.3|
I’m also bringing this back to Princeton. The Tigers could well topple Utah in Round 2 as well, with human rebound Ellie Mitchell available to guard the Utes’ Alissa Pili. Princeton plays slow and efficient basketball; the Tigers are deep, with a go-to scorer in Ivy Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen; they rebound exceptionally well; they take care of the basketball; they have NCAA experience; they are comfortable coming from behind — they can do it all.
Beating Utah simply isn’t an easy task, not with the way Lynne Roberts’s crew scores the basketball. But if the Tigers do win in Salt Lake City? They might just make it all the way to an Elite Eight rematch with Indiana, the team that knocked them out last season by a single point, in a pick ‘em game with a chance to go to Dallas riding on the line.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions. »