This article is part of our March Madness series.
Well, that was unexpected.
Perennial powers Iowa, Oregon and Baylor lost. Other mainstays, like Tennessee and Indiana, were pushed to the brink. It’s made for the Maddest March ever in women’s basketball history, with just three of the eight Sweet 16 matchups featuring the chalk of 1-4 or 3-2 seeds expected to match up in this round.
There’s ample reason to believe that all 16 of the remaining teams belong, and we should expect the unexpected again this weekend. Let’s break down what to watch for in each of these games.
In the 7 p.m. ET Friday window, Greensboro’s No. 1 seed South Carolina and No. 5 seed North Carolina have made it easy for their fans to travel to the pivotal battle. While the Gamecocks took care of business in the opening weekend, they didn’t exactly dominate in their second-round win over Miami. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley foreshadowed their difficulties after their 79-21 blowout of Howard in the tournament opener, saying: “I know we can’t have another game shooting-wise like we did and expect us to win basketball games, so we got to find a way to get the ball to go in the hole for us.”
Anyone who doubted her prescience — or thought perhaps it was coachspeak after winning, after all, by 58 — saw the Gamecocks follow with an ugly 49-33 win over Miami, shooting just 29.5 percent from the field. This marks three straight contests with South Carolina below 36 percent from the field. Staley’s right: That needs to change for her team to fulfill its billing as top overall seed.
It won’t be easy against Courtney Banghart’s UNC, fourth in the nation in defensive points per 100 possessions, fresh off holding Arizona to 28.8 percent from the field in a mild second-round upset at the McKale Center in Tucson. Critical for the Tar Heels will be how much Anya Poole can limit Aliyah Boston, the most dominant player in the country, down low. Expect Poole to get loads of help defenders — and the game to be decided by how often those USC perimeter players getting passes from Boston knock down their jumpers.
The other early game on Friday night features the No. 2 seed Texas against No. 6 seed Ohio State out of the Spokane region. The Longhorns just shot the lights out in their second-round win over Utah, better than 63 percent from the field and north of a point per possession. Rori Harmon is the reason why. The precocious freshman has defended at an elite level all season, but she’s nearly stopped making mistakes on the offensive end, with 28 assists to 4 turnovers over her past four games, averaging nearly 18 points per contest over that span. It will likely fall to Harmon or Joanne Allen-Taylor to slow down Ohio State’s Taylor Mikesell, who can hit a shot from anywhere in the gym and has played every second of every game for the Buckeyes since March 4, when the slacker played a mere 39:47 of the full 40 against Michigan State.
The first of two Friday late games features a rematch of sorts, between Spokane top seed Stanford and the No. 4 seed, Maryland. Back in late November, the Cardinal beat the Terps 86-68. But virtually everything save the uniforms was different about that Maryland team. Missing were the team’s most versatile player, wing Diamond Miller, and its best perimeter shooter, Katie Benzan, while big Angel Reese was still navigating her problems with foul trouble and played just 16 minutes in the loss. All three are firing on all cylinders now, and Maryland’s season mark of fifth overall in points per possession is, if anything, underselling its current level.
Stanford, meanwhile, looks as complete as any team in the field, with the defending champs featuring sizzle and an ensemble that can beat you at both ends. In the second round, it was Lexie Hull’s turn, going for 36 points, but everyone from Haley Jones to Cameron Brink to Hull’s twin sister Lacie can beat you on any given night. Maryland must bring its A-game to win this one — if they do, it could be the game of the tournament.
The other late game Friday features Ashley Joens and No. 3 seed Iowa State, which needed every bit of Joens’s 36-point performance to hold off No. 14 seed UT Arlington in the first round, against Lauren Jensen and Creighton. The 10th-seeded Blue Jays are attempting to complete their own personal “Cy-Hawk Classic” after upsetting second-seeded Iowa and should not be counted out. Creighton did a fantastic defensive job on the Hawkeyes, especially from deep, holding Iowa to 5-for-22 from beyond the arc. And few teams get more of their points from three than the Cyclones, ninth in the nation at 40.2 percent.
Then it’s on to Saturday, when the games are played consecutively, not concurrently, allowing completists like myself to enjoy a stress-free day. At 11:30 a.m. ET, Bridgeport No. 1 seed North Carolina State takes on the fifth-seeded Notre Dame, a team that was virtually unguardable (or, at any rate, unguarded) in wins over UMass and Oklahoma last weekend. NC State romped past Longwood and then Ayoka Lee’s Kansas State to get here, so expect a high-scoring game in each team’s first challenge of the tournament. The Wolfpack have a rested Elissa Cunane, too — the center and future WNBA draft pick had to play just 13 minutes in the second round, thanks to the early blowout.
At 2 p.m. ET comes a potential classic between Bridgeport No. 2 seed UConn and No. 3 seed Indiana, both survivors of low-scoring affairs in the Round of 32. But unlike South Carolina, which struggled to make shots against the 53rd-ranked defense in Miami, these two teams had good reason to struggle — UCF, UConn’s second-round opponent, finished atop the nation in defensive points per possession. Princeton, which took Indiana to the final buzzer, was third. The Huskies are back to playing Paige Bueckers big minutes once more, so we can expect a battle of backcourts, Bueckers and Christyn Williams vs. Indiana’s Ali Patberg and Grace Berger. These are both Final Four-quality teams, but thanks to this bracket, at least one — and possibly both — won’t be.
On to 4 p.m. ET and a battle of blue bloods, with Wichita top seed Louisville facing No. 4 seed Tennessee, the latter of whom is back to its customary place in March’s second weekend and eyeing more. The Cardinals are powered by dynamic engine Hailey Van Lith, who has scored 20 and 21 in tourney games so far, and burly wing Emily Engstler, who does it all — scoring, rebounding, passing and, my favorite stat of hers, 12 steals already in NCAA Tournament play. See you in the WNBA soon, Emily.
Tennessee, meanwhile, barely escaped a loss to No. 12 seed Belmont in the second round thanks to the timely shooting of freshman Sara Puckett, who has displayed a sense of the moment all season.
Then at 6:30 p.m. ET, the Wichita No. 3 seed, Michigan, takes on No. 10 seed South Dakota, though the Coyotes have already proven themselves remarkably underseeded. South Dakota not only beat No. 7 seed Mississippi and No. 2 seed Baylor, but never trailed in either game.
In what seems like a grudge against every expected 2022 WNBA draft first-rounder, South Dakota already knocked out Shakira Austin of Mississippi and NaLyssa Smith of Baylor. The Coyotes’ next task is to try to do the same to Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, who is an early candidate for the most outstanding player of the tournament, averaging 25.5 points per game on 23-for-30 from the field. The Wolverines rebound the ball as well as almost anyone in the country — fifth in total rebound rate — and South Dakota will need to limit Michigan’s second shots to win this one.
The Coyotes — deep, experienced and elite at both ends — present problems for Michigan, too. Chloe Lamb, Hannah Sjerven and Liv Korngable all shoot north of 46 percent from the field and 37.8 percent or better from three. So it will be up to the relentless Leigha Brown and company to run South Dakota off the line at every turn, as the Wolverines did in their second-round win over Villanova, holding the Wildcats to 6-for-21 from deep.
In what’s been a highly unpredictable NCAA Tournament, don’t count the Coyotes out.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.