In the coming days, one question may come up again and again: Are there other games in the Sweet 16? Or just UConn vs. Iowa, and more specifically, freshman phenom guards Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark?
The hype around those two — obvious one-and-done candidates if the rules allowed, instead set to be fixtures for the Huskies and Hawkeyes for years to come — is entirely justified. And yet, there are seven other games to be played, filled with signature stars as well, with a real likelihood that the champion may come out of that remaining, non-Clark/Bueckers group as well.
But let’s start there, and it is hard to imagine a more perfect setup for women’s basketball than this: 1 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, Iowa vs. UConn, televised on ABC,1 a national television audience for the two signature freshmen this season (with apologies to other standout newcomers like Rutgers’s Diamond Johnson and Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith).
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The two stars differ in how they reach the heights of production. Clark is a monster borne of volume, tops in the nation in usage rate, taking nearly 19 shots per game, including 9.4 from three. She came in just shy of a 50-40-90 season in her first time against collegiate competition, playing in a Big Ten Conference that sent four teams to the Sweet 16. Clark isn’t a shoot-only option, with a 40.1 assist percentage. She simply dominates a game in all offensive facets, can get her shot off extremely quickly and is willing to take it, and make it, from virtually everywhere on the court.
Bueckers, on the other hand, is a master of efficiency, making 57.4 percent of her twos and 46.7 percent of her threes. Her assist percentage is excellent, though far lower than Clark’s, but she is also less turnover-prone, and she was dramatically more productive on the defensive end. To Clark’s credit, she has talked about that as a major focus in the NCAA Tournament.
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That’s reflected Iowa’s defensive performance so far, holding Central Michigan and Kentucky to 0.85 and 0.8 points per possession to reach the Sweet 16. And that’s going to matter against UConn, which has a similarly potent offense to Iowa’s — Iowa is second in the nation in points per 100 possessions, UConn is third — but the Huskies are also first in opponent points per possession, while Iowa enters the game … 338th.
And don’t mistake these two teams for a pair of one-woman shows. The Huskies feature versatile bigs Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa along with defensive stopper Aubrey Griffin, while the Hawkeyes can deploy a human Mikan Drill in the proud Megan Gustafson tradition in Monika Czinano, who made nearly 67 percent of her shots this season.
The higher this game’s score goes, the more I like Iowa’s chances.
But as was previously mentioned, the NCAA Tournament doesn’t actually end once this one is decided — they’re going to play all the games and crown a champion, the whole enchilada! And the winner of Iowa-Connecticut faces the difficult task of taking on No. 6 seed Michigan or No. 2 seed Baylor. The former features Naz Hillmon, who has taken another leap forward in 2020-21 and earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors. But it was actually Leigha Brown, the versatile 6-foot-1 wing transfer from Nebraska, who led the team in scoring during the Wolverines’ upset over three seed Tennessee that landed Kim Barnes Arico’s team in the second weekend.
As for Baylor, Kim Mulkey’s Lady Bears remain a consistent force, with familiar contours to the group that won it all back in 2019, though different stars have stepped forward. NaLyssa Smith is unstoppable in the post, DiDi Richards and Moon Ursin offer a pair of playmakers in the backcourt, and everyone plays defense and rebounds. They are dead last in the nation in percentage of points scored from beyond the arc. And still, they are 27-2, and when their Round of 32 win over Virginia Tech ended, Mulkey urged her counterpart, Kenny Brooks, not to look at the scoreboard. (Baylor won, 90-48.)
All of which is to say: The winner of Bueckers/Clark might not even reach the Final Four.
The winner of that River Walk Region will take on the winner of the Mercado Region, where the top four seeds held serve but are all capable of winning two games this weekend.
Top seed NC State used strong second halves to win its first two games but now faces a stiff test in No. 4 seed Indiana, which should be a particularly difficult matchup for the Wolfpack. While Elissa Cunane is a dominant post presence for NC State, Indiana can counter with Mackenzie Holmes, the criminally underrated sophomore big, who made more than 60 percent of her shots from the field in 2020-21. And there may not be a better backcourt in the country than Ali Patberg, the wise point guard, and Grace Berger, the junior who rebounds like a big and collects triple-doubles in bunches. Indiana, in other words, was underseeded.
The other Mercado semifinal features a battle between two remarkable playmakers, two-way star and future WNBA first-round pick Aari McDonald of Arizona and Jordan Nixon, who played every second of Texas A&M’s second round win over Iowa State, scoring 35 points, the final 2 coming on this play.
The Alamo Region features a pair of lower seeds looking to continue surprising, while the top two seeds are behemoths who are both capable of winning it all.
Top seed Stanford is a remarkably well-rounded team, top-five in offensive and defensive efficiency with excellent rebounding, a real scarcity of turnovers and nine players averaging double figures in minutes per game. Stanford’s coach, Tara VanDerveer, also has a fair amount of winning experience.
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They’ll take on No. 5 seed Missouri State, the lone remaining midmajor — and one enjoying a tremendous season at 23-2 so far, led by a balanced scoring attack and the second-ranked defensive rebounding group in the country.2
The winner of that game takes on the winner of No. 2 seed Louisville and No. 6 seed Oregon. Louisville is a balance of experience (senior guard Dana Evans has endless energy and is a strong contributor at both ends) and youth (freshman Hailey Van Lith is going to be an efficient problem for opponents for the next few years). Head coach Jeff Walz is no stranger to tournament success, nor is his opposition in the semifinal, Kelly Graves. Oregon navigated a bumpy regular season only to find its way forward in the tournament. Those of us who remember the 10-seed Oregon, led by a freshman point guard named Sabrina Ionescu, reach the Elite Eight are just not surprised.
A similar dynamic is set to play out in the Hemisfair Region. South Carolina is the No. 1 seed, but No. 2 seed Maryland could have been a top seed as well. The Gamecocks, led by one of the best bigs in the country in sophomore Aliyah Boston, are your standard-issue Dawn Staley team: strong defensively, elite at finishing at the rim and lethal on the offensive glass, where they were fourth in the country in rebounding percentage.
As for Maryland, the Terrapins are the best offensive team in the country and just crushed Alabama, 100-64, shooting 61.8 percent from the field in the process. There isn’t a weakness on the Terrapins, and with a collection of versatile wings — Diamond Miller, Mimi Collins and freshman sensation Angel Reese — there isn’t an obvious opponent who can match up with this team, before we even get to shooters like Chloe Bibby and Katie Benzan, the latter north of 50 percent from three this season.
What Maryland does lack is an obvious big to take on Texas’s Charli Collier, a likely first-round pick (if not the top overall selection) in the upcoming WNBA draft. But promisingly for the sixth-seeded Longhorns, they advanced into the Sweet 16 despite getting just 5 points from Collier. The trio of Kyra Lambert, Joanne Allen-Taylor and Celeste Taylor all scored in double figures in a 71-62 win over No. 3 seed UCLA, with Vic Schaefer’s defense absolutely decimating an excellent Bruins team.
As for South Carolina’s opponent, the wily veteran coach Nell Fortner has led Georgia Tech into the second weekend, a stunning turnaround a month after a two-game losing streak that saw the Yellow Jackets score just 43 points in a game against Boston College. This is truly a Fortner masterpiece, a performance greater than the sum of its parts, though it is likely the run ends here against the Gamecocks.
As for the Elite Eight? If it is South Carolina vs. Maryland, that’s a national-title caliber game, even if it isn’t the most-watched game of the weekend.
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