Another round of March Madness kicks off Friday, when the women’s NCAA Tournament begins and 64 teams start looking toward the Final Four in Tampa.
The new favorite in the women’s game is the same as the old one: Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies will enter the tournament as an overwhelming favorite to collect its 10th national title and fourth in six years. But unlike in past years, there’s an undefeated team entering March that isn’t UConn, and a few traditional powers along with a couple newcomers to the top of college basketball will again take their shots at dethroning the Huskies.
Can anyone stop Connecticut?
Probably not. While Stanford put an end to the Huskies’ 47-game win streak early in the year, the defending champs haven’t come particularly close to losing since. UConn’s schedule is a bit lighter in the American Athletic Conference than it was in the Big East days, but when UConn had chances to take on top teams, it dismantled DePaul by 34 points, Duke by 31, Notre Dame by 18, and previously-undefeated and top-ranked South Carolina by 25.
UConn’s biggest challengers in the Albany regional are 2-seed Kentucky, who beat six ranked teams (including South Carolina) during the season, and 3-seed Louisville. There aren’t many teams who don’t have some sort of demons to exorcise against Auriemma’s squad, but these two might seek particular revenge: UConn kept the Wildcats, who have made three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, from reaching the program’s first-ever Final Four in 2013, and the Huskies beat Louisville in the NCAA Tournament final in both 2009 and 2013.
But it probably won’t matter. UConn should glide through this region before meeting Maryland or Tennessee in the Final Four. The final could pit the Huskies against Notre Dame, the team they beat in a battle of unbeatens to win last year’s title and knocked off again in December. No matter who it meets along the way, UConn will be the favorite to win yet another championship.
Princeton’s bid for perfection…and respect
Unlike the men’s game, women’s basketball is no stranger to undefeated seasons. Dating back to 1982, Texas, Tennessee, UConn (five times), and Baylor have all turned in flawless national championship seasons. But UConn’s early loss and its later victory over South Carolina left Princeton as the women’s game’s only unbeaten team, though the selection committee didn’t hand the Tigers much of a reward: they’re an 8-seed in the Spokane regional and if they beat Green Bay on Saturday, they’ll get a date with top-seeded Maryland, which went 30–2 and finished the season ranked fourth.
The low seed for the Ivy League champs drew considerable scrutiny both to the selection committee and to Princeton’s schedule — the Tigers didn’t play any ranked teams and won just three times over other tournament teams: 10-seed Pittsburgh, 14-seed American, and 16-seed Montana. That isn’t for a lack of trying, according to coach Courtney Banghart, who has said big programs won’t put Princeton on their schedule. Now, the Tigers will have their chance to prove the doubters wrong.
South Carolina Takes The Big Stage
South Carolina is the top seed in the Greensboro region after losing just twice during the regular season — once to UConn, and once to Kentucky. The Gamecocks won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles. They have a tough road to the Final Four that could take them through 8-seed Syracuse, who lost by four in Columbia early in the season, and 2-seed Florida State.
Head coach Dawn Staley has brought Carolina a long way since 2008, when she took over a program mired in what would become a decade-long absence from the NCAA Tournament and averaging just over 2,000 fans per game. Now the Gamecocks are hosting the first two rounds, and that should make life tough on opponents given that Staley’s team leads the nation in attendance. South Carolina is looking for its first Final Four berth in the modern tournament era, a fulfillment of the promises Staley made when she took over. And if the Gamecocks can get to the final, they’ll have a shot to avenge that mid-season loss to Connecticut.
But even if it’s not South Carolina that emerges from Greensboro, which analysts say is the toughest bracket in the tournament, the region’s representative in Tampa will likely feel like a newcomer to the game’s biggest stage. Of the top five seeds, only North Carolina has won a national title, and that was all the way back in 1994. And aside from UNC in 2007, none of those teams has appeared in a Final Four since 5-seed Ohio State made it in 1993.