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NCAA Women’s Tournament Preview: Indiana, Virginia Tech new faces as No. 1 seeds

It’s not a shock that the Stanford Cardinal and South Carolina Gamecocks are No. 1 seeds in their respective regions – both teams have won a national title in the last two years, Dawn Staley and Tara VanDerveer are two of the best head coaches in women’s collegiate basketball, and Aliyah Boston and Cameron Brink are both defensive player of the year winners in their conferences.

On the other hand, both Indiana and Virginia Tech were named as No. 1 seeds for the first time in each of their program’s histories, as Indiana is coming off a season where the team claimed the program’s first-ever outright conference championship, and Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2004.

With two underdogs leading their regions while two legacy programs look to dominate once more, here are the storylines to watch during the NCAA Women’s Tournament this March.

Who is the true best of the Big Ten, and can they win it all?

Indiana was named the No. 1 seed even despite not being the outright champion of the Big Ten tournament, but a resume of non-conference wins over and then-No. 6 North Carolina and then-No. 11 Tennessee as well as ranked Big Ten opponents Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa was enough to show their strength.

Indiana only lost during the regular season twice, both on the road during conference play, against Michigan State with no Grace Berger due to injury, and at Iowa losing on a buzzer-beater by Caitlin Clark in the final game of the regular season.

Berger, a fifth-year guard, is averaging 12.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists this season despite playing just 22 games, dropping 14 or more points in three of her last four games for the Hoosiers. Forward Mackenzie Holmes has been dominant for Indiana, averaging a massive 22.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

However, the Big Ten Tournament champion No. 2 seed Iowa has a weapon that is pretty much unstoppable, and her name is Caitlin Clark. The 21-year-old leads the Hawkeyes in almost every category, averaging 27 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game this season, including a triple-double in the Big Ten title game.

Clark is second in NCAA women’s history in triple-doubles, behind only former Oregon Duck Sabrina Ionescu. But even if a team can find a way to slow Clark’s production, which seemingly no one has up to now, they’ll still need an answer for Monika Czinano, who averaged 17.3 points and 6.5 rebounds.

And don’t count out the Ohio State Buckeyes, who earned themselves a No. 3 seed and have Sheldon, who missed much of the season with injury, as well as sharpshooter Taylor Mikesell and elite freshman Cotie McMahon.

The Buckeyes started off the season 19-0, and the tail end of the season included six out of ten losses to close the campaign. And despite a blowout loss to Iowa in the Big Ten title, Ohio State defeated Indiana rallying from down 24 points to get there, they have the skills to be a team capable of pulling off big upsets.

The Big Ten has a record-tying seven teams in the competition, with four in the top 16. This year is a chance for the league to add to their single women’s basketball one national champion from Purdue in 1999, and to make another Final Four appearance for the first time since 2005.

Can UConn end title drought in a tough Region?

Azzi Fudd, Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhasz – they’re names that women’s basketball fans are familiar with, who have all made a splash since their freshman seasons in Storrs, Connecticut (or Columbus, Ohio for Juhasz) and look to end a seven-year title drought for the Huskies.

Losing Paige Bueckers has been less than ideal, and would be for any team, but even her absence and the team’s exhaustion couldn’t account for their sloppy losses at the end of February. But, as the Huskies do, they came out and won the Big East defeating each of their opponents by an average margin of 24 points and earned the No. 2 seed in their region.

Fudd returned from a right knee injury that had been plaguing her since December but in her second game back in January, she re-injured the same knee. She had just two practices before entering the Big East tournament which emulates the attitude of a scrappy, hungry Huskies squad that wants to prove they deserve a win.

Even after inconsistent February play, Juhasz and Edwards have been dominant in the post, with Juhasz recording at least 13 points and eight rebounds per game during the Big East tournament, while Edwards recorded double-doubles throughout the competition shooting over 60 per cent.

UConn will compete in their 34th-straight NCAA Tournament and have appeared in 14-straight Final Fours, an NCAA record. The program has set the gold standard, but have yet to cut down the nets since Breanna Stewart left in 2016. Their play in February was concerning, but the Huskies know how to win in March.

Is the SEC hype the real deal – and how far can they go?

The talent that the SEC produces in women’s basketball is unparalleled, from powerhouses South Carolina and LSU to mighty Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama – even Mississippi State got a first four bid for this year’s tournament.

Dawn Staley had mentioned “familiarity” in her side of the bracket, and while the Gamecocks are favourites to repeat as national champions, and their size is something no team seemingly has an answer for, but they still need to get through teams like Maryland, UCLA, Duke, Arizona and Oklahoma.

One of the most intriguing teams coming out of the SEC, other than South Carolina who are looking to defend their title, are the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Despite struggles during the season that lead them to a 23-11 record which included a struggle to find a ranked win, the Lady Vols showed what they’re made of when they rallied from a 17-point deficit to knock off the LSU Tigers in the SEC tournament and senior stars Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson will be trying to lead the team to the Sweet 16 in Knoxville.

LSU is in a favourable Greenville 2 bracket after finishing the regular season with an astounding 28-2 record, losing to only the Lady Vols and the Gamecocks. Forward Angel Reese has been dominant for the Tigers averaging a double-double of 23.4 points and 15.5 rebounds including four straight games of 23 or more points and 16 rebounds to close out February.

But of course, when you go 32-0, you’re likely to be the best team in the country. And that’s exactly what South Carolina aims to be. Their humility in their play is one of the reasons why they have been able to play so well, but National Player of the Year candidate Aliyah Boston is another.

Boston has had much of her scoring weight lifted by the help of Zia Cooke, who is averaging 15.3 points per game. With the added help of Kamilla Cardoso and Laeticia Amihere both tipping in rotational minutes, it’s hard to beat what they’re doing in Columbia.

Which underdog could have a Cinderella story this year?

There are a lot of No. 2 and No. 3 seeds who are deserving of their places, but the Big 12 will be less than happy with their seeding as just one of their six bids earned a top-16 spot, the No. 4 seed Texas Longhorns. Even the Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State received a No. 5 seed, despite having a better NET ranking than Tennessee.

Oklahoma is another No. 5 seed who is likely to face UCLA in the second round barring a major upset from either side, while the ACC also has some less-than-ideal seeding. With Louisville expected to face Texas in the second round, and UNC likely to go up against an Ohio State team that wants revenge after their Big Ten title game fiasco, many of these squads will have to dig deep to avoid a second-round exit but have the potential to get there.

In terms of true lower seeds, Alabama, USC, Princeton and Miami are all schools that could make deep runs in the tournament thanks to the combination of decent match-ups and skilled players, apart from Alabama having to take on a tough Baylor squad to open the tournament.

Should Illinois make it out of their First Four match-up, they’re another squad that has the potential to upset a Creighton team who fell to Arkansas earlier in the year, and Middle Tennessee is a strong candidate to upset Colorado early as well.

Final Four prediction

South Carolina, Indiana, Iowa, Virginia Tech.

Iowa is looking for redemption after last year, and Clark is doing everything and more this season for the Hawkeyes. The Big Ten has been one of the strongest conferences in women’s basketball this season, and Indiana is further proof of that. The Hoosiers have been one of the best teams in the nation and their loss to the Buckeyes doesn’t determine just how far Berger, Holmes and company can go.

The two teams Virginia Tech will have to look out for are UConn and Ohio State, but riding an 11-game winning streak and a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history seems like enough motivation to beat two teams who are working on chemistry and streaky play after dealing with injury and fatigue this season.

As for South Carolina — a program doesn’t magically go 32-0 in a season. Their record is a testament to Dawn Staley’s coaching and love for the program, Boston’s dominance, Cooke’s scoring abilities, and the Gamecocks rotation as a whole.

Iowa as a No. 2 seed has the skill to knock off Stanford, but Maryland, Notre Dame and UCLA will have to leave everything on the court to even try to compete with South Carolina.

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