March is about to hit a fever pitch as the women’s NCAA Tournament begins Friday. Check out our first-round primer.
The madness is about to double Friday as the women’s NCAA Tournament gets its first-round action underway alongside the second day of the men’s event. While one clear favorite stands out above the rest in the women’s field — defending champs South Carolina — there is still plenty of intrigue to watch out for starting Friday morning.
One of the 1-seeds is sitting on the top line for the first time ever, and four more teams are simply in the field for the first time ever. If that’s not enough, two teams seeded 11 or lower are favored by Vegas to win their games. Throw in the thrill of home-site crowds and a regular dose of March chaos, and it all adds up to a fantastic first two days for the women’s NCAA Tournament.
Here is a brief look at each of the 32 first-round matchups from Heat Check CBB editor Andy Dieckhoff and special contributor Tanner Russ. Before we get there, one last tip of the hat to Her Hoop Stats for providing such a robust, easy-to-use resource for women’s hoops data.
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Greenville 1 Regional
(1) South Carolina vs. (16) Norfolk State
Friday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN (Columbia, S.C.): Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks are undefeated at 32-0, led by Aliyah Boston (13.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and Zia Cooke (15.3 ppg, .361 3P%). The reigning national champions are the favorites to cut down the nets again, and they begin their title defense against a stout Norfolk State defense. Per Her Hoop Stats, the Spartans rank top-5 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio allowed, points allowed per play, allowed field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, 2-point percentage allowed, turnover rate and block rate. Still, South Carolina is a different beast from what NSU sees in the MEAC, so expect the Gamecocks to find a way to overcome the Spartans’ defense.
(8) South Florida vs. (9) Marquette
Friday, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2 (Columbia, S.C.): South Florida enters this 8-9 game as a top-25 team in America in terms of efficiency margin and win percentage. These Bulls are balanced, ranking 23rd in Her Hoops Stats defensive rating and 33rd on offense, and they have three players — Elena Tsineke, Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and Sammie Pulsis — averaging more than 15 points per game. Marquette, meanwhile, is more of a defense-first operation, ranking 22nd in the HHS ratings on that side of the ball. The Golden Eagles keep opponents off the lines, limiting free throws and 3-pointers at top-25 rates nationally. Marquette also has its own trio of scorers averaging double figures (Jordan King, Chloe Marotta, Liza Karlen).
(5) Oklahoma vs. (12) Portland
Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Los Angeles, Calif.): The Sooners are going to bring a strong dose of offense to this 5-12 matchup with the unexpected WCC Tournament champions from Portland. Oklahoma ranks second in the country in points per game (84.5) and third in pace (79 possessions per game), while also boasting top-30 marks in effective field goal percentage (16th), offensive efficiency (17th), 3-point percentage (26th), 2-point percentage (27th). Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson lead a group of four Sooners who score at least 11 points per game. The Pilots have a very efficient offense on the interior, but they don’t play nearly as fast, and the defense is a bit porous. Alex Fowler and the Pilots will need to turn in a huge performance for Portland to keep up with the Sooners in this one.
(4) UCLA vs. (13) Sacramento State
Saturday, 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Los Angeles, Calif.): The Bruins come into this one having won eight of their past 11 games and boasting top-40 rankings on both offense and defense per Her Hoop Stats. Charisma Osborne is the engine driving UCLA, leading the team in minutes (33.0 mpg), scoring (15.5 ppg) and steals (1.5 spg). The Bruins are also dominant cleaning the glass, ranking 13th in offensive rebound rate and 17th in offensive rebound per game. The Hornets may be able to tamp down those numbers, though, as Sac State ranks 13th in overall rebound rate and 31st on the defensive end. The Big Sky champs — who are making their debut in the NCAA Tournament field — boast an extremely efficient offense that ranks 14th nationally. Leading scorers Kahlaijah Dean (21.1 ppg) and Isnelle Natabou (15.8) look to lead the upset bid.
(3) Notre Dame vs. (14) Southern Utah
Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (South Bend, Ind.): The Irish received a crushing blow with the news that star Olivia Miles (14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.9 apg, 2.1 spg) will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. While that might put a cap on how far Notre Dame can go in the postseason, the first-round matchup should be relatively safe. Leading scorer Sonia Citron (14.7 ppg) will likely need to take on an even larger load against Southern Utah. The Irish have the 11th-best defense in America per Her Hoop Stats, so they will hope it can withstand the loss of Miles. As for the Thunderbirds, they are above average on both sides of the ball but also rank outside the top 100 in both offense and defense. If Southern Utah catches Notre Dame reeling, though, Cherita Daugherty (15.9 ppg) and Lizzy Williams (9.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg) could have an opening in the team’s first-ever Big Dance opportunity.
(6) Creighton vs. (11) Mississippi State
Friday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNews (South Bend, Ind.): This first-round matchup pits the Bluejays’ 11th-ranked offense against the Bulldogs’ 30th-best defense, per Her Hoop Stats ratings. Creighton will look to rain down 3-pointers on Miss State, with leading scorers Lauren Jensen (15.9 ppg) and Morgan Maly (15.0) spearheading the barrage. The Bulldogs are staunch in their perimeter defense, though, ranking 22nd in 3-point defense (.271 allowed 3P%). Meanwhile, Jessika Carter takes care of things inside for Mississippi State, leading the team in points (15.0 per game), rebounds (7.7) and blocks (2.1). This could be a relatively slow-paced chess match as Creighton looks for its spots against a defense that doesn’t leave many open.
(7) Arizona vs. (10) West Virginia
Friday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN (College Park, Md.): This one looks like a pretty big mismatch on paper, as Arizona sits more than 50 spots higher in the HHS team rankings than their opponents from West Virginia. If the Mountaineers are going to hang, it’ll be with their top-50 defense that generates nearly 10 steals per game. JJ Quinerly leads that charge with 2.1 per game, and the sophomore is tied with Madisen Smith for the team lead in scoring (14.3 ppg). Meanwhile, Shaina Pellington (13.3 ppg, 3.7 apg) guides an Arizona team that doesn’t make many mistakes. The Wildcats’ offense ranks sixth nationally in turnover rate, a mark that will be put to the test by the WVU pickpockets. Notably, Arizona is riding a three-game losing streak coming into the Big Dance, so that might have Adia Barnes’ team on higher upset alert than usual.
(2) Maryland vs. (15) Holy Cross
Friday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPNews (College Park, Md.): Maryland might have a turtle as their mascot, but this team is much more hare than tortoise. The Terrapins rank 19th in Division I in possessions per game (75.6) and score the 12th-most points per game nationally (79.0). Diamond Miller (19.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.9 apg) is the most well-known of the bunch, but Abby Meyers (14.5 ppg) and Syanne Sellers (13.8 ppg) are plenty dangerous in their own right. As for Holy Cross, the Crusaders have help opponents under 55 points per game on the season, ranking 15th in the country in that department. Still, it will be hard for Bronagh Power-Cassidy (13.8 ppg, .399 3P%) to get much done offensively against a Maryland defense that forces over 19 turnovers per game — an area where the Crusaders’ ball-handlers struggle (19.7 percent TO rate).
Seattle 4 Regional
(1) Stanford vs. (16) Sacred Heart
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Stanford, Calif.): Headlining the bottom-left quadrant of the bracket is Stanford, which appears destined for its third-consecutive Final Four appearance behind Haley Jones (13.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 4.1 apg), Cameron Brink (14.9 ppg, 9.5 ppg, 3.4 bpg) and the rest of the Cardinal crew. That said, there are tricky opponents throughout this bracket that could keep Stanford from a presumptive date with South Carolina in April. Sacred Heart, however, is not really among them. Kudos to the 18-13 Pioneers for winning their First Four game against Southern, but even with a high-level scorer in Ny’Ceara Prior (17.8 ppg) and an above-average team defense (22nd in steal rate, 96th in opponent FG%), Sacred Heart will have trouble slowing down one of the main national title contenders in this year’s field.
(8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Gonzaga
Friday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Stanford, Calif.): Ole Miss leading scorer Angel Baker (15.1 ppg) will be looking to get back to better March memories after an early first-round exit last season. Prior to transferring into the Rebel program, Baker guided a 13-seed Wright State team to a first-round upset. Helping the Ole Miss cause on both ends is Madison Scott (11.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.1 spg, 1.0 bpg), and the Rebels rank 15th nationally in defensive efficiency. Conversely, the Gonzaga offense is 11th in scoring efficiency, which should make for some good push-and-pull in this one. The Zags are the best 3-point shooting team in America, connecting on 41.5 percent of their treys. Kaylynne Truong (16.1 ppg, .423 3P%) and Brynna Maxwell (13.8 ppg, .494 3P%) lead that charge, while Yvonne Ejim (16.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg) is the interior force for Gonzaga.
(5) Louisville vs. (12) Drake
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Austin, Texas): This 5-12 game could have some fireworks as it’s a clash of two efficient offenses that don’t mind speeding things up. Louisville has the edge on defense, though, which should see them through to the second round. The Cardinals can count on Hailey Van Lith (19.2 ppg, 3.2 apg, 1.5 spg) to run the show on both ends along with Mykasa Robinson (4.2 apg, 2.0 spg). Drake is a calculating offense, leading the country in assisted FG rate (72.8 percent) but struggle with turnovers (17.5 per game, 280th in D1). The Cardinals’ defense forces almost exactly that many per game, so takeaways could ultimately be the difference in this one. But if Maggie Bair (16.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Katie Dinnebier (11.4 ppg, 5.7 apg) and the Bulldogs can hold onto the rock, they could turn this one into a barnburner.
(4) Texas vs. (13) East Carolina
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN (Austin, Texas): Here we have a pair of top-20 defenses in terms of efficiency, though the high seed has the high ground thanks to its much stronger offense. Texas’ Rori Harmon (11.4 ppg, 7.3 apg, 5.2 rpg, 2.3 spg) is a danger on both ends, while Shaylee Gonzalez, Sonya Morris and DeYona Gaston each average over 12 points and one steal per game for the Longhorns. Taylor Jones (9.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg) also leads a strong interior defense for Texas. Meanwhile, the underdogs from ECU boast the second-best steal rate in the country, with Danae McNeal (17.6 ppg, 2.9 spg) and Synia Johnson (2.2 spg) doing the most thievery. The Pirates can also expect Amiya Joyner (10.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg) to threaten for a double-double. Still, Texas likely has too many weapons to keep them all down.
(3) Duke vs. (14) Iona
Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Durham, N.C.): The Blue Devils boast a fierce defense that ranks first nationwide in points allowed per game (50.8), third in defensive efficiency (74.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), fourth in block rate (14.1) and eighth in opponent field goal percentage (.348). The defense is anchored by by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Celeste Taylor (11.5 ppg, 1.9 spg, 0.6 bpg) and Kennedy Brown (6.5 ppg, 1.4 bpg). Thankfully for Iona, the Gaels are used to getting points from outside the paint. Iona is the country’s second-best team 3-point percentage (.401), and Kate Mager (.484 3P%, 103 3PM) is one of only two players nationwide with over 100 made 3-pointers on 40 percent or better shooting. In what should be a low-scoring game, one hot shooter can change everything in a heartbeat.
(6) Colorado vs. (11) Middle Tennessee
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNews (Durham, N.C.): The Buffs are backing their way into the Big Dance after dropping three of five, and they are catching a Middle Tennessee squad that hasn’t lost since Feb. 4. The Blue Raiders may hail from a lesser conference, but this team ranks 10th in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency, posting better marks than Colorado in both categories. Quay Miller (13.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Aaronette Vonleh (12.2 ppg) and Jaylyn Sherrod (11.2 ppg, 5.0 apg, 2.5 spg) will look to turn around their team’s recent fortunes and send Colorado to the second round. Middle Tennessee, on the other hand, already beat the 5-seed in this region (Louisville) earlier this year. That’s probably why Kseniya Malashka (15.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Savannah Wheeler (15.1 ppg, 3.1 apg) and MTSU are favored by oddsmakers.
(7) Florida State vs. (10) Georgia
Friday, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Iowa City, Iowa): Each of these high-major programs does well on both ends of the floor, but the matchup to watch here is the Seminole offense against the Bulldog defense. Florida State scores 80.1 points per game (No. 9 nationally) and plays the seventh-fastest pace in America. Ta’Niya Latson (21.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.9 apg) is the straw that stirs the Seminoles’ drink, but she will be out for the NCAA Tournament with an injury. As a result, FSU will rely on Makayla Timpson (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg), who is shooting 58.6 percent from the field. Georgia’s defense will try to disrupt all those FSU possessions, and their 15th-best steal rate indicates the Bulldogs might be successful. Diamond Battles (14.3 ppg, 2.9 apg, 1.7 spg) is one of four Georgia players averaging more than a steal per game. This team only scores 67.1 points per game, though, so Florida State would be favored in a shootout.
(2) Iowa vs. (15) SE Louisiana
Friday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN (Iowa City, Iowa): There is a ton of star power in this bracket, featuring some of the sport’s most recognizable faces such as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (27.0 ppg, 8.3 apg, 7.5 rpg, 1.4 spg). While the Lions of SE Louisiana should be commended for getting this far, the big draw for this game is watching Caitlin cook for the nation’s top-scoring offense. Clark comes in on the heels of her fourth triple-double of the season, a 30-point, 17-assist, 10-rebound show to lead the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Tournament title. Natalie Kelly (8.6 rpg, 2.2 bpg) may be able to limit some of the damage inside for the SELA defense, but the Lions rank 341st nationally in 3-point percentage — which doesn’t exactly bode well for them in their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Greenville 2 Region
(1) Indiana vs. (16) Tennessee Tech
Saturday, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2 (Bloomington, Ind.): Coming in with a 27-3 record, Indiana is tied with Stanford for the second-highest odds to cut down the nets this year (South Carolina leads the way, unsurprisingly). The Hoosiers are led by All-Americans Mackenzie Holmes (22.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, .697 FG%) and Grace Berger (12.5 ppg, 5.8 apg), and that’s without even mentioning the team’s top sniper Yarden Garzon (11.1 ppg, .451 3P%) or its steals leader Sydney Parrish (12.1 ppg, 1.6 spg). Tennessee Tech is on an eight-game win streak, but Maaliya Owens (14.7 ppg) and the Golden Eagles will have trouble stretching that to nine.
(8) Oklahoma State vs. (9) Miami FL
Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN (Bloomington, Ind.): The Cowgirls have lost four of five coming into this matchup, while Miami has dropped three of five. Suffice it to say, both teams will be hungry to jumpstart a new streak going in the right direction. Neither team truly jumps off the page in terms of statistical output, but OK State ranks 26th in points per game (75.1) and 34th in offensive efficiency (103.5). Haley Cavinder and Destiny Harden each average over 12 points per game for the Hurricanes, but they may have trouble keeping up with a Cowgirl rotation that has six scorers averaging 9.5 points or better. Naomie Alnatas (13.8 ppg, 3.7 apg), Terryn Milton (10.2 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Lior Garzon (10.9 ppg, .417 3P%) headline that Oklahoma State group.
(5) Washington State vs. (12) FGCU
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Villanova, Pa.): Wazzu is coming in hot after winning the Pac-12 Tournament over the first week of March. The Cougars are keyed by Charlisse Leger-Walker (18.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.2 apg), who eats up nearly 30 percent of Washington State’s possessions on offense. On the inside, Bella Murekatete (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg) runs things for the Cougars. Over on the FGCU side, this is an Eagle team that went 30-3 in the regular season and ranks top-25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Tishara Morehouse (16.0 ppg, 4.7 apg, 2.0 spg), Sha Carter (13.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Alyza Winston (12.4 ppg) will lead the FGCU “upset” charge — though the Eagles are favored by 2.5 points and nabbed a 12-over-5 win last year against Virginia Tech. Hard to call that too much of an “upset,” no?
(4) Villanova vs. (13) Cleveland State
Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Villanova, Pa.): Another 30-win team is in the bracket along with FGCU, and it’s not the higher seed in the 4-13 game. The Vikings of Cleveland State went 30-4 in their regular-season campaign, and they have lost just once since Jan. 22. As for Villanova, the Wildcats are 10-2 since the beginning of February, so both teams are coming in hot. ‘Nova will look to the country’s leading scorer Maddie Siegrist (28.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 1.1 spg) to key the Wildcats’ plodding, hyper-efficient offense (13th in D1). The Cleveland State defense is fine enough, but it doesn’t project well against Siegrist and Villanova. On the other side of the ball, leading scorer Destiny Leo (17.7 ppg) will try to keep the Vikes in it for as long as possible.
(3) LSU vs. (14) Hawai’i
Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Baton Rouge, La.): The Tigers didn’t lose their first game until February, and the only two losses on the ledger are against South Carolina and Tennessee — there are worse fates than that. LSU is scoring like wildfire, putting in 84.1 points per game (third in D1), and the Tigers have top-seven marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Angel Reese (23.4 ppg, 15.5 rpg, 1.7 spg, 1.4 bpg) and Alexis Morris (15.1 ppg, 4.2 apg, 1.8 spg) are as formidable 1-2 punch as there is in the continental United States. Meanwhile, in Hawai’i, the Rainbow Wahine will try to slow things down as much as possible. Hawai’i plays one of the 25 slowest paces in America, and they defend well enough on the perimeter (67th in opponent 3P%) — but that’s likely not enough to slow down the Tiger Express in Baton Rouge.
(6) Michigan vs. (11) UNLV
Friday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Baton Rouge, La.): Here’s a number to keep in mind for this first-round matchup: 30. For starters, the Wolverines rank in the top 30 in the Her Hoop Stats ratings on both offense (24th) and defense (29th). On the other side, UNLV has 30 wins to its name and just two (!!) losses all year long. The combination of Leigha Brown (18.0 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.2 rpg), Emily Kiser (16.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Laila Phelia (16.9 ppg) form a three-pronged attack for the Wolverines, while UNLV’s Desi-Rae Young (18.0 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 spg) is a problem that very few teams have been able to solve. The Lady Rebels haven’t lost since before Christmas, but this will be the toughest test they’ve faced after going undefeated in the Mountain West.
(7) NC State vs. (10) Princeton
Friday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Salt Lake City, Utah): As if a 10-seed that hasn’t lost in over two months needed another bit of momentum behind their sails, Princeton’s counterparts on the men’s side pulled off the biggest first-round upset of Thursday’s NCAA Tournament action. These Tigers could grab their own win behind the fifth-best scoring defense in America, which holds opponents to an effective field goal percentage of .416 (12th-lowest in D1). NC State, on the other hand, has lost six of the past 10 games and have not played up to its top-25 ranks on both sides of the ball in Her Hoop Stats ratings. Diamond Johnson (12.3 ppg, 3.5 apg) is the only double-digit scorer for NC State, while Princeton’s Kaitlyn Chen (15.9 ppg, 3.9 apg) runs the show for the Tigers. The oddsmakers favor NC State, but momentum favors Princeton.
(2) Utah vs. (15) Gardner-Webb
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Salt Lake City, Utah): The Utes have one of the most potent offenses in the country, ranking fourth in points per game (83.5), scoring efficiency (113.0), field goal percentage (.485) and effective field goal percentage (.556). Utah also ranks sixth in assists per game, with six players dishing out more than two dimes each night. Alissa Pili (20.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, .429 3P%) and Gianna Kneepkens (15.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, .420 3P%) are the main offensive threats for the Utes. Meanwhile, Gardner-Webb is no slouch in the scoring category, either. The Runnin’ Bulldogs scored 77 points per game (20th in 21), and both Jhessyka Williams (19.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and Alasia Smith (13.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg) are double-double threats.
Seattle 3 Region
(1) Virginia Tech vs. (16) Chattanooga
Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU (Blacksburg, Va.): For the first time in school history, the Hokies have a No. 1 seed next to their name heading into the NCAA Tournament. This is a program that has made exactly one Sweet 16 in 11 all-time appearances, so the expectations are higher than ever for Virginia Tech. ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley (18.6 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 2.3 bpg) and fellow all-league first-teamer Georgia Amoore (15.3 ppg, 5.3 apg) are the headliners of a team that ranks top-20 in both offense and defense per Her Hoop Stats ratings. Chattanooga will have the tall task of stopping the Hokies, though the path to doing so is not immediately clear. The Mocs do have a pair of scorers in Yaz Wazeerud-Din (15.8 ppg) and Raven Thompson (15.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg), but there’s not much on paper to back up an upset bid.
(8) USC vs. (9) South Dakota State
Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNews (Blacksburg, Va.): The plucky Jackrabbits of South Dakota State boast one of the 10 best offenses in America, according to Her Hoop Stats, but they got a rough draw in the first round against a USC defense that ranks 10th in defensive efficiency. On the other hand, momentum is squarely in SD State’s favor; the Jackrabbits haven’t lost since Dec. 15, while the Trojans have dropped three of the past five. If the Summit League champs are going to move on to the second round as oddsmakers predict, look for Myah Selland (15.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, .441 3P%) to be the star that carries them there. Selland may need to rely on that 3-point shot even more than usual against a USC defense that ranks sixth in blocks per game (5.7) and is anchored by Rayah Marshall (12.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 3.4 bpg).
(5) Iowa State vs. (12) Toledo
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Knoxville, Tenn.): When Toledo takes the floor on Saturday, it will have been fully two months since the Rockets’ last loss. All that winning has helped them accrue the 22nd-best offensive efficiency rating in the country, but they will be put to a difficult test against an Iowa State team ranks eighth overall in the Her Hoops Stats Rating. The Cyclones can hit from all over the court, ranking in the top 100 in every shooting category, and they crash the defensive glass as well as anyone in the country (76.1 DRB%, fifth in D1). Ashley Joens (21.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg) is the star of the ISU show, but Emily Ryan (10.5 ppg, 6.5 apg) and Lexi Donarski (12.1 ppg) are also key cogs in the equation. For the Rockets, Quinesha Lockett (17.7 ppg, 3.6 apg) runs the show on offense, while Sammi Mikonowicz (10.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg, .386 3P%) is a double-double threat who can step out to hit the 3. But is it enough to knock off an Iowa State team that might be a bit better than its seed line?
(4) Tennessee vs. (13) Saint Louis
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ABC (Knoxville, Tenn.): Saint Louis enters the dance for the first time in program history after winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The 17-17 Billikens were buoyed in its conference championship overtime win over UMass by the triple-double of Julia Martinez (17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists to go along with 4 steals and a block). While Martinez might lead her team in assists and steals, it’s Longwood University transfer Kyla McMakin who handles the Billikens’ scoring load (17.4 ppg). The first-time tournament goers have one of the tougher outs in the tournament in Tennessee. The Lady Vols are tournament royalty, having won the national title eight separate times, most recently in 2008. Tennessee scores 76.4 points per game, with the bulk of those points coming from inside the arc (60.3 percent coming from 2-pointers). Led by senior forward Rickea Jackson (19.6 ppg) and senior guard Jordan Horston (15.5 ppg), Tennessee is also buoyed by the rim protection of their dynamic duo (both lead the team in blocks). While the team is missing 6-6 center Tamari Key due to blood clots in her lungs, the Lady Vols figure to be good enough to advance yet again to the Sweet 16.
(3) Ohio State vs. (14) James Madison
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Columbus, Ohio): After starting the season 19-0, Ohio State went just 6-7 to finish out the regular season and conference tournament. The coup de grâce in that skid was a 105-72 shelling at the hands of Caitlin Clark and Iowa. Six of those seven defeats were against teams ranked inside the top 10 (while the seventh was against Purdue on Jan. 29). While the Buckeyes have stumbled into the tournament, what makes them a truly dangerous matchup for any early bracket opponent is the team’s ability to score. Ohio State averages roughly 81 points per game and gets an assisted shot on more than 50 percent of its attempts from the floor. The team’s firepower and strong ball movement make up for the fact that its rebounding numbers are pedestrian and that opponents average 68.3 points against them. If Ohio State wants to win against the 26-7 James Madison Dukes, it’ll have to focus on senior guard Kiki Jefferson. Jefferson routinely led the Dukes in scoring, assists and rebounds over the course of the season. If James Madison wants to win, Jefferson will need to be playing her best and things can’t get out of hand early; the Dukes routinely win close games with the average margin being 8.5 points.
(6) North Carolina vs. (11) St. John’s
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN (Columbus, Ohio): North Carolina is a bit of an enigma. The team plays solid defense, limiting opponents to just 59.5 points per game, while grabbing 26.4 defensive rebounds, 9.5 steals and 3.8 blocks themselves. On offense, though, the Tar Heels are fairly average shooters with a team slash line of .415/.314/.673 and a scoring average of just over 69 points per game. The team is led by scoring guards Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams, but a lackluster loss to Duke in the ACC tournament has them entering the tournament with a bit of a stain on their record and something to prove. St. John’s is no easy out, cashing in on a Jayla Everett-buzzer beater to win the first-four matchup against Purdue on Thursday, March 16. The Red Storm also have a penchant for rising to the occasion, downing No. 4 ranked UConn on Feb. 21. What makes St. John’s dangerous is the efficiency of its shooting (.438/.361/.764). While St. John’s is a slow, methodical team with the ball in its hands, they take care of the rock averaging only 13.9 turnovers per game.
(7) Baylor vs. (10) Alabama
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Storrs, Conn.): Did the new coach bounce wear off for Baylor this year? After Nicki Collen left the Atlanta Dream to sign with the Lady Bears, the team went 28-7 on the season. Heading into the tournament, Baylor sits at 19-12 overall and has lost six of its last nine games. Some of the team’s woes come from the fact that they just aren’t efficient scorers. Baylor is shooting just 42.8 percent from the floor and a mediocre 68.3 percent from the charity stripe. Going into a contest against a sturdy defense like Alabama’s will really test the Lady Bears. Baylor doesn’t turn the ball over a lot, but the Crimson Tide gets more steals and blocks on average than Baylor’s opponents to date. Baylor will also have to contend with the 3-point shooting of Alabama, who knocked down 38 percent of their deep shots for sixth-best in Division I. That scoring threat is helmed by third-year Alabama hooper Brittany Davis, who is recording a team-high scoring average and career-highs in assists, rebounds and steals.
(2) UConn vs. (15) Vermont
Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC (Storrs, Conn.): At 29-5, the Huskies have strung together an incredible season by anyone else’s standards. The team finished first in the Big East and on average beat their opponents by 17.1 points per game while shooting above 50 percent from the floor and 36.2 percent from deep. While superstar guard Paige Bueckers is out with injury, the return of sophomore guard Azzi Fudd means good things for the team’s offense, along with the passing of Nika Mühl (7.8 apg), the rebounding of Dorka Juhasz (10.0 rpg) and Aaliyah Edwards (9.2), and the 3-point shooting of Lou Lopez Senechal (.430 3P%). Their tournament opener will be in front of a rabid home crowd as well. In Vermont, UConn finds a sturdy first-round test. The Catamounts finished the regular season 14-2 in the American East Conference and 25-6 overall, and ride into the game on a 17-game win streak. Vermont is a good 3-point shooting team, ranked 17th according to Her Hoop Stats, and a solid team defensively that limits their opponents to just 53 points per game. However, they don’t score very much themselves (61.4 ppg) and haven’t played the stiffest competition. Running into the UConn machine that head coach Geno Auriemma has built up over the decades might be a rough out.