Are you craving chaos? Anxiously awaiting upsets? Then you’ve come to the right place — they call it March Madness for a reason, and the 2021 women’s NCAA Tournament is set up to be one wild, wacky ride.
And that was before Connecticut announced its Hall of Fame coach, Geno Auriemma, tested positive for COVID-19.
Games tip off Sunday, and the tournament promises to be unlike anything we’ve seen. Aside from the fact that all 64 teams will travel to Texas and play the tournament in and around San Antonio — a necessity given the potential rapid spread of coronavirus — this is the most wide-open women’s tournament in NCAA history.
Parity has been growing at an exponential rate over the past few years in the women’s game; keep in mind that powerhouse UConn, the most dominant program in the modern era, hasn’t won a title since 2016.
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In some ways, COVID-19 helped level the playing field even more this season. Gone were the raucous crowds that a handful of schools are known for, fan bases that make it particularly hard to win on the road. Home court advantage, crazy crowd or not, becomes a distant memory when you spend weeks on the road because your county has shut down and you’ve got to move out of town to find an available gym. We saw dominant teams rise this season and typical bottom-dwellers pull off stunners.
And yet, there are teams poised for deeper runs than others, squads that are more likely to still be standing when we get to the Final Four.
The early favorite title game pick will be Stanford and UConn, and for good reason. Assuming Auriemma gets healthy and everyone else stays that way, the Huskies boast the likely national player of the year in Paige Bueckers, who can get a basket pretty much whenever she wants.
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Kiana Williams and the Cardinal are the No. 1 seed in the Alamo Region. (Photo: Ethan Miller, Getty Images)
Living out of a suitcase won’t be an adjustment for No. 1 seed Stanford, as the Cardinal were forced on a nine-week trip earlier this season. Their point guard is senior Kiana Williams from San Antonio — don’t you think she’s probably been waiting her entire career to play for a national championship in her hometown?
Perhaps you (foolishly) don’t think of N.C. State as a basketball school. Elissa Cunane, who led the Wolfpack to back-to-back ACC tournament titles and another top seed, would like to prove you wrong over the next month. But don’t count out second-seeded Baylor. The defending national champs will basically be playing at home, too, and have a squad full of talent and experience.
Good luck slowing Maryland, another No. 2 seed, which leads the nation at 91.3 points per game.
Top-seeded South Carolina has two of the most important pieces in women’s basketball in head coach and Olympian Dawn Staley, who is poised to become the face of women’s basketball in the next few years, and 6-5 forward Aliyah Boston, maybe the best defender in the college game.
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Third-seeded UCLA has signed some of the best recruiting classes the past few years and is long overdue for a Final Four appearance; maybe this is the year the Bruins finally get it done.
Dana Evans, the back-to-back ACC player of the year, had a rough conference tournament two weeks ago for second-seeded Louisville. Know what would make her forget about it? A nice, long run to the Final Four, which the Cardinals are absolutely capable of.
If it’s possible to call a No. 2 seed a darkhorse, that’s what Texas A&M is. Almost no one is thinking of the Aggies as a serious title contender, but those people haven’t been paying attention.
Looking for a Cinderella? The bracket has plenty of those, too. Keep your eye on fifth-seeded Iowa and freshman scoring sensation Caitlin Clark (26.7 points per game, 7.2 assists per game), who’s a nightmare to guard. Oregon State took a long COVID-19 break in the middle of its season but ended the year by beating two top-15 teams on the road, then followed that up with another top-20 victory, so you’d be wise to not underestimate the No. 8 seeded Beavers. Fourth-seeded Arkansas and Chelsea Dungee (22.2 points per game) can score with anyone — just ask UConn.
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If mid-majors are more your style, pay close attention to fifth-seeded Gonzaga, which regularly dominates the West Coast Conference and has a mid-post game that other coaches envy. Eleventh-seeded Florida Gulf Coast and Kierstan Bell, one of the only players in the country averaging a double-double (24.7 points, 10.9 rebounds), won’t be an easy out, either.
No one knows yet how COVID-19 — which would lead this season’s power rankings because it’s been a beast to stop — will impact the tournament. There are plans and protocols in place, but there’s also no mask mandate in Texas. According to ESPN, more than 2,000 games were canceled or postponed this season because of COVID-19.
Regardless, we know this much for sure: the women’s game is growing. There’s more interest, more highly skilled players and more title contenders every year. And even in a weird season that experienced postponements and almost was canceled by a silent opponent, that’s a great trend for the sport.
Follow reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell
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