Welcome back to March–a.k.a. the very best time of the year. This year, women’s college basketball has reached new levels of parity and prestige, making this year’s version of March Madness more promising than ever before. Just like last year, I’m breaking down the eight teams who should be the most fun to keep an eye on as we get closer to cutting down the nets in Dallas next month.
- South Carolina (32-0): After winning a National Championship last year, South Carolina came roaring back even stronger, rolling through the regular season and conference tournament undefeated. Last year, point guard Destanni Henderson was the hero of the title game, setting a career high in points scored. She left a void at point guard after being drafted to the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, but graduate transfer Kierra Fletcher and redshirt freshman Raven Johnson have filled the position admirably, and the Gamecocks look even deeper than they did last year. This is March, which means anything can happen, but South Carolina is the heavy favorite for a reason, and I’ll never bet against a team with this much talent and experience–particularly when they’re coached by a living legend in Dawn Staley.
- Iowa (26-6): Last year, most people (myself included) picked Iowa to make a decent run in the tournament. Then Creighton stopped them in their tracks, marking one of the biggest and most exciting upsets of the entire season. This year, Iowa is still far from perfect, but their defense–particularly their defensive rebounding– has improved from abysmal to mediocre, a difference more significant than people might think. Honestly, there are lockdown defensive teams in the Hawkeyes’ corner of the bracket (looking at you, Texas and Ole Miss) who could knock out Iowa’s high-flying offense before they make it to Dallas. I think they’ve learned from past mistakes, though. Behind the formidable pair of Caitlin Clark and Monika Czinano, the Hawkeyes will avenge last year’s upset and make it to the Final Four.
- UConn (29-5): UConn has dealt with a string of injuries for the second year in a row, with the Huskies having to forfeit a game at one point because of their lack of healthy players. In spite of their lack of depth, though, they’ve once again managed to perform at an elite level. Fairfield transfer Lou Lopez Senechal in particular has been a true lifesaver, stepping up to replace Paige Bueckers’ scoring capabilities had she not suffered a season-ending ACL injury over the summer. With Azzi Fudd back from her knee injuries and Aaliyah Edwards playing the best basketball of her career, UConn might just have the juice to make it to their 15th (no, that’s not a typo) consecutive Final Four. If they don’t, it’ll be because of their short bench–and the exhaustion that comes with having such a small rotation.
- Washington State (23-10): Just a few short weeks ago, the Cougars became the darling of tourney time, rolling through the field to claim a shocking PAC-12 Championship over the likes of Stanford, UCLA, and Utah. It was a moment that changed the landscape of their season going forward, elevating a good-but-not-great squad to a five-seed in March Madness and earning their head coach, Kamie Ethridge, The Athletic’s Coach of the Year nod. Though they weren’t exceptional for most of the year, they have been consistently competitive, and momentum can mean everything in March. If they can get past FGCU–a team well-known for tournament upsets–in the Round of 64, they might just keep on rolling right into the Sweet 16 and beyond.
- Ole Miss (23-8): When Coach Yo’s Ole Miss squad faced undefeated South Carolina on Feb. 19, the Rebels took them to overtime but couldn’t hold on to win. When they played the Gamecocks again in the SEC Tournament, they were ripped to shreds in a 29-point loss. I think that the first matchup between these teams was much more important than the second one when it comes to Ole Miss’s capabilities, though, because it demonstrated just how dangerous they can be when they execute defensively. Teams have to have excellent defense to be successful in the SEC, and Ole Miss rode theirs to a fourth-in-the-league standing by the end of the regular season. Are they going to win a National Championship? I wouldn’t bet on it, but they do have the potential to take down some giants before they head out. If they play like they did back in February, their quarter of the bracket better watch out.
- Southern Cal (21-9): Southern Cal’s been an interesting team this season. At their best, they’ve been relentless and formidable, beating Stanford and taking UCLA down to the wire twice. At their worst, they’ve looked disjointed and clunky, and have a couple of bad losses which really demonstrated their shortcomings. I am, truthfully, much higher on this team than a lot of other people are, and I’m hoping they’ll prove me right this weekend. If the Trojans can play the same stifling defense they did in their Stanford win and get their guards going, they could knock a few really good teams out of the lineup. If they play the way they did in the back half of the season and the PAC-12 Tournament, though, they’re doomed for an early exit this month.
- Princeton (23-5): Honestly, Princeton seems fated to have a short run in the tournament, as they’re likely to face a very dangerous Utah team in the second round. In their first game, though, they’re squaring off against an NC State squad that’s been excellent in recent history but has been going through an injury-riddled rebuild this season. The Tigers aren’t great this year compared to many other teams in the field, but they’re certainly nothing to scoff at, and I can definitely see them taking down the Wolfpack in the first round, particularly if junior guard Kaitlyn Chen plays well.
- Illinois OR Mississippi State (21-10): The reason both of these teams are here are because they’re 11-seeds, which means only one of them will advance past the play-in game and into the field of 64. At the time this article was written, that play-in game hadn’t happened yet, so I don’t know who will make it to the first round. I think either team could be faced with a couple of advantageous matchups, though. They’ll face last year’s Cinderella story in Creighton first, a team that lives and dies by the three-point line. Both the Fighting Illini and the Bulldogs can lock down the arc and score well in the paint, opening up an opportunity to squeeze past the Bluejays into the Round of 32–where they could face a Notre Dame squad who will likely enter the tournament without their superstar point guard. If that happens, the 11 seed might just dance their way right into the Sweet Sixteen.