2022 Women's NCAA Tournament Preview
The NCAA Tournament is here and I’ve got you covered with everything you need to know in all four regions, from the best games of the first round to the best players to watch and who’s on upset alert. Plus, I answer the biggest questions surrounding each region. Let’s get right into it!
Does South Carolina’s Battle Tested Team Go Wire-To-Wire as #1? Last year’s Gamecocks squad wasn’t supposed to make the Final Four. They didn’t have deep tournament experience after the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, but they came within a heartbreaking missed Aliyah Boston putback from beating eventual champions Stanford. Now, the team has big game experience and has brought back nearly everyone from last year’s team (in addition to adding the top recruiting class in the country and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Kamilla Cardoso from the transfer portal). The Gamecocks have been #1 all season after beating 11 ranked opponents. Will the pressure of being a heavy favorite all year lead to more heartbreak or is this the year for Dawn Staley’s second national championship?
Can Arizona Make Another Run to the Final Four? Arizona’s run to the Final Four last year was surprising. Despite being a 3 seed, the Wildcats had never been there before, which means this year there are more expectations, even with a lower 4 seed this season. The Wildcats lost the key cog of their Final Four run in Aari McDonald, but seniors Cate Reese and Shaina Pellington have picked up the slack, combining for 25.5 points per game. The Wildcats’ offense dried up at the end of the season, scoring less than 51 points three times in the final five games. Arizona also drew a brutal region where they might have to play another Final Four team from last season, South Carolina, in the Sweet 16.
Will Caitlin Clark Dominate the Tournament Again? The other main contender for National Player of the Year (behind Aliyah Boston) is Caitlin Clark. The sophomore shined at the NCAA Tournament as a freshman last year, scoring 79 points in three games (an average of 26.3 points per game). Last year, Iowa was one of the darlings, now the Hawkeyes have legit Final Four hopes. What will Clark do in an encore?
Could North Carolina or Georgia Make a Run? Every tournament there are a couple of top 4 seeds that fail to advance to the Sweet 16 despite having home court advantage. Arizona and Iowa State could be vulnerable to a couple strong teams with North Carolina and Georgia respectively. Neither the Tar Heels nor the Bulldogs made the Sweet 16 in last season’s tournament, giving them maybe a tad more fight.
Player to Watch: Zia Cooke, South Carolina. Everyone knows the main star for South Carolina, Aliyah Boston. Many might still remember Zia Cooke from her brilliant tournament performance last season that landed her on the All-Tournament Team. If you tuned out for most of the regular season, you probably think that Cooke has continued being the Robin to Boston’s Batman for the #1 team in the country. But that’s not true. Zia Cooke has mightily struggled this season and no one is quite sure why. Her scoring numbers are at a career-low 11.2 points per game and her 39/39/77 shooting splits have plummeted to 35/29/72. Aliyah Boston is the best player on South Carolina, but Zia Cooke is the most important player for the Gamecocks. If she finds her playmaking and scoring efficiency again, this team is a likely lock for the Final Four. If not, it could be a shocking upset early in the tournament. Honorable mentions go to the Gamecocks’ X-factor, Destanni Henderson, and Caitlin Clark’s top sidekick, Monika Czinano (Iowa).
Game to Watch: Georgia vs Dayton. The Bulldogs struggled down the stretch of the regular season, which cost them a top 4 seed and hosting privileges. However, they still have one of the best post players in the country with Jenna Staiti. Dayton beat DePaul in the debut of the First Four at the women’s tournament. On the men’s side, a First Four team usually wins a second game. Does Dayton start that trend on the women’s side?
Upset Alert: Stephen F. Austin over North Carolina. North Carolina had a resurgent season, going 23-6 and posting a top 10 NET ranking. Their reward? A cross country trip to Tucson to play Stephen F. Austin, a dangerous mid-major who has recent tournament experience. The Ladyjacks came close to knocking off a fifth-seeded ACC team in last year’s NCAA Tournament, losing by two in overtime to Georgia Tech.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Iowa vs. Iowa State (Sweet 16). With all due respect to South Carolina vs. Iowa or a South Carolina-Arizona game, this in-state rivalry is what I want to see in the Greensboro regional. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Iowa State’s Ashley Joens are two of the premier shooters in the game. Both are capable of making a run to the Final Four, and the rivalry will add more late game drama to this one.
How Will Louisville Bounce Back After an Early ACC Tournament Exit? Louisville was one of the four clear-cut #1 seeds all season long until an early Quarterfinal exit from the ACC Tournament raised some questions about the Cardinals. They may have lost the #1 seed in the Wichita Region if Baylor had managed to win the Big 12, but that did not happen. Hailey Van Lith provides the necessary scoring kick for Louisville, but the addition of Syracuse transfer Emily Engstler has transformed the Cardinals, especially on defense. Engstler is a versatile defender who acts as the glue girl for Louisville. Van Lith and Engstler combined for just 16 points and turned the ball over 10 times in the ACC Quarterfinal loss, including four in the 4th quarter, so Louisville will need them to step up in the clutch to make their first Final Four since 2018.
Is Jordan Horston Available and How Healthy is She? Tennessee looked like the Lady Vols of old through the first three months or so of the season. Then, the losses started pilling up in February during a 5-7 stretch to close the season that saw Tennessee lose to non-tournament teams Auburn and Alabama. On top of everything, guard Jordan Horston fractured her elbow in the loss to Alabama. Tamari Key and Rae Burrell are important for Tennessee down low, but Horston is the straw that stirs the drink for the Lady Vols. There are rumors she could make her return some time during the tournament, but even if she does, how effective will she be? Tennessee didn’t look all that great in the final games of the season without her and the Lady Vols have a tough pod setup at home in Knoxville. Oregon is a tough and experienced 5 seed, but first Tennessee has to get by 13 seed Buffalo and their all-time leading scorer Dyaisha Fair.
Can Nicki Collen Continue the Baylor Dynasty? Baylor has built one of the strongest programs in the country over the past two decades and that’s in part due to Kim Mulkey, winner of 632 games and 3 national championships in Waco. But Mulkey is now coaching LSU, so Nicki Collen has come in from the Atlanta Dream to continue Baylor’s run of dominance. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s so far so good for Collen. She has guided the Lady Bears to a 27-6 and a 2 seed in the Wichita Region. Of course, it helps to still have First Team All-American NaLyssa Smith on the roster. Smith went back-to-back on the First Team list this season with a 22.5 points per game average and 11.5 rebounds per game. Baylor begins its tournament against the 15 seed Hawaii on Friday.
Are Mid-Majors Poised to Pull an Upset or Two? The mid-majors in the Wichita Region are deadly. BYU had a top 10 NET ranking most of the season and ran through the WCC on the way to a 6 seed. They lost to Gonzaga in the WCC Final who earned a 9 seed. South Dakota beat a strong rival in South Dakota State to get to the Big Dance as a 10 seed. All three are good enough to beat their first round opponents from power conferences. Even Belmont and Buffalo, both playing in Knoxville, have solid chances to beat powers Oregon and Tennessee, respectively.
Player to Watch: Naz Hillmon, Michigan. Hillmon is one of the best post players in the entire country, right up there with Aliyah Boston at South Carolina and Elissa Cunane at NC State. She gets overshadowed a bit in the Big Ten because of Caitlin Clark at Iowa, but make no mistake, Hillmon is a game-changer for the Wolverines. Honorable mentions go to Nyara Sabally (Oregon) and Maddy Siegrist (Villanova).
Game to Watch: Mississippi vs. South Dakota. South Dakota is the best mid-major in women’s basketball that I’m guessing you’ve never heard of. Chloe Lamb leads a great outside shooting team, which is the antithesis of Mississippi. The Lady Rebels are anchored by post player Shakira Austin. These two contrasting styles is what makes this the one to watch.
Upset Alert: Belmont over Oregon. The Ducks battled injuries during an up-and-down season, but still showed the committee enough to earn a five seed thanks to playing an extremely tough schedule. However, now they have to travel to Knoxville to play the 12 seed Belmont in a de facto home game for the Bruins. Belmont has been the class of the Ohio Valley the past few years and now have their eyes set on a second consecutive 12-5 upset.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Louisville vs. Baylor (Elite 8). The story going into the bracket reveal was whether Louisville or Baylor would be the top seed in the Wichita Regional. Both sides had good points, but in the end Louisville got the #1 seed. It doesn’t really matter other than what jerseys the two teams will wear if they meet. But should chalk hold until the Final Four, we can finally see who deserved the #1 seed on the court.
How Clear is Stanford’s Path to Another National Championship? As the defending national champions, Stanford has a major target on its back. No team has won two straight titles since Connecticut won four consecutive from 2013-2016. The Cardinal lost senior leaders Anna Wilson and Kiana Williams, but return stars Cameron Brink and Haley Jones. Stanford is on the nation’s second-longest win streak entering the NCAA Tournament at 20 games. In their way lies Georgia Tech (who already upset Connecticut this season), Maryland (who at their best can score with anybody) and perhaps Texas in the Elite 8 (who handed Stanford one of their only 3 losses this season).
Will Maryland’s Offense Come Back to Life? Last season, Maryland owned one of the scariest offenses in the country, scoring 80 or more points in 23 games. Yes, they lost in the Sweet 16 in part because Texas shut down the Terps’ offense, but that was their calling card. That remained the case for most of this season, but it’s been less consistent and has disappeared in recent weeks. The Terrapins have scored 80 or more points in just 15 games this season and none in the last month. The fearsome foursome of Angel Reese, Ashley Owusu, Chloe Bibby and Diamond Miller will have to find their touch again to avenge their Sweet 16 defeat from a season ago.
How Far Can Kim Mulkey Take LSU in Year 1? Kim Mulkey leaving national powerhouse Baylor was the biggest news on the coaching carousel last year. Now coaching in the SEC, Mulkey has quickly rebuilt an LSU program with five Final Fours in its history. Her team is more focused on guard play with the likes of star Khayla Pointer and Alexis Morris, which is a departure from the post dominated play she oversaw at Baylor. While this team has the benefit of playing at home for the first two rounds and has excelled more quickly than some thought in Mulkey’s debut year, the Tigers’ path through the tournament is a tough one. No 14 seed has ever beaten a 3 seed, but Jackson State is no ordinary 14 seed. After that, the Tigers could play 6 Ohio State and 538 gives that matchup a virtual tossup. A former Big 12 adversary of Mulkey’s, Texas, could also be waiting in the Sweet 16, but LSU has to worry about Jackson State first.
Could this Region See the First 14 vs 3 or 15 vs 2 Upset? In the men’s tournament, 14 and 15 seeds winning are rare, but not unheard of, happening 31 times in total. But on the women’s side, it has never happened once. That is mostly because top 4 seeds get to play the first two rounds at home, and #2 and #3 seeds are some of the best teams in the tournament. However, if it’s going to happen in this tournament, I think the Spokane Region is the one to watch. Fairfield is the only 15 seed that 538 gives even a 1% to win. They dominated a sneakily good MAAC conference and will play Texas in Austin. Meanwhile, Jackson State is on a 21-game winning streak after cruising through the SWAC and 538 gives them a 13% of beating LSU in Baton Rouge; the next closest odds for a 14 seed is just 6%. Jackson State has a center in Ameshya Williams-Holiday who won both SWAC Player of the Year and SWAC Defensive Player of the Year; she could be a problem for an LSU team that is much more guard-oriented.
Player to Watch: Rori Harmon, Texas. The fiery freshman from Houston has energized the Longhorns and given them a capable outside shooter. She’s playing her best basketball of the season right now, going for 50 points combined against Baylor and Iowa State to close out the Big 12 Tournament as tournament MVP. She’s grown more confident as the season has gone along and the Longhorns will need her playmaking abilities to go on a deep run. Honorable mentions go to Lorela Cubaj (Georgia Tech) and Jacy Sheldon (Ohio State).
Game to Watch: Kansas vs Georgia Tech. 8-9 games are supposed to be close and this one should be the same. Kansas had their best season in nine years. Georgia Tech made the Sweet Sixteen last season and has some impressive wins this year, including one over Connecticut. But the Yellow Jackets struggled down the stretch and went from a possible host to the 8-9 game.
Upset Alert: Florida Gulf Coast over Virginia Tech and Arkansas over Utah. Florida Gulf Coast is a heavily underseeded 12 seed. This team blitzed through the ASUN and even beat LSU in non-conference play, but got a double digit seed after many bracketologists saw them in the 8/9 seed range. That might be unfortunate news for Virginia Tech, who just missed out on hosting and now travel to Norman for this game. VT’s Elizabeth Kitley and FGCU’s Kierstan Bell are must watch. Meanwhile, Arkansas had a down year for their standards, while Utah had one of the best years in Utes’ history. 538 says the 10 seed Razorbacks are the favorite, the only double digit seed with that distinction.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: Stanford vs. Georgia Tech (Round of 32). As I previously mentioned, the Yellow Jackets have taken down a couple of top teams this season and they could get a crack at another in the Round of 32 against #1 seed Stanford. Georgia Tech will need its offense to find a groove once again to compete against Haley Jones and company.
Will the Region Location Have an Impact? The story emerging from Selection Sunday was the seemingly disadvantageous position the committee put the top seed NC State in by placing them in Connecticut’s backyard and putting the Huskies as the 2 seed in this region. Lots of Wolfpack fans complained, even if it was likely the right call by all bracketing procedures. At the end of the day, if the two were to play in the Elite 8, NC State still has a good enough team to beat a Connecticut squad that has looked weaker than usual at times this season. Would a large Huskies crowd make a difference?
Is Notre Dame Back? For much of the 2000s, we were used to seeing the Fighting Irish make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. However, the last two years had been the two worst years for the program since the early 1990s. Niele Ivey has built the Fighting Irish back into an NCAA Tournament team. Notre Dame went 22-8 and almost got a top 4 seed. Instead, they will settle for a 5 seed and begin against 12 seed Massachusetts. This dangerous program with a rich history might be gearing up for another extended run in March.
How Far Will Rhyne Howard Carry a Suddenly Hot Kentucky Team? The Cindarella story before the tournament has even begun is Kentucky. The Wildcats went from nowhere near contention for a spot in the field to a 6 seed after winning 10 games in a row. The Wildcats have a tough path however, starting with a strong 11 seed Princeton. After that, it could be 3 seed Indiana and then 2 seed Connecticut. Talk about a brutal draw, but Rhyne Howard will take this team as far as her shooting can go.
Has Connecticut Gelled Yet With a Newly Healthy Roster? At times this season, there were questions if Connecticut would even grab a top 3 seed, let alone a 2 seed. The Huskies lost shocking games to Georgia Tech and Villanova on the way to their most regular season losses since the 2004-05 team. However, Connecticut had to shuffle its roster constantly as stars continually got hurt early in the season. Most notably, last season’s National Player of the Year, Paige Bueckers, missed almost two months due to injury. She returned during the Big East Tournament and is still working her way back to the full workload she carried last year. This team rallied down the stretch to earn a 2 seed and will play in their backyard all regional long, so perhaps this will be the latest in a long line of Final Four Huskies teams.
Player to Watch: Grace Berger, Indiana. For the Hoosiers to make another run to the Elite 8 or further, they will need Grace Berger to continue playing at the All-American level her Honorable Mention selection warrants. Berger leads the team in assists, and the team relied on her to score more once star Mackenzie Holmes went down with a knee injury. Interestingly, she doesn’t shoot too many threes for being a guard, instead relying on an antiquated mid-range game, but she’s lethal at it. Honorable mentions go to Madi Williams (Oklahoma) and Diamond Battles (UCF).
Game to Watch: UCF vs. Florida. Florida falling to a 10 seed was a slight surprise on Selection Sunday, but it gives us a very intriguing in-state battle in Storrs. UCF were the queens of the AAC this season. They will certainly be hungry to beat another team from the SEC, but Florida played like a top 4 seed up until mid-February.
Upset Alert: Princeton over Kentucky and IUPUI over Oklahoma. Princeton and Kentucky are two of the hottest teams in the country. The Wildcats won ten in a row to end the season, going from out of tourney contention all the way up to a 6 seed. However, the Tigers have one of the best offenses in the country and will be a handful for Rhyne Howard and company. Oklahoma may have home court advantage, but IUPUI poses a tough matchup on the inside. Macee Williams has been named Horizon League Player of the Year in four straight seasons (yes you read that right) and she has the size to give Oklahoma problems. The Sooners allowed 61 points to Kansas State post player Ayoka Lee earlier in the season.
Post-First Round Intriguing Matchup: NC State vs. Kansas State (Sweet 16). This one is all about the post presence. A possible matchup between the Wolfpack’s Elissa Cunane and the Wildcats’ Ayoka Lee will be must watch if it happens. Lee dropped 61 on the aforementioned Oklahoma earlier in the season and is just as good as the bigger names in women’s basketball.