Previewing the No. 1 Seeds’ Paths to the Final Four

Take a look at which teams pose the biggest threat to the No. 1 seeds at each round. 

By Alex Holmes

The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament begins Sunday in the San Antonio area. With last year’s tournament cancelled due to COVID-19, and teams fighting a constant battle against coronavirus complications all year, this season’s tournament brings a little bit more excitement than usual.

In the field of 64, the No. 1 seeds are Stanford, UConn, NC State, and South Carolina. Between limited nonconference schedules and COVID-19 pauses, the 2021 tournament feels more wide open than usual. There are several teams outside of the top-seed line that have a realistic shot at winning the national championship.  Assuming each top seed advances out of round one, which No. 1 seeds could have the most trouble in potential matchups during the second round, Sweet Sixteen, and Elite Eight?

Potentially Pesky No. 8/9 Matchups

Among the eight and nine seeds across the bracket, there are two teams that could give their region’s No. 1 seed a run for their money in the second round. UConn and South Carolina arguably have the toughest potential second round matchups.

UConn plays the winner of Syracuse and South Dakota State. If Syracuse plays the way it did in the ACC Tournament and with the addition of guard Tiana Mangakahia, UConn might have more trouble than many people expect. 

Syracuse’s Tiana Mangakahia leads the nation in assists per game. (Source: Syracuse Athletics)

Mangakahia sat out of the conference tournament due to an injury, but that did not stop Syracuse from making a run into the semifinals. The Orange are led by senior guard Kiara Lewis (14.3 points per game), six-foot-seven ACC Freshman of the Year Kamilla Cardoso (13.7 points per game, 8.3 rebounds), and Emily Engstler (10.2 points per game, 9.1 rebounds). Mangakahia was hitting her stride just before tournament action began, and is averaging 11.6 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, which is the best in the country.

A matchup with the Orange means high-pressure defense and long, athletic guards. UConn has not had to deal with such a potent backcourt since their Feb. 8 victory over South Carolina. Syracuse’s size with Cardoso, Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi and Amaya Finklea-Guity could also make life uncomfortable for UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards in the paint. 

Assuming Dawn Staley’s side defeats Mercer in the first round, the Gamecocks could meet ninth-seeded Florida State in the second round. The Seminoles finished fourth in the ACC regular season, which was highlighted by a win over Louisville on Feb. 21. The players to watch for on Florida State are guards Bianca Jackson and Morgan Jones. 

Jackson averages 13.9 points per game and Jones averages 13.3 points per game to go along with 6.3 rebounds. Should the Gamecocks and Seminoles advance to the second round, Jackson would be up against her former team—she was a 2019 SEC All-Freshman Team selection under Staley.

The Seminoles also have several post players they can throw at Aliyah Boston in Valencia Myers, River Baldwin, and Savannah Wilkinson. Depth in the paint will be key to a Seminole upset

Looming Sweet Sixteen Matchups

The Huskies may very well encounter tough matchups at each round. Either fourth-seed Kentucky or fifth-seed Iowa are expected to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the top half of the River Walk region. If Iowa adanvances, the game would give fans plenty of excitement because of the pure scoring talent on the floor. While the Huskies would be the favorite in this contest, it would be a treat to see college basketball’s future stars go head to head.

Paige Bueckers would finally have to share the spotlight with another freshman on the floor—Caitlin Clark. The Des Moines native leads the country in scoring (26.7 points per game) and sits second nationally in assists (7.2 assists per game). Clark was the only other freshman aside from Bueckers to be named an AP All-American, earning second team honors.

Iowa’s freshman sensation Caitlin Clark owns the nation’s best scoring average at 26.7 ppg. (SOURCE: Jim Slosiarek, The Gazette)

Another potential bracket-busting Sweet Sixteen matchup is in the Alamo region, where the top-seeded Cardinal could play against fourth-seed Arkansas. Led by AP All-America Third Team selection Chelsea Dungee (22.2 points per game), the Razorbacks finished sixth in the SEC regular season, but own an impressive resume with nonconference wins over Baylor and UConn—Arkansas was the only team to beat the Huskies in the regular season. Arkansas averages 83.1 points per game, which is fourth-best in the country and could pose some problems for Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer’s defense.

Chelsea Dungee and Arkansas handed UConn their only loss this season. (Source: Micahel Woods/AP Photo, Whole Hog Sports)

Final Hurdles Before the Final Four

If seeds hold, each region should offer compelling Elite Eight contests, but UConn, South Carolina, and NC State might have the toughest final hurdles to clear before earning a spot in the Final Four.

The River Walk region offers the potential for a UConn–Baylor Elite Eight. The Lady Bears are still the defending national champions and might just be too physical for the relatively younger Huskies. Baylor brings size and plenty of upperclassmen experience from that 2019 national championship team.

Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith is an AP All-America First Team selection for the Lady Bears. (Source: Chris Jones Photography, Baylor Athletics)

NaLyssa Smith (18.1 points per game, 5.6 rebounds), an AP All-America First Team selection, DiJonai Carrington (13.5 points per game), and Queen Egbo (11.3 points per game, 5.6 rebounds) are the primary threats for the Lady Bears. Just as important to their success are senior guards DiDi Richards and Moon Ursin. If anyone in the country can slow down UConn’s Bueckers, it is Richards. At six-foot-two, Richards is the reigning National Defensive Player of the Year and has a reputation for terrific on-ball defense. Baylor relies on their interior presence to score, which should test the Huskies’ ability to rebound and prevent a massive amount of points in the paint.

In the Hemisfair region, a South Carolina-Maryland matchup would pit the nation’s best offense against one of the country’s stingiest defenses. The Terrapins lead the nation in scoring at 91.3 points per game and in three-point shooting, averaging 41% from beyond the arc. Sharpshooters Katie Benzan—who leads the country in three-point field goal percentage at a blistering 51%—Chloe Bibby, and Diamond Miller would really stretch the Gamecocks’ defense and force them to put up points, which is something they have struggled to do at times this season.

Maryland’s Katie Benzan shoots 51% from the three-point line. (Source: Maryland Athletics)

The Mercado region has not received too much attention leading up to the tournament. If seeds hold, the potential Elite Eight matchup between NC State and Texas A&M could be the most competitive game between a region’s top two seeds. There has been speculation over whether Texas A&M should have grabbed the one seed in this region. What makes this matchup intriguing is that both teams are so balanced that the game may not appear to have superstars. Don’t be fooled though—each team has quite the ensemble of players that make their teams more than capable of not only advancing to the Final Four, but winning a national championship.

The Wolfpack are led by Cunane’s post presence, but they have plenty of firepower at all five positions. Guards Kai Crutchfield and Jakia Brown-Turner have shut down opponents’ best players throughout the season and have proven they can score when needed. With Raina Perez, the guard who shot the game-winning jumper to win the ACC Tournament championship, NC State has one of the most well-rounded and underrated backcourts in the nation. It’s impossible to talk about NC State without mentioning Kayla Jones and Jada Boyd. Jones is the team’s emotional leader and carried the team earlier in the season. Boyd is simply athletic and strong and will be a tough matchup for any team during the tournament.

Texas A&M’s squad is the definition of balanced. Four players average double-digit scoring, with guard Aaliyah Wilson (12.6 points per game) and forward N’dea Jones (12.3 points per game, 10.3 rebounds) leading the way. Add in guards Kayla Wells (11.7 points per game) and Jordan Nixon (9.5 points per game) along with center Ciera Johnson, and it’s clear the Aggies provide talent at all five positions. 

N’dea Jones, an All-SEC First Team selection, is the all-time rebounding leader for the Aggies. (Source: Texas A&M Athletics)

Texas A&M, the SEC regular season champion, and NC State, the ACC Tournament champion, could very well have the best Elite Eight game of the tournament—don’t let it fly under your radar if that day comes.

When games begin on Sunday, it will mark 715 days since we last saw an NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament game, when Baylor defeated Notre Dame in the 2019 National Championship on April 7.  This year feels a bit sweeter and a bit more wide-open—and it’s been worth the wait.

The 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament begins this Sunday, March 21 at 12 P.M. ET. First and second round action runs Sunday through Wednesday. The 64-team bracket is available here. The full slate of games and television schedule is available here.

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