After a couple days of men’s March Madness action, it’s time for the main event — the NCAA women’s Division I basketball tournament. Haven’t filled out your bracket yet? No worries, we’re here to help. Today’s Sunday Scroll is a deep dive into the tournament’s four regions, so give it a read and then make your picks before noon ET.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“I admit I get a little tense during this time of year. I’m more animated and more demanding of attention to detail. And Lord knows, don’t let me get the coffee with a shot of espresso. It is on.”
— South Carolina women’s basketball head coach and Hall of Fame player, Dawn Staley spilling the
tea coffee on how she turns it up come tournament time. We feel you, Dawn.
🏢😷 Facilities and protocols
First thing’s first. Before diving into the tournament and our regional breakdown,we want to paint a clear picture of the stage that is set for the women’s Madness in San Antonio, Texas.
Though some teams involved in the men's tournament have already started bending the rules regarding COVID-19 protocols, our hopes are for the women’s contest to make safety a little bit of a higher priority.
- There won’t be large crowds this year. But the championship will be played in front of fans, albeit a much smaller group than usual, 17% capacity to be exact. And everyone is expected to mask-up — as for the entire state of Texas, that’s another story.
Moving on to amenities, the women’s tournament clearly differs from the men’s. After photos of the women’s “weight room” were shared on social media, several players throughout the WNBA and NBA called out the obvious differences compared to the men’s set-up.
- While the men’s bubble in Indiana is equipped with a large, gym-sized weight room, the women were presented with one small rack of dumbbells and yoga mats. *sighs*
- And if the weight room wasn’t enough to get you fired up, more differences in things like the dining experience and swag bags are proving there’s a trend in the divide.
🏀 How it works
Thankfully, the tournament set-up isn’t much different from the men’s. The 32 teams (31 this year due to a canceled Ivy League season) that win their Div I conference tournaments receive an automatic berth, and the rest of the slots are filled with teams chosen by a selection committee, giving a grand total of 64 teams.
- Unlike the men, however, the women’s tournament doesn’t feature the First Four play-in tournament. Instead, the official tournament starts today with the round of 64.
- The round of 32 starts Tuesday, and then comes the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four and finally, the National Championship game on April 4th. Check out the full schedule here.
Since the city of San Antonio is hosting the tournament, it’s broken up into four regions with location-appropriate names: Alamo, Hemisfair, River Walk and Mercado (how cute).
🤠 Remember the Alamo
The region: We don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves, but the Alamo region is the toughest of the bunch. It also features two of the four 2021 Werner Ladder Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year Award finalists: Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and Georgia’s Joni Taylor.
The favorites: It’s always hard to predict an upset, but we really don’t see any happening to the top three seeds in the Alamo. With a 25-2 regular season record (in the tough Pac-12 conference no less), No. 1 Stanford is the best team in the country.
- No. 2 Louisville has fire in their bellies. Fueled by AP All-American and ACC leading scorer Dana Evans, they’ll be hard to beat.
- And No. 3 Georgia are looking to return to their former glory. This is their highest ranking since 2007, and it’s been 22 years since the Lady Bulldogs (why can’t they just be the Bulldogs?) reached the Final Four. Maybe this year?
The underdogs: We’re taking No. 11 seed South Dakota as our Alamo sleeper pick, since they had a solid 19-5 regular season and are coming into this tournament on a nine-game winning streak.
- They’ll face No. 6 Oregon, who went 13-8 and haven’t played a March Madness game without 2020 No. 1 WNBA draft pick and NY Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu since 2016.
💧 Buckets in River Walk
The region: If Alamo is the toughest region, River Walk is certainly a close second. With three first-team All-Americans, bitter rivalries and coaching firsts, this region is a must-watch.
The favorites: UConn is ranked second overall in the tournament and No. 1 in the River Walk region. While freshman Paige Bueckers (pronounced BECKERS) just earned All-American recognition to add to her accolades, she and the Huskies have a tough road ahead facing the region’s No. 2 Baylor and No. 3 Tennessee as potential match-ups later on.
- And with UConn’s head coach Geno Auriemma out until at least the second round due to testing positive for COVID-19, the young squad has their work cut out for them.
- The last time UConn and Baylor battled, the Lady Bears came out on top in a 74–58 win. And as Baylor enters the tournament as reigning champs, we can expect the Huskies to be out for blood. Get your popcorn ready.
Don’t sleep on them: No. 4 Kentucky and No. 5 Iowa can’t be ignored. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark has given Bueckers a run for her money as top freshman this year, and coming from a competitive conference like the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes may dish out a few surprises.
- Meanwhile, it’s head coach Kyra Elzy’s first tournament appearance with the Kentucky ’Cats. And with All-American Rhyne Howard on the roster, putting points on the board won’t be an issue.
The underdogs: The No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast (FGCU) squad is coming from “Dunk City,” so we’re ready for them to put on a show against No. 6 Michigan. And after Naz Hilomon dropped 50 points (!!!) in Michigan’s battle against Ohio State earlier this season, it’s certainly going to be a match-up to watch.
🎟 No free rides in Hemisfair
The region: According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Hemisfair region is the third most likely to produce the NCAA champions. But crunching numbers doesn’t always offer a clear picture of what to expect. Anything goes in March, don’t sleep on Hemisfair.
The favorites: With AP All-American and arguably the best defender in the country in Aliyah Boston on the court, and the aforementioned Staley leading from the sideline, it’s no surprise that South Carolina has the No. 1 seed.
- Maryland earned the No. 2 seed in the Hemisfair region, and with good reason. After snagging the Big Ten championship title, the Terps can hold their own against just about anyone.
- Maryland also boasts a 91.3 points per game (PPG) average, which leads Division I women’s basketball, and with strong shooters like Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, expect to keep hearing that swish.
The underdogs: We’re keeping a close eye on No. 12 Stephen F. Austin. The Ladyjacks (really, again?) only dropped two games this season. Not to mention, they’ll be playing somewhat close to home, which could give them the edge they need to blow past No. 5 Georgia Tech tonight.
🌧 Raining threes in Mercado
The region: Remember that Women’s Coach of the Year Award we mentioned earlier? Well, the other two finalists are in the Mercado region: Texas A&M’s Gary Blair and North Carolina State’s Wes Moore. No walk in the park here.
The favorites: NC State are the top seed in Mercado, thanks to the team's first back-to-back ACC tournament championship. They have future WNBA star and ACC tournament MVP Elissa Cunane at the helm, but they also have a giant obstacle on their path to victory...
- And that’s the No. 2 Texas A&M Aggies, who were a projected No. 1 seed until a devastating loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament semifinals earlier this month.
- The Aggies still won their first regular season SEC title though, and were the AP’s No. 2-ranked team late in the regular season. Of any team, we think the Aggies have the most potential to win it all.
The underdogs: It’s hard to call a third-ranked team an underdog, but thanks to the big shadow cast by NC State and Texas A&M, Arizona is flying under the radar. With one of the best seniors in the country in Aari McDonald (who was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year), they have a great chance at seeing Final Four action.