SAN ANTONIO – This year’s women’s NCAA Tournament may be one of the most-wide open in years, with nearly a dozen teams having a good chance to win the championship.
The uncertainty seems apropos after a pandemic-stressed season of stops, pauses and cancellations.
The top seeds Stanford, South Carolina, N.C. State and UConn are definitely the favorites to win the title on April 4 at the Alamodome. The four No. 2s also are among the favorites to win it all with Louisville, Maryland, Baylor and Texas A&M all title contenders.
“This is as wide-open a year as any. Last year maybe it was Oregon or people might say South Carolina,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Past years there’s been Baylor with Brittney Griner or Connecticut with Maya Moore but I think this year is wide open. There are a lot of different teams that could win this tournament. I think it will be very exciting and great for TV.”
History is on the side of the top teams. A one or two seed has won every women’s tournament title since 1997, including the last eight by a No. 1.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who led the Aggies to the 2011 national championship, said his advice is always to play the game with “no fear”.
“That’s how you advance in the NCAAs. If you come in thinking that this team is No. 1 or No. 2, you have no chance,” said Blair, whose Aggies are a two-seed. “But if you come in with a no-fear attitude, Cinderellas happen all the time.
“I’ve been a lower-seeded team at Arkansas. I’m still the lowest-seeded team that ever made the Final Four when I was at Arkansas as a No 9 seed. We had the opportunity out at Stanford to see a No 16 beat a No 1 … That’s always been a great teaching lesson to me.”
Even if that trend doesn’t change, there are more teams capable of pulling off upsets and at least reaching the Final Four especially since there were fewer regular season games and practices than there would be during normal year.
The talent also seems to be more spread out now.
A look at the AP All-America team and for the first time ever there were 15 different schools represented on it. Throughout the season, the No. 1 team in the poll changed four times- the second most all-time. N.C. State and Stanford both lost games to unranked teams this season.
Also, with all the NCAA Tournament being played on neutral courts there’s a better chance that there will be more upsets as lower-seeded teams won’t have to win on a higher-seeded squad’s homecourt to advance to the Sweet 16.
Any team that will make a deep run will have to deal with the mental aspect as well. A school that wins the national championship will have spent nearly three weeks in San Antonio cooped up in their hotel.
Stanford, the overall No. 1 seed, might be in the best position to overcome that. The Cardinal spent nine weeks away from home because of the virus. If they can, VanDerveer could win her first national championship since 1992.
“I think it helps,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “We’re used to testing every day and used to eating in our rooms. It has prepared us for this. We’ve been her done this, we can handle it.”
VanDerveer tells her players their middle name has to be “flexible.”
Some other things to watch for in the tournament:
There are a lot of talented freshmen and sophomores who are making their debuts in the NCAAs. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark led the nation in scoring at 26.7 points per game and Paige Bueckers of UConn became the third freshman to ever earn first-team All-America honors.
South Carolina sophomore Aliyah Boston, also an All-American, will be playing in her first NCAA Tournament after last season’s was wiped out by the pandemic.
Four teams will be making their NCAA Tournament debuts, although they will all have a tough task to make it a long stay. Bradley, High Point. Stony Brook and Utah Valley. As an 11-seed Bradley has the best chance to make it out of the first round as the other three teams would need to pull off monumental upsets as 15 and 16 seeds.
MISSING THEIR LEADER:
UConn, which has made the Final Four every tournament since 2008, will be missing coach Geno Auriemma for the first two games because he contracted the coronaviru s last week. Auriemma should be back for the Sweet 16.