Story by Jeff Metcalfe
For those not paying attention since Breanna Stewart graduated, women’s college basketball is less dynasty-driven than at any time since the early 1990s.
Not that blue bloods still aren’t cutting down the nets in the end. Just not the same ones.
South Carolina, Notre Dame, Baylor and Stanford are the four most recent NCAA Tournament champions, from 2017-21 (no tournament held in 2020 due to COVID).
The current run of different champions is the longest since 1992-96 when Stanford, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Connecticut and Tennessee took turns before the Lady Vols made it a three-peat during the Chamique Holdsclaw era.
There hasn’t been a repeat champion since UConn’s four-year run with Stewart (2013-16) while Stanford is trying to become the first Pac-12 team to win back-to-back titles since USC in 1983-84, when Cheryl Miller was the two-time Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
South Carolina (29-2) and Stanford (28-3) are the top two overall seeds this year, meaning they can avoid a showdown until the title game April 3 in Minneapolis — provided both survive five lead-up games (they played a 66-65 national semifinal last year).
Stanford is on a 20-game win streak, last losing 65-61 at South Carolina on Dec. 21. The Gamecocks’ 17-game win streak ended March 6 with a 64-62 loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament final.
Still, South Carolina is a solid NCAA favorite with a 47 percent chance of winning, according to the FiveThirtyEight.com statistical modeling, compared to Stanford’s 16 percent and North Carolina State’s 15 percent.
After that, no team is given a double-digit chance of claiming the title, including the fourth No. 1 seed, Louisville, and UConn, which is now healthy and coming into the postseason with arguably its best shot to win since 2016. (The Huskies haven’t dropped off the map: They’ve made the last four Final Fours.)
Fo the first time the NCAA Women’s Tournament will feature 68 teams, equaling the field for the men’s event.
Can multiple Pac-12 teams reach Sweet Sixteen?
Matching the conference’s recent NCAA success will be difficult this time around.
At least two Pac-12 teams have made the Elite Eight every year since 2016, but only Stanford has that level of seeding from the selection committee.
History is on the side of the Pac-12, which has the most NCAA wins (70) and Final Four appearances (6) and highest winning percentage (.707) over the last five postseasons.
Stanford, fourth-seeded seed Arizona (the 2021 NCAA runner-up) and No. 5 Oregon are all solid first-round favorites, although the Wildcats, with three losses in their last four games, need to reassert themselves with the return of leading scorer and rebounder Cate Reese from a shoulder injury.
— Arizona will have significant home-court advantage in its sub-regional, playing first against No. 13 seed UNLV on Saturday, then potentially No. 5 North Carolina in a toss-up second-round game Monday.
The UNLV game pairs Arizona’s Sam Thomas against her younger sister, Jade, as well as Arizona coach Adia Barnes against Linda La Roque, a former Stanford player and assistant coach who’s in her second season with the Rebels.
(La Roque is among those mentioned as a potential candidate for the Arizona State vacancy.)
— Oregon has Sweet Sixteen talent but, even after getting healthy, was inconsistent enough to lose out on a chance of hosting a sub-regional.
As a result, the Ducks are on the road in Knoxville, opening against No. 12 Belmont on Saturday followed by a projected game against No. 4 Tennessee, the only school to have played in all 40 NCAA tournaments.
— Stanford is home Friday against No. 16 seed Montana State, which is making its third ever NCAA appearance and first since 2017.
Looming Sunday for the Cardinal is the winner of No. 8 Kansas and No. 9 Georgia Tech; neither is ranked in the major national polls.
— Utah and Colorado are No. 7 seeds, opening against No. 10s Arkansas and Creighton on Friday at neutral sites for those teams.
But the second-round matchups will have partisan feels: Utah would play No. 2 seed/host Texas while Colorado would face No. 2 seed/host Iowa.
— Washington State is the higher seed (No. 8) against Kansas State (No. 9), playing Saturday for the right to challenge North Carolina State.
But the Wildcats are 21 places higher than WSU in the NET ranking, so that metric’s reliability is a bit at stake.
The FiveThirtyEight model favors Kansas State, with a 61 percent chance to win in the first round.
— In the first round of the 64-team WNIT, Oregon State plays Long Beach State on Thursday and UCLA hosts UC Irvine on Friday.
Those Pac-12 teams could meet for the first time since Jan. 30 (Oregon State won 72-58) in the tournament’s quarterfinals.
Our first/second round NCAA picks
Stanford: beats Montana State, beats Georgia Tech (Friday/Sunday)
Washington State: loses to Kansas State (Saturday)
Arizona: beats UNLV, beats North Carolina (Saturday/Monday)
Oregon: beats Belmont, loses to Tennessee (Saturday/Monday)
Utah: beats Arkansas, loses to Texas (Friday/Sunday)
Colorado: beats Creighton, loses to Iowa (Friday/Sunday)
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