The undefeated and defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks ride a 38-game winning streak into March Madness. ESPN analytics give the Gamecocks a 46.4% chance to win the title.
The UConn Huskies — which lost to the Gamecocks in the NCAA title game a year ago and are a No. 2 seed on the other side of the bracket this season — have the next best odds at 11.2%. The top-seeded Stanford Cardinal and Indiana Hoosiers both come in at 7.1%, and fellow No. 1 seeded Virginia Tech Hokies are next at 5.3%.
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We’ve already broken down the 68-team field by region. We’ve named the best players in the bracket. Now, ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel assess the true championship contenders, whether anyone has a shot at dethroning South Carolina and join a handful of ESPN analysts in making Final Four and championship predictions.
If South Carolina doesn’t run the table for its second consecutive title, which team will raise the championship trophy?
Voepel: South Carolina has taken the Tennessee Lady Volunteers’ place as the best program in what is still a very challenging SEC, even in a down year conference-wide. For everyone outside the UConn fan base, the Huskies are the Michael Myers of women’s hoops: You can’t get rid of them as they keep showing up in an endless series of sequels. Stanford is corporate law firm of college sports.
I don’t think anyone will stop the Gamecocks from repeating; they have too many good players, they play well together and coach Dawn Staley has done an excellent job getting them to focus completely on the task at hand.
But if someone is going to knock them off, it might be Stanford in the national semifinals or UConn in the national championship game. This is just based on the fact those two teams played the Gamecocks as close as they did during the regular season: The Cardinal lost by five in overtime in November, and the Huskies by four in February. We can’t be positive that either Stanford or UConn will reach the Final Four; that’s especially the case for the Cardinal. But if they do, the Cardinal and the Huskies at least know from experience what it will take to beat the Gamecocks if they face off again.
Philippou: After South Carolina, I think it’s between Indiana and UConn. Despite losing two of their past three games, the Hoosiers have been the most consistent team not located in Columbia, is strong on both ends of the floor and manages to produce both star power in Mackenzie Holmes and yet incredible balance with Grace Berger, Sydney Parrish, Yarden Garzon, Sara Scalia and Chloe Moore-McNeil. While some point to Indiana’s lack of depth as a flaw, I can’t see that being a major deciding factor given everything else the Hoosiers have going for them. (And I’ll elaborate on the Huskies a little lower.)
Creme: Picking the No. 2 overall to have the best shot at knocking off the No. 1 isn’t particularly inventive, but I firmly believe that Indiana has the best chance of beating South Carolina. It will take the right night and the Gamecocks not playing at their peak, but if that happens Indiana has enough in the arsenal to go the distance. The Hoosiers move and shoot the ball well and have balance and experience to at least offensively take on South Carolina if the two meet in the championship game.
Virginia Tech’s NCAA tournament preview
Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Virginia Tech’s NCAA tournament prospects.
Which No. 1 seed will be the first to lose?
Creme: While I like the matchups in front of Stanford in the first three rounds of the Seattle 4 Regional, I have some concerns about the Cardinal. They have had enough moments or even full games of poor offense — see: 47 points against USC or five points in the first quarter against Colorado — to wonder if Stanford can put four good performances together to reach the Final Four. If the Cardinal get to an Elite Eight, can it outscore the second-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes?
Philippou: The Cardinal are obviously experienced in March and could turn things around in the coming weeks, but the way they concluded the regular season and their recent offensive issues are worrisome. And while I don’t think it’s likely, the fact Virginia Tech hasn’t played in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament in nearly 25 years makes me wonder if there’s a moment when the Hokies have an off night and the pressure catches up to them. They don’t have the easiest path, either, with potential matchups against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits or USC Trojans and likely either Tennessee or the Iowa State Cyclones.
Voepel: As Alexa mentioned, Virginia Tech is by far the least experienced program of the No. 1 seeds when it comes to long NCAA tournament runs: South Carolina and Stanford won the last two titles and Indiana went to the Elite Eight two years ago. Based on that, the Hokies seem the most vulnerable. But they also have won 11 games in a row and are playing very confidently.
Name a team that is significantly underrated.
Creme: While I’m picking UConn to come out of Seattle 3, the Ohio State Buckeyes could be the team to spoil the party. The No. 3 seed started the season 19-0 largely without Jacy Sheldon. Now she is back and their younger players, in particular freshman Cotie McMahon, proved they were up to the challenge in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s pressing style can give any team trouble, especially if you haven’t seen it. The Louisville Cardinals struggled mightily with it earlier this season, and the LSU Tigers wilted under the Ohio State pressure in last year’s second round.
UNC’s NCAA tournament preview
Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for North Carolina’s NCAA tournament prospects.
Philippou: Ohio State is a dangerous 3-seed for all the reasons Charlie stated, but I can’t believe the Buckeyes’ potential second-round matchup would be against the 6-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels. That shouldn’t be happening this early in the tournament!
Voepel: I won’t say No. 5 seed Iowa State was drastically underseeded. However, in the women’s bracket, the difference between a 4- and 5-seed is enormous because the top four in each region get to host. The selection committee clearly made its top-16 decisions before the Big 12 tournament title game was even played Sunday. The committee didn’t seem to take into account the Cyclones beat the Texas Longhorns — as well as fellow NCAA tournament teams the Baylor Bears in the quarterfinals and Oklahoma Sooners in the semifinals — by double digits.
If there is one consistent inconsistency about the committee all these years, it’s that they contradict themselves a lot on how important conference tournaments are. They even do it in the same section of the bracket, pointing to one team’s conference tournament success as important, while essentially dismissing another team’s success.
UConn’s NCAA tournament preview
Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for UConn’s NCAA tournament prospects.
Outside of the No. 1 seeds, what other team has the best shot of winning it all?
Philippou: UConn. The Huskies have had a rocky season but it has only made them come together more than ever toward their common goal of winning a championship. They’ve turned things around after their disappointing February and are getting the best out of Dorka Juhasz and Aaliyah Edwards, and strong post play hasn’t necessarily been a strength the past few tournaments. With experience in high-pressure situations coming into play, and the possible transcendence of Azzi Fudd, I’m picking UConn as the non-No. 1-seed that has the best shot at winning it all — and in actuality, the second-favorite to cut down the nets.
Voepel: A program that has 11 NCAA titles and has been to the Final Four every year since 2008 will continue to be a threat to win it all unless something drastically changes. But since Charlie and Alexa have UConn covered, let’s look at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes can be an offensive powerhouse like few teams we will ever see in the tournament. And while they are a better defensive team this season in terms of getting stops when they really need them, it’s still about scoring for them. Can their offense carry them all the way to a title? That will be tough; UConn still seems the most likely of the No. 2 seeds to prevail. But if the Hawkeyes do it, it will be with a really exciting brand of basketball.
Iowa’s NCAA tournament preview
Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Iowa’s NCAA tournament prospects.
Are we shortchanging the other No. 2 seeds? The Maryland Terrapins are a past national champion, but that’s 17 years in the rearview mirror. Interestingly enough, the year the Terps won it all — 2006 — they beat this year’s other No. 2 seed, the Utah Utes, in the Elite Eight. Maryland and Utah both could be Elite Eight teams this year, but it doesn’t seem likely they will be in Dallas.
Creme: We still don’t know exactly what UConn will look like with Fudd’s full return. She eased back into the lineup in the Big East tournament but didn’t produce much. That might have not been the best indicator given the timing. If it’s anything like the version of the Huskies that beat Texas, the NC State Wolfpack, the Duke Blue Devils and Iowa in succession in November, UConn is a Final Four team. Without Fudd, the Huskies remained competitive with South Carolina in February, so they are another team that could possibly upend the heavy favorites.
Final Four picks
LSU’s NCAA tournament preview
Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for LSU’s NCAA tournament prospects.
Andrea Adelson: South Carolina (champion), LSU, UConn, Iowa
Charlie Creme: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, UConn, Iowa
Aja Ellison: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, Virginia Tech, Iowa
Kelly Gramlich: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, Virginia Tech, Iowa
Doug Kezirian: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, Virginia Tech, Iowa
Kevin Pelton: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, UConn, Iowa
Alexa Philippou: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, UConn, Iowa
Roy Philpott: South Carolina (champion), Utah, Virginia Tech, Iowa
Steffi Sorensen: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, UConn, Iowa
Christy Thomaskutty: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, UConn, Stanford
M.A. Voepel: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, UConn, Iowa
Stephanie White: South Carolina (champion), Indiana, Virginia Tech, Iowa