NEW YORK (AP) - For the first time in a long while there’s no clear favorite to win the women’s NCAA Tournament. At least a half dozen teams, including No. 1 overall seed Baylor and defending champion Notre Dame, could be cutting down the nets in April.
Over the past 12 years, Tennessee, Baylor and UConn have made dominant runs that ended in titles. There have also been monumental upsets to stop these seemingly unbeatable teams.
This year’s bracket features some really good teams up top who have all lost to each other or, surprisingly, to unranked teams.
Baylor’s only loss this season was to Stanford in December. Notre Dame fell to UConn and unranked North Carolina but beat Louisville twice. The Cardinals topped UConn for the first time under coach Jeff Walz. Mississippi State ran through the SEC except for a slip against Missouri. The Lady Bulldogs also lost this season at Oregon, and they could face the Ducks again in the regional final in Portland.
ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo sees this season as something different from the past few years where one team stood above the rest entering March. In seven of the previous 10 years there was at least one unbeaten team going into the tournament.
“There was an overwhelming favorite going into the NCAA Tournament and the question was can anyone close the gap and compete with them? That’s not the narrative this year,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting. You can’t feel like you can go chalk in your brackets.”
A look at some of the top contenders to be crowned in Tampa, Florida, on April 7:
Baylor: Probably no team in the country can equal the frontline of 6-foot-8 Kalani Brown and 6-6 Lauren Cox. Coach Kim Mulkey also has talented guards by grad transfer Chloe Jackson and Juicy Landrum. Baylor is eyeing its first Final Four since 2012.
“We’ve had a remarkable year. This team deserves the No. 1 seed, and we’ll take that,” Mulkey said. “But it guarantees us nothing. Our focus will be on Abilene Christian, and should we be fortunate enough to win that, we’ll watch and scout Cal and North Carolina.”
Notre Dame: There might not be a more complete team. The Fighting Irish return most of the group that won the school’s first national championship in 18 years last season. Still, there was a surprising home loss to UConn and a defeat at North Carolina. But they have won nine straight and perhaps no team is playing better. All the wins in the streak - five over ranked teams - have come by double digits, with the Irish averaging 96 points.
“We are playing great basketball right now. I think all five of our starters are playing to their potential,” coach Muffet McGraw said. “They are doing everything they can do. We’re playing well as a team. Our chemistry is terrific. We’ve been playing a little better defensively. I love the way we’re rebounding but our offense has really been unbelievable.”
Mississippi State: It’s already a special year for Vic Schaefer’s squad with a regular-season and tournament SEC title. It’s the first time they won the conference tournament. It’s all the more impressive considering Schaefer had to work in four new starters to go with Teaira McCowan. The Lady Bulldogs have reached the NCAA championship game the past two seasons, but fell short each team. Could a third trip change that?
“It’s just really phenomenal to go 30-2, win the SEC regular season outright and then come back and win the tournament championship,” Schaefer said. “My hat’s off to this team. They have been tremendous.”
Louisville: The Cardinals had one of their best season, sharing the ACC regular-season title. They were was missing key players Sam Fuehring and Arica Carter for the ACC Tournament title game against Notre Dame but are healthy now. Walz expects both to play in the NCAAs. That will make things easier for player of the year candidate Asia Durr.
The Cardinals earned a top seed and will head to Albany, New York, where they could have a rematch with UConn.
“I honestly thought the entire time we were going to be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in Albany,” Walz said. “Being a No. 1 seed is great, I think it speaks volumes for what we’ve been able to establish here.”
UConn: For the first time since 2006 the Huskies aren’t a No. 1 seed. All that’s done is add a chip on the shoulder of Geno Auriemma and his players.
“We’re going to do everything we can to prove everyone wrong,” senior Napheesa Collier said. “We’re going to come in with that much more fire and that much more wanting to beat everyone.”
Few have been playing better then Collier the last month. She carried the Huskies to the American Athletic Conference Tournament title while Katie Lou Samuelson was recovering from a back injury. Samuelson is good to go for the tournament and will try and help UConn extend its NCAA record run of consecutive Final Four appearances to a dozen.
Oregon: The Ducks have been one of the most entertaining teams with a high-powered offense led by junior guard Sabrina Ionescu. They hit a slight bump with a loss at Oregon State during the regular season and a Pac-12 Tournament title game defeat to Stanford. Still, they proved all season they are one of the nation’s best, and never better than their eye-popping 40-point win at Stanford.
The Ducks won’t have to leave the state to get to the Final Four, with two home games and then a trip to Portland for the regional.
“If we’re fortunate enough to get to Portland it will be great to have a chance to play in front of a lot of Ducks fans for a chance to reach the Final Four for the first time,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said.
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