There are only five conferences with more than one team ranked in the latest AP top 25 poll, and it should surprise no one those conferences are the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC.
Outside of AAC-power UConn, these five conferences are home to the teams that are most likely going to win the national championship this April in Tampa Bay. And many of them will have to beat up on each other in early March before they’ll have a chance to make their runs.
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Here’s who could survive those battles and enter the NCAA tournament with a surge of momentum.
Reigning national champion Notre Dame enters this conference tournament as the favorite. The Fighting Irish (27-3, 14-2 in ACC) are ranked fourth in the nation and own the top seed among its ACC foes. But in order to win it all they may have to face No. 3 Louisville (2-seed), No. 9 NC State (3-seed), No. 16 Miami (4-seed), No. 18 Syracuse (5-seed) or No. 22 Florida State (6-seed). Notre Dame lost against Miami and 8-seed North Carolina this season, both road games, and could face both again before the championship game if the Fighting Irish advance that far.
The prediction: Louisville (27-2, 14-2 in ACC) will be the ACC tournament champion, though, for the second-straight year. The Cardinals did lose to the Fighting Irish in South Bend by 14, but since then have logged wins against FSU, No. 2 UConn, Syracuse and NC State. Both teams are on winning streaks and have impressive resumes, but the neutral floor will remove the advantage Notre Dame had back in January. And Louisville’s Asia Durr has all the momentum she’ll need to win a showdown with fellow 2019 Women’s Citizen Naismith Trophy semifinalist and Notre Dame star Arike Ogunbowale.
Interested in picking a team outside the top three seeds? Go with Miami. The Hurricanes nearly upset NC State a few days ago and own wins against the Seminoles, Cardinals, Fighting Irish and Orange.
The prediction: No. 1 Baylor is the top seed and the right pick in this tournament. The Bears (28-1, 18-0 in Big 12) are undefeated in conference play for the second season in a row and should have no trouble winning a second straight conference tournament title. Coach Kim Mulkey’s squad’s average margin of victory against Big 12 opponents is 23.2 points.
The main reason why? Bears center Kalani Brown, who could become the first Baylor player to win the Naismith Trophy since Brittney Griner in 2012 and 2013. Brown averages 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. She has three other teammates who average double figures in scoring so teams can’t isolate her and expect to win. And if you put her on the free-throw line she’s dangerous there, too.
No. 19 Iowa State (2-seed) can certainly score the ball. The Cyclones (23-7, 13-5 in Big 12) won’t be knocked out at the opening tip. But they couldn’t finish either game against the Bears this season, home or away, within single digits. That is a problem. The 3-seed, No. 21 Texas (22-8, 12-6 in Big 12), kept Baylor to just a six-point game in early February but later that month lost by 29.
No. 8 Maryland owns the top seed with No. 10 Iowa, which won the only meeting between the two teams in February, right behind in second. But while the Terrapins (26-3, 15-3 in Big Ten) and Hawkeyes (23-6, 14-4 in Big Ten) are the only ranked teams in the conference their matchup in the tournament final is anything but a given. Maryland will likely play its first game against a Michigan State (9-seed) team it lost to by 17 points in January. And Iowa could play the same Indiana (10-seed) team that upset it just three games ago.
The prediction: Iowa does have Megan Gustafson. The Hawkeyes forward’s stellar senior season, during which she’s averaging 13.3 rebounds and a nation-leading 27.7 points per game, has her among the 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy. And that gives them an edge. Gustafson should lead this team to a tournament title. But watch out if Purdue (11-seed) makes a run or Michigan (4-seed) advances out of Maryland’s side of the bracket.
The Big Ten conference tournament shouldn’t surprise anyone if it includes a wild amount of upsets. Nearly half of the games during last season's tournament were decided by single digits. The Spartans may be a 9-seed but this season they’ve beaten No. 6 Oregon, Iowa and Maryland.
The #Pac12WBB tournament is headed to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the first time with @OregonWBB leading the way as the top seed for the second-consecutive year. More: https://t.co/dAUou24n0b pic.twitter.com/3tAVo5nuqF— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) March 6, 2019
It looked like No. 6 Oregon would run away with this one in early February. The Ducks (27-3, 16-2 in Pac-12) had just one loss and an undefeated record in conference play. They had just beaten Stanford by 40 and Oregon State by nine in back-to-back games. Then Oregon State returned the favor and UCLA upset Oregon in Eugene. Now No. 7 Stanford (25-4, 15-3 in Pac-12) is surging and the 2-seed thanks in part to Naismith Trophy semifinalist Alanna Smith. No. 11 Oregon State (24-6, 14-4 in Pac-12) isn’t far off and the 3-seed. And No. 20 Arizona State (5-seed) and No. 25 UCLA (4-seed) are lurking.
Oregon closed out the regular season with three-straight wins. The Ducks have their own Naismith Trophy semifinalist in Sabrina Ionescu, who averages 19.5 points, 8.1 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game and is the NCAA career leader in triple doubles. But there are some question marks now that weren’t there before.
The prediction: Oregon will still win this tournament. Ionescu will lead the Ducks to back-to-back Pac-12 tournament titles. It just won’t be as easy as many may have previously thought. Watch out for California (7-seed) and its Naismith Trophy semifinalist, Kristine Anigwe, on Oregon State’s and Stanford’s side of the bracket.
When No. 5 Mississippi State takes the floor for the SEC tournament it’ll be the favorite no matter who it plays. The Bulldogs (27-2, 15-1 in SEC) are the top seed and have only lost to Oregon and Missouri (5-seed) this season. But last year they were undefeated when they lost in the conference tournament title game against South Carolina. They lost against the Gamecocks in the 2017 final, too. And the 2016 final.
Either Missouri or No. 13 Kentucky (4-seed) will upset Mississippi State in the semifinals. The Tigers have done it once before this season, and the Wildcats (24-6, 11-5 in SEC) are 10-4 with no losses by more than seven points since they lost to the Bulldogs. They’ll be ready.
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The prediction: MSU has a Naismith Trophy semifinalist in Teaira McCowan. There’s no denying her 17.3 points and 13.4 rebounds per game. History just isn’t on the Bulldogs’ side. No. 12 South Carolina (21-8, 13-3 in SEC) will take its 2-seed right by No. 15 Texas A&M (23-6, 12-4 in SEC) and dispatch the 3-seed Aggies on the way to a fifth-straight title.