The 2019 NCAA women's Sweet 16 is underway, the sport's traditional heavyweights squarely in the mix for the title at four regional sites. UConn is here (technically as a No. 2 seed, but don't tell them that), with Baylor, Mississippi State, Louisville, Notre Dame and others populating the top seeds.
It's not hard to spot the outlier.
Missouri State is your surprise Sweet 16 team after starting the season 1-7
The Lady Bears are the lowest remaining seed in the tournament. It's not even close.
No. 6 seeds South Dakota State and UCLA made the field after dispatching Syracuse and Maryland in the second round, but their success in this tournament didn't come out of nowhere. Her Hoop Stats analytics rank the Jackrabbits as the No. 10 team in country and peg the Bruins at No. 29. Missouri State is still all the way down at No. 47. The Lady Bears weren't obvious sleeping giants coming into March.
Long before MSU was the only double-digit seed in the Sweet 16, it was slogging through its nonconference schedule a month into the season. Head coach Kellie Harper's team was 1-7 after a loss to Gonzaga on December 16. There were signs the Lady Bears weren't starting the season in a downward spiral, though. Four of those seven losses came by fewer than five points, two were in overtime and four came against NCAA tournament teams.
By the time conference play rolled around, Missouri State had figured things out. The Lady Bears have gone 24-2 since loss No. 7. They still needed to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to assure their bid to the NCAA tournament, and did so by topping No. 1 seed Drake in the MVC title game.
MSU then proceeded to turn in the biggest upset of each of the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bears knocked off No. 6 DePaul in its first game and No. 3 Iowa State in its second, bouncing the Big 12 champ on its home court.
Missouri State's biggest test comes this weekend against No. 2 seed Stanford (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2).
Missouri State isn't winning with anything flashy
The Lady Bears don't rely on one superstar scorer. Their pace is on the fast side, but not excessively so. They don't shoot the lights out, either. This is a balanced attack, especially in comparison to most of the teams competing for a spot in the Final Four. Arizona State is the only other team still in the tournament that doesn't have at least one player averaging at least 15 points per game, and all but five have at least one player averaging at least 18 points per game.
Brice Calip, Danielle Glitzen, Alexa Willard and Jasmine Franklin are Missouri State's chief offensive threats, but they share the ball frequently on an offense that shot 53 percent from the field in the first round and 41 percent in the second. Glitzen is the team's leading scorer at 13 points per game, and boasts a 41-percent mark on 3-pointers, while Willard isn't far behind at 12 points per game.
Missouri State excels at rebounding. Franklin, only a freshman, is a vacuum down low with 7.6 boards per game. The Lady Bears rank eighth in the country in rebound rate, per Her Hoop Stats: 26th on offense and sixth on defense. Grabbing boards is their clearest strength, and it's been on display in each of their tournament wins. Missouri State grabbed 74 percent of available defensive rebounds against DePaul and 66 percent against Iowa State, per Her Hoop Stats.
Without any additional opportunities via offensive boards, the Cyclones weren't able to gain enough steam to ever take the lead.
Missouri State has been here before. But not in a while.
This is the first time MSU has advanced past the NCAA tournament's first round since 2001, when the Lady Bears made an improbable run to the Final Four behind an incredible performance from Jackie Stiles. The NCAA's all-time second-leading scorer posted scores of 32 points, 41 and 32 as she guided Missouri State to its second-ever Final Four appearance.
The MSU legend is now an assistant on head coach Kellie Harper's team.
"She genuinely tells them that the best place to play basketball in the country is Missouri State? That's pretty powerful."@KellieHarper talked Sunday about @JackieStiles10's legacy and Jackie's role in continuing to build the Lady Bear program. pic.twitter.com/xJCsNFJsNe— Dan Molloy (@DanMolloyTV) March 26, 2019
Missouri State basketball isn't exactly a stranger to the NCAA tournament, either. This is MSU's 15th NCAA tournament appearance, and its fourth time in the Sweet 16. That 2001 run to the Final Four wasn't the team's first either. The Lady Bears made the national semifinals in 1992 as well.
Missouri State needs two wins to get back there in 2019, and starting with Stanford on Saturday, a host of college basketball blue bloods stand in their way. It's been a heck of a journey so far, though.
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"The last three weeks have been nothing short of amazing," Harper told reporters this week. "It's been so much fun. It's been very gratifying. It's been an opportunity for us to just be proud, you know, be proud of what we've been able to do at Missouri State."