Now that we know the first women’s top 16 seed reveal for the NCAA tournament, history suggests that focus be particularly kept on the 12 highest teams. In fact, history doesn’t suggest, it demands.
The numbers are stark and simple. There have been 39 tournaments. A No. 1 seed has won 30 championships, including the last nine in a row. No. 2 seeds have taken seven and a couple of No. 3s — Tennessee in 1997 and North Carolina in ’94 — grabbed the other two. That’s it. No lower seeds need apply. Only five lower seeds have ever even played for the title, meaning the 1-3 seeds have occupied 93.6 percent of the championship game spots.
So, in pondering prospects for the national title, behold the dandy dozen. True, the names certainly will change by the time the committee does it for real in mid-March, but using these 12 as a working group, here’s what a championship would mean for each of them:
Only the few could go wire to wire as the No. 1 team in the land, and the Gamecocks have that chance. Given their work in January — allowing eight opponents (three ranked) an average of 49.9 points, outrebounding the past five opponents by 22.6 a game — they seem to be warming to the opportunity. Given their recent success, it’s easy to forget how they’re relatively recent arrivals to national prominence. Before the dawn of Dawn — the Staley coaching era, in other words — South Carolina had won only eight games in the first 30 NCAA tournaments. The Gamecocks have a national title and three Final Four trips in the past six.
With a title, the Cardinal would become the first repeat champion not named UConn or Tennessee in the past 37 years. They seem plucky enough to do it, having rallied from double-digit deficits to win three times on the road this season. Also, at 68, Tara VanDerveer would become the second oldest championship coach for men or women, behind only UConn’s Jim Calhoun. Unless Mike Krzyzewski wins the same weekend.
North Carolina State
No wonder these bright lights feel so good. The balanced Wolfpack — eight different players have led the team in scoring in a game this season — look like a team capable of the program’s second trip to the Final Four, and the first was 24 years ago.
The royal orange of women’s basketball has been conspicuously missing from early April. The first 27 NCAA tournaments saw: 18 Final Fours, eight championships for the Lady Vols and all the handiwork of Pat Summitt. In the last 12 tournaments: none. Rocky Top misses the inner circle. They might get back with defense, leading the nation by allowing only 31.5 percent shooting, more than a point lower than anyone else.
This says something about how fearsome the Cardinals defense can be. During one stretch of a 72-60 victory, Louisville outscored Wake Forest 32-0. More of that, and the Cardinals could become first-time national champions. It says something about the hold of the heavyweights on the top of this sport that there have been only two other first-time winners in 15 years — South Carolina in 2017 and Texas A&M in 2011.
It’ll be a challenge for the Hoosiers to maintain this high spot with the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Mackenzie Holmes to a knee injury. She might be back for the postseason. If by then, the rest of team has been able to carry on and develop more depth, Indiana can still think about its first Final Four in program history. That’d be nice to have, playing in an arena where five national championship banners hang for the men.
The Longhorns were one of the powers of the early days of the women’s tournament, during the Jody Conradt era. But it’s been a while since the last Final Four. Like 19 years. Vic Schaefer found magic at Mississippi State and in one season had the Longhorns in the Elite Eight. They’ve already beaten four ranked teams this season, including Stanford on the road, and took Tennessee to overtime in Knoxville.
TOP 16: 1 thing about every team in the first women's basketball top 16
In 14 NCAA tournaments from 2006-19, the Wildcats won exactly zero games. Matter of fact, they were in exactly zero tournaments. But they went on a tear last spring, rolling over Texas A&M by 16 in the Sweet 16, Indiana by 13 in the Elite Eight, and No. 1 UConn by 10 in the Final Four. They’re back, with a win over Louisville, and all three defeats coming on the road in the Pac-12. The one-point title game loss to Stanford was painful, but there can be something powerful about the sense of unfinished business.
The Wolverines had never been ranked as highly as No. 6 in the Associated Press rankings before. Never been 19-2 before. Never beaten a top-5 team before. They've now done all that. They’ve defeated six ranked opponents, and in Naz Hillmon has one of the nation’s best players, averaging 20.2 points a game without a single 3-pointer. Now about March. They’ve never been in the Final Four. Or the Elite Eight. Two of their seven all-time NCAA tournament victories came last spring, before the run was stopped by Baylor in overtime. The mission seems rather obvious.
The Cyclones have been to 19 NCAA tournaments and Bill Fennelly has coached them to all 19. That included two Elite Eights, the most recent 13 years ago. At 19-3, with four wins over ranked opponents and a penchant for long-range damage — second in the nation in 3-pointers per game — Iowa State could stay around a while in March. And what is it with that state in free throw shooting? Iowa is first in the country in percentage from the line. Iowa State is second.
If the Huskies ever get healthy, who knows what might happen? It seems folly to call a UConn championship a surprise, but wouldn’t it be a little bit of a surprise after the turbulence of the early season? Just like the words UConn and third seed certainly sound odd in the same sentence. But nothing much has come easy lately. Even the Huskies’ 169-game conference winning streak has been under siege. UConn needed Caroline Ducharme’s basket with 1.5 seconds to win at DePaul 80-78, and had to rally from 12 points down to beat Creighton, with an ill (non-COVID) Gene Auriemma staying in the locker room. The return of Paige Bueckers might have the Huskies reenergized for the usual deep run, but they could also see an end to a truly remarkable streak of 13 consecutive Final Fours. Not even John Wooden did that.
LSU has 18 wins, but its most impressive moment might have been in defeat, giving South Carolina considerable trouble in a 66-60 loss. Kim Mulkey, first year at LSU, Final Four run for a program that has been to five, but none in 14 years. Not hard to find drama in that plot.