Here comes the mad side of March. Is everything in place in women’s basketball for drama, for intrigue, for the bizarre and the wacky and inexplicable? The past week would suggest as much. Let’s wander around the pre-selection Sunday landscape.
Look at Kentucky
A month ago, it seemed the Wildcats’ season was going down the drain – clockwise, since this is the Northern hemisphere – with a 9-11 record and 2-8 start in the SEC. And now nobody can beat them, including No. 1 ranked South Carolina Sunday. That’s 10 wins in a row and the school’s first SEC tournament title in 40 years.
Can someone explain the U-Turn? “We started having fun, that’s pretty much it,” said leading scorer Rhyne Howard. “When things were getting tough . . . basically we acted like we didn’t want to be there, and that’s how it looked, and that’s how it appeared to our fans.
“We had a team meeting, we were like, all right y’all, this is dead, we cannot end like this . . . We knew we had to get it together and thug it out.”
Good luck knowing where to seed this bunch. Speaking of which . . .
WATCH: Dre'una Edwards' late three-pointer lifts Kentucky over No. 1 South Carolina for SEC title
Look at Connecticut
The Huskies, now healthy enough for a nine-player rotation steamrolled through the Big East tournament by an average of 32 points a game. Monday night, they met the Villanova team that took an axe to their 169-game conference winning streak last month. Huskies by 30.
Reigning national player of the year Paige Bueckers is back, though still limited in minutes and points, and Connecticut has won 10 in a row, only one of them closer than 20 points. All this is starting to sound more UConnish than the early-season wobbles that dropped the injury-riddled Huskies out of the top-10 for the first time in nearly 17 years. By Feb. 9, they had already topped the loss total in any of the previous seasons.
“We never lost sight of who we are and what we were trying to do,” coach Gene Auriemma told the media Monday night. “Some days it was really bleak. Some days you go to practice and we had five able bodies.
“We knew when these players come back, we’ll be whole again.”
Not entirely whole, however, until Bueckers is at full steam.
“She’s got a lot of work to do. She has her good days mentally, her bad days mentally,” Auriemma said. “My big thing is, yeah, get her physically feeling better. She has to get her mind right now. She hasn’t been in that mode for three months or whatever it is now. That will be job No. 1 next 10 or 11 days.”
The pressing question is where a fully-stocked Huskies roster should be seeded in the NCAA Tournament. No. 2 probably. But would you want to be the lucky No. 1 seed to share a region with a team now healthy enough to work on one of the most remarkable streaks in sports – 13 consecutive Final Fours?
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Look at South Carolina
Lost to Missouri in December and stayed No. 1. In the Associated Press poll. Lost to Kentucky and stayed No. 1. The voters have remained uncommonly loyal to the Gamecocks. We have learned they are not unbeatable, but once the NCAA Tournament begins, are they unstoppable? That 17.2 average rebounding advantage and 33 field goal percentage defense still seem pretty impressive.
Look at Stanford
The Cardinal just blew through the Pac-12 schedule without a loss, the three defeats before Christmas by a combined 12 points. That included by four against South Carolina. They seem on a rematch collision course.
Stanford’s starting lineup is laden with accomplishment, and quirky story angles. The mother of leading scorer Cameron Brink was a college roommate of Step Curry’s mom and her father was a teammate of Steph Curry’s dad . . . 2021 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones has become a new generation star with her ability to produce at every position . . . guard Anna Wilson’s brother owns a Super Bowl ring and 292 career touchdown passes in the NFL. That’d be Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson . . . twins Lexie and Lacie Hull combined for no B grades in high school, and now both pursue Stanford equivalent to MBA’s.
And Tara VanDerveer’s coaching career victory total is up in the Krzyzewskiphere.
One more thing. Only three schools have ever repeated as national champion. No reason to think there can’t be a fourth.
Look at Iowa
Big Scorer U. Four of the past five individual scoring champions were from Iowa, including Caitlin Clark the past two seasons. She just was named Most Outstanding Player in the Big Ten tournament, but she wasn’t the Hawkeye who scored 21, 22 and 30 points in the tournament. That would be Monika Czinano, mostly in the paint, and the inside-outside potency of the combo should be a worrisome sight for any future opponent. “You could say we’re hitting our stride at the right time,” Clark said.
One piece of history. In 39 NCAA Tournaments, only twice has the nation’s top scorer shown up in the Final Four, and never in the championship game.
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Look at Baylor
Kim Mulkey left town but the beating went on in the Big 12. Make this 12 season conference titles in a row for the Bears. Not many coaches had more pressure on her this season that Nicki Collen. It was always going to be Big 12 or bust.
Look at Haley Cavender
She hit all three free throws in Fresno State’s 80-75 loss to Utah State in the Mountain West tournament. Why should that matter? Because it gave her 109 free throws in 112 attempts, a 97.3 percentage that sets a Division I season record. That achievement should not be a secret, since she and her twin sister Hanna have 3.4 million TikTok followers.
Look at Miami
Specifically Destiny Harden. With the Hurricanes down 13 points to No. 5 Louisville in an ACC Tournament quarterfinal, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Outscored Louisville 15-0 the last four minutes, including the game-winner at the buzzer. Never mind she scored only 12 points in the next two games combined. Part of the flavor of this month is seeing something you rarely, if ever, witness.
And look at Longwood
On the same magical Sunday, the men and the women won their first NCAA Tournament bids in school history. The Lancers women had lost to top-seeded Campbell by 28 and 13 points during the regular season. Sunday, Longwood jumped ahead 17-0 and won by 39.
“(Campbell) did have our number,” coach Rebecca Tillett said. “And we’ve been working every day since the first loss to figure that out in every practice and every game.
“Sometimes, things have a way of working out.”
Especially in March. The sport is ready.