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College Basketball

Everyone’s Going To Albany To Conquer Their Demons

Hailey Van Lith #11 and Angel Reese #10 of the LSU Lady Tigers speak against the Tennessee Lady Vols in the second quarter at Thompson-Boling Arena on February 25, 2024 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Eakin Howard/Getty Images

This year, “region of death” is an Albany expression. If you had proposed to me last week a Final Four that included Iowa, LSU, and UCLA, I'd have said, Sure, why not? Those teams have all been in the top three of the AP poll at some point this season. Each may rankle the skeptic—UCLA bungled close games, LSU has one ranked win, Iowa struggles with size—but at their best, they're all capable of a deep tournament run.

Now we know better. Last night, the women's selection committee gave Iowa the No. 1 seed in the Albany 2 region. In theory, theirs is the second-easiest path to the Final Four (after No. 1 South Carolina's); in reality, it'll be all-out war. Joining Iowa in Albany 2 is two-seeded UCLA, three-seeded LSU, four-seeded Kansas State (whose star big Ayoka Lee still holds the D-I women's single-game scoring record), and a five-seeded Colorado team that ran LSU out of the gym back in November. The reigning champions and a team that beat them and the player of the year and the country’s most talented roster and the best scoring center? At this time of year? In this part of the bracket? Localized entirely within one quadrant? May I see it?

For the Hawkeyes or Tigers to make a repeat appearance in the Final Four, they'll have to contend with old demons and ancient basketball lore. I love this region for its star power, but also for its beef litigation opportunities. A few of them:

  • A national championship game rematch. Possibly you remember last year's national championship game, which turned everyone insane for weeks? Is this ringing a bell? Will the phrase "'you can't see me' gesture" make an appearance in an Elite Eight gamer on this year? Stay tuned.
  • UCLA vs. flyover country media elites. Wait just a second here! Lauren Betts, Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne take offense to all this lust for a championship rematch. After all, LSU will need to go through the Bruins to set up Reese vs. Clark Part II, and though UCLA revealed themselves to be volatile down the stretch in conference play, they boast a rare blend of high-end talent and depth. Both teams made high-profile transfer portal additions: Betts, a sophomore Stanford transfer, gave UCLA the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the 2022 recruiting class. A 6-foot-7 center, she cleans up UCLA's messes nicely as a dominant shot blocker and post scorer. The committee has it right: If Betts simply won this game herself against the defending national champs, it would hardly be an upset.
  • Iowa vs. a team that already beat them. Iowa's path to the Elite Eight seems easy enough, even if its path out won't be, but one can't help but notice Caitlin Clark's 1-2 career record against Kansas State. Iowa suffered its first loss of the season in Manhattan, where Clark played maybe her worst game ever, going 9-of-32 from the field and 2-of-16 from three. Lee, for her part, put up 22 points and 12 rebounds in the win. (Though the Wildcats actually beat Iowa without Lee in 2022.) Injuries have slowed her this season, but she's as good a post technician as they come. Clark got her revenge a few weeks later, when these teams faced each other again in one of those neutral-site Thanksgiving tournaments. This time, she went 7-of-16 from three in a weird playing-with-their-food Iowa win.
  • A mutual revenge game. At their PMAC watch party on Sunday night, Angel Reese, Kim Mulkey, and Hailey Van Lith all squealed when they learned that Van Lith's former team, six-seeded Louisville, is heading to Baton Rouge for the first and second rounds. Chalk dictates a Louisville-LSU second-round matchup, but Van Lith herself doesn't think much of the Cardinals' chances against their first-round opponent, 11-seed Middle Tennessee.
  • LSU vs. a team that already beat them. After wins over Stanford and USC in January, Colorado could never quite solidify itself at the top of a competitive Pac-12. Those turned out to be their last ranked wins of the year, despite five more opportunities. A loss to Oregon St. in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament pretty much killed the Buffs' chance to host first- and second- round NCAA tournament games. But though both teams have evolved since November, a season-opening beatdown of LSU adds some extra shine to their résumé. A transitive property championship! LSU-Colorado would be an unlikely Elite Eight matchup in Albany, but a rematch of last year's Sweet Sixteen game between Colorado and Iowa seems more plausible.

Mulkey pointed out the number of repeat opponents when asked for her first impression of LSU's region. “I guess with so many teams, you can't avoid it.” She shared an additional concern in her press conference: “Will somebody, before the day’s over, let me know if it’s Al-bany or All-bany?”

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