ESPN released the NCAA women’s tournament bracket Monday evening, which may not sound like a compliment, but is, as the network has been known to accidentally release the bracket four hours early. Full points for punctuality; precision is something to work on for next year.
For a few minutes, viewers were led to believe that the selection committee had awarded a very good (but not that good) NC State team the No. 1 overall seed, when Maria Taylor said, “the Wolfpack, with their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance, is the No. 1 overall seed.” Slowly, it became apparent that she’d misspoken, and that seeding was being released in the normal order 3-4-1-2. Whatever, man! I’m unfazed. Women’s basketball fans eat inconvenience for breakfast.
Maybe a reward for that inconvenience is the “River Walk” region of the bracket, this year’s wonderful, honest-to-god Region of Doom. The tournament selection committee, tired of the various beefs, discourses, things of that nature that consume this fandom, has shoved them into their own messy quadrant. As that one beloved and inscrutable video goes, the oil was already sizzling in a pot on the stove. All the committee needed to do was carefully drop in the frozen french fries and give it an elegant little shake.
For the sake of blog coherence, let’s preview these beefs by charting a potential Final Four path for UConn, the region’s top seed. The Huskies haven’t missed a Sweet Sixteen since 1993, and they should have no trouble continuing the streak even without head coach Geno Auriemma, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and will miss the first and second rounds of the tournament. His trusty, ridiculously overqualified assistant Chris Dailey will run the show in his absence.
UConn’s relative youth could end up being its postseason vulnerability, but it’s also what makes the team really special to watch. Famed combo guard Paige Bueckers, a clutch shooter and brilliant passer, has had a standout freshman season even by the standards of UConn women’s basketball. You’ll recall her stuff-of-legends buckets in this season’s games against Tennessee and South Carolina. And I’d be remiss not to shout out the group around her: I adore freshman Aaliyah Edwards, a tenacious bench player with low-post moves beyond her years, and junior Christyn Williams is a goddamn defensive star.
The most exciting Sweet Sixteen matchup would be one that sees Bueckers up against a fellow freshman phenom, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, whose omission from the Wooden Award ballot this year inspired its own UConn-resentful murmurs. Clark leads Division-I in scoring, averaging 26.7 points per game in a talented conference. She’ll run the Big Ten for a few years, and she’s already the conference’s best TV experience. Her best highlights typically begin with what looks like the setup for some half-court offensive set, before they fake you out and she never actually leaves the high slot, instead drilling a three from the logo. Last night, on ESPN’s post-release Instagram Live, Sue Bird—known UConn associate Sue Bird!—called Clark “the most exciting player in college basketball.”
But for the Battle of the Freshmen to be waged, Iowa will first have to get through Kentucky and junior star Rhyne Howard, no easy feat. Kentucky has struggled this year, but Howard, the SEC Player of the Year, hasn’t. And the SEC has some rightful claim to being the toughest conference in women’s basketball right now. For that reason, they may have sleeper teams stashed across the tournament. In fact, in late January of this very season, a No. 19 Arkansas team beat No. 3 UConn, in the Huskies’ only loss of the season.
UConn may have a more worrying and immediate SEC threat, though. Should the Huskies advance to the Elite Eight, they could face Tennessee. Excellent! These teams … they do not like each other. Maybe you have heard about this before? Maybe you are dimly aware of a rivalry that has loomed over the sport for decades? Tennessee came close to beating UConn when they last played in January, so if they actually want to accomplish it this time, they’ll need to keep up what can be a very strong defense. The Lady Vols were a little banged up in the SEC tournament, but lanky wing Rennia Davis still put up 33 points on a bad ankle against Ole Miss in the semifinal.
And if it’s not Tennessee, who’s the other likely Elite Eight opponent? Why, it’s none other than the team that’s been billed UConn’s new rival: Baylor, a rebounding-crazy two-seed without many weaknesses. Baylor’s much-hyped regular-season meeting with UConn was canceled for coronavirus reasons, but the reigning champion Lady Bears have won their last couple games against UConn. This could very well all end with Kim Mulkey holding the trophy and everyone else—you and me included—cowering in fear or possibly dead.
Don’t forget this region’s assorted mini-dramas. Beware of Florida Gulf Coast, an AP and coaches’ poll-ranked team on a 25-game win streak with some rightful beef about being seeded 11th (worse than UCF, whom they beat by double-digits this season). FGCU may just send a Michigan team without a ton of depth home in the first round and prove a point about the fraudulence of the Power 5 and righteousness of the Atlantic Sun Conference in the process. Also, the Lady Vols must play their first round against Middle Tennessee, whose best player Anastasia Hayes was mysteriously dismissed from Tennessee a couple of years ago for “a violation of team rules.”
What either extremely sucks (if you are a talented basketball player on one of these teams) or extremely rules (if you are a blogger watching these games at home) is that whoever escapes this bunch of contenders must then play two more games to actually win a championship. Stanford, Maryland, Texas A&M, Arkansas—oh, the horrors that await the victor on the other side! For now, these 16 teams could take some comfort in the chance to be battle-tested. If you can make it in the River Walk region, you can make it anywhere.