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Women's March Madness - 2021 Tournament Preview

The NCAA Tournament is finally upon us, which means it's time to get your brackets ready. We've got some great pieces up on the site about preparing your bracket for the men's side, so today I want to talk about the women's tournament.

There's this idea that's been tossed around for years that the women's tournament is too predictable, and while it's true that we see the top seeds upset less, that doesn't mean there's not a lot of good basketball being played and a lot of chances to leverage your knowledge in the games that don't involve the number one seeds. (And it's also worth noting that 2012, 2015, and 2018 were the only times this century where all four top seeds made the Final Four, so things aren't nearly as predictable as you might think.)

In this article, I'll be providing an in-depth overview of this year's field. I'll break down the favorites, look at some of the sleeper teams who could make an impact, and offer some thoughts on the bracket itself and who I'm picking in some of the games.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received five total writing awards and 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, tops in the industry! Congrats to all the award winners and nominees including NBA Writer of the Year, Best NFL Series, MLB Series, PGA Writer and Player Notes writer of the year. Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!

Once you're done here, be sure to also check out the rest of our NCAA Tournament articles and analysis including previews, predictions, sleepers, busts and guides on how to fill out your brackets. Good luck RotoBallers! Hopefully more than a few of you win your office pool!

 

The Women's NCAA Tournament Favorites

Since 2010, just six teams have made the Final Four without being a one or a two seed, and none of those six won the championship. In fact, in tournament history, only two teams -- North Carolina in 1994 and Tennessee in 1997 -- have won the tournament without being a one or two seed. Essentially, when filling out your bracket, you want one of these eight teams to be your champion, and you probably would be safest having at least three of them in your Final Four, if not having all four come from this group.

Stanford (1)

Cardinals head coach Tara VanDerveer passed Pat Summitt in December to become the winningest head coach in women's college basketball history, but she hasn't won a national title with Stanford since 1992.

VanDerveer has had some good teams, but as the Pac-12 has gotten stronger, Stanford's once unassailable grasp on the conference title -- they won 14 regular-season titles in a row to start this century -- has fallen. But not this year. Led by Kiana Williams, Haley Jones, and Lexie Hull, this Cardinal team is second in Her Hoop Stats Rating, and are fifth in their offensive and fourth in their defensive rating. They have the fourth-best margin of victory per game and are ninth in points per play. This is a team that can win in a number of ways and could be the most complete team in college basketball.

North Carolina State (1)

The Wolfpack went 20-2 this season, fueled by a 107.7 offensive rating. While NC State hasn't been the best team defensively, they've made up for it by just being incredibly efficient on offense. This team ranks 15th in field goal percentage, 17th in two-point percentage, 34th in three-point percentage, and 11th in points per play.

The primary reason for this team's success? Elissa Cunane. Despite ranking just fifth on the team in minutes per game, Cunane leads the team with 16.8 points on 57 percent shooting. She's also grabbing 8.2 rebounds and provides some shooting from deep that you might not expect from a 6-5 player. The junior is an early name to watch for in the 2022 WNBA Draft, though first she'll try to lead NC State to just the second Final Four appearance in program history.

Another thing this team has going for it? Big wins. They beat South Carolina 54-46 early in the year, quickly establishing themselves as a team to look out for. They later beat Louisville when the Cardinals were ranked No. 1, making it two No. 1 teams that the Wolfpack had taken down. They didn't play a ton of ranked opponents, but they consistently beat the ones they did face.

South Carolina (1)

South Carolina was supposed to be good this year, but the loss of seniors Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris to the WNBA meant they probably weren't going to be this good. But here the Gamecocks are: a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament as they look to do what COVID prevented them from doing last year: winning a championship.

But South Carolina still has a very strong team. If you're looking for a name to watch here, it's Aliyah Boston, arguably the best center in the country. The sophomore big is averaging 13.7 points on 50.2 percent shooting, as well as 11.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. She ranks in the top-15 nationally in the latter two categories. Boston has also started to explore more offensively, taking 1.5 threes per game. Boston's size will be a challenge for every team that South Carolina faces and is a big reason why this team has as high a ceiling as anyone else.

The issue is that we have seen them struggle in some of their big-time matchups. Texas A&M beat them. Tennessee beat them. UConn beat them. This offense has struggled to get going in some of these marquee matchups, so that's something to think about when building your bracket.

UConn (1)

When you think about women's college basketball, you think about the UConn Huskies.

But Geno Auriemma's squad hasn't won a title since 2016, when they had Breanna Stewart on the team, arguably the greatest college player ever. While UConn remained one of the elite teams, you could argue that a weak conference schedule in the American didn't adequately prepare them for March.

But now they're in the Big East again and they've found another of those transcendent stars in Paige Bueckers. The first-year guard is expected to win National Freshman of the Year and potentially National POTY, though there's been plenty of contention about that. Still, Bueckers is averaging 19.7 points and 6.1 assists per game. She leads Division I in win shares and has been a force on both sides of the ball. The Huskies also been a lot of points from Christyn Williams and have six rotation players shooting over 56 percent on two-pointers. Even players who haven't fully lived on to their UConn hype like Olivia Nelson-Ododa are still really good.

I have to say though: this is the one-seed that feels more primed for an upset. Iowa is in their bracket. Baylor is in their bracket. A Final Four appearance will be tough for the Huskies to make.

Texas A&M (2)

The Aggies were cruising to a No. 1 seed before a surprise early loss in the SEC Tournament, but make no mistake: this is a good, good basketball team. A&M is fueled by a strong frontcourt duo of N'dea Jones and Ciera Johnson, plus some good guard play. They don't take a lot of threes, but they also don't really need to when they're in the 92nd percentile in offensive rating and shoot 49.7 percent on twos. Not that the Aggies can't shoot from deep, as they're making 38.6 percent of the threes they do attempt. They have some great wins too, including beating South Carolina in convincing fashion to end the regular season.

But alas, SC got that conference tournament title, which is a big part of why A&M was relegated to a two seed.

Still, this team is going to be tough to beat. They're in the 94th percentile in net rating. They have a lot of depth. They get to the free-throw line consistently. They pull down defensive boards at a high rate. A&M's good.

Baylor (2)

Baylor has not gotten the attention they've deserved this season, mainly because they lost to Arkansas in a nationally televised game in December and then to Iowa State in another nationally televised game in January. But when they haven't been on the big stage, they've been completely dominant.

This team has arguably the most terrifying frontcourt in the nation with Big 12 POTY NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo, who has turned into a force inside.

Lady Bears teams are always built from the inside-out, but this year there might be more outside than we're used to seeing, with Moon Ursin and Dijonai Carrington providing some strong perimeter play.

Baylor also has a secret weapon: DiDi Richards, the best wing defender in the country. Richards -- who was moved to point guard this season and has been able to show off her masterful passing ability -- can stop anyone. She isn't a major scoring threat, but she makes up for that by being able to stick to the best offensive player on the other team. You know that old "defense wins championships" motto? Yeah, that's why I've actually got Baylor penciled in as my champions. I think their size will give UConn some serious trouble in the Elite Eight,

Maryland (2)

Maryland's another team that had a great shot at a one seed but missed out. The Big 10 champions went 24-2, and despite a 42nd percentile defensive rating, still had a 99th percentile offensive rating because the offense was that good.

Some offensive ranks for the Terrapins: first in points per game, first in points per 100 possessions, third in field goal percentage, 10th in two-point field goal percentage, second in three-point field goal percentage, fourth in effective field goal percentage, and second in points per play. They have a good mix of scoring types too, and that well-balanced offense makes it even harder to beat them. Do you try to take away Ashley Owusu inside? Wouldn't that just lead to openings for Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby from deep? And what about Diamond Miller, who can score from anywhere?

Maryland can outscore every team in the country. The problem is that their defense could struggle against any team in the country as well.

Louisville (2)

If you had to pick a weak link among the top seeds, it would probably be Louisville, who went 23-3 but who didn't really have a signature win. They lost twice to NC State. They beat Duke, who are 20th in Her Hoop Stats Rating, but Duke also didn't play a full season, so it's hard to know how good they really were. Their only other win against a top team was a win over Virginia Tech, and they lost to Florida State, who were 104th in HHS Rating.

Still, we've talked plenty about good players being what wins games in March, and the Cardinals have Dana Evans. Evans is arguably the best non-Freshman point guard in the country, an elite-level scorer who'll be an early pick in this year's WNBA Draft. They also have their own great freshman guard in Haile Van Lith. Overall though, it feels like we have a seven-team battle for a national title and Louisville is just a tiny bit outside of that battle. Maybe I'm wrong. We'll see.

 

Women's March Madness Sleeper Teams

Teams ranked third or lower. A third seed might not sound like a Cinderella, but the nature of the women's tournament is that top two seeds dominant early in the tournament, so picking a three seed or below to keep advancing is bucking some of the trends. Let's look at a few of the teams who have a chance of making noise, even if they're unlikely to win the whole thing.

Kentucky (4)

Having the best player on the floor goes a long way and most of the time, Kentucky will have the best player on the floor with junior Rhyne Howard, who was named a Second Team All-American.

The Wildcats are an interesting team, in that at their best, they did things like beat Tennessee by double-digits and then at their worst, lost to Tennessee by double-digits, plus were 0-2 against South Carolina. But transcendent players can make things happen in March, and that's what they'll be betting on with Howard, who averaged 20.7 points per game along with 7.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.3 steals per contest.

Rutgers (6)

I really like Rutgers as a potential Sweet 16 team. They'll likely be looking at a second-round meeting with No. 3 seed Arizona, a team that I think is beatable. I especially like Rutgers because they have Arella Guirantes, who averaged 20.8 points, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game. Just a force on both ends of the floor, Guirantes is exactly the kind of player who can have a big March and use that as a springboard into the WNBA lottery.

As a team, Rutgers has the seventh-best margin of victory and sixth-best offensive rating, which has led to the seventh-best net rating. This is a team that's better than a six seed. Yes, a tough first-round meeting with BYU could derail things, but the Scarlet Knights are really good. They could even upset Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.

UCLA (3)

While we're on the subject of really good wings who could shape the way this tournament goes, we should talk about the Bruins and Michaela Onyenwere. The senior averages 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and while she's not quite the defensive stud that some other top wings are, she does have a well-rounded team surrounding her that ranks 39th in defensive rating.

UCLA has some great shooting from Charisma Osborne, Lindsey Corsaro, and Natalie Chou. This is a really good Bruins team that shoots 35.6 percent from deep. What they do struggle at is their shooting inside the arc though, as their two-point field goal percentage ranks 235th in the country. This team can shoot their way to a win against anyone, but the right opponent can take away that long-range scoring.

Stephen F. Austin (12)

Fun fact: SFA had the second-best net rating in the country this season, behind only UConn. The Ladyjacks lost a couple of non-conference games early on, then went on a huge run, just decimating the Southland Conference. Despite a couple of close ones in the Southland tournament, this team ends up with a perfect conference record.

They also end up with a pretty winnable path to the Sweet 16. Georgia Tech in the first round, then likely West Virginia in the second. Those are good teams, but they aren't unbeatable teams. SFA plays some incredibly smart, modern basketball, as they're among the teams that took the fewest mid-range shots this season. They have a strong inside game with Aiyana Johnson and some nice outside shooting from Stephanie Visscher, making it hard for opposing defenses to defend them. They also have a tendency to just explode for a full quarter, putting close games suddenly out of reach. This is a dangerous team, though if they do make the Sweet 16, they'd have South Carolina waiting for them, which would not be great.

Arkansas (4)

The Razorbacks have to be one of the strangest teams in the country. At their best, they can beat anyone. They beat Baylor. They beat UConn. They came within one point of beating Texas A&M.

They also lost to a handful of unranked teams and finished 19-8 and, maybe most damning for their tournament chances, just 7-7 away from home if you include neutral sites. Why? This is a team that's incredibly reliant on guard play. They're near the bottom of Division I in rebounding rate, but rank ninth in threes made and fourth in three-point percentage. They also rank 258th in defensive rating. Arkansas has to turn games into track meets if they want to win. They also have a second-round meeting with either Missouri State or UC Davis, a game that they could pretty easily win. That could set up a Sweet 16 battle with Stanford in what will be an extremely fun game.

Iowa (5)

The Hawkeyes -- fueled by Freshman Caitlin Clark -- made it all the way to the Big 10 tournament finals before losing to Maryland.

This is one of my favorite picks to get on a run during the first week of the tournament and make it to the Sweet 16, because they have a pair of really good players, and really good players define March.

Clark is having just a phenomenal season and would be the runaway favorite for Freshman of the Year plus a potential National POTY option if it wasn't for UConn freshman Paige Bueckers. Clark led Division I in scoring at 26.7 points per game, plus led in field goals made, three-pointers made, and assists. Meanwhile, center Monika Czinano is fifth in the NCAA in field goal percentage, shooting 67.8 percent. She just set the Big 10 tournament record for points with 107 and field goals made with 48. (Oh, and Clark's 37 assists were a tournament record too.)

Also, there's a potential Sweet 16 meeting between Iowa and UConn! Caitlin Clark is going to will her team into that meeting, and then...who knows? UConn might only have one loss, but they played a weaker schedule than a lot of other top teams, so we can't be too sure that'll be able to handle the tournament gauntlet.

 

So, Who Should We Pick?

Like I said above, three of your four Final Four teams should be one or two seeds, because that's traditionally been about how things have looked.

Here are my picks to make the Final Four: Stanford, South Carolina, Baylor, and Texas A&M. In my personal bracket, I have Baylor winning, but really any of those teams can get hot and win a close title game. They've all got a strong mix of offense and defense.

Rutgers is a team that I could really, really see making a shocking run to the Final Four, but I don't think it happens. We probably need to keep our picks pretty chalky if we're looking to win our bracket pools, with early upset picks being where our advantage lies, plus correctly picking things once we get to the Elite Eight.

Let's not forget that the last time a team that wasn't a one or two seed even made the Final Four was 2016, when four seed Syracuse and seven seed Washington got there, facing each other in one semifinal that Syracuse won. And what happened next? UConn beat them 82-51 in the final.

The last champion to win without being a top-two seed was Tennessee, which I mentioned earlier. So yeah, pick a one or two seed to win it all, and probably don't pick Louisville! I think it's pretty wide open between the other seven schools, though!

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