NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament primer: Upsets, dark horses and title picks
Aidan Thomas | Wednesday, March 8, 2023
The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is generally less prone to upsets than the men’s tournament. But as the depth and talent in the field increase the parity of the event, upsets are beginning to happen with more frequency. Just last year, four teams sitting on the 11 and 12-seed lines won their opening game. Two 10-seeds made the Sweet 16, and 10th-seeded Creighton crashed the Elite Eight party. So which upsets seem feasible as the tournament nears? Which top seeds are the most fallible? While not every bid is secured yet, let’s look at an early primer for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
Any madness at 14, 15 or 16?
In the history of the tournament, there has been one upset by a 14th, 15th or 16th-seed. That was 16th-seeded Harvard back in 1998. Meanwhile, 33 of such upsets have occurred in the men’s tournament. Is this the year the streak breaks? In all likelihood, probably not. But there are a couple of teams that could make it interesting.
Virginia Tech, fresh off winning the ACC, secures a No. 1 seed in most projections. That recent ascent, in my mind, makes them the weakest No. 1 seed, as the other teams sitting atop projections have been top-five teams basically all season. Current bracketology has the Hokies matched up with Jackson State, a 20-8 squad on a 14-game heater. That’s at least the beginning ingredients of a potential upset.
Elsewhere, Utah and UConn have been in my personal top six teams in the country for the better part of two months. They won’t be upset in the first round. Iowa is receiving top-seed consideration, and Caitlin Clark is arguably the best player in the country. They should easily survive any first-round madness. Maryland is the most questionable potential two-seed. I’ve got them closer to a four-seed in my own bracketology, or maybe the last three-seed. A poor matchup could have the Terrapins sweating in their opener. Vermont is a solid squad to keep an eye on out of the America East and could be a good challenger if they pull this matchup, as current bracketology projects.
Along the three-seed projections, we have Duke, LSU, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Having not filled out my bracket just yet, LSU is definitely a Final Four contender at this point, and I don’t see them losing too early. The other three present interesting cases at the very least. I’ve got Duke firmly on the two-seed line in my own bracketology, so I think they’re better than this projection and will survive. Notre Dame is dealing with a lot of injuries, so I think a poor matchup could make them a target. Ohio State is the weakest three-seed in this scenario, so keep an early exit for the Buckeyes on the table. Gardner-Webb and Iona are two intriguing teams currently sitting on the 14th-seed line that I could see causing early chaos.
True dark horses (11-13 Seed)
Looking at teams sitting in that mid-tier upset range, I’ll give you my three favorite dark horses to make noise with an upset (or maybe even two)?
Cleveland State beat 27-4 Green Bay 73-61 in the Horizon League championship to win their 30th game of the season and secure an automatic bid. It’ll be tough to beat a four-seed in the first round, and they rank 36th in my book. Doing the math, I think they should be closer to a No. 9 or 10 seed. That’s enough to put them among my favorite dark horses.
If the currently projected matchups hold, I likely wouldn’t blink before taking UNLV over fifth-seeded Oklahoma. The Rebels are 30-2 and haven’t lost in nearly three months. I’ll take that when looking at a potential 12-over-five upset. UNLV is likely to be under-seeded, and I like their odds of escaping the first round.
This team is probably my favorite dark horse. So much so that I’m barely considering sixth-seeded matchups. Rather, I’m already looking at potential three seeds they could beat to reach the Sweet 16. I have been extremely high on the Blue Raiders for a while, and I would absolutely hate to draw this team on opening weekend. They’re ranked heading into the postseason, and all four of their losses have come by five points or less. They will be tough out.
My Sweet 16
Here’s a quick look at my Sweet 16. This combination of teams may not be exactly possible in the true bracket, but here’s what I have based on current bracketology.
Top-seeded South Carolina will advance with ease. I don’t anticipate them breaking a sweat through two rounds. Fifth-seeded Colorado will pull the minor upset of fourth-seeded UNC Chapel Hill. Eleventh-seeded Florida Gulf Coast nearly made my dark horse category, and right now, with Ohio State as the three-seed in their region, they have the most favorable road to the Sweet 16. I like second-seeded Utah’s chances of surviving, too.
For the sake of chaos, make this my chaos region.
Top-seeded Indiana survives a small challenge versus Ole Miss in the Round of 32. 12th-seeded UNLV pulls back-to-back upsets over Oklahoma and then UCLA to progress into the Sweet 16. 11th-seeded Columbia is one of two teams out of the Ivy League I really like, and the team takes advantage of a very injured Notre Dame squad in the second round. Seventh-seeded South Florida is a Sweet 16 caliber squad, and they shock UConn in the Round of 32.
I think this region has a lot of potential crazy upsets, but some of the mid-range seeds don’t have enough firepower to make a run. Middle Tennessee, my favorite dark horse, unfortunately matches up with the most lethal three-seed in LSU, and doesn’t pull off the upset. Elsewhere, top-seeded Virginia Tech avoids any Round of 64 nightmares and rolls into the Sweet 16. Fourth-seeded Villanova and second-seeded Maryland round out the chalk picks advancing past the opening weekend.
Top-seeded Stanford will have no issues in their first two games. Their opponent in the Sweet 16 will be a surprise, however. Green Bay and South Dakota State will both win as the 13th and 12th seeds, respectively. I’ll pick No. 13 seed Green Bay to squeak on into the Sweet 16. Third-seeded Duke will survive Princeton in the Round of 32, and second-seeded Iowa holds serve on home court as well.
At long last, here’s my ultimate Final Four and championship picks. South Carolina advances out of their bracket without too many issues. Indiana manages to survive their upset-laden region and reach the semifinals. Third-seeded LSU triumphs over Virginia Tech to reach the Final Four. In the last region, give me third-seeded Duke in a hotly-contested battle over Stanford.
South Carolina will beat the upstart Blue Devils, heading back to the national title game. I’m really excited by the possibility of LSU-Indiana in the semifinals, but give me the Tigers to set up the All-SEC championship. The Gamecocks have been my top team all year, and at this point, I can’t change the pick. South Carolina over LSU in the national championship.