If you’ve gone anywhere near ESPN in the past couple weeks, you’ve seen what this year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament has to live up to: Arike Ogunbowale’s two consecutive buzzer beaters to bring Notre Dame the national championship, the truly mad conclusion to 2018’s big dance.
It’s going to be tough to top, but if there were ever a field set up for a jaw-dropping finish it’s this year’s highest seeds. There hasn’t been a clear front-runner all season long, and that’s true entering the tournament as well. UConn’s reign as a women’s college basketball powerhouse is far from over, but they haven’t won a title since 2016 and are coming into the tournament with an uncharacteristic two regular-season losses. In their place, six other deep and talented teams have been battling all season long with an offensive (frequent 90-point-plus games) and defensive intensity that’s been thrilling to watch — and should only escalate going into the tournament.
Without further ado, here are seven teams who will certainly be dancing deep into the tournament — and have a great shot at winning the chip.
It’s hard to find a weakness in the tournament’s No. 1-overall seed, but their strength is straightforward: defense. With 6’7 Kalani Brown and 6’4 Lauren Cox in the paint (Cox alone has a 10.1 percent block rate), the Lady Bears are the No. 1 team in the country for defensive rebounds and blocks. Add to that the team’s ability to feed their Towers of Power (credit Holly Rowe) for easy layups, their deep bench, and the fact they had one loss all season, and you’re looking at a squad that makes an all-chalk bracket look wise.
Obviously, you can’t count out UConn. Yes, they’re playing with a relatively shallow bench, and one of their stars, Katie Lou Samuelson, was injured in the last week of the regular season. But by all accounts she’s back in action, and now — thanks to a somewhat surprising No. 2 seed from the selection committee — they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder that should, frankly, terrify any opponent. Napheesa Collier is one of the top players in the country, and has been averaging a very casual double-double. Normally, UConn is coasting on gaudy stats and unforgiving wins; this year, they’re relying on pure grit — which might actually be scarier.
3. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have a very real chance to defend their title this year, given that the core of their championship team — Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Jackie Young, and Marina Mabrey — remains intact, and they got back relentless defender Brianna Turner after an ACL tear. All five of their starters are averaging double-digit points — the truth is, the team is actually better than they were last year ... when they won the whole thing. They’re entering the tournament off a commanding defeat of conference rival Louisville for the ACC title, and it seems unlikely that anyone will be able to stop them from steam-rolling their way into the Final Four and quite possibly the title game.
4. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs have been a little bit outside of the spotlight this year after dominating an uncharacteristically weak SEC over the course of the regular season and conference tournament — but after two tantalizingly close misses in a row at an NCAA title, they’re more ready than ever to make a deep run in the tournament. They did lose all-around star Victoria Vivians, but they still have nearly impenetrable post player Teaira McCowan, who only failed to get a double-double four times this season. She’s surrounded by a slew of ultra-quick guards who can rack up the points in transition, including Jazzmun Holmes and Jordan Danberry, and dogged rebounder and scorer Anriel Howard. Losing Chloe Bibby hurt them, but Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Bre’Amber Scott have helped fill the void she left with clutch three-point shooting.
After getting the program’s first-ever No. 1-overall ranking, the Ducks hit a rough patch late in the season and lost the Pac-12 title in a stunner to Stanford, resulting in a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re not likely to go down easy, though, especially not to (possibly) a Mississippi State team they beat earlier in the season. Sabrina Ionescu is a defender’s nightmare, given her record-setting ability to score, distribute the ball, and rebound (it’s not at all out of the question that she’ll get a triple-double at some point during the tournament). She has Ruthy Hebard, the No. 3 most efficient scorer in the country (her effective field goal percentage is 67.8 percent), holding things down in the post and a backcourt of dangerous three-point shooters.
The Cardinals were hammered by injuries to their starters Arica Carter and Sam Fuerhing during the ACC tournament, but both are on track to return for the big dance. Though the team might not be operating at full strength, they still have Asia Durr — one of the college game’s most dangerous scorers, and a soon-to-be top 10 WNBA Draft pick — running the show. She had 47 points against a top-25 team in the last game of the regular season, and if that version of Durr shows up to the tournament, there’s no telling how far Louisville can go.
Realistically, the No. 8 seed Hawkeyes shouldn’t be on this list. They’re in a weaker conference, with a less impressive cast, and an unimpressive six losses. But I absolutely refuse to be the person who goes on the record counting out the country’s leading scorer (28 PPG) and second most efficient scorer (69.7 percent EFG): Megan Gustafson.