2023 NCAA tournament Cinderellas: 7 teams that could crash the Dance
History suggests that picking a winner of the NCAA women's tournament is pretty simple.
Top-three seeds have won all 40 women’s NCAA tournament titles, with No. 1 seeds having claimed the last 10 straight.
No 14 or 15 seeds have ever made it past the opening round of the tournament. A No. 16 seed has never advanced past the second round. Only three No. 13 seeds have played in the Sweet 16. One No. 11 seed has made the Elite Eight, and one No. 9 seed battled its way into the Final Four. One No. 5 seed reached the national championship game, and just two No. 3 seeds have claimed the NCAA title.
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While it's true the field becomes easier to predict the deeper into the tournament we get, upsets do happen. About eight teams beat an opponent seeded two or more spots higher than them every year, according to the NCAA. Take No. 10 seed Creighton from last year’s tournament, for instance.
The Bluejays upset No. 7 seed Colorado in the opening round, No. 2 seed Iowa in the second and No. 3 seed Iowa State in the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual champion South Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Now that the 2023 tournament field is set, who might be this year’s 2022 Creighton? Here are Yahoo Sports’ Cinderella predictions in each region:
No. 12 Portland
The Portland Pilots (23-8) earned an automatic bid to this year’s tournament after they upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship. The last time Portland qualified was in 2020, the year the tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four players from that 2020 team remain, including forward Alex Fowler. Fowler leads the Pilots in scoring with an average of 17.8 points per game. She shoots 58.4% from the field, which is the 19th-most accurate field goal percentage in Division I.
Defense will be a pressure point for the Pilots in the opening round. They allow opponents to score about 62 points per game, which their opponent, No. 5 seed Oklahoma, will surely try to exploit. The Sooners average a whopping 85.2 points per game.
But as a No. 12 seed, the numbers are somewhat on Portland’s side to secure the upset.
Over the course of NCAA tournament history, No. 12 seeds have won about a quarter of their tournament games. This works out to about one win per year. Last year, Belmont and Florida Gulf Coast made it to the second round as No. 12 seeds.
No. 5 Oklahoma
If Portland can’t bypass Oklahoma, the Sooners (25-6) could ride their No. 2 scoring offense to a deep run in the tournament.
Oklahoma has four players averaging double figures: Madi Williams (15.5), Ana Llanusa (11.7), Taylor Robertson (11.5) and Skylar Vann (11.5). The Sooners lead all Power Five programs with nine threes per game. Robertson is the NCAA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, having accumulated 534 in her career – 88 of which have come this season.
Oklahoma has an opportunity to face No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in the Sweet 16 round. The Sooners’ high-powered offense could challenge the Gamecocks in a way they haven’t been to date.
No. 10 Princeton
The familiar adage of “defense wins championships” may not apply here, but the Princeton Tigers’ defense could definitely win them an NCAA tournament game.
Princeton (23-5) has the seventh-best defense in the country, limiting opponents to 52.8 points per game. A victory over No. 7 seed NC State in the opening round feels very possible and would likely lead to a meeting with No. 2 seed Utah in the Round of 32. That’s where the Tigers’ journey ended last year. They lost to No. 3 Indiana, 56-55.
Four starters remain from that team: Kaitlyn Chen (Ivy League player of the year averaging 15.9 points per game), Ellie Mitchell (two-time Ivy League defensive player of the year), Julia Cunningham and Grace Stone. Could this be their Sweet 16 year?
No. 5 Washington State
Will this year’s Pac-12 Cinderella parlay its conference tournament momentum into a deep run in the NCAA tournament?
The Cougars (23-10) won four straight, including a riveting victory over No. 2 seed Utah, en route to their first conference championship in program history. The triumph doubled as WSU’s first Pac-12 title in any women’s sport. As a result, the Cougars were given a No. 5 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament — the highest seed in program history.
WSU’s first-round opponent is No. 12 seed Florida Gulf Coast. FGCU won its first game against No. 5 seed Virginia Tech last March. This season, the Eagles have four players shooting over 40% from three, which leads Division I.
Still, WSU’s Pac-12 experience has surely prepared it for the NCAA tournament.
No. 6 UNC
The Tar Heels’ 2022 NCAA tournament run ended in the Sweet 16 against South Carolina. UNC was the only team to fall to the Gamecocks by single digits (eight points).
The Tar Heels’ 21-10 record this season does little to impress at first glance, but it does include six quality wins over AP Top 25 opponents. While a No. 6 seed seems surprisingly low, at least they aren’t in the same region as South Carolina this year.
UNC’s second-round opponent would likely be No. 3 seed Ohio State. The Buckeyes average 80.8 points per game, which ranks eighth in Division I. The Tar Heels have had trouble generating points as of late, including their most recent performance in the 44-40 ACC quarterfinals loss to Duke.
Returning starters Deja Kelly, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, and Alyssa Ustby, their leading rebounder, will have to step up for UNC to get another shot at the Sweet 16 this year.
No. 11 Middle Tennessee State
MTSU (28-4) is riding a 10-game win streak into the NCAA tournament.
The Lady Raiders received 59 votes in the most recent AP Poll after coming in at No. 25 in Week 18 and No. 24 in Week 17. Their biggest win of the season came over then-No. 18 Louisville (a dominant 67-49 victory), which received a higher seeding in the NCAA tournament than MTSU’s opening-round opponent, No. 6 Colorado.
The Raiders score an average of 73.4 points per game, which is tied for 45th in the country. They’re led by four players averaging double figures — Kseniya Malashka (15.2), Savannah Wheeler (15.1), Jalynn Gregory (13.7) and Courtney Whitson (10.4).
MTSU is also adept at getting to the free-throw line, averaging about 16 per game, which ranks eighth in Division I. The Raiders make 78.4% of their free throws, which equates to about 12.5 points per game from the line. Their ball control is another strength, ranking eighth in the country in turnovers per game (12.1) and 25th in turnover margin (4.88).
Colorado’s defense limits opponents to 58.6 points per game, which ranks in the top 50 for Division I. But MTSU will surely pose a challenge to the Buffaloes in the first round.
No. 5 Louisville
The Cardinals made it all the way to the national championship game the last time they were a No. 5 seed.
Louisville ran through No. 1 Baylor in the Sweet 16, No. 2 Tennessee in the Elite Eight and No. 2 Cal in the Final Four during the 2013 tournament. The Cardinals had eight losses heading into the opening round.
This year, they have 11. But the Cardinals (23-11) have emerged from a deep conference in the ACC, which has a nation-leading eight teams in the tournament. Of their six conference losses, two were achingly close defeats in the regular season to the ACC’s top two teams — a two-point defeat at the hands of then-No. 13 Virginia Tech in January and a two-point overtime loss to then-No. 10 Notre Dame in February. Louisville then routed Notre Dame, 64-38, in the conference tournament before falling to Virginia Tech in the championship game.
Hailey Van Lith, who earned the title of NCAA Wichita regional most outstanding player last season, currently leads the Cardinals in scoring with 19.2 points per game.
In addition to her experience, Louisville can lean on its extensive March resume. The Cardinals’ 2022 tournament run ended against South Carolina in the Final Four. Could they bypass the likes of Texas and Stanford to make it there again?