A familiar challenge awaits some of the top teams in women’s college basketball now that the NCAA bracket has been unveiled.
They must try to find a way to prevent UConn from capturing its fifth national championship in the past six seasons.
The undefeated Huskies learned Monday where their road to redemption starts. They’ll face St. Francis (Pa.) on Saturday in Storrs as they begin their quest to avenge last season’s stunning Final Four loss at the hands of Mississippi State.
With the core of last year’s team back and that loss fresh in their minds, UConn (32-0) has won every game it has played this season, all but six by 20 or more and all but two by double figures. Only Texas and Notre Dame have given the Huskies a serious challenge.
As a result of UConn’s dominance, the question that looms over this year’s women’s NCAA tournament is: Can anyone challenge the Huskies?
Let’s assess the threat level to UConn in each round of the tournament.
Round of 64 opponent: 16th-seeded St. Francis (Pa.) (24-9)
In the past five years, UConn has defeated five No. 16 seeds in the first round of the NCAA tournament by an average of 56 points. Don’t expect St. Francis to get much closer. The Red Flash swept the regular-season and tournament titles in the Northeast Conference to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. Not only have they not beaten a top 100 RPI opponent this season, they have lost to the only three they have faced by an average of 16.7 points.
Threat level: Minus-5. There’s a better chance it rains orange juice and hails donut holes than UConn losing this game.
Projected Round of 32 opponent: 8th-seeded Miami (21-10)
You have to give Miami coach Katie Meier credit for doing her best to seem pleased with this draw. Miami travels to Storrs to face ninth-seeded Quinnipiac, which is located only an hour’s drive from Gampel Pavilion and will surely have the in-state crowd on its side. Should the Hurricanes defeat the Quinnipiac team that ousted them from last year’s NCAA tournament, their reward will be a second-round date with UConn on the Huskies’ floor.
Asked about playing at Gampel Pavilion, Meier said, “It’s great. It’s like playing at Madison Square Garden.”
Great, huh? That’s probably also what the Christians said about the Roman Coliseum before being fed to the lions.
Threat level: 3/10. Miami shouldn’t be overwhelmed considering the quality of competition it faces in the ACC. Earlier this season, the Hurricanes fell at Notre Dame by seven and at home against Louisville by 10.
Projected Sweet 16 opponent: 4th-seeded Georgia (25-6)
A Georgia team among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots would be only a modest step up in competition from Miami. The Bulldogs would face UConn in Albany should they survive home games in the opening rounds against 13th-seeded Mercer and either fifth-seeded Duke or 12th-seeded Belmont. Georgia has beaten the likes of Texas A&M and Missouri, but it has not fared well against teams seeded third or better in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs’ average margin of defeat in four games against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Tennessee: 18.5 points.
Threat level: 3.5/10. Georgia is much improved, but this is a team ranked higher in the human polls (18) than in the RPI (26) or Sagarin ratings (30). Even keeping it close would be an achievement.
Projected Elite Eight opponent: 2nd-seeded South Carolina (26-6)
Here’s the first round where UConn could be challenged. Reigning national champion South Carolina lost three key starters from last year’s team, but the Gamecocks do return 6-foot-5 first-team All-American A’Ja Wilson, who averages 22.6 points per game. While South Carolina won this year’s SEC tournament, split a pair of games with Mississippi State and took a game off of Tennessee, the Gamecocks’ lone meeting with UConn was an 83-58 blowout loss. Perhaps that’s why coach Dawn Staley didn’t seem overjoyed about the prospect of a rematch in the regional final. Said Staley to reporters Monday, “You want to be a No. 1 seed for obvious reasons, but we’re not that this year. We’re going to go out and play.”
Threat level: 5/10. Wilson is one of the sport’s elite players and point guard Tyasha Harris has been an effective playmaker, but South Carolina couldn’t even keep it competitive at home earlier this season.
Projected Final Four opponent: Top-seeded Notre Dame (29-3)
Beset by even more injuries than its men’s team has suffered this season, Notre Dame has somehow cobbled together a heck of a season. The Irish tied Louisville atop the ACC regular season standings despite finishing the season with only three healthy perimeter players and no point guards. Shooting guard Marina Mabrey has exceeded expectations since shifting to point guard and Notre Dame has actually improved despite the injuries. The Irish rallied to beat Tennessee by 14 in mid-January, clobbered Florida State 10 days later and pushed Louisville to the final buzzer in the ACC title game.
Threat level: 6.5/10. Notre Dame has emerged as the closest thing to a rival that UConn has, and these battle-tested Irish won’t be intimidated. They lost by nine at UConn in December. They’re capable of putting up a fight a second time, assuming they have healthy bodies left.
Projected title game opponent: Top-seeded Mississippi State (32-1)
While fellow No. 1 seed Louisville and dangerous No. 2 seed Baylor are also threats to emerge from the opposite half of the bracket, let’s hope that the Bulldogs are UConn’s title game opponent. Who doesn’t want to see a rematch of last year’s epic Final Four upset? Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians led Mississippi State to an undefeated regular season in the SEC, a conference that landed seven teams in the most recent AP Top 25. The Bulldogs did fall in the SEC tournament to South Carolina, but this is a team that is focused on making it back to the Final Four and completed what it started a year ago.
Threat level: 7/10. Hard to imagine Mississippi State catching UConn a second straight time. Of course, it was hard to imagine the Bulldogs winning the first matchup either.
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