March Madness: Why top seeds are more vulnerable in women's NCAA tournament as parity grows

The doors to Dallas just blew wide open.

Two No. 1 seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16 for only the second time in the women’s NCAA tournament’s 42-year history after Indiana joined Stanford’s unfortunate ranks on Monday night. No. 9-seeded Miami never trailed to upset the Hoosiers, 70-68, in front of a hostile crowd at Indiana’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

The duo of top seeds joins the 1998 one of Texas Tech and Stanford, the very first No. 1 seed in men’s or women’s tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed. The seedings in those regional finals became a refrigerator of children’s number magnets: 2 vs. 4, 1 vs. 2, 4 vs. 3, 9 vs. 2. Ultimately, No. 1 seed Tennessee won the last of its three consecutive national championships.

Much like those Pat Summitt teams, South Carolina is the powerhouse of the nation seeking its second consecutive title under Dawn Staley. After Kim Mulkey’s LSU squad lost to South Carolina last month, the three-time championship coach while at Baylor summed it up simply.

“It’s South Carolina, in my opinion, and everyone else,” Mulkey, whose No. 3-seeded Tigers are seeing more clearly out of their Greenville 2 region with Indiana gone.

Well, everyone else is still pretty darn good and competitive.

It’s how an Ole Miss team that went winless in SEC play three seasons ago stuffed Stanford, which still had key pieces from its 2021 championship team and made the Final Four last year. It’s how Miami, a team in the middle of the ACC regular season standings, went into a roaring house of red to knock out a top-10 scoring offense. Colorado, yet another team rising from a recent .500 season, did the same an hour later at No. 3 seed Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That Seattle 4 region with No. 8 Ole Miss and No. 6 Colorado became the most jumbled. No. 2 Iowa had a strong case for a No. 1 seed by closing its season with a win over Indiana and the Big Ten tournament championship. The Hoosiers didn’t even play in it, and neither did Stanford play in its Pac-12 title game. Of the four No. 1 seeds, only South Carolina and Virginia Tech played in their conference title games. Both won.

Now, Iowa’s road to its first Final Four since 1993 holds at best No. 5 Louisville, which bested No. 4 Texas earlier Monday. The survivor faces the winner of Greenville 1, which went chalk and features South Carolina.

Miami’s win opened up the Greenville 2 regional and the paths for No. 2 Utah, No. 3 LSU or No. 4 Villanova. The region is largely chalk, but it’s at least a new color. Utah is making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2006, LSU since 2014 and Villanova since 2003. Miami is there for the first time since 1992, a decade before today’s collegiate players were born.

Miami's Destiny Harden reacts after making the game-winning shot against the Indiana Hoosiers during the second round of the NCAA women's tournament on March 20, 2023, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. (Joe Robbins/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

There might be no one happier to see the Hurricanes advance than UConn, another team that had a resume to move up into a No. 1 seed. Because the Huskies’ road to Dallas was already lined with blooming roses having gained their health and star Azzi Fudd, who scored 22 in a 19-point win over Baylor. Now, if they clear their own Seattle 3 region to reach a 15th consecutive Final Four, they know one of the nation’s most prolific offenses won’t be waiting.

The 2023 national championship game could very well be a repeat of last year’s between South Carolina and UConn. They’re the two new rivals and widely known modern winners. Plenty of brackets placed them together all the way to the end.

But focusing on that overlooks how far the women’s game has come as more girls play from younger ages, at higher levels, with better trainers, under more experienced coaches. More collegiate programs playing in front of sold-out arenas regularly.

A league of one-team-and-the-rest doesn’t make “the rest” any less fun to watch.

The first-round action on Saturday featured three teams rallying from double-digit deficits to win. Mississippi State became the first First Four team to advance to the second round. Georgia and mid-major programs Florida Gulf Coast, Princeton and Toledo joined them as double-digit seeds to advance on the first two days. It follows the early upset trend of last season.

And the growth of top recruits choosing schools other than powerhouses. Of programs investing more in their women’s teams, even if more isn’t enough. The list goes on.

When Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin was asked what her team’s unlikely win says about the depth of the game, she instead used the time to point out where the game is still going. The day of her team’s upset, she said she drafted a tweet to share at game’s end that credited the people in her life for preparing her for “this moment.” It was hashtagged, “no ceilings.”

Much like her players, she seemed confident her team could take down Stanford. She mentioned how Fairleigh Dickinson men's head coach Tobin Anderson said ahead of his No. 16-seeded team’s game against a top seed, “The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them."

“We’ve got to normalize that for the women's game,” McPhee-McCuin said. “A lot of times, women, this doesn’t happen because as females, we are taught to hone it in, you know what I’m saying, because I get attacked all the time; oh, I’m too bold, I’m too brazen, I’m too this, I’m too that.

“But the coach from Fairleigh Dickinson said on TV that he was going to beat Purdue, and they did it. So we need to normalize women being competitive and having dreams and goals and wanting to win, you get what I’m saying? I think this is good for the game.”

The more one looks at the these bracket matchups, the more one thinks the “underdog” can win and walk through the next open door to Dallas.