That group is led by Iowa and UConn, two No. 2 seeds that were in contention for the top-seed line. Committee chair Lisa Peterson said the 12-person group leaned toward Stanford for the final No. 1 seed in part for its 20-5 record against teams ranked in the NET top 100. Iowa is 18-5 in the category and UConn is 19-5. That’s how close these top teams are and how competitive March Madness will be.
Iowa (Seattle 4 | 2 seed)
26-6, 18-3 Big Ten | NET 6 | vs. NET top 25: 6-4 | SOS: 12
Caitlin Clark is on a mission and she’s bringing the roaring Hawkeyes fans with her. Clark, whose emotion and constant call for fan noise has risen in March, is again averaging 27 points per game (second in Division I) and leads the nation for a second year with 8.3 assists. The triple-double threat is leading an Iowa offense with the production to upend anyone at a Division I-best 87.5 points per game.
The questions around Iowa remain if the guards flanking her can hit their open shots — which did not happen in that blowout loss to Maryland, but did in the Big Ten title game — and if the team can play good enough defense. They allow on average 71.3 points a game, nearly dead last in the nation. Iowa is also motivated after falling out of the 2022 tournament early by Creighton, a bad matchup for their defense.
The Hawkeyes could run into Duke, the nation’s best defensive team, but the Blue Devils have struggled offensively heading into the tournament. Their last three games are their lowest-scoring games of the season, averaging 41 points over that span. On the top of their bracket are two more strong defensive teams in No. 4 Texas and No. 5 Louisville.
If it’s a chalk region and Iowa runs into Stanford in the regional final, the Hawkeyes’ offense is far more potent and runs at a higher pace. The Cardinal don’t have the steal numbers or rate that often leads to wins in tight games, though their blocks (7 bpg) could cause problems for Clark going into the paint. Stanford’s issues through the season have come offensively and that can’t happen against the inevitable points to be scored by Clark.
UConn (Seattle 3 | 2 seed)
28-5, 20-2 Big East | NET 2 | vs. NET top 25: 10-3 | SOS: 2
The 14-year streak of Final Fours is in jeopardy, but at the same time, this is UConn. It’s tough to pick against the Huskies when they’ve shown for more than a decade that they can make the deep run. And it’s even harder to keep them out of the Final Four considering they were able to do it last season after being without Paige Bueckers for much of the season and missing key scoring pieces.
Big East coaches who faced UConn in the conference tournament said it was the “UConn of March” they’re used to seeing. Head coach Geno Auriemma, who put his team’s effort and practice focus on blast the week prior, said the month has brought a “different vibe in our team.”
“I feel what was different today was that it’s March and it’s not any other month in the year,” UConn point guard Nika Mühl said after the Big East semifinal win over Marquette, which upset UConn in the regular season. “We’re a different team in March. We highly believe it.”
The biggest reason to put the Huskies in the final weekend is Azzi Fudd, the standout scorer who returned from a knee injury to play in the conference tournament. She fueled the Huskies’ early non-conference wins and dropped 32 points in back-to-back games against Texas and NC State. Without her standard production, the Huskies are in serious trouble.
The first thing working against UConn in the bracket is the rarity of playing regional final games outside of their backyard. No. 3 Ohio State, which UConn would meet in the Sweet 16, is ranked eighth in points per game (80.8), scoring five more on average than UConn. The Huskies have the better defensive numbers — the Big Ten is one of the highest-scoring conferences in the nation overall — but Ohio State is ranked eighth in steals per game (11.4), swiping it nearly double the times of UConn. The Buckeyes forced nearly 20 per game.
Virginia Tech is the No. 1 seed in that region and came on strong at the end of the season. UConn holds the experience advantage and has the weight of what would be another snapped streak on their backs.
Upsets to pick in your bracket
It wouldn’t be March without some surprising finishes and it seems all the more likely this season. Here are some we like:
No. 6-seeded Creighton vs. No. 11 Illinois/Mississippi State — It’s a tough situation for Illinois to have to get out of a First Four. This Fighting Illini team went 7-20 last season and 22-10 under first-year head coach Shauna Green with a net rating movement of 20 points to +10. Keep an eye out for either of those teams to upset No. 3 Notre Dame in the second round if the Fighting Irish are without point guard Olivia Miles.
No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 11 UNLV — UNLV’s Desi-Rae Young is one of the best scorers in the nation. The teams line up nearly identical on paper with Michigan having an edge by playing in a tougher conference.
No. 7 NC State vs. No. 10 Princeton — The Tigers are tournament regulars out of the Ivy, so the stage isn’t going to bother them. NC State has been up and down after losing much of its talent to the WNBA and graduation.
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Saint Louis — It’s far from a trendy upset pick, but Saint Louis is led by an experienced NCAA coach in Rebecca Tillett. Tillett is a year removed from leading Longwood to its first NCAA tournament win in program history and Saint Louis is on a hot streak, upsetting the A-10 No. 1 seed for the conference title.
No. 6 Colorado vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee — Middle Tennessee was ranked in the AP poll this season and has better offensive and defensive numbers than Colorado. If it’s close, the Blue Raiders hit free throws at a 78.4% clip to Colorado’s 69% and earn more of their points beyond the arc.