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NCAA women’s basketball: What to watch in all four regions

ALBANY 1 REGION

Must-watch player: Hannah Hidalgo, G, Notre Dame

Another must-watch freshman who did to the ACC pretty much what JuJu Watkins did to the Pac-12: dominate. She was third in the nation in scoring (23.3) behind Caitlin Clark and Watkins. Her 147 steals were an Irish record and her 4.6 steals per game led the country. She was the ACC Defensive Player and Freshman of the Year and the ACC tournament MVP after leading Notre Dame to the title, scoring 22 points agains North Carolina State in the championship game.

Must-watch matchup: No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Michigan State

Matchups between 8 and 9 seeds should be, by definition, the most competitive of the first round. Here both teams are coming off losses in their first conference tournament game. But the Tar Heels lost three of their final four games. For Michigan State, its loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament — a team that reached the final at Target Center — was the Spartans' first in six games. This is a matchup of two teams from big-time conferences with a lot of experience.

ALBANY 2 REGION

Must-watch player: Caitlin Clark, G, Iowa

Clark is No. 1 in the nation in scoring (31.9), assists (8.9) and, basically, TV ratings. Not to mention probably in the upcoming WNBA draft, and a player who is looking to get back to the national championship game after Iowa lost to Louisiana State last year. Clark has scored 1,000-plus points in consecutive seasons, getting almost half her points on three-pointers. She led Iowa to a third consecutive Big Ten tournament championship in the team's fourth consecutive title-game appearance. Winning a national title is about the only thing Clark has yet to accomplish.

Must-watch matchup: No. 1 Iowa vs. No. 4 Kansas State

Iowa got a tough road as a top seed — perhaps the most unfair of the four No. 1 seeds, with a difficult path to the Final Four. Should both teams reach the Sweet 16, the Iowa-Kansas State meeting would have talent, size, drama and history. With Minnesotan Ayoka Lee scoring 22 points with 12 rebounds, the Wildcats handed Iowa its only home loss of the season. Just over two weeks later they met again in Florida, with Iowa winning behind Clark's 32 points. Both games were seven-point affairs. A third game between the two teams would be a sweet Sweet 16 game to watch.

PORTLAND 3 REGION

Must-watch player: Juju Watkins, G, Southern California

How lucky is the Big Ten? Caitlin Clark just finished her run through the conference and here comes Watkins, set to join the fray along with three other Pac-12 teams next season. The 6-2 Watkins scored more points as a freshman than Clark (810 vs. 799), averaged more points (27.0 vs. 26.6), got to the free-throw line more and rebounded better than Clark as a freshman. And she was named to the Pac-12′s all-defensive team as well. And now Big Ten fans get to see her for three more years.

Must-watch matchup: No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 6 Syracuse

If, as expected, both these schools win in the first round, their second-round matchup will be one of the best in the tournament. Six of Syracuse's seven losses have come against NCAA tournament teams from Power Five conferences. UConn, led by Hopkins' Paige Bueckers, has won nine in a row since a Feb. 11 loss to South Carolina. In those nine games? Bueckers has averaged 25.1 points per game, shooting 53.9% overall and 39% from three-point range. She's at the top of her game with the tournament about to start.

PORTLAND 4 REGION

Must-watch player: Madison Booker, G, Texas

Another freshman. Sensing a trend here? The 6-1 forward became the first freshman to win the Big 12 Player of the Year, is a semifinalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award and led Texas to the Big 12 tournament title. Oh, and she was named the conference tournament's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 21.3 points, 5.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds in three tournament games, turning the ball over just three times. With players like Booker, Hidalgo and Watkins, women's basketball is in pretty good hands for years to come.

Must-watch matchup: No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Utah

Should these schools meet in the second round, it would match two teams that are three-point heavy in their approach. Utah played in a very tough Pac-12 that has one No. 1 seed (USC) and two No. 2 seeds (UCLA and Stanford). The Utes pushed through the early-season injury loss of former Duluth Marshall star Gianna Kneepkens. Utah is led by Alissa Pili (20.8 points per game) and former Wayzata star Jenna Johnson. Gonzaga has three players shooting better than 40% on threes.