I was in fourth grade when I realized that not everyone gets as excited about March Madness as we do in North Carolina. Before dismissing us for the day, Mrs. Davis reminded the class that if were going to miss school on Friday, we needed a note from our parents and we’d be responsible for all the classwork we’d miss. As I walked to my bus, Isaac, the new kid who had just moved to the area from New Jersey, strode up along side me and asked what Mrs. Davis meant. I paused, looked at him with all the disbelief that nine year old me could muster, and said, “The ACC tournament, duh!” and scampered off to find my bus. It never occurred to me, until that very moment, that there were people in the world who didn’t take days off from school to watch college basketball or that there were schools that didn’t tacitly allow such things. Such is life, growing up on Tobacco Road.
But, I get it — not everyone loves college basketball nearly as much as we do in North Carolina and not everyone understands this thing we call March Madness. So, in honor of the release of the 2018 Women’s NCAA Tournament bracket, here’s an overview of the tournament for fans and non-fans alike.
What is March Madness and how does it work?
March Madness is a single-elimination tournament between 64 Division I women’s college basketball teams. This year, the tournament will run from March 16 to April 1. A team makes it into the field of 64 in one of two ways: half of them secure an automatic bid by winning their conference championships, while the other half secure an at-large bid granted by invitation from the NCAA Selection Committee. The 32 at-large teams are selected based on a number of criteria, including but not limited to their Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), their losses, injuries, their late-season success and overall strength of schedule. Once the Selection Committee has picked 64 teams, they effectively rank them all and use that ranking to populate the four regions (Albany, Lexington, Kansas City and Spokane).
Being ranked among the top 16 teams overall is a coveted position. The men’s tournament hosts all their games on ostensibly neutral courts but the first two rounds of the women’s tournament are hosted on the home court of the region’s top four schools. So, in the Albany Region, for example, UCONN, South Carolina, Florida State and Georgia will host their opening round games on their respective campuses. It gives a pretty decisive advantage to those home teams — those four teams in the Albany Region have lost just six home games between them — but, unfortunately, playing on neutral sites isn’t yet practical for the women’s game.
So the teams are set, the hosts are set and we’re all ready to play. It’s win or go home: 64 teams becomes 32, 32 becomes 16 (commonly called the “Sweet 16”), 16 becomes eight (commonly called the “Elite 8”), eight becomes four (commonly called the “Final Four”), four becomes two and one becomes the national champion.
What’s so great about March Madness?
It’s called Madness because the pace is frenetic. Over the first two days of the tournament, fans are treated to 32 games, many of them overlapping on the schedule so that the stream of basketball play seems endless. You’ll get blowouts, for sure, but you’ll also get dramatic comebacks, buzzer beaters and upsets.
The real magic of the NCAA Tournament comes from the realization of two fairytales: Cinderella and David and Goliath. A Cinderella team is the lowly ranked tournament team that, through a combination of talent and sheer will, manages to advance in the field. Even if they’re not your team, even if they’re from a place you’ve never even heard of and even if they bust your personal bracket, you cheer for the Cinderella because everyone loves an underdog. More common in the women’s tournament, though, is the search for a David to slay Goliath. There is no bigger Goliath in the women’s game right now than the UCONN Huskies. Everyone else in the field, no matter how great they are or how highly they’re ranked, looks like David next to UCONN’s storied history in this tournament (11 National Championships, 10 straight Final Fours). And while it doesn’t happen often, sometimes David does slay Goliath… like last year, when Morgan William hit a shot at the buzzer in overtime to lift Mississippi State to victory and end UCONN’s 111 game win streak.
Sometimes David does slay Goliath and there are few things more magical in sports than seeing it happen.
But what’s going to happen this year?
So here’s where we start to get into the weeds a little bit:
UConn and South Carolina … in the same region. 👀 pic.twitter.com/buiwCEFRfi
— espnW (@espnW) March 12, 2018
FiveThirtyEight Probable Regional Champion: UCONN (93%)
Obviously, the story of the night was that barring some fantastic collapse by either team, the last two national champions — South Carolina and UCONN — will likely meet in the Elite 8. And while the Huskies would, undoubtedly, be the favorite in that match-up, as they beat the Gamecocks 83-58 last month, it’s still worth asking whether it’s fair that the defending national champions were seeded in UCONN’s bracket. South Carolina Head Coach Dawn Staley believes that the Gamecocks got the short end of the stick, again, and I’m inclined to agree, albeit for a different reason. Traditionally, the Selection Committee puts the overall #1 seed in the same region with the worst #2 team (or the 8th team overall) and, for whatever reason, that seems to not have happened here. Texas should be the #2 seed in Albany, not South Carolina, but I digress.
Pay attention to that 5-12 match-up between Duke and Belmont. While Belmont doesn’t have any player of Lexie Brown’s caliber, the Bruins remind me a lot of Syracuse who stunned the Devils late in the season, 68-65, thanks to going 15-32 from behind the arc. If Belmont can get going from downtown, as they’re wont to do, Duke could be on its way to an early exit.
The Fighting Irish are a No. 1 seed once again, atop the Spokane Region this year. pic.twitter.com/3y5PCSOwgT
— espnW (@espnW) March 12, 2018
FiveThirtyEight Probable Regional Champion: Notre Dame (50%)
It is amazing that Notre Dame’s in this conversation, much less a #1 seed, given that the team lost four (4!) players to ACL injuries in the last year, including three-time All-American Brianna Turner, but Muffett McGraw’s done an incredible job turning her short bench into title contenders. The thing that has given the Irish their edge and will likely propel the team in Spokane is their guard play, led by Arike Ogunbowale. As good as the other guards in this region are Chennedy Carter of Texas A&M, Sabrina Ionescu of Oregon and Kelsey Mitchell of Ohio State — are they as good Notre Dame’s three-guard rotation? I don’t know.
Perhaps the most glaring mistake by the Selection Committee happened in the Spokane region. There is absolutely no good reason to justify Oklahoma’s inclusion in the field of 64, none whatsoever. The Sooners get in with just a 16-14 record, the worst winning percentage for an at-large team since 1983, and the lowest win total by an at-large team since 2005. Sure, they had a strong strength of schedule, but they didn’t actually win any of those tough games…making the Sooners’ NCAA bid the best participation trophy ever. If I were a fan of USC or Rutgers, I’d be really ticked that the Selection Committee gave your tournament slot away.
One loss in 33 games? Yeah, that's good enough for a No. 1 seed. pic.twitter.com/8g5CcAjdgI
— espnW (@espnW) March 12, 2018
FiveThirtyEight Probable Regional Champion: Mississippi State (59%)
The video of Morgan William hitting the buzzer beater in last year’s national semifinal is iconic but it obscures a key point: Mississippi State did not win the national championship. But the Bulldogs are back, boasting their program’s first ever #1 seed, with their eyes set on a return to the Final Four… and, of the #1 seeds, their path might be the “easiest.”
I’m intrigued by a couple potential Sweet 16 match-ups out of the Kansas City Region: Mississippi State vs. NC State and Texas vs. UCLA. The Bulldogs and the Wolfpack are both led by all-conference post-players, in Teaira McCowan and Chelsea Nelson. I think that whichever team can attack the post and get the other team’s post player in foul trouble advances to the Elite 8. On the bottom half of the bracket, Texas and UCLA are two teams with really strong backcourts — Jordan Canada and Kennedy Burke for the Bruins and Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty for the Longhorns — and watching them go at it will be fun.
Keep an eye on that Princeton/Maryland match-up in the first round too. My guts says that the Terps advance to play their old ACC foe, NC State, but Maryland’s become increasingly mercurial, dropping four of their last eight games, so Princeton — fresh off that strong defensive performance in the Ivy League Championship — could put the upset.
The Cardinals have never been a No. 1 seed … until now. pic.twitter.com/oIZg9ORLUk
— espnW (@espnW) March 12, 2018
FiveThirtyEight Probable Regional Champion: Baylor (56%)
Lexington is, hands down, the toughest region in the tournament. While Louisville managed to secure the program’s first ever #1 seed and a regional close to home, they’ve also drawn the toughest road to Columbus with perennial powerhouses, Baylor, Tennessee and Stanford rounding out the top four seeds. Again, I take issue with the Selection Committee’s work here: as the top overall #2, tradition would dictate that Baylor be paired with the weakest #1 seed (Notre Dame). South Carolina should’ve ended up in Lexington, not Baylor.
I love the two Pac-12/SEC match-ups we could get in the second round: Oregon State vs. Tennessee and Stanford vs. Missouri. While I think the senior leadership of the Lady Vols, helmed by Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared, will ultimately prevail, watch out for OSU’s Marie Gülich, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, who’s been a beast down low for the Beavers. Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham is, perhaps, one of the toughest players in women’s college basketball — think, Lindsay Whalen-level tough — and could easily power the Tigers into the Sweet 16, if Stanford doesn’t step up to defend their home court.
Conventional wisdom seems to be leaning towards the Lady Bears emerging from this region but I’m not so sure. Baylor lost their point guard, Kristy Wallace, to injury last month, and while freshman Alexis Morris has stepped up in her absence, she hasn’t seen backcourt pressure comparable to what Asia Durr and Louisville can bring. That said, while the Cardinals might have the advantage in the backcourt, Baylor’s frontcourt combination of All-American Kalani Brown, Lauren Cox and Dekeiya Cohen is going to give Louisville all they can handle down low.
Who are you rooting for to go all the way to Columbus?