Home Sports Five burning questions for the women's NCAA tournament bracket

Five burning questions for the women's NCAA tournament bracket

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You want answers about the NCAA tournament? Wait a few days and they’ll come in the form of 63 lessons. But the questions we can do right now.

What awaits Kelsey Mitchell?

There isn’t a more compelling individual story in the tournament this year than Ohio State senior Kelsey Mitchell, whose pursuit of the NCAA career scoring record is intertwined with the third-seeded Buckeyes trying to make it to the Final Four in the city they call home.

Mitchell begins the NCAA tournament with 3,363 career points, 30 behind former NCAA record holder Jackie Stiles and 164 points behind current record holder Kelsey Plum (who entered the NCAA tournament a year ago with 3,431 points). Barring catastrophe in the first round against No. 14 seed George Washington — the Colonials rank in the top 50 nationally in scoring defense — Mitchell should be able to pass Stiles in front of the Ohio State faithful in the first two rounds.

But any push toward Plum’s record depends on getting back to Columbus for the Final Four. The path goes through Spokane, Washington, with games, if chalk holds, against No. 2 seed Oregon and top-seeded Notre Dame.

There is no reason to expect that will happen. Ohio State’s seed is evidence of a successful season, one that included a Big Ten tournament title, but one without a win against a team with a better seed. The odds are that Plum’s record will endure, and with no obvious challenger on the horizon for the next few seasons.

And yet reaching a Final Four became part of what would shape Mitchell’s legacy the moment she committed to her home state school, before anyone knew the last opportunity would involve a Final Four in Columbus. Almost as much as the points, Plum and Stiles shaped their legacies by leading teams to the season’s final weekend.

The same opportunity awaits for one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history.

Which No. 1 seed has the most difficult road?

It might be the shortest path to Columbus, barely 250 miles even with a slight detour to Rupp Arena along the way, but Louisville will feel every one of those miles if it emerges unscathed.

Geography obviously helps the ACC champions. Should the Cardinals reach the regional round in nearby Lexington, no other No. 1 seed will likely be as well supported — the opportunity to cut down nets on a rival’s court all the sweeter in a season in which Kentucky missed the tournament.

But that is about all Louisville has going for it in its draw.

A No. 1 seed hasn’t lost in the second round or earlier (sorry, Stanford) since 2009, so the first weekend should be a foregone conclusion. That said, Louisville failed to defend its own court in the NCAA tournament before, in a regional final against Maryland in 2014 and a second-round game against DePaul in 2016. It also lost a tournament game against Dayton in 2015, and while the players and even the coach are different this time, the Flyers are still bigger and more athletic than most mid-majors. It’s worth noting if those teams should meet in the second round.

It’s the weekend at Rupp Arena that gets tricky. Potential Sweet 16 opponent Stanford would be playing in Lexington for the third year in a row. A year ago, the Cardinal upset top-seeded Notre Dame in the regional final. The year before that? They upset top-seeded Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. You get the feeling the Cardinal wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the surroundings, even with the kind of partisan crowd that was missing the past two years.

Reach the regional final and the chalk says that what awaits will be a regular-season and Big 12 tournament champion ticked off that it isn’t a No. 1 seed. Baylor won’t have the injured Kristy Wallace, but freshman Alexis Morris stepped up with productive minutes in the Big 12 tournament. And if Baylor’s backcourt handles Louisville’s pressure, it has the size in All-American Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox that no one else can throw at Louisville.

Might Texas have the rest of the country right where it wants it?

What team on the top two seed lines will be talked about less this week than Texas?

A’ja Wilson’s farewell tour and the potential of a regional final meeting with UConn makes South Carolina a hot commodity coming off its SEC tournament title.

Baylor has its case as the missing No. 1 seed and the potential of another game with Louisville (and someone will always be talking about Baylor, even if Kim Mulkey has to do it herself).

Even Oregon has the allure of being the newcomer, the rising power in the Pac-12 with the flashy star, Sabrina Ionescu, and all that comes with being Nike’s favorite school.

But Texas? The Longhorns are really good or they wouldn’t be a No. 2 seed. Just not good enough to beat Baylor (three times), UConn or Tennessee in their highest-profile games to date. Six seasons into Karen Aston’s time as coach in Austin, it feels like we know Texas, good and bad. Mostly good.

Only that begins to sound a bit like another team a year ago, one that couldn’t find a way to beat a conference rival, in its case South Carolina, and had the millstone of past NCAA tournament disappointment around its neck. Then a diminutive guard took control and led Mississippi State on one of the most memorable runs in tournament history. Morgan William, meet Texas’ Brooke McCarty.

Backcourt stature notwithstanding, Texas looks a lot like Mississippi State of a year ago, both narratively and statistically. The Longhorns don’t have a glaring weakness, offensively or defensively. They have an X factor in Joyner Holmes, whose early suspension derailed any potential breakthrough but who has still shown flashes of uncommon talent. They have the luxury of flying under the radar, neither favorite nor underdog. And in the 5-foot-4 McCarty, they have a player whose very success at her small size makes it easy to believe she can do anything.

Where will the drama be in the first two rounds?

Athens: No. 4 Georgia vs. No. 13 Mercer; No. 5 Duke vs. No. 12 Belmont
Mercer was within six points of Georgia inside the final minute of the third quarter when the teams met earlier in the season, and that isn’t even the most compelling first-round game in Athens. A year after it pushed Kentucky to the wire in Lexington in the first round, Belmont returned almost intact this season, minus a coaching change, and has the shooting to push Duke. Even if the chalk holds, Georgia high school product Lexie Brown trying to extend her college career against the resurgent Bulldogs would be compelling basketball.

Knoxville: No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Liberty; No. 6 Oregon State vs. No. 11 Western Kentucky
The attraction is the potential clash of orange, but Oregon State against Western Kentucky is a good opening act. Oregon State’s stingy defense will have its hands full with Tashia Brown, sixth in the nation in scoring. A potential Tennessee-Oregon State matchup would be among the best in the second round, all the more with Tennessee seniors and Oregon products Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell trying to prolong their careers. Other than one anomalous blowout at UCLA, Oregon State is consistently in every game. The Lady Vols are more mercurial.

Los Angeles: No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 14 American; No. 6 Iowa vs. No. 11 Creighton
The first-rounder between Iowa and Creighton could be fun, the Bluejays still a program with the potential to shoot any opponent out of the building. But the appeal is the potential second-round star power of UCLA guard Jordin Canada going against Iowa post Megan Gustafson, the nation’s leading scorer. No other second-round game could feature two espnW All-Americans on opposite sides (although UCLA’s Monique Billings would be Gustafson’s first concern).

Stanford: No. 4 Stanford vs. No. 13 Gonzaga; No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast
Stanford was mentioned as a potential thorn in Louisville’s side, but that involves the Cardinal getting through a loaded bracket in the first two rounds. A win at Stanford could be another step toward stardom for Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham, but both favorites face difficult openers against mid-majors with athleticism and experience playing big games. Keep an eye on Gonzaga’s Jill Barta, who might be the most talented player in the building.

Who are must-see players in the early rounds?

The seeding says their teams won’t be around beyond the first two rounds. Their skills say it’s worth your time to watch them try and prove otherwise.

Katelynn Flaherty, No. 7 Michigan: She’s one 3-pointer away from matching Breanna Stewart in career points and could pass Seimone Augustus, Courtney Paris, Chiney Ogwumike and Becky Hammon with a couple of big games. It’s nice company to keep as your college career winds toward its conclusion. After three consecutive long runs in the WNIT, including a title a season ago, it’s good to see one of the game’s great pure scorers in this tournament.

Jessica Lindstrom, No. 7 Green Bay: Is she a guard with post skills or a post with guard skills? You might see her listed as either, but it’s her ability to play inside and outside that sets her apart. She has as good a feel for rebounding and post moves as any mid-major player, but she also led the team in 3-point shooting. She’s Green Bay through and through.

JaVonna Layfield, No. 9 Dayton: Did you know the tournament’s second-leading rebounder is a 5-11 senior? If so, how is the weather in Dayton? Layfield was second in assists for the A-10 regular-season champs and has range out to the 3-point line. But it’s the rebounding — 21 games in double digits — that sets her apart.

Kahlia Lawrence, No. 13 Mercer: Not only does she get to play Mercer’s first tournament game, she gets to play it close to home. Maybe not as close as host and first-round opponent Georgia, but let’s stay optimistic. Already among the nation’s leading scorers, Lawrence scored 23, 23 and 29 points, respectively, in Mercer’s three conference tournament wins.

Channon Fluker, No. 16 Cal State Northridge: Thanks to Harvard 20 years ago, every No. 16 really does have hope in the women’s tournament. Northridge also has Fluker, which helps more than hope. A 6-4 true post, she is one of only two players ranked in the top 20 in both rebounding and blocks. The other is A’ja Wilson.

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