Excitement is beginning to mount as we head inexorably towards the end of the NCAA basketball season. In the men’s tournament certain favorites have emerged already including Houston, Kansas and Purdue. Now the focus is also starting to shift onto the women’s competition.
2023 will be only the second year in which it has precisely mirrored the men’s tournament. Incidentally, it is also only the second year that it will be run under the March Madness branding, a small but very significant step towards equality.
On March 15th and 16th no less than 68 teams from across the various conferences will set off on their quest to reach the final. The two teams that make it through will meet on Saturday April 2nd at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
On the way there, the number of sites for the qualifying matches has been cut from the customary four to just two – Seattle and Greenville, South Carolina.
As you’d expect, with the finals approaching, the March Madness predictions are already starting to be made. Many fans are also heading to their favorite sportsbooks to get good early prices on their picks.
So let’s take a look at five of the teams that are generating the most interest.
Outright winners in 2018 and runners-up in 2019, The Fighting Irish look almost certain to be in the frame this year to at least make it through to the Elite 8 if not the Final Four. Niele Ivey’s squad have had an excellent season so far with a 16-2 record towards the end of January.
When she took over the role in the 2020-21 season Ivey knew that some major rebuilding needed to be done. But with the support of star players like Olivia Miles and the now sadly injured Dara Mabrey it looks like that renaissance is well under way.
In the 2021 final Stanford beat Arizona by the narrowest of margins. This season they’ve suggested that they might have what it takes to go all the way again with just a couple of blemishes on their winning record along the way.
It would be a great reward for coach Tara VanDerveer, now in her incredible 35th season in charge of Cardinal, if they could make it their fourth win under her leadership. Central to their success, if it comes, will be the 6 foot 4 inch Cameron Brink who’s also looking to improve on her 13.5 points per game average from last season.
Following a high point in the 2017-18 season when the Buckeyes won 28 games and a conference championship they went into something of a decline. But, like Niele Ivey, coach Kevin McGuff knew that a rebuild wasn’t just a good idea, it was vital. As a result a whole new philosophy was born at the club.
One in which all the squad worked hard and for each other. Players who didn’t buy in to this approach were quickly made aware that there was no place for them any more and the results are easy to see – just one loss to a very strong Iowa team and victories over aa number of tough opponents including Tennessee, Louisville and Oregon.
One coach who has had a longer tenure than Tara VanDerveer is the Huskies’ Luigi (Geno) Auriemma, now in his 37th season. In this time he’s guided the team to be the most successful ever with 11 championship wins. He also has the best win-lose record of any college coach.
With a couple of losses this hasn’t been a vintage season for him and his team. But a very strong January with victories over seven teams from De Paul to Xavier means that their form is looking to put them into the winning mood.
The one team that is standing out against all others this season is the undefeated South Carolina. Following last season’s final victory against the Gamecocks it seems more than likely that they will be strong contenders to make it two championships in a row.
So far this season they haven’t just been beating the opposition, they have been crushing them decisively. For example, the scoreline against Coastal was 102-39 and against Arkansas it was 92-46. So it’s clear that their defense is just as strong as their offense.
Coach Dawn Staley has definitely made the most of her very talented group of players this season but must be crossing her fingers that no significant injuries are sustained before March Madness comes around. Barring any unfortunate incidents, it could be as close to plain sailing as it gets in college basketball for them to make it to Dallas on April 2nd.
As to who they might find themselves up against in the final, we’ll just have to wait and see.