Before the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament tipped off, the ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI) tabbed UConn as the favorite at 22%. Stanford, the No. 1 overall seed, and Baylor, a No. 2 seed in UConn’s River Walk Regional, were tied for second at 19%.
Now that the Sweet 16 is set, the updated ESPN BPI tabs the Lady Bears with the best chance to win the NCAA title, at 21%. Baylor edged UConn (20%), Stanford (16%), No. 2 seed Maryland (13%) and No. 1 seed South Carolina (11%).
Does a tournament everyone said was wide-open a week ago still feel that way? Has any team emerged as the clear favorite? And in a Sweet 16 field that features all six-seeds or better — just the fourth time that has happened since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1994 — what upsets should we expect when the regional semifinals open Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)?
ESPN’s panel — including Andrea Adelson, Charlie Creme, Mechelle Voepel and Royce Young — make game-by-game picks, highlight the top games and identify the players and head-to-head matchups with the most impact on the Sweet 16.
Visit here for more on UConn-Iowa and the matchup between freshman stars Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark. Follow this link for Saturday’s tip times, and visit here to check your Women’s Tournament Challenge bracket.
Pre-NCAA tournament Final Four picks aside, which team is your front-runner now?
Adelson: I picked Stanford to win it all before the tournament started, but there is no way I would want to face Maryland with the way the Terps are playing right now. Their 100-64 dismantling of Alabama is only the most recent example. Maryland has scored at least 100 points seven times this season, and is averaging 91.8 points per game, the ninth most in Division I history. This is a team that is deep, too, which presents another raft of issues. Maryland has now won 15 straight, and is simply daring opponents to not only try to stop it but also to try to keep up.
Voepel: Andrea makes a great case for the high-flying Terps, but I will stay with Stanford. The Cardinal’s 73-62 second-round victory over Oklahoma State was too close for comfort for a lot of Stanford fans. But we have to keep in mind, this really is a more defensive-minded Cardinal team than we’re probably used to.
Stanford can win with a grind-it-out style if need be, and look confident doing it, even if the Cardinal fans — who have been through so many close-but-not-quite seasons since their 1992 title — are chewing their nails and pacing during those games. But I can also see why the percentages are leaning toward the survivor of the River Walk Regional if it is UConn or Baylor.
I also think South Carolina and Aliyah Boston have been peaking at the right time, winning the SEC tournament title over Georgia and then using strong defensive efforts in NCAA tournament early-round wins against Mercer and Oregon State. Boston compiled 66 points and 35 rebounds in those three games.
Creme: I picked Stanford to win it all right after Selection Monday, but I am having a hard time disagreeing with those BPI numbers. Baylor just looks so good and has probably been the most impressive team in the NCAA tournament so far. The Lady Bears have the largest point differential through two games, still are the toughest team in the country to make a shot against, and are now even incorporating the 3-point shot into their offense, something they hadn’t done much of this season. The Lady Bears have made 12-of-27 from deep. With Moon Ursin, a player who is typically out there for her toughness and defense, averaging 23 points per game, Baylor has one more option to go along with NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo and DiJonai Carrington.
Young: I picked Maryland before the tournament, and nothing I’ve seen so far is changing my mind. Andrea’s points only are making me dig my heels in even more. The Terps’ balance was on full display in their domination of Alabama in the second round. Of course there are still worries about their youth and inexperience with all the new players, but so many teams in the tournament are facing that same uncertainty.
The Terps have a style that is adaptable, and they can win almost any way you want them to — grind it out, outscore you or a little of both.
Which Sweet 16 game are you most looking forward to and why?
Adelson: I think Arizona-Texas A&M has potential to be great fun for two reasons: Aari McDonald and Jordan Nixon. Both players saved their respective teams in the second round: McDonald with sensational play down the stretch to help the Wildcats overcome a deficit to BYU and win; Nixon with a game-tying bucket against Iowa State to send the game to overtime, then the buzzer-beater to send the Aggies to the Sweet 16.
Voepel: The Alamo Regional matchup between No. 2 seed Louisville and No. 6 Oregon could be intriguing. The pressure isn’t on the Ducks this year the way it would have been had the tournament happened last season, and they should come into the regional semifinals with some underdog mojo. By contrast, the Cardinals look like they have been feeling the heat, and have had slow starts in their early-round wins over Marist and Northwestern.
Young: Like Mechelle, Oregon-Louisville has my attention too. I’ve got an upset with the Ducks pulling a stunner. They have really discovered an identity in recent weeks. They drifted down the stretch of their conference schedule, but as coach Kelly Graves has adjusted to playing Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally as a two-big frontcourt, they’ve developed a ground-and-pound style.
Plus, I loved what Prince had to say after they upset third-seeded Georgia: “We wanted to show today that we are not the team to be messed with. We wanted to come out and show that we’re gonna play harder than you and we’re gonna want it more than you.”
That sounds like a dangerous team.
Creme: NC State-Indiana has a chance to be the most compelling game of the weekend. It pits two experienced teams. Both coaches — Wes Moore and Teri Moren — have built their programs steadily to get on the national stage. The styles of play are fairly similar — defense first, take care of the ball, be opportunistic. Toughness usually wins out for both teams. The game has a chance to be one decided in the last minute by a steal, a defensive rebound or a free throw.
Which player or head-to-head matchup will be an X factor in the Sweet 16?
Creme: Louisville really needs the real Dana Evans to arrive. She hasn’t had a great postseason and is 11-of-33 from the field for an average of 14.5 points per game over the Cardinals’ first two games. They have been able to survive early deficits in wins over Marist and Northwestern without her typically big contribution, but I’m not sure how much longer that can continue as the competition gets more rigorous. Oregon’s defense has been outstanding in the tournament’s first two games, but Evans is still the best player on the floor in this matchup. She just needs to play that way.
Adelson: I am looking forward to watching Michigan’s Naz Hillmon and Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith in their Sweet 16 matchup. Both players are Wade Trophy finalists and provide that constant inside presence that keys their respective teams. Hillmon averages 24.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, while Smith averages 18.4 points and 9 rebounds. Hillmon has 15 double-doubles this season, and there is no doubt the Lady Bears will try to key on her to make somebody else beat them.
Voepel: NC State center Elissa Cunane hasn’t had the greatest tournament so far offensively, shooting 3-of-7 against North Carolina A&T and 3-of-15 against South Florida in the first two rounds. How will she fare against Indiana post player Mackenzie Holmes, who was a combined 9-of-13 from the field in the Hoosiers’ victories against VCU and Belmont?
Young: After what she did in the instant classic against Iowa State, I can’t wait to see what kind of encore Jordan Nixon has in store. The sophomore from New York has a tough-as-nails mentality, embracing every clutch-time moment and taking on the burden of responsibility. Her performance against the Cyclones is an all-timer in the tournament, not just for the runner she banked in to win it at the buzzer, but all the big shots in regulation that got the Aggies to that point. Her pull-up game is superb, and she has a fearlessness that makes you think she could shoulder the load again against Arizona to propel Texas A&M into the Elite Eight.
Sweet 16 picks
(5) Iowa vs. (1) UConn (1 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC/ESPN App)
Andrea Adelson: UConn
Charlie Creme: UConn
Sean Hurd: UConn
D’Arcy Maine: UConn
Mechelle Voepel: UConn
Royce Young: UConn
(6) Michigan vs. (2) Baylor (3 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC/ESPN App)
(4) Indiana vs. (1) NC State (6 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN2/ESPN App)
Adelson: NC State
Creme: NC State
Maine: NC State
Voepel: NC State
Young: NC State
(3) Arizona vs. (2) Texas A&M (8 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPN2/ESPN App)
Hurd: Texas A&M
Voepel: Texas A&M
(5) Georgia Tech vs. (1) South Carolina (1 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC/ESPN App)
Adelson: South Carolina
Creme: South Carolina
Hurd: South Carolina
Maine: South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina
Young: South Carolina
(5) Missouri State vs. (1) Stanford (3 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC/ESPN App)
(6) Oregon vs. (2) Louisville (7 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN/ESPN App)
(6) Texas vs. (2) Maryland (9 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN/ESPN App)