March 19, 2024 

2024 NCAA Tournament preview, storylines: Albany 1 Regional

South Carolina's the favorite, but don't sleep on double-digit seeds FGCU, Fairfield

There’s no place like Albany, NY. Or at least that’s what the 17 teams in the Albany 1 Regional are thinking right now. These 17 teams will match up across the country — in Columbia, S.C., Bloomington, Ind., Corvallis, Ore., and South Bend, Ind. — to battle for a shot at the Sweet Sixteen and beyond in Albany. Here’s what to expect:

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Best First Round Matchups

No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Michigan State: Like so many other close-seeded games, this one is up in the air. UNC’s dropped their last six of ten games, while the Spartans have taken its last seven of ten. Michigan State the momentum they need, but the Tar Heels edge them out with experience and talent. Deja Kelly and Lexi Donarski are top players, and if they get hot from outside, it could be over for the Spartans, especially with this being Robyn Fralick’s first NCAA Tournament.

It seems like it could come down to a coin toss, but knowing the momentum needed in March, this very well could go to Michigan State.

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No. 4 Indiana vs. No. 13 Fairfield: This matchup could also devolve in a thriller, with one team on a hot streak and the other cold as ice. Fairfield is having a season most only dream about — with a 31-1 record, the program’s first AP ranking, and an astounding MAAC Tournament win in overtime. On the opposite side of the bracket, Indiana lost its first game of the Big Ten Tournament.

Fairfield has a top-five defense in the country, whereas Indiana has a top-twenty offense. If Fairfield can hack the bright lights, it’ll be a great matchup. This stage is more foreign for the Stags, but even so, the Hoosiers reek of recent tournament disappointment after last year’s second round NCAA loss and this year’s Big Ten Tournament. 

No. 6 Nebraska vs. No. 11 Texas A&M: Neither of these teams are very consistent — Nebraska has had an exciting year, upsetting Iowa in the regular season, but in the same breath, dropping games to Rutgers and blowing a lead to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament Championship. On the other hand, Texas A&M is a green squad who have been hot and cold throughout the year, but come alive in March.

“I know this team wants to win, and I know they want to continue to play. Of course, I wish it was the same way during the season,” star sophomore Janiah Barker told The Next at the SEC Tournament. “When March comes around we turn to a different team.”

This game could definitely go either way, with the teams fulfilling two sides of the coin — Texas A&M is a top-55 defense in the country, and Nebraska is a top-55 offense in the country. It comes down to who’ll be able to lock in best and find the consistency needed for all four quarters.

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Excitement brews in projected second round matchups

No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 9 Michigan State: The Gamecocks could take this one easily, so it might be the sleepiest game of the second round. However, MSU is a scoring powerhouse, averaging nearly 84 points a game and having a top-six offense nationwide. On the other hand, South Carolina has the best defense in the SEC and can also shoot the ball from three. The Gamecocks’ experience could shut down their opponent’s offensive excitement and strip the Spartans of their identity. 

No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 13 Fairfield: Fairfield can definitely make a case for a first round win, but going up against Oklahoma might be another story. Oklahoma took home the Big 12 regular season title after gutting out some big wins over No. 1 Texas and No. 5 Baylor. That being said, they’ve also dropped some surprising games, like Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament and Princeton and Southern in the regular season. Anything can happen in March, and if Fairfield’s on a hot streak they may catch Oklahoma off guard.

Mar 9, 2024; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Lexy Keys (15) shoots the ball against Texas Christian Horned Frogs guard Madison Conner (3) during the second half at T-Mobile Center. Mandatory Credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

No. 6 Nebraska vs. No. 3 Oregon State: This Oregon State team is dangerous, and they’ll be on their own turf in secluded Corvallis. They’ve got solid size, good scouting, and young, hungry talent in Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year Timea Gardiner and freshman Donovyn Hunter. If they go up against Nebraska, it’s Oregon State’s to lose if they can keep their composure. Regardless, if this is how the second round shakes out, the country’s in for a treat.

No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Mississippi: This game might be the best Albany 1 will see all weekend. Notre Dame has had an extremely successful season, with freshman Hannah Hidalgo leading the charge. Sonia Citron and Maddy Westbeld are firing on all cylinders on both sides of the court. The team is defensively lethal and also a top-20 offensive team.

Mississippi’s defense stacks up nicely against the Irish, but with far less scoring. What could get Mississippi in a pinch is if they go completely cold and only a player or two can connect with the basket — like in their narrow win over Florida in the SEC Tournament. But Mississippi is gritty and better than last year. The detriment for both teams is injuries and foul trouble — if they want to put on a good show, they’ll both need to keep their players on the court with a clean game.

The two are also coming off very different 2023 NCAA Tournaments. Notre Dame might get Mississippi deja vu after barely making it out of last year’s second round fight against Mississippi State, whereas Ole Miss took down then-No. 1 ranked Stanford. This game will be tight, and I say it’s too close to call.

GREENVILLE, South Carolina – MARCH 09 – Bon Secours Arena during the Women’s Basketball SEC Tournament between the LSU Tigers and the Ole Miss Rebels at Bon Secours Arena in Greenville, South Carolina on Saturday, March 9, 2024. Photo by Todd Van Emst/SEC

Upset watch

No. 13 Fairfield: As aforementioned, Fairfield seems primed for an upset. Led by Carly Thibault-DeDonis, they’ve made massive leaps and bounds, and a March Madness win seems like a fitting next step.

No. 12 FGCU: FGCU automatically punched their ticket to Bloomington after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, and the Eagles know how to win in March. They’ve won their First Round NCAA Tournament matchups for the last two years in a row, and they could very well do it again — especially if they get hot from three.

No. 12 Texas A&M: With a world-class, battle-tested coach in Joni Taylor and star Janiah Barker at the helm, it’s hard to predict what will happen with the Aggies. They’re young, but they’ve got veteran transfers in Aicha Coulibaly, Endyia Rogers, and Lauren Ware, and if they can come out with intensity from whistle to whistle, they could upset Nebraska and then some.

No. 7 Mississippi: After last season’s upset, this team in Oxford, Miss is expecting big things. Coach Yo opened the season saying her team is expecting a Final Four run, while she’s trying to get her team to first think about the Elite Eight. Regardless, Mississippi will likely make some waves and could find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight. Or on the other hand, they could fall to the pressure they’ve built up.

No. 3 Oregon State: The Beavers should easily make it out of Corvallis, but they might be one of the few teams who can give South Carolina a run for their money. They can match the Gamecocks’ size and rival their defense, and on a slow night, we could see an Albany upset.

Who’s making it to Albany?

I’m predicting South Carolina and Oregon State, on opposite sides of the the country, will stay chalky and will be bundling up upstate. However, I’m predicting some excitement in the state of Indiana with Oklahoma and Ole Miss making it out of the midwest and back to the Empire State. 

South Carolina’s to lose

Ultimately, this region, like most of the tournament, is South Carolina’s to lose. The Gamecocks are coming off back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, retained plenty of their skills from last season, and somehow added three-point shooting. Head coach Dawn Staley proves herself to be the best in the country, and another title would only solidify that.

And although many could argue this year’s team is better than last, the margins don’t prove it. The Gamecocks spent most of last year blowing teams out of the water and completely wearing down their opponents in the second half, with just a few exceptions. But this season, they come out by slimmer margins. In the SEC Tournament alone, they won by just 11 points, 1 point, and 7 points. 

“I also know that you can’t keep winning the close games,” Staley admitted after winning the SEC Championship. “At some point the law of averages say… You got to build the lead, and you got to keep the lead, if you can get one.”

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What could take the mighty Gamecocks down?

There are a few things that could really throw the Gamecocks off their game. But the most dangerous might be a rematch against Notre Dame. The two played each other in their opener in Paris, France, and the Cocks rocked the Fighting Irish. However, the Irish are more mature than they were in November and know the South Carolina scout better than most teams they’ll match up against in March.

Another hiccup could be in South Carolina’s first game against No. 16 Presbyterian or Sacred Heart. After the fight that ended the SEC Tournament, star center Kamilla Cardoso is out for the opening game. Staley’s squad is far too talented to fall to a No. 16 seed with just one player missing, but it could disrupt their flow under the big lights, especially if their opponent is on a First Four tear.

Last, as Staley said, this team has had nailbiters, and it’s not sustainable. Cardoso saved their undefeated season with a shocking three against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament, but that performance was simultaneously a masterclass in how to blow a 23-point lead and get messy against a seasoned team.

The Albany 1 Regional is bound to bring plenty of excitement, highlighting some of the best teams from every Power 5 in the country and also mid-major stars.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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