March 16, 2021 

NCAA Tournament preview: A Galaxy of stars in the River Walk Region

Bueckers, Clark, Hillmon, Davis and many more, all in one region

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When making a list of the must-see players in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, it would be easier to compile the collection of superstars who aren’t in the River Walk region than to list everyone who is.

The battle for leading scorer in Division I came down to the final weekend of the season, a title captured by Iowa’s Caitlin Clark over Middle Tennessee’s Anastasia Hayes, who finished a close second.

Both can be found in this region, Iowa the 5 seed, Middle Tennessee the 14, taking on Tennessee in the first round, with the three-seed Volunteers paced by a likely 2021 WNBA first-round pick, Rennia Davis.

“It is what it is,” Davis said of taking on her former teammate with the Lady Vols, Hayes. “She’s a good player, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care who we are playing against. We made the tournament, and I am excited about the seed that we have. I’m excited about the path, although it’s a tough path, I’m excited about our road to the championship game. I’m just excited to be in the tournament.”

If the seeding holds — no sure thing, when transcendent scorers like Hayes or the always-dangerous FGCU team coached by Karl Smesko are involved, with the nation’s sixth-leading scorer, Kierstan Bell, the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year — they face the Big Ten Player of the Year in Naz Hillmon and Michigan in the second round. Yes, you’ve probably heard more about Caitlin Clark, but Hillmon won the award, with the fourth-highest scoring average in the country to go along with 11.4 rebounds per game. Hillmon scored 50 in one game, and is a matchup nightmare, with a healthy dose of wing and big hybrid to her game.

Clark, too, loves the spotlight and her game reflects this, from her distribution lifting her team into the second overall spot in points per possession, trailing only Maryland, to limitless range on her jump shot.

Iowa faces a dangerous Central Michigan team in round one, and will actually be the underdog in round two, assuming seeding holds, against…

…Four seed Kentucky and Rhyne Howard, the SEC Player of the Year! Howard would have been a likely top pick in this year’s WNBA Draft had she come out of school early, and her next-level physicality as a wing who can finish at will at the rim makes Kentucky a threat to make a sustained run. But either of them, Iowa or Kentucky, should they make it to the second weekend, would have to face, should seeding hold, UConn.

The Huskies feature under-the-radar point guard Paige Bueckers. I kid, but truly, Bueckers has more than justified the preseason hype. She’s one of the next great ones, and she’s found that elite level already. No, Geno Auriemma won’t be on the sidelines for rounds 1-2 as he recovers from COVID-19, but Chris Dailey is more than capable of running things in his absence, and moreover, on the court, there’s the veteran in a freshman’s body in Bueckers.

Don’t be shocked if this is where the country learns to respect Paige Bueckers. Pray for Bueckers-Clark in the Sweet 16, since we’ll be seeing that matchup for the next 10-15 years. And don’t sleep on a potential Round 2 matchup between Bueckers and the all-time record holder for single-season assist percentage, Syracuse’s Tiana Mangakahia.

Should Connecticut makes its way to the Elite Eight, they’ll match up against second seed Baylor. And while the point guard matchup with DiDi Richards is enticing enough — Richards is the best on-ball defender among perimeter players coming into this year’s draft — it’ll also give us a chance to see NaLyssa Smith again in a huge spot. The Big 12 Player of the Year is a true two-way star, capable of scoring and rebounding in bunches, and a versatile defender whose game will translate effortlessly at the next level.

So this is a region that may come down to blue bloods, Baylor and UConn, playing for a (short) trip to San Antonio. But don’t blink, or you’ll miss college basketball’s biggest stars in every single matchup.

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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