March 17, 2021 

NCAA tournament preview: Hemisfair region loaded with South Carolina, Maryland

And plenty of players and storylines to watch

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Without further delay, let’s breakdown the region that features South Carolina, Maryland, three ACC teams, UCLA and some feisty mid-majors.

The Favorite

South Carolina is the No. 1 seed here, and their case for the top spot is a legitimate one. The Gamecocks went 22-4, won the SEC, have the fourth-best NET ranking in the country, and are top 10 in offensive and defensive rating, per HerHoopStats.

But the favorite to win this bracket isn’t them. It’s the team that’s won 13 straight, the team that won each of its Big Ten tournament games by double-digits, the team with the No. 1 offense in the country. The favorite in the Hemisfair region is the Maryland Terrapins, tabbed as the two-seed here and slated on the opposite end of the bracket from South Carolina.

Brenda Frese’s Terps have just two losses on the season and are putting up 91.3 points per-game. HerHoopsStats gives them the best offensive rating in the country at 122.7. Maryland’s offense is an efficient one too. The Terps’ 49.3% shooting percentage from the floor is third-best in the nation and their 40.7% mark from three-point land is second-best. And they’re sixth in assists with 20.4 dimes per-contest.

And Maryland has the attitude of a contender, despite not being a top-four seed.

“We like our bracket,” Frese told the Baltimore Sun. “We’re ready for anyone we face.”

Added redshirt freshman Mimi Collins: “You can sleep on us all day, but numbers don’t lie. Stats don’t lie. When you watch us on TV, film doesn’t lie.”

Indeed. Everyone who watched the Terps eviscerate Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals by 33 points, or top Iowa by 20 points in the conference championship game came away thinking the same thing: the Terps aren’t just damn good; they’re national championship contenders.

And Dawn Staley — apparently — agrees, as she heaped some praise on the Terps during a Twitter Spaces chat Monday night. Should this region go chalk, South Carolina will have a real fight on its hands in the Elite Eight in its bid for the Final Four.

Brenda Frese coaches her Terps during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at N.C. State in Dec. 2019. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

The Potential Cinderella

Like Maryland, Stephen F. Austin hasn’t lost in a while, winning 19 straight coming into their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. The Ladyjacks weren’t really tested this season, but non-conference victories over Auburn, St. Mary’s, VCU and 15-seed Jackson State seem solid in hindsight. SFA ripped through the Southland Conference, winning each game by double-digits.

Across the board, the Jacks are pretty efficient. They shoot 49% from the floor — which is fourth-best in the nation — and posted an effective field goal percentage of 55.8%, which is third-best in the country. According to HerHoopStats, they’re also fifth in points-per-scoring-attempt (1.15), third in steal rate (15.5%), second in made field goals allowed per-game (17.8), 10th in opponent field goal percentage (34%), and first in turnovers forced with 23.8 per-game.

This all to say, Stephen F. Austin is pretty solid across the board. They shoot well and defend hard. And that’ll make them a difficult match-up for Georgia Tech in the 12-vs.-5 first-round match-up, and any other team that has to face the Jacks.

The leader of SFA seems to be junior guard Stephanie Visscher, an All-Southland First Team selection. She averaged 12.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 steals per-game, doing a bit of everything for the Jacks. The advanced numbers think highly of the guard from Sweden too. She is one of just eight players in the country who have a PER over 28, a points-per-play mark above 1.1, a points per-scoring attempt mark above 1.1, and more than six win-shares. Yes, that might be some weird criteria and sound like a meaningless stat, but the other players in that group are candidates for All-American nods — players like Paige Bueckers, Elissa Cunane, Kierstan Bell and Naz Hillmon. It shows that Visscher is helping her team win in an elite way.

Additionally, Visscher has the 11th-best defensive rating in the country (68.6) and is fifth in defensive win shares with 3.5. On that end of the court, Visscher can swing a game. Seven times this season, she’s had four steals or more in a single game.

Don’t sleep on Visscher or the rest of Mark Kellogg’s SFA squad.

The Underseeded Team

It was puzzling — to say the least — to see Wake Forest get seeded higher than North Carolina when the brackets were released. Yes, the Deacs beat their in-state rival head-to-head 2-1 this season, but UNC went 13-10 while Wake went 12-12. And UNC is 12 spots higher in the NET. And UNC has a win over No. 1-seeded N.C. State, while Wake does not. Wake got the chance to get a win over cellar-dwelling Boston College, while UNC did not. Against the top five in the ACC standings (N.C. State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Florida State), UNC went 3-4 while Wake went 2-7.

It’s not a huge deal that Wake Forest got a nine-seed and UNC got a 10-seed, but it’s easy to make the case that the selection committee miscalculated there.

What was more surprising was that, not only was UNC the lowest-seeded ACC team in the field, but they were also among the selection committee’s last four in. Again, UNC was 35th in NET and has a regular season win over a No. 1 seed.

“I always question how much the committee really pays attention to what’s really important, which are the details, right? … You look at your team’s readiness by looking at quality wins and bad losses. And I think when you look at our quality wins, versus our bad losses, it wasn’t at all (on the) bubble, in my opinion,” UNC’s second-year head coach Courtney Banghart said. “There’s some thin edges that separate these teams… The tournament isn’t about wins and losses. It’s about who you beat, and who you lost to.”

UNC’s first round match-up against No. 7 Alabama has some interesting wrinkles to it. The Tar Heels traveled to Tuscaloosa last season and fell 83-77 in a game where star forward Janelle Bailey shot just 2-of-18 from the floor. The Heels were supposed to host Alabama this year, but the Crimson Tide pulled out of the game amidst changes to schedules across the country because of the pandemic. So now, UNC and Alabama will face each other after all. The other interesting aspect here is that UNC assistant coach Adrian Walters was at Alabama last season on Kristy Curry’s staff. He also spent seven seasons at Auburn, so he saw the Crimson Tide up-close frequently.

“He has a very good working knowledge of their program,” Banghart said. “At this level, the scouting is really important for both teams, always. Before I see my team (Tuesday) morning, I will see, you know, at least six of (Alabama’s) games, and we’ll break the game down accordingly.”

UNC players huddle up during a Feb. 21, 2021 game at N.C. State. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

The Most Interesting Potential Matchup

Texas would likely have to knock off UCLA and Maryland to get there, but seeing Charli Collier go head-to-head with Aliyah Boston in the Elite Eight would be a lot of fun, right?

It’s easy to make the case that Boston is the best player on the best team in the region. The 6’5 native of St. Thomas led the Gamecocks to another SEC title and a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Boston is averaging 13.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.8 blocks per-game this season. In simpler terms: she stuffs the stat sheet on a consistent basis. Her total number of blocks (74) is fifth best in the nation. The advanced stats like her too, as she’s sixth in the nation in win shares with 8.5

Collier, meanwhile, is putting up eye-popping numbers of her own while climbing WNBA draft boards. The 6’5 junior from Mont Belvieu, Texas is averaging 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per-game while shooting 51.3% from the floor and 80.1% from the free throw line. She also has the most offensive boards in the nation with 125, has the same amount of win shares as Boston, and she leads the Big 12 in rebound rate with a 19.9% mark.

But Collier has, at times, not done so well in the spotlight against marquee teams. Across three meetings with Baylor, she shot 5-of-14 from the floor, had nine turnovers and averaged just 5.6 points and 5.1 rebounds in 26 minutes per-game. Yes, she dropped 44 points on North Texas, and had 30 points and 19 boards vs. Texas Tech, but Collier hasn’t truly shined against a top-tier team.

Should the Longhorns make it to the Elite Eight, that stage — against Boston — will be Collier’s biggest chance yet to prove herself to WNBA scouts.

Players You Should Pay Attention To

Shannon Titus, Mercer
  • A 6’ senior guard from Johns Creek, Georgia, Titus just claimed her second-straight SoCon Defensive Player of the Year award. She’s racked up 70 steals and 40 blocks this season and is 25th in the nation in defensive win shares with 2.7

Talia von Oelhoffen, Oregon State
  • This 5’11 freshman should be finishing up her final year of high school ball, but was one of dozens of basketball players this year to take advantage of an NCAA loophole to enroll early and get in a season of college ball that won’t count toward her eligibility clock. The product of Pasco, Washington is making the most of her opportunity and is averaging 12.5 points per-game. She scored 20 points on Cal and 19 points on Oregon in a pair of Pac-12 tournament wins, proving to be an asset for the Beavers.

Katie Benzan, Maryland
  • The former Ivy Leaguer is perhaps the sharpest shooter in the country. Among players who have played in at least 15 games this season and play at least 20 minutes per-game, Benzan is first in effective field goal percentage (68.8%), first in points-per-play (1.28), first in points-per-scoring attempt (1.41), first in three-point percentage (50.6%) and first in offensive rating (147.1). Benzan can impact games in a big way with her shooting.

Alyssa Utsby, North Carolina
  • Among the players in UNC’s high-profile recruiting class, Ustby was the unknown. She quickly made it apparent that those online prospect rankings didn’t apply to her. The versatile 6’1 guard from Rochester, Minnesota led Banghart’s side in minutes played this year and established herself as one of the top freshmen in the ACC. Ustby averaged 10 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per-game while shooting 51% from the floor. She had 20 points and 12 rebounds in that upset win over N.C. State.

Kendall Bresee, Mount St. Mary’s
  • A redshirt senior from Frederick, Maryland, Breese does a bit of everything for the Mount, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. She averages 14.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per-game – across the country, only Navy’s Jennifer Coleman averaged at least that many points, rebounds and assists per-game.

Esmery Martinez, West Virginia
  • A double-double machine, Martinez is averaging 13.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per-game this season. The 6’2 sophomore forward from the Dominican Republic has had double-digit rebounds in six of her last eight games, including an outrageous performance against Kansas where she pulled in 24 boards. She’s third in the nation in total rebounds with 315.

  • WVU head coach Mike Carey told The Next: “Even in the Baylor game, I’m going to tell you what, she went up against them players and did a terrific job and boxed them out and rebounded. I thought she did a great job all year.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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