March 16, 2021 

NCAA Tournament preview: Mercado Region bracket

NC State lands the number one seed, while WSU is going dancing for the first time in 30 years

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What I do have: a preview of the Mercado Region bracket of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

What I don’t have: an answer for why it’s called the Mercado Region.

For the first time in 26 NCAA Tournament berths in program history, NC State (20-2) has been deemed the No. 1 seed for the upcoming dance. The Wolfpack will kick things off on Sunday, March 21 against No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T.

There was some uncertainty about whether or not NC State would be awarded a top seed with some hard-hitting competition, but the committee rewarded their recent dominance on the court. The Wolfpack enters the tournament on an eight-game winning streak and solidified their bid with their second-straight ACC championship title.

Don’t forget that NC State also came out on top in battles against both South Carolina and Louisville earlier this season, beating the latter again in the ACC championship. They’ve proven they mean business and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with throughout this tournament.

But NC State head coach Wes Moore knows this is March Madness, after all, and nothing is guaranteed. He expects his team to give it everything they’ve got.

“If you want to do something special here the next few weeks, you’re going to have to have everybody firing on all cylinders… And I know A&T is somebody that’s going to make you do that… They [NC State] did a lot of things to earn this opportunity. But again, you throw all that out now and you got to go play basketball.”

Also of note, Washington State (12-11) is heading to its first NCAA tourney in 30 years. The Cougars have blindsided everyone this season, making quite a splash in the Pac-12 and even breaking into the AP Top -25 in Week 8 (No. 25).

Best first round match-up: Gonzaga (23-3) vs Belmont (20-5)

There’s no doubt Gonzaga is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, but guess what? So is Belmont. The Bruins are the undisputed champions of the Ohio Valley Conference and have won 14 of their last 15 games heading into the NCAA Tournament.

The Zags themselves are surging: they’ve won 21 of their past 22 games, the most recent of which was a buzzer beater victory over BYU to take the WCC title. The win also bumped them up two spots in the latest AP Top-25 poll and they now sit at No. 14 in the nation.

Belmont is also coming off a conference championship over UT Martin (83-75). Oh yeah, and freshman Bruin Destinee Wells scored 32 points, handed out seven assists and swiped four steals in the match-up. Her effort earned her Most Valuable Player honors, the first freshman to do so since 2011.

This is just the second all-time meeting between Belmont and Gonzaga, but it should be a good one. The Zags will be hungry for revenge after losing to the Bruins back in November of 2017 by a margin of 71-63.

Don’t miss this battle of grit and buckets.

Sleeper team: South Florida

I can’t say I wholeheartedly agree with South Florida’s eight-seed spot. One could make a pretty solid case for bumping them up to the sixth seed.

I mean, the Bulls ended their season 18-3, climbed to No. 19 in the nation and are coming off an American Athletic Conference Championship victory. It’s the first AAC regular-season and tournament titles for USF in program history.

But this just gives them a chance to prove the committee wrong.

South Florida will face nine-seed Washington State, who is going dancing for the first time in 30 years. Both teams have something to fight for and are looking for a strong finish to their impressive seasons, so this should be a great match-up. Don’t sleep on either of these programs!

Key players to watch

  • Elissa Cunane, NC State: This junior center has been a star on the hardwood for the Wolfpack this season, leading the team in points (16.8) and rebounds (8.2) per game. She’s also one of four players who have averaged double-figures in points this season.

  • Aari McDonald, Arizona: I could either bore you or impress you with the extensive list of awards and honors this senior guard has received, so we’ll just stick to the one’s from 2021: Pac-12 Player of the Year, Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, ESPN Second Team All-American, All-Pac-12, Pac-12 All-Defense, Pac-12 Player of the Week. McDonald’s speed and shooting prowess are deadly weapons for the Wildcats.

  • Ali Patberg, Indiana: This senior guard is a three-time All-Big Ten selection after earning the honor again this season. She averages 14.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Patberg has put up double-figure scoring a whopping 14 times this season, including in the last eight-straight games. She’s on a number of award watchlists this season, including Nancy Lieberman Top 10, Jersey Mikes Naismith Trophy Top 50 and Wooden Award.

  • Arella Guirantes, Rutgers: Guirantes snagged the last Player of the Week honor of the season from the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association, and it’s actually her second one of the season. She closed out the season averaging 20.5 points per game in a 2-0 week as Rutgers ended its regular season with nine consecutive wins. Guirantes was also named to the All-Big Ten First Team and Big Ten All-Defensive Team this season.

  • Ashley Joens, Iowa State: This junior walked away with unanimous First-Team All-Big 12 honors for the second-straight season. She’s been a monster for the Cyclones this season, leading the league in scoring with 23.4 points and hauling in an average of nine rebounds per game. Joens posted career-bests in field-goal percentage (46.1 percent), while draining 42 triples and shooting a career-best 90.1 percent from the foul line. She’s also managed to set records this year. Her 585 points this season currently ranks seventh in school history, while her 23.4 ppg sets a new school record for scoring average.

  • BONUS – Charlisse Leger-Walker, Washington State: Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. Syd, calm down. She’s only played, like, 20-ish games in a Cougars uniform. Trust me, though. This guard is going to be big. She earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors seven times this season and will probably go down as the best freshman in WSU women’s basketball history. If you haven’t been paying attention to her yet, what better time to start than March Madness.

Second round predictions

  • NC State vs South Florida

  • Gonzaga vs Indiana

  • BYU vs Arizona

  • Iowa State vs Texas A&M

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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