March 19, 2024 

NCAA Tournament preview, storylines: Portland 4 Regional

Texas, Stanford prepare to fight for their trip to Cleveland

The top-line drama for this NCAA Tournament lives in Portland 4 Regional. Literally.

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Women’s Selection Committee Chair Lisa Peterson called the decision to award the final No. 1 seed to either Texas or Stanford one of the committee’s most “highly debated decisions” in the room where it happened in Indianapolis last weekend.

“What it came down to was Texas had to beat three tournament teams to win the Big 12 championship, and they also went 9–1 in their last 10 games,” Peterson said.

And so the Longhorns were awarded the program’s first No. 1 seed since 2004 when the legendary Jody Conradt was the head coach, and the chance to dictate the tone of the Portland 4 region.

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Despite missing Harmon, Longhorns adapt and grow

That Texas would be in this position after losing star guard Rori Harmon for the season to a late-December knee injury is all the more impressive. The adjustment was evident through the early part of the Big 12 season with losses to Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma (twice).

The loss of Harmon has made room for others to step up for Texas, coach Vic Schaefer told reporters on Sunday.

“We’ve just got a lot of players playing at a really, really high level, and whether they’ll be at this level with Rory still on the team, we won’t know that,” Schaefer said. “What I do know is that they have absolutely elevated their game to another level because of what happened, and it had to happen that way for us to be where we are today.”

Texas guard Madison Booker (35) dribbles the ball towards the BYU basket during the basketball game at the Moody Center.
Freshman guard Madison Booker (35) has made an impact for Texas as they earned the No. 1 seed in the Portland 4 Regional. (Photo credit: Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK)

That list includes freshman Madison Booker, the first player in Big 12 history to win conference Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors. Booker averaged 20.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists in Big 12 play.

Booker’s name has not been mentioned in the same breath as USC’s JuJu Watkins, Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo or South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley. That’s about to change. And Texas will be looking for its first Final Four berth since 2003. The Longhorns have been to the Elite Eight twice since Schaefer took over in 2020–21. In 2022, they exited the Tournament in the regional final at the hands of Stanford.

Stanford playing with a chip on their shoulder

Despite some initially shocked looks as the Longhorns were revealed as the No. 1 seed, Stanford wasn’t exactly in mourning over the “slight”. Losing to USC in the Pac-12 title game clearly cost the Cardinal a chance to be No. 1. But since Tara VanDerveer’s arrival on The Farm in 1985, the Cardinal have been a No. 2 seed 13 times. Six of those times they have reached the Final Four.

“The seed is not important. What’s important is our team, how they are playing, how they are excited and I feel like we are in a great place,” VanDerveer said. “Our team is working hard, I think we’re pretty healthy and that’s the most important thing.”

The Cardinal will have a short memory about the end of the Pac-12 Tournament, but a longer one about what happened to them last spring, when they were a No. 1 seed and were bounced out of the tournament in the second round by Ole Miss at Maples Pavilion.

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A first-round matchup against Norfolk State and a second-round meeting against either Iowa State or Maryland, is the opportunity for atonement and advancement to Portland.

“We do have last year in the back of our minds,” said fifth-year senior guard Hannah Jump. “We know that if we play Stanford basketball, and we’ve been playing all season, we are going to be successful. But we are not taking anything for granted.”

Neither of these top-two seeded teams will be in their conferences next year, with Texas off to the SEC and Stanford moving to the SEC thanks to the dissolution of most of the Pac-12. And the winner of this bracket could get a national semifinal date with South Carolina, assuming the unbeaten Gamecocks get to Cleveland as well.

“We have something to prove,” VanDerveer said. “Being a No. 2 seed can be a little bit of a … it can get under your skin a little bit.”

Stanford Cardinal guard Hannah Jump (33) shoots the ball against the Oregon State Beavers.
Fifth-year senior guard Hannah Jump brings a veteran presence to the Cardinal, who enter as the No. 2 seed in the Portland 4 Regional. (Photo credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Best first, second round matchups

Round One: No. 7 Iowa State (20–11) vs. No. 10 Maryland (19–13). It’s not the No. 8 vs No. 9 game, like many would assume, but these two Power Five NCAA stalwarts, who were the last teams to be announced on Selection Sunday. The Cyclones, who have beaten six ranked teams this season, finished fourth in the Big 12 and ended up playing in the Big 12 Tournament title game against Texas, falling to the Longhorns. Will ISU’s five freshmen — including Audi Crooks and Addy Brown — get blinded by the NCAA spotlight? Maryland, who knocked off Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, has been toughened up by a difficult season that opened with back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Connecticut and then nine conference losses and a pile of backcourt injuries. They hadn’t beaten a ranked team until beating the Buckeyes. These are two teams with something to prove, not just to the country, but to themselves.

Round Two: No. 4 Gonzaga (30–3) vs. No. 5 Utah (22–10). The fact that Gonzaga still gets to host despite losing the WCC title game to Portland is an acknowledgement of a body of work that included a non-conference win over Stanford. The Zags need to take advantage of their home court because they will likely have their work cut out for them against a Utes’ team that is both tournament-experienced and led by one of the nation’s best frontcourt players in Alissa Pili.

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Key teams and players to watch

Primed to upset: South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are no NCAA-newbies. They have made the NCAA Tournament 12 times in 16 years of postseason eligibility. South Dakota State (27–5) won The Summit League’s regular-season championship with a 16-0 record and won the conference’s automatic NCAA bid.

Disruptor: No. 6 Tennessee. The team who played South Carolina down to the final moment in the SEC Tournament will be a dangerous one. Rickea Jackson, who will be a top WNBA draft pick next month is going to be the key to the Lady Vols’ ability to shake up this bracket. But the potential of a Tennessee-Stanford matchup in the Sweet 16 — the two teams discontinued their long-running series this season – is simply sublime.

Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson (2) drives to the basket near Alabama guard Sarah Ashlee Barker (3) during the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament.
Forward Rickea Jackson (2) plays a key part in Tennessee’s post-season potential. (Photo credit: Ken Ruinard/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Plot points: This is the only region in the bracket without a play-in game. Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly to face former Iowa State assistant Brenda Frese in the first round, while Gonzaga’s Brynna Maxwell spent her first three collegiate seasons at Utah. UC Irvine is making its first apperance since 1995, and North Carolina State’s Wes Moore will coach against Chattanooga, where he coached from 1998-2013. If the Wolfpack make it to the second round, Moore will take on former Chattanooga assistant Kellie Harper, who is now with Tennessee.

X-Factor: Diamond Johnson, Norfolk State. It’s not business-as-usual to have the best player on a No. 15 seed as an X-factor for a bracket loaded with national heavyweights, but Johnson isn’t just any player. A former five-star high school recruit, Johnson began her career at Rutgers, transferred to North Carolina State as a sophomore and wasn’t immediately eligible to play for the Spartans, while she waited for the NCAA to decide on a waiver. It was 10-months between her last game at N.C. State and her first game at Norfolk State. In 11 games, she’s averaged 19.8 points a game and is shooting 44 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. She should be the focus on Stanford’s defensive gameplan.

Picks and predictions

Regional final matchup: Texas vs. Stanford. The Longhorns have a bigger defensive task in this game with more people to stop. But Texas’ defensive intensity could rattle the Cardinal backcourt and when that has happened, the Cardinal’s swagger has fallen away.

Who goes to Cleveland: Stanford. The Cardinal’s post tandem of Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen will carry them to Cleveland.

More March Madness: The Next‘s Talia Goodman previews the Portland 3 Regional.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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