March 20, 2024 

The Weekly Fast Break: Driving to the final destination

Every storyline from the field of 68

Selection Sunday is the one day on the college basketball calendar where everyone’s emotions are tested. For some, it is a feeling of elation, knowing your team is in the Field of 68 and that the season gets to continue. For others, it is heartbreak and disappointment because you thought you had done just enough to sneak onto one of those final seed lines. March Madness is here and now we must figure out how to navigate what comes next. It is three weeks of eye-popping plays, season-ending buzzer-beaters, ecstatic fans exploring new cities and teams dreaming of a taking home the 2024 NCAA Tournament title.

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The road to the Final Four is packed with cars that are like the teams we will see on the floor. There are the muscle cars, the ones with the big engines, just like the teams what will push, box out, and use their physicality to make you miserable for 40 minutes. There are the Lamborghinis of the bracket, the ones made for speed and will run and run all game, making you pay for all those live ball turnovers. Then you pass a hybrid, the energy efficient sedan which is just like the team that is patient on every possession yet destroys you with three backdoor layups in a row. You pull into a rest stop outside of Cleveland and see an underwhelming and always reliable minivan, which is the team in your bracket that takes care of their business without fanfare or trash talking. So, no matter what kind of gas mileage you get in the next three weeks, does your car have what it takes to navigate the others on the road to get the Final Four? Can you avoid the accidents, swerve to miss the potholes and safely park in the designated team lot?

Before you hit the road with your favorite mascot magnets plastered on the side of your car, it is time to dissect our favorite time of the year. Get your navigation system up and running – the road to the Final Four is taking us on a wild ride in 2024!

BRACKET BUSTING

Every year the bracket gives us such intriguing storylines with teams, players and coaches that makes tournament time so much fun. Whether it is a winning streak on the line or a team that is making a return to the Big Dance after many years on the sidelines watching, this tournament field is setting up to keep our undivided attention on the road.

The Seeds Align: It was hard to argue with the 2024 Division I Women’s Basketball Selection Committee and their decisions for the top seeds in this year’s field. As it was last year, there are four regionals, but two locations – Albany and Portland. Therefore, the regions are assigned as such. The No. 1 seeds are South Carolina in Albany 1, Iowa in Albany 2, USC in Portland 3, and Texas in Portland 4. The Longhorns nudged Stanford to the second seed line (in the same regional mind you) because of their strong finish to the season (9-1 in their last 10 games) and a decisive Big 12 Tournament final victory. The Cardinal may play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder now but are happy to be looking at Portland for a possible Sweet 16 destination. The other No. 2 seeds are Notre Dame (Albany 1), UCLA (Albany 2) and Ohio State (Portland 3). 

Texas won the 2024 Big 12 Tournament title on March 12 which propelled them to the No. 1 seed in the Portland 4 Regional.
(Photo credit: Big 12 Conference)

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Streaking the Quad: Here are The Weekly Fast Break we have been tracking some amazing winning streaks in the women’s game. First and foremost, the #1 team in the nation and No. 1 seed overall in the tournament South Carolina is 32-0 on the year. The Gamecocks are the only team, men’s or women’s to finish the regular season undefeated. Their road to the Final Four begins on March 22 when they will host the winner of Sacred Heart/Presbyterian.

Two other teams with monster winning streaks to watch are also dancing in this year’s tournament. No. 13 seed Fairfield (31-1) is riding a 29-game winning streak and are champions of both the MAAC regular season and conference tournament. The Stags are making their second appearance in the NCAA Tournament in the last three years and face No. 4 seed Indiana on March 23. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits were bit by the injury bug like so many teams this season but with a short bench have won 21-straight games heading into the NCAA Tournament. The Jacks make their 12th appearance under head coach Aaron Johnston in the Big Dance and now have back-to-back undefeated seasons in the Summit League. They are the No. 12 seed in the Portland 4 Regional and will face No. 5 seed Utah on March 23.

No. 13 seed Fairfield in the Albany 1 Regional is riding a 29-game winning streak into the 2024 NCAA Tournament.
(Photo credit: Fairfield WBB/Fairfield Athletics)

Line at the Training Room: While injuries have been a topic all season across women’s basketball, there are still some teams waiting to see if players will be available for an NCAA Tournament run. No. 2 seed Notre Dame did announce that they will be without 6’4 junior forward Kylee Watson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. The status of three-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley for No. 4 seed Virginia Tech is still up in the air and has not been announced. The 6’6 center did not play in the ACC Tournament (the Hokies fell to Notre Dame in the semifinals). There is also no final word out of Iowa City on the status of guard Molly Davis for No. 1 seed Iowa. Davis suffered the knee injury over two weeks ago and was held out of the Big Ten Tournament. The return of Kitley and Davis to their respective lineups would be huge if both teams want to make a push to get back to the Final Four.

Two-Bid Time: Every year we rattle off the number of bids that Power 5 conference receive in the NCAA Tournament. The norm is to have mid-major leagues send just their automatic qualifier to the Field of 68 and that is it. But not in 2024 – two mid-major conferences secured two bids each this year. Columbia and Princeton tied for the regular season Ivy League title, but Princeton defeated the Lions in the tournament title game. Columbia did enough in the eyes of the committee to secure an at-large bid, the first in program history. The West Coast Conference was on track to have just one team in the tournament but then in an unlikely upset in the WCC Tournament final, Portland secured the automatic qualifying spot. It moved Gonzaga to an at-large selection, however the Zags did not lose their No. 4 seed and are hosting first and second round games in Spokane. Portland is headed to the Little Apple and as a 13-seed and will face No. 4 seed Kansas State on their home floor.

Columbia head coach Megan Griffith stands next to point guard <a rel=
Columbia head coach Megan Griffith and the Lions are in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in program history as an at-large selection out of the Ivy League. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

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Pile in for the Trip: When schools make it back to the NCAA Tournament or appear for the first time, it is an exciting experience for everyone involved. Athletic department personnel scramble to arrange travel for their pep band, cheer squad, mascots, and fans alike but it is worth the late hours and lack of sleep to get it done. We hope that every school and their entourages enjoy the 2024 NCAA Tournament, especially those that were longshots to keep their dance card full this week.

No. 16 seed Drexel, 19-14, in the Portland 4 Regional: The Drexel Dragons had to win the CAA Tournament title as a No. 7 seed and upset Stony Brook 68-60 to be in the Field of 68. They face No. 1 seed Texas in the first round in Austin, Texas.

No. 10 seed Richmond, 29-5, in the Portland 3 Regional: The Spiders return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 by securing their first Atlantic 10 Conference title in program history and will play No. 7 seed Duke on March 22.

The Richmond Spiders pose with their championship hats and t-shirts with the A-10 championship trophy and newly punched giant ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Many members of the team and staff are holding up their pointer finger signaling "1."
The Richmond Spiders pose after their Atlantic 10 Tournament championship game win which punched their ticket to the Big Dance. (Photo credit: Greg Fiume | Atlantic 10 Conference)

No. 14 seed Eastern Washington, 29-5, in the Albany 1 Regional: Eastern is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 1987 after winning both the Big Sky regular season and tournament hardware. The Eagles currently have a 13-game winning streak and will face No. 3 seed Oregon State in Corvallis.

No. 14 seed Rice, 19-14, in the Albany 2 Regional: In their debut season in the American Athletic Conference, the Owls fought their way through the conference tournament as the ten seed to win four games and beat Eastern Carolina in the title game 61-41. This is the program’s fourth overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since 2019. They will play No. 3 seed LSU in the first round.

No. 13 seed Marshall, 26-6, in the Portland 3 Regional: Under first year head coach Kim Caldwell, the Thundering Herd claimed the Sun Belt Conference tournament title with a 95-92 OT win over James Madison. This is their first appearance in the Big Dance since 1997 and will play their first-round game close to home in Blacksburg, VA when they match up with No. 4 seed Virginia Tech.


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SHOT CLOCK VIOLATION

We would not normally dwell on something negative during the first week of the NCAA Tournament, but we need to point out the massive pothole that the NCAA has created and is on display this week for all to see. The governing body of college athletics has in place the “transition rule” – when an institution moves from Division II to Division I, the athletic department must endure a four-year reclassification process before being eligible for NCAA and NIT tournaments across all sports. Many will remember in 2022 when the Bellarmine men’s basketball program claimed the ASUN postseason tournament title but was unable to participate in the NCAA Tournament because of this rule. The automatic qualifying bid to the Big Dance was given to Jacksonville State, the top seed in the conference tournament that year.

Fast forward to March 2024 and the “transition rule” has swallowed another program’s dream of being in the NCAA Tournament. This time it is the Southern Indiana women’s basketball team, winners of the regular season and conference tournament titles in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Screaming Eagles were 24-6 on the season and claimed the first OVC team championship of any kind in USI history. But because of the institution is still in the four-year window of transition, they are not eligible to participate in March Madness. Instead, the OVC automatic qualifying bid went to UT-Martin, who was runner-up in the conference tournament and enters the Field of 68 at 16-16.

While we do not want to take away from the experience of the Skyhawks and the memories they will make in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, everyone will tell you Southern Indiana absolutely deserves to be in the tournament this year. It is time for the NCAA to change this archaic rule – if a team can win a conference tournament, then they are doing something right in their transition to the Division I level. Do not punish the student-athletes, coaches and staff who made that happen. Time did not matter for them to get the job done and they won their conference tournament crown fair and square. Punishing winners is not what college athletics is about.


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PLAY IN TO PLAY ON

When the NCAA Tournament field went to 68 teams, it created the “First Four” or play-in games and the winners then move into the full bracket. These games are played at a first and second round host site, which eliminates the need for additional travel which is the case on the men’s side (all play-in men’s games are played in Dayton, Ohio). These first four women’s games that begin March 20 will give us a great snapshot of what we are in store for during this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Wednesday, March 20

Sacred Heart vs. Presbyterian – winner faces No. 1 seed South Carolina in Columbia, SC

This is a matchup of teams that secured automatic berths into the Field of 68 by winning their conference tournaments. Sacred Heart comes in at 24-9 and is in the NCAA Tournament field for the second straight season after winning the NEC Conference Tournament title. The Pioneers beat Le Moyne 69-48 behind 18 points by sophomore guard Ny’Ceara Pryor. The 5’3 guard is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder coming into the tournament. Presbyterian makes its first appearance ever in the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big South Tournament title. The Blue Hose were 20-14 on the season and defeated Radford 60-37 to punch their ticket to the Big Dance. 5’7 sophomore Tilda Sjokuist, a native of Sweden, leads the team in scoring and assists.

In just her third season, Vanderbilt’s Head Coach Shea Ralph has the Commodores back in the NCAA Tournament, their first trip since 2014. (Photo credit: Todd Van Emst/SEC)

Vanderbilt vs. Columbia – winner faces No. 5 seed Baylor in Blacksburg, VA

Both teams enter the NCAA Tournament field as at-large selections by the committee. For Columbia (23-6), they had won 11 consecutive games before losing to Princeton in the Ivy League Tournament final 75-68 on March 16. The Lions were sitting squarely on the bubble but for the first time in program history make the Field of 68. They are led by senior Abby Hsu, who has led the Ivy League in scoring each of the past two seasons, posting a career-high 20.6 points per game this season. She is one of the best shooters in the country, averaging 3 made 3-pointers per game this season. Vanderbilt is back in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2014. Third year head coach Shea Ralph is quickly rebuilding the Commodores program and this season led them to a 22-9 record, including a stretch when they started the season 16-1. Vanderbilt’s tough defense is led by one of the best individual defenders in the nation, 5’9 guard Jordyn Cambridge (3.6 steals per game), who will be key in shutting down the Lions’ offensive attack.

Thursday, March 21

Auburn vs. Arizona – winner faces No. 6 Syracuse in Storrs, CT

This is the second pair of teams in the play-in matchups that were at-large selections into this year’s Field of 68. Auburn had won four straight games before falling to LSU in the SEC Tournament. The Tigers come into the NCAA Tournament at 20-11 on the shoulders of senior guard Honesty Scott-Grayson who leads them in scoring at 17.4 points per game. Arizona spent much of the past 10 days sitting on the bubble but did just enough to land in the tournament field. The Wildcats were 17-15 on the season and dealt with a host of injury and roster issues all year. Their strong finish which included a late-season win over Stanford and two close loses to USC, along with the strength of the Pac-12 overall, gave them the nod by the selection committee.

Junior Bronagh Power-Cassidy and the Holy Cross Crusaders are looking to advance out of the play-in game and get a shot at No. 1 seed Iowa in the Albany 2 Regional. (Photo credit: Mark Seliger Photography)

Holy Cross vs. UT-Martin – winner faces No. 1 seed Iowa in Iowa City, IA

The Crusaders are 20-12 on the season and have both a Patriot League regular season and conference tournament title on their resume. They are riding a four-game winning streak into this matchup, behind the efforts of three double-figure scorers, including 5’10 senior Bronagh Power-Cassidy. The sharpshooting guard (over 40% from 3-point range) is from Dublin, Ireland so Selection Sunday happening on St. Patrick’s Day might just be the extra bit of luck Holy Cross needs to advance. Their opponent is UT-Martin who comes in with a 16-16 record out of the OVC. The Skyhawks received the automatic bid from the conference as runner-up in the tournament – Southern Indiana was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament. UTM is making their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2014 and are led by freshman Kenley McCarn who is averaging 16.7 points per game on the year.


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Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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