March 16, 2021 

NCAA Tournament preview: Stanford hopes to run the Alamo Region

Challenges await from Louisville and a pair of hungry SEC teams

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The Alamo Region

Photo via NCAAWBB Twitter.

The NCAA’s top seed: Can anyone top Stanford?

Need a primer on the Cardinal? They’re good at… well, everything. They won their three Pac-12 Tournament games by an average of 31 points, which included a 34-point win over Oregon State (an 8-seed in the Hemisfair region) and a 20-point win over UCLA (a 3-seed in the Hemisfair) in the title game. Stanford was considered a great team a month ago — the team is playing historically dominant basketball right now.

Stanford shoots the three-ball at one of the best clips in the country. They pound you on the boards and can score inside better than most of the bracket — or at the least, better than the teams that utilize guards at the rate they do. Stanford’s ball movement is also a beauty — the Cardinal don’t turn the rock over.

They’ve also been on the road for most of their season — it might be a boon to the roster to finally have a chance to settle down in San Antonio. If you think anyone is favored against Stanford, you’re wrong. They’re the top squad for a reason.

Guards Kiana Williams, Haley Jones and Lexi Hull make up a backcourt trio that could lead their team to the Elite 8 just on the weight of their individual strengths. Luckily for Stanford and head coach Tara VanDerveer, they don’t have to — the Cardinal loves to run out lineups that are chock-full of these versatile guards. All around, there isn’t a deeper rotation in the country. Where else is Fran Belibi only playing 15 minutes per game?

Enough about the backcourt, though. In the frontcourt you’ll find freshman sensation and X-factor Cameron Brink. Monday night, Sue Bird said Brink could help bring Stanford to the title game. That’s true — if the freshman can stay on the floor. Brink can get anything she wants in the paint, but she also commits 2.7 fouls per game despite playing just 18.1 minutes per contest. Referees swallow the whistle a little more in March, but Brink will still need to vet up quickly.

Player to watch: Dana Evans and Louisville are real title contenders

This Louisville team goes as far as Dana Evans does, which is to say that this team goes very, very far. Louisville matches up well with any team in the tournament on both ends of the floor, and there’s an argument that they’ll always have the best player on the court in Texas. We know Evans is a bucket in crunch time, but her production deflated down the stretch as she averaged just 12.0 points per game during the ACC tournament. That number is going to skyrocket in the coming weeks — and she has teammates who can shoulder the load if it takes her a little while to get going again.

At this point, it isn’t a question if Hailey “she’s just a freshman” Van Lith is ready for the big stage — it’s a question of whether the big stage is ready for her. She shined in her first season, averaging 11.2 points per game while playing in the torture chamber of the ACC. Kianna Smith and freshman Olivia Cochran join the balanced Lousiville starting lineup, as the Cardinals sport four players averaging more than 10 points per game.

“We have the ability to score the ball, there’s no doubt about it,” head coach Jeff Walz said. “If we can defend like we did against NC State and get a little sharper on half-court execution, I think we can make a run.”

In the ACC title game, the Cardinals lost a heartbreaker to NC State. Expect Louisville to have a chip on its shoulder in the Big Dance.

If the tournament goes chalk, here’s how the top two seeds would match up. Though Stanford bests Louisville on the boards by a pretty wide margin and holds the edge defensively, Louisville is still right there as the Tier 1B to Stanford’s 1A. In essence, it will take some fight, but Louisville has a good shot to win this game if it’s clicking.

The teams gunning for a major upset: Can Georgia, Arkansas or Missouri State make a run?

No. 3 Georgia comes into this game red-hot after falling just short of South Carolina in the conference tournament. The Bulldogs are new to the national attention — but SEC Coach of the Year Joni Taylor has this team ready for the limelight. Granted, they’ve shown they’re ready, already: the Bulldogs upset top SEC seed Texas A&M in the conference tournament semifinals 74-68, doing so on the back of seniors Maya Caldwell and Jenna Staiti. If Georgia can beat Texas A&M, there’s no reason it can’t make it to the Elite 8.

Senior guard Que Morrison leads the Bulldogs’ defense and was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. While Georgia may not have a star with that “it” factor, they’re a dangerous unit that plays as a team. Look for the Bulldogs to get their buckets around the rim. Their defense is also fantastic and they defend the 3-point line tightly. The Bulldogs have five Top-25 wins. Those ingredients combine for a winning recipe in March.

Destiny Slocum (left) and Chelsea Dungee (right) have starred for the Razorback this season. (Photo: Razorbacks Communications)

No. 4 Arkansas runs and guns. The Razorbacks sport a dynamic senior backcourt of Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum, who combined for 37.7 points per game during the season. Frontcourt depth could haunt the team, though, and a first-round matchup against Wright State would leave them with a tall task — yes, pun intended. Arkansas gets pounded on the boards with a rebounding margin of -8.5, the worst of any team in the region. Their first opponent, Wright State, has a mark of +12.3. Arkansas will most certainly win this game — if it does so by a wide margin and can hold its own on the boards, that means they’re a scary opponent heading into the Round of 32.

No. 5 seed Missouri State comes into the tournament on a 17-game winning streak. They also come in as winners of the MVC regular season, though the Bears bowed out of the conference tournament early after their opponent tested positive for COVID-19. The Bears are one of the best mid-major teams in the country and feast on the defensive end of the court, which serves them well in a region with four teams above that know how to score. If you’re looking for two-way play, keep an eye on Brice Calip. The senior guard averaged 13.8 points, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals during the season, and if she puts on a Herculean performance, Missouri State stands a chance of making a run in this region.

Most entertaining first-round matchup: No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 11 South Dakota

Oh man, this is going to be a fun one.

How did Oregon get here? Last year’s pre-COVID tournament favorites survived without Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard. Head coach Kelly Graves always figures something out.

Well, except recently. The Ducks struggled in the final month of the season with losses in five out of their last six games, which included a quarterfinal-round exit in the Pac 12 Tournament against rival Oregon State. The Oregon defense has plummeted down the stretch, but the Ducks can still put the ball in the hoop. And though most of those losses were by wide margins, Oregon has had time to regroup and its ceiling as a 6-seed is astronomically high. If the Ducks get hot, they can run with anyone in the country. Their only close loss in the last month came in a two-point game against top-seeded Stanford.

South Dakota will put up more than a fight — they have a legitimate shot to win. The guard-post tandem of Chloe Lamb and Hannah Sjerven were both unanimous First Team All-Summit League selections and present yet another challenge for the struggling Ducks defense. South Dakota matches up pretty evenly with Oregon even coming from a mid-major, and Sjerven poses a unique challenge as a modern, do-everything big. Freshman guard Te-Hina Paopao will carry a heavy load, should she return from injury, if Oregon wants to make it to the Sweet 16. Full-time 6’7 basketball player (and part-time 6’7 TikTok star) Sedona Prince could earn some playing time against South Dakota if the Ducks want to load up on size.

This game will likely come down to the final few possessions.

Fun fact: This game is a rematch of the 2016 WNIT semifinal. South Dakota won that contest 88-54 on its way to a WNIT title.

Northwestern vs. UCF: A defensive bout awaits the Wildcats, but they’re still favored in Round 1

Seeing as it plays in the Big Ten, Northwestern is used to facing tough defenses, but it hasn’t played an opponent that slows the game down quite like the Knights. UCF allows the fewest points per game in the entire nation — yes, fewer than Baylor, fewer than UConn and fewer than Stanford. That’s the product of good tendencies and slow pacing. UCF doesn’t lack for scoring either, as Newcomer and co-sixth Player of the Year Alisha Lewis will have her moments off the bench for the Knights. Also expect senior Courtajia Sanders to get to her spots inside.

All that said, Northwestern is the higher seed for a reason — it has quality wins including a pair of victories against everyone’s favorite Iowa squad and takes extremely good care of the ball, limiting the potential for an upset. Veronica Burton and Lindsey Pulliam present contrasting styles and a litany of challenges for UCF, combining for 32.5 points per game during the season. Burton, a modern guard, loves to beat you with layups and 3-pointers. Pulliam, on the other hand, is all about the midrange jumper. UCF better buckle down.

Charts via CBB Analytics.

The matchup WNBA scouts want to see: Natasha Mack vs. Stanford bigs in the Round of 32

Oklahoma State forward Natasha Mack had no issues with the Big 12’s post players this year. That’s impressive from a 35,000-foot view — but it’s even wilder if you zoom in. The Big 12’s post play is absurd. Mack squared off against the nation’s best bigs on a weekly basis this season. Prospective #1 WNBA pick Charli Collier? Been there, blocked that. Big 12 Player of the Year NaLyssa Smith? Mack seemed like the only big to figure her out on both ends of the court. Ferocious rebounder Esmery Martinez and 6’6 phenom Ayoka Lee? Same story.

Mack swiped the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year spot away from Baylor’s DiDi Richards, who won the award at the national level in 2020. In just two seasons with the Cowgirls, Mack has over 200 blocks. Yes, that leads the nation, and almost no one else has even hit 150. Mack will have her name called in the first round. Her early-round matchups in this tournament may determine how high she goes.

A very brief aside: Wake Forest’s spot as a 9 seed perplexed many, including The Next’s CERTIFIED BRACKETOLOGIST Russ Steinberg. You can read about that here.

Wright State guard Angel Baker averaged 18.0 points per game this season (Photo: Wright State Athletics)

Showing some respect to the lowest seeds

In the past four years, an average of 3.75 teams seeded 10 or lower advanced in the first round. Don’t bet on any of these teams to advance, but that doesn’t mean their squads aren’t worthy of recognition — and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t make the games interesting.

#12 UC Davis Aggies (13-2, Big West)
Standout player:
Cierra Hall, junior guard
What to watch for: The Aggies are bringing the Big West some well-deserved recognition on the strength of their two-way talent. UC Davis opponents score just 0.82 points per scoring attempt (the third-lowest mark in the country) while hitting 1.08 points per possession on offense (the 31st-highest mark in the country). The Aggies love to move the ball and find open looks on the perimeter — on their best night, they are not a fun matchup for opponents. But they might be fun for America.

This is their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

#13 Wright State Raiders (18-7, Horizon)
Standout player:
Angel Baker, junior guard
What to watch for: The Raiders crash the boards better than almost every other team in the country — in this tournament only Baylor, South Carolina and Troy are more aggressive on the glass. Their first-round opponent in Arkansas doesn’t miss often, but the Razorbacks are an awful rebounding team. Wright State could keep this game close if Arkansas’s shot runs cold.

This is the Raiders’ second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

#14 Drexel Dragons (14-8, CAA)
Standout player:
Hannah Nihill, senior guard
What to watch for: Drexel slows the game down and doesn’t turn the ball over often — that’s a recipe to keep the score close, though a first-round matchup with a bigger team like Georgia won’t do the Dragons any favors. CAA DPOY Hannah Nihill stands 5’3 but could bother the Bulldog guards.

This is the Dragons’ first appearance since 2009.

#15 Marist Red Foxes (18-3, MAAC) 
Standout player:
Willow Duffell, senior forward
What to watch for: The Red Foxes lock down on the defensive end. Marist allows just 50 points per game — the second-lowest mark in the NCAA — and just won 69-30 in the MAAC Finals. That’s pretty good!

This is the Red Foxes’ first appearance since 2014.

#16 Utah Valley Wolverines (12-6, WAC)
Standout player: 
Josie Williams, junior center
What to watch for:
They love to create shots for others: their assisted shot rate of 75.8 percent ranks first in the country. Though the Wolverines have a fantastic name and a fun defense, there is no doubt that they’ll struggle against the Tournament’s #1 seed. But they’ll play fundamental basketball on the way out — that’s a pretty solid consolation.

This is their first Tournament appearance.

Alamo schedule (all listings Eastern Time)

No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 16 Utah Valley — Sunday, 10 p.m., ESPN
No. 2 Louisville vs. No. 15 Marist — Monday, 8 p.m. ESPN
No. 3 Georgia vs. No 14 Drexel — Monday, 12 p.m., ESPN 2
No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 13 Wright State — Monday, 2 p.m., ESPN
No. 5 Missouri State vs. No. 12 UC Davis — Monday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU
No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 11 South Dakota — Monday, 10 p.m. ESPN 2
No. 7 Northwestern vs. No. 10 UCF — Monday, 4 p.m., ESPNU
No. 8 Oklahoma State vs. No. 9 Wake Forest — Sunday, 1 p.m., ESPN 2

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream & Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

2 Comments

  1. Jordan on August 2, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    Why is 23-3 better than 25-2?

    • Spencer Nusbaum on August 2, 2021 at 8:49 pm

      Hi Jordan, thanks for catching that! Simply an error on the graphic. It has since been fixed!

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