March 19, 2024 

NCAA Tournament preview, storylines: Albany 2 Regional

UCLA, LSU and more are on Iowa's path to Cleveland

What happens when you blend 10 ranked teams, two Final Four participants from last year, underdogs who captured automatic bids by winning their conference title and the 2023 national champion? You get a fantastic mix of everything we love about women’s college basketball — welcome to the Albany 2 Regional of the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

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We have Tigers, Bruins, Wildcats, Bulldogs and Buffaloes roaming the floor. There are Hawkeyes, Bluejays, Cardinals and Owls stalking their prey and ready to pounce. And then there are Lancers, Pilots, Rebels and Mountaineers hunting for victories to keep their hopes alive during March Madness.

Who will have enough to survive and advance? Will we see a 2023 national championship game rematch in the Elite Eight? Could a West Coast team travel cross-country and claim a regional title? Does anyone have the game plan to stop the reigning National Player of the Year? Let’s dive in and see what the Albany 2 Regional has in store for us.

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Top seeds on alert

Iowa is the No. 1 seed, coming in at 29–4 and 2024 Big Ten Tournament champions. Senior Caitlin Clark has taken the college basketball world by storm yet again this season, but there is one accolade that has alluded her: national champion. Do the Hawkeyes have enough to make back-to-back appearances in the Final Four and raise the trophy? In the games they lost this season, opponents were able to minimize the damage Clark did while forcing others to make plays. Head coach Lisa Bluder will need the supporting cast to consistently contribute and give Iowa other options on the offensive end. Fifth-year seniors Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin, along with sophomore Hannah Stuelke, will be called upon for a deep tournament run.

The Hawkeyes will open with the winner of the Holy Cross vs. UT Martin play-in game. The Crusaders come in at 20–12 out of the Patriot League while UT-Martin represents the Ohio Valley Conference at 16–16. The Skyhawks are in the NCAA Tournament field because they were the runner-up in the OVC Tournament to Southern Indiana, which swept the regular-season and tournament titles. However, because SIU is in the four-year reclassification process to Division I, they are not eligible for NCAA competition, thus giving UT-Martin the automatic berth.

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No. 2 seed UCLA is looking to get to the program’s first-ever Final Four with sophomore Kiki Rice (1) and others leading the way.
(Photo credit: Mitchell Northam/The Next)

No. 2 seed UCLA comes into the Big Dance with a 25–6 record and tied for second in the regular season Pac-12 standings. While much attention is given to 6’7 sophomore center Lauren Betts inside, it is the backcourt for the Bruins that has been the picture of consistency, led by senior Charisma Osborne and sophomore Kiki Rice. UCLA finished second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 77.7 points per game and beat their opponents by an average of just under 17 points this season. Slow starts plagued the Bruins in multiple games this year — head coach Cori Close knows her team must be ready from the opening tip from here on out. UCLA will take on No. 15 seed California Baptist (28–3), winner of the WAC regular-season and tournament titles.

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Tigers on the prowl

LSU comes into the field of 68 as the No. 3 seed in this regional and will play host to first- and second-round games in Baton Rouge. While the defending national champions started the season with a loss in Las Vegas to fellow regional team Colorado, the Tigers blended the new faces on their roster to finish 28–5 and 16–1 in the SEC. Junior Angel Reese is averaging a double-double (19 points and 13.1 rebounds per game), while five others on the roster average double figures. Kim Mulkey’s squad was a No. 3 seed a year ago when they rattled off six wins to claim the 2023 national title. Do they have the firepower and depth for another run to the Final Four? Their quest to repeat begins with Rice, which finished 19–14 on the season and claimed the American Athletic Conference tournament title as the No. 10 seed, their first conference tournament title since 2019.

Fun fact — if LSU advances to the second round, it will play the winner of No. 6 Louisville and No. 11 Middle Tennessee. Tigers guard Hailey Van Lith is a transfer from Louisville and was part of that Final Four squad in 2022. The transfer portal has created plenty of interesting storylines for us in college athletics.

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LSU is the No. 3 seed in the Albany 2 Regional and looking to defend their national title from a season ago. Louisville transfer Hailey Van Lith (11) leads the way in the backcourt for the Tigers. (Photo credit: Noelle Iglesias/SEC)

Old foes on a collision course

When the brackets popped up on Selection Sunday, many were surprised to see Kansas State jump into the fourth seed in the Albany 2 Regional, allowing them to host in the Little Apple. Most were banking on the Colorado Buffaloes, who finished 22–9 on the year in that No. 4 seed, but the Buffs fell to the five line and are headed to Manhattan, Kansas. The Wildcats were 25–7 overall (13–5 in the Big 12), and fell to Texas in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals.

With basically the same roster as a season ago, head coach Jeff Mittie was able to reinsert a healthy Ayoka Lee back into the lineup and her presence was felt immediately. The 6’6 center averaged 20.2 points per game and shot over 60% from the floor on the season, but missed a handful of games in conference play with an ankle injury. Junior guard Serena Sundell became not only a better facilitator this year, but an assertive scorer at 12 points per game. K-State will face No.13 seed Portland (21–12), who is in the Big Dance after claiming the automatic berth from the West Coast Conference in their tournament upset of Gonzaga.

Kansas State will host first and second round games as the No. 4 seed in the Albany 2 Regional. Junior guard Serena Sundell (4) will be key to their post-season effort. (Photo credit: K-State Athletics)

The second matchup in Manhattan pits Colorado against No. 12 seed Drake, MVC regular-season and tournament champions. The Bulldogs claimed the MVC tournament title on a buzzer-beater over Missouri State to secure their spot in the field of 68. Colorado was just 2–6 over their last eight games of the season, but head coach JR Payne has an athletic and experienced team. Led by seniors Quay Miller and Jaylyn Sherrod, the Buffaloes finished second in the Pac-12 in steals generated from their intense, high-pressure defense. If the Wildcats and Buffaloes advance as expected, it will renew an old Big Eight and Big 12 rivalry — and technically start a new one when Colorado rejoins the Big 12 in July 2024.

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Must-see TV

There are two first-round games that need to be on the “do not change the channel” list out of the Albany 2 Regional.

No. 8 seed West Virginia vs. No. 9 seed Princeton: There is no way to simply pick an eight vs. nine game in the NCAA Tournament bracket, and this one is incredibly tough. West Virginia was 4–4 over its last eight games, including an overtime loss at K-State and then another heartbreaker to the Wildcats in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. The Mountaineers have a truly dynamic backcourt in junior JJ Quinerly and sophomore transfer Jordan Harrison. West Virginia plays quickly and aggressive with pressure coming at every position. Princeton is riding a five-game winning streak coming into the Big Dance. Led by senior guard Kaitlyn Chen (15.6 points per game) and sophomore Madison St. Rose (14.5 points per game) the Tigers have held opponents to 56 points per game on the year and caused more than 17 turnovers per game. This matchup will be decided by who can make the other more frustrated and uncomfortable.

West Virginia Mountaineers players and coaches huddle during a time out during the second half against the Kansas State Wildcats at T-Mobile Center
There were a new coach and faces in the lineup for West Virginia this year, but the Mountaineers are in the NCAA Tournament field for the second straight season. (Photo credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports)

No. 7 seed Creighton vs. No. 10 seed UNLV: Creighton finished the year 25–5 and was ranked in the AP Top 25 for most of the season. Jim Flannery’s Bluejays program is no stranger to NCAA Tournament success, reaching the Elite Eight in 2022. This year, they finished second in the BIG EAST behind UConn before being upset in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Balance and experience are in Creighton’s favor, led by senior Lauren Jensen (16.2 points per game). UNLV comes in as the No. 10 seed with a record of 30–2 and a 15-game winning streak. The Rebels captured their third consecutive MWC tournament championship in resounding style, sending them into the NCAA Tournament peaking at the right time. 6’1 senior Desi-Rae Young paces UNLV at 17.9 points per game and shoots just shy of 56% from the floor. This will be a battle of different styles with key matchups at every position.

X-Factor Names to Know

This regional is full of players who are household names and teams that everyone has been and/or will be talking about. As we dive into the Field of 68, there a few players who we do not always hear about, but they are vital to their team’s success. Keep an eye on these ladies as the Albany 2 Regional begins:

Sydney Affolter, 5’11 Junior Iowa: The Chicago, Illinois native has started six games this season for Iowa but over the past 10, she has logged at least 20 minutes or more on the floor. Whether it is big plays defensively, delivering an assist or knocking down a key 3-point shot (41% on the year), Affolter has been a high-level contributor. With the health of senior guard Molly Davis still up in the air, the Hawkeyes will look for Affolter to bring even more in the NCAA Tournament. 

Olivia Cochran, 6’3 senior Louisville: The Cardinals come into the NCAA Tournament 3–3 in the last six games, but getting hot at the right time is something Cochran knows about. She was part of Louisville’s run to the Final Four in 2022 and is a leader for this year’s team. Cochran has started every game this season and is averaging a career-best 10.6 points per game.

Gabby Gregory, 6’1 5th year senior Kansas State: Gregory came back for another season to be able to play with Wildcat center Ayoka Lee. Last year, Gregory averaged almost 20 points per game, but this season her role has been much different. While battling injuries, she has become a key defender and rebounder and has range to extend the defense when needed. Her ability to find Lee in the post has given K-State more options to score. She will need to be an impact player in the tournament if the Wildcats want to extend their time in the Big Dance.

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Flau’jae Johnson, 5’10 Sophomore LSU: Johnson was a critical part of the Tigers’ run to the national title a year ago as freshman but did not see a sophomore slump. She increased her scoring this season (14.2 points per game) and improved her field goal percentage by almost seven points (49%). Johnson has been a key ballhandler this year as well for LSU, with a positive assist/turnover ratio and is hard to stop in the open floor.

Londynn Jones, 5’4 sophomore — UCLA: Jones has given the Bruins a consistent threat from deep this year, shooting 38% from three-point range. She knocked down seven from behind the arc against Utah in late February. Jones has made 26 starts on the season and gives head coach Cori Close just under 28 minutes per game on the floor. Having her shooting ability along with another ballhandler on the floor is a major key to the Bruins’ success moving forward.

Kylee Watson, 5’10 Junior West Virginia: Watson stayed at WVA amidst a coaching change in the off-season and continues to be a consistent presence in the Mountaineer lineup. Head coach Mark Kellogg has said she is the “glue” for them on the floor. She rebounds (6.6 board per game), defends, is an efficient scorer (49.5% FG) and averages almost 30 minutes per game. She can defend as an undersized post or on the perimeter — there is a reason she is hardly on the bench.

The Road to Cleveland – Who Makes It There?

We said that picking the No. 8 versus No. 9 game in the NCAA Tournament is difficult but trying to predict who can best navigate the road to the Final Four in every region is almost impossible. The number of potholes and roadblocks that will be thrown at every team in the Field of 68 are too many to count. It is the teams that can best maneuver to avoid disaster and stay connected as a unit on the floor who have the best chance to survive and advance. Whether you win by one or 21, it does not matter — the destination is the ultimate goal. The Albany 2 Regional will send one team to the Final Four in Cleveland, and they will be challenged every step of the way. Here is our best prediction:

First Round Winners: Iowa, West Virginia, Colorado, K-State, Louisville, LSU, UNLV, UCLA
Sweet 16: Iowa, Colorado, LSU, UCLA
Elite Eight: Iowa, UCLA
Final Four Bound: UCLA

More March Madness: SEC reporter Gabriella Lewis previews the Albany 1 Regional.

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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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