March 14, 2023 

The Weekly Fast Break: The best time of the year is here

Bracket delight and play-in madness

For some, Selection Sunday is better than a holiday celebration. For others, it is a heartbreaking few hours that leave you hoping there might just be one more name left to appear on the screen. The madness of March us upon us and so is the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It is the ultimate three weeks of amazing plays, season-ending buzzer-beaters, rabid fan bases dropped into strange cities looking for someone to talk to and the true test of a team – do they have what it takes to win it all?

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Here at The Weekly Fast Break, we understand the tasks at hand. It starts with basketball staffs and office assistants across the country scrambling to set travel plans while pep band members are called back early from spring break to load the bus. Then it is the quick turnaround of a practice schedule that does not overdo it for a team just finishing up their conference tournament, but you cannot rest too much – the scouting report cannot wait. And during all of this, we hope everyone had time to pack because if Cinderella has anything to do with it, you may not be home for a few weeks.

So, before you grab your fan gear and hit the road, it is time to dissect it all – the bracket, the matchups, the surprises and even the play-in games that land us at the Field of 68. You cannot turn on a television or satellite radio station this week and not find someone talking about the 2023 NCAA Tournament. That is exactly how it should be – it is the best time of the year!

BRACKET BINGO

 B stands for “bravo” to the 2023 Division I Women’s Basketball Committee. In what is one of the toughest jobs in all of college athletics, the committee put together a very complete bracket with no glaring gaps or even huge questions on teams left on the outside looking in. The No. 1 seeds all make complete sense, beginning with South Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the Greenville 1 Regional. As we always say here, ‘to be the best you have to beat the best’ – Dawn Staley’s team not only could repeat this year but could be the fifth team to have an undefeated season and win a national championship in NCAA history. 

Indiana deserves their No. 1 seed, winning the Big Ten regular-season title, and with a healthy Grace Berger back in the lineup, the Hoosiers proved they are tough to beat. Some were surprised by Stanford claiming the No. 1 spot in the Seattle 4 Regional, but as you look at the body of work by the Cardinal, they were given credit for what they did all season long. The fourth No. 1 goes to Virginia Tech, who captured the ACC Tournament title and has won 11 straight games. Head Coach Kenny Brooks has a balanced and focused squad with All-American Elizabeth Kitley in the paint and standout guard Georgia Amoore out front. Do not underestimate the Hokies – it would be bad for your bracket.

I stands for “in” and the 32 automatic qualifier bids to this year’s tournament field. Of those 32, four went to teams who are in the 2023 field for the first time ever. Saint Louis (Atlantic-10), SE Louisiana (Southland), Southern Utah (WAC) and Sacramento State (Big Sky) all captured their conference tournament titles and have punched their ticket to March Madness. There are also four teams that can claim they are the “last four in” to this year’s bracket: Illinois, Mississippi State, Purdue, and St. John’s. They each will be part of the play-in games that begin March 15, but no matter their spot on the bracket, they did just enough to have their name called on Selection Sunday.

N stands for “not this year,” and that would be the four teams standing on the outside looking in as the “first four out” of this year’s tournament. Columbia, Kansas, UMass, and Oregon all had their bubble burst in different ways. Kansas did not play well late into the year, including a bad loss to TCU in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Columbia found themselves in the same situation, losing in the first round of the Ivy League Tournament and not finishing the season as strong as they started. UMass had a great year and was the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic-10 Tournament but was upset at the hands of St. Louis in the finals 91-85 in overtime. With that loss and the automatic bid going to SLU, the A-10 was not going to be a two-bid league. Oregon was 3-7 over their last ten games and even with a strong NET ranking, did not have the resume to grab a ticket to the Big Dance. 

G stands for “going places” and some intriguing tests on the home courts of the top 16 seeds. North Carolina slipped to a No. 6 seed and will not host in Chapel Hill, instead hitting the road to Columbus, OH. They will get the No. 11 Purdue/St. John’s winner first and then presumably a matchup with No. 3 seed Ohio State in the Seattle 3 Regional. Iowa State captured its third Big 12 Tournament title and the first since 2001 on March 12 and many thought it could put the Cyclones back in business to host. However, the committee slotted them as the No. 5 seed in the Seattle 3 Regional and they are headed to Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee did just enough to get back in the top 16 by winning in February and March, losing only to South Carolina down the stretch. They are the No. 4 seed and most likely will face a confident Iowa State squad on their home court in the second round. 

Iowa State, the No. 5 seed in the Seattle 3 Regional, are ready to get to Knoxville, TN for their first and second-round games.
(Photo credit: Scott D. Weaver/Big 12 Conference)

“O” stands for “objective” which means we would encourage you to pick your bracket with your brain, not your heart. Yet we all know how hard it is to stay objective when we see those names on the seed lines and hear the stories about players, coaches and teams fighting through adversity to get to the biggest stage in college basketball. When you fill out your bracket, just try and keep a few simple things in mind. It is unlikely we will see an upset of the top seeds early, but then again, it can happen. More than likely, there will be one No. 7 versus No. 10 upset in the first two days and a No. 6 will take down a No. 11. We could also see a No. 14 seed get hot and hang on at the buzzer to knock off a No. 3 seed. To be objective, we will say there will be upsets somewhere – it is up to you to pick the right ones. Good luck!

BRACKET DELIGHT

Every year the bracket gives us intriguing storylines with teams and players that make the NCAA Tournament so fun. Whether it is a record-breaking performance or a team returning to March Madness for the first time in more than a decade, this tournament field will keep our undivided attention from start to finish. Here are some noteworthy tidbits to watch in the days ahead.

The four longest winning streaks in women’s college basketball are all a part of the 2023 NCAA field. South Carolina (38 games) is the No. 1 seed in the Greenville 1 Regional while UNLV, winners of the Mountain West Conference Tournament and 22 games in a row, is in as the No. 11 seed in the Greenville 2 Regional. Two teams have won 21 games in a row up to this point – No. 15 seeded Gardner-Webb (Big South Tournament champions) and No. 9 South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits punched their ticket to March Madness by blistering the competition in the Summit League Tournament.

South Dakota State cruised through the Summit League Tournament and punched their ticket to the 2023 NCAA Tournament. The Jackrabbits are the No. 9 seed and face No. 8 USC in the Greenville 2 Regional. (Photo credit: Joclyn Haven)

Notre Dame had a fantastic season, weathering injuries and setbacks along the way to capture the regular season ACC conference title. Head coach Niele Ivey was named 2023 ACC Coach of the Year and her Fighting Irish are the No. 3 seed in the Greenville 1 Regional. The biggest question in all of college basketball is the availability of sophomore sensation Olivia Miles. Will the all-conference guard be able to play in the NCAA Tournament? Notre Dame has not said one way or the other that her injury will keep her out and for that, they were not punished. Per Lisa Petersen, chair of the selection committee, they took what information they had when seeding teams. Notre Dame will host first and second-round games in South Bend starting Friday, March 17.

Cleveland State won the Horizon League Tournament and gained the program’s first bid to the NCAA Tournament in 13 years. The Vikings are 30-4 and have lost just one game since the start of February. They enter the field as the No. 13 seed in the Greenville 2 Regional and travel to face No. 4 Villanova and Big East Player of the Year Maddy Siegrist.

Playing your best at the end of the season really can pay off and it surely did for West Virginia. The Mountaineers gained an at-large bid even after a heartbreaking one-point loss at the buzzer in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals to a fellow NCAA Tournament team, Oklahoma State. Head coach Dawn Plitzuweit made a case for her team to keep playing and keep dancing and it worked – their strong finish and wins over Top-25 teams pushed them in. WVA is the No. 10 seed in the Greenville 1 Regional and takes on No. 7 Arizona on March 17.

PLAY IN TO PLAY ON

When the NCAA Tournament field went to 68 teams, it created four play-in games which moves four winners 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 games are in Dayton, Ohio). These four women’s games that begin on March 15 have great storylines and matchups that will give us our first taste of March Madness.

Wednesday, March 15

Illinois vs. Mississippi State – winner faces No. 6 seed Creighton in South Bend, Ind.

Illinois spent time in the AP Top 25 poll this season and comes into the tournament at 22-9 overall, 3-2 in their last five games. Junior guard Makira Cook leads the Fighting Illini in scoring (18.2 points per game) and assists. Mississippi State out of the SEC gains its first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2019 and enters with a 20-10 record. 6’5 senior Jessika Carter leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 14.8 points per game and senior guard Anastasia Hayes is their top playmaker at 4.6 assists per game. Both teams enter the tournament under first-year head coaches – Shauna Green at Illinois and Sam Purcell at Mississippi State – and were two of the last four teams in the field.

Senior Anastasia Hayes and the Mississippi State Bulldogs will look to knock off Purdue to advance in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
(Photo credit: Todd Van Emst / SEC Photographer)

Southern vs. Sacred Heart – winner faces No. 1 Stanford as the No. 16 seed

Southern has won their last five games coming into the NCAA Tournament, including the SWAC Tournament title. The Jaguars are now 18-14 and secured the automatic bid with their 62-53 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the title game. Sacred Heart knocked off Fairleigh Dickinson in the finals of the NEC Conference Tournament 72-60 to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The Pioneers were led by 5’3 freshman Ny’Ceara Pryor who had 20 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game, her second double-double of the conference tournament. Sacred Heart is 18-13 on the season and have also won five in a row heading into Wednesday night.

Thursday, March 16

Purdue vs. St. John’s – winner faces No. 6 seed North Carolina in Columbus, Ohio

Purdue was just 2-3 in their last five games of the season and finished 1-1 at the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis. The Boilermakers are 19-10 overall and led by senior guard Lasha Petree who averages 14.5 points per game. St. John’s broke into the AP Top 25 poll this season after a strong year in the Big East, finishing 22-8 overall. Senior guard Jayla Everett leads the Red Storm in scoring at 15.8 points per game who are 3-1 in their last four games. These teams are part of the last four in the tournament field.

Tennessee Tech vs. Monmouth – winner faces No. 1 Indiana as the No. 16 seed

Tennessee State punched its ticket to March Madness for the first time in 23 years by winning the OVC Tournament championship, beating top-seeded Little Rock 54-46 in the finals. The Golden Eagles are 22-9 overall and have won seven straight games. They will face the champions of the CAA Tournament, the Monmouth Hawks, who earn their first bid to the tournament since 1983. Monmouth had to win four games in four days to keep dancing, taking out the top three seeds in the CAA – Drexel, Northeastern and Towson.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State 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, 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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