Women’s bracket winners, losers and what Auriemma’s absence means for UConn

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

The NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket was released Monday, just two hours after the news that UConn coach Geno Auriemma tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, is in isolation and will not be able to rejoin the Huskies until at least March 24.

The first round of the NCAA tournament begins March 21 in San Antonio, and No. 1 seed UConn is scheduled to play No. 16 High Point on that day. Provided the Huskies advance, their second-round game would be March 23, so UConn would have to get to at least the Sweet 16 without Auriemma.

An 11-time national champion, UConn is in what potentially looks to be the toughest of the four regionals, as the No. 1 seed in the River Walk Region with No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Tennessee and No. 4 Kentucky. The Huskies have made 12 consecutive Women’s Final Four appearances.

But this is one of the least-experienced teams that Auriemma has had. Seven freshmen are on the roster, led by guard Paige Bueckers, who is one of the top players in the country. She is averaging 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals in 35.8 minutes per game and leads the Huskies in all those categories except rebounding.

Three juniors — forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa (the top rebounder at 7.8 RPG) and guards Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook — start for the Huskies, along with Bueckers and fellow freshman Nika Mühl. Nelson-Ododa and Williams were on the 2019 team that lost to Notre Dame in the national semifinals.

“I think for us being such a young team this year, having leadership qualities especially amongst the three juniors is extremely important,” Nelson-Ododa said Sunday. “But I also think the younger guys do a great job of just adapting to things, listening, following directions and just kind of absorbing everything and applying that on the court.”

Westbrook, a Tennessee transfer, sat out last season but has NCAA tournament experience in 2018 and 2019 with the Lady Vols. UConn sophomores Aubrey Griffin and Anna Makurat will make their NCAA tournament debuts this season after last year’s event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But from a coaching perspective, associate head coach Chris Dailey has been with Auriemma since he took over the program in 1985, and she has had experience stepping into the lead-coaching role. Dailey has served as the Huskies’ head coach on five occasions, leading the Huskies to a 10-0 record. Most recently, she filled in for a regular-season game during the 2019-20 season.The Huskies also have two other veteran assistants in Shea Ralph and Jamelle Elliott, both of whom won national championships with UConn as players.

So although the Huskies won’t have Auriemma’s voice on the sidelines for the early rounds, they will have experienced coaches running things.

While UConn deals with this situation, and as teams prepare to head to San Antonio, let’s take a look at the 2021 bracket winners and losers.

Winners

ACC: A couple of years ago, you never would have guessed the ACC would place eight teams into the NCAA tournament field, but Notre Dame wouldn’t be one of the eight. However, even without the Irish, the ACC leads all conferences in tournament teams, and it also nabbed one of the No. 1 seeds with NC State, which won the league tourney for the second year in a row.

The Wolfpack are the top seed in the Mercado Regional and enter the tournament with a 20-2 mark, but don’t be fooled by those two losses. Yes, both came against unranked teams, but the loss to Virginia Tech came without star center Elissa Cunane, who was out after the Wolfpack’s three-week COVID-19 pause, and the loss to North Carolina came in a huge rivalry game. And the Hokies (No. 7 seed in the River Walk Region) and Tar Heels (No. 10 in Hemisfair Region) are NCAA tournament teams, too.

Louisville was ranked as high as No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll this season and has two-time ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans. The No. 2 seed in the Alamo Regional, the Cardinals are a threat to make their fourth appearance in the Women’s Final Four.

Coach Nell Fortner has taken Georgia Tech from meltdown mode after MaChelle Joseph’s firing in March 2019 to the No. 5 seed in the Hemisfair and the Yellow Jackets’ first trip to the Big Dance since 2014.

No previous NCAA tournament team has been away longer than Wake Forest (33 years), but the Demon Deacons are back as the No. 9 seed in Alamo. Virginia Tech returns to the field for the first time since 2006. Credit also goes to Florida State interim coach Brooke Wyckoff, who has the Seminoles in as Hemisfair’s No. 9 seed. The Florida State alum has filled in for head coach Sue Semrau, who took a leave of absence to care for her mother, who has cancer.

Caitlin Clark fans: Those fans who have been thrilled to watch the scoring (26.7 PPG) and playmaking (7.2 APG) of the Iowa freshman guard have tended to think she hasn’t gotten her due this season. She was one of ESPN.com’s top 10 players as a second-team All-American, but didn’t make it as one of the 15 Wooden Award finalists.

But Clark has a chance to play marquee opponents in the River Walk Regional, which could provide a great spotlight. In the first round, Clark and the No. 5 seed Hawkeyes meet Mid-American Conference tournament champion Central Michigan and its standout senior guard Micaela Kelly (23.9 PPG). Should Iowa and No. 4 seed Kentucky make it to the second round, Clark could face SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard (20.7).

And if we get an Iowa-UConn Sweet 16 matchup, Clark could face fellow rookie Bueckers. And that would be some kind of showdown.

Wake Forest, Washington State and Alabama: Welcome back, Demon Deacons, Cougars and Crimson Tide. It has been a long time.

Wake coach Jen Hoover was standout player for her alma matter in 1988, the only previous time the Demon Deacons made the women’s tournament. The Cougars (No. 9 seed in Mercado) made their only previous trip to the Dance in 1991.

Alabama, the No. 7 seed in Hemisfair, was a strong team in the 1990s, with eight trips to the NCAA tournament, including a 1994 Final Four appearance. But the Crimson Tide haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1999. Jasmine Walker, one of the best 3-point shooting forwards in the country, has Alabama dancing again.

Stanford: The No. 1 overall seed, the Cardinal won the last of their two NCAA titles in 1992, basically forever ago. But they are the only team in the Alamo Region to have won a national championship.

No. 2 seed Louisville is still a real threat in this corner of the bracket. Third-seeded Georgia made the most recent of its five trips to the Final Four in 1999, but the Bulldogs had an impressive run to the SEC tournament final before falling to South Carolina. No. 4 seed Arkansas is the only team to beat UConn this season. And Stanford’s Pac-12 rival, Oregon, is the No. 6 seed in this region. The Ducks are not the Sabrina Ionescu-led juggernaut they were last year, but both of their regular-season games with Stanford were close. The Cardinal won 70-63 on Jan. 8 and 63-61 on Feb. 15.

Regional rivalries: All the games will be in San Antonio, Austin or San Marcos, Texas, but there are still some rivalries taking place on neutral courts, with the potential for others.

In the first round, River Walk No. 3 seed Tennessee (Knoxville) faces No. 14 Middle Tennessee (Murfreesboro), the Conference USA tournament champion led by guard Anastasia Hayes (26.5 PPG), who is second to Iowa’s Clark in Division I scoring average. Hayes started her college career at Tennessee, where she was SEC sixth woman of the year as a freshman in 2017-18 before transferring to Middle Tennessee.

Mercado No. 1 seed NC State (Raleigh) will meet No. 16 North Carolina A&T (Greensboro), the MEAC tournament champion. The Aggies had one of the most exciting tournament finals, as senior Deja Winters hit a 3-pointer with 3 seconds left to defeat Howard 59-57.

Depending on how the first round goes, there also is the chance for second-round matchups between former Big East foes UConn and No. 8 Syracuse in the River Walk (they met in the 2016 national championship game), and No. 4 Arkansas and No. 5 Missouri State in the Alamo Region. Those schools are less than a three-hour drive apart in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Springfield, Missouri, and both have made trips to the Women’s Final Four.

Indiana: The Hoosiers, the No. 4 seed in Mercado, appear to have a pretty good chance to make their second Sweet 16. The first was in 1983, the second year of the NCAA tournament, when the field was just 36 teams, and the Hoosiers had to win only one game to get to the regional semifinals.

Indiana opens with Atlantic-10 tournament champion VCU. If the Hoosiers win, they’ll face the winner of Gonzaga vs. Belmont.

The Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten to Maryland, the No. 2 seed in the Hemisfair Region, but were upset in the conference tournament by Michigan State.

This will be Indiana’s seventh trip to the NCAA tournament, and third under coach Teri Moren. It’s notable that the two Indiana schools that have won the NCAA women’s title — Notre Dame (2001, 2018) and Purdue (1999) — are not in this year’s NCAA field. If nothing else, the Hoosiers won the state of Indiana this season.

Losers

Tennessee: The Lady Vols, the No. 3 seed in the River Walk Regional, have had a solid season, including a regular-season victory over South Carolina (before falling to the Gamecocks in the SEC tournament semifinals). They finished ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25, and they gave UConn a run for its money in their Jan. 21 meeting, before falling 67-61.

In this bracket, the Lady Vols have a lot stacked against them. In the first round, they’ll face a very motivated Middle Tennessee team that will try to take down their state’s giant program. If Tennessee gets past that, it could face Big Ten player of the year Naz Hillmon and No. 6 seed Michigan in the second round.

Waiting in the regional semifinals could be No. 2 Baylor, coming off Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles. The Lady Bears are the 2019 national champions.

If the Lady Vols pass all those tests, they could face UConn in the Elite Eight. UConn and Tennessee have not met in the NCAA tournament since the 2004 national championship game.

It’s a tall order for the Lady Vols, but led by senior Rennia Davis, maybe they’re ready for a major NCAA tournament run. It will take one for them to make their first Final Four since 2008.

Big 12: The league got five of its 10 teams into the Big Dance, but it might be tough for anyone besides Baylor to get through the early rounds.

Baylor junior forward NaLyssa Smith was the Big 12 Player of the Year, but she had competition from the likes of Texas’ Charli Collier, Iowa State’s Ashley Joens, Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack and West Virginia’s Kysre Gondrezick. They all will attempt to lead their teams through tough early-round challenges.

West Virginia, which lost to Baylor in the Big 12 final, is the No. 4 seed in the Hemisfair Regional. Next to Baylor, the Mountaineers might have the best chance to make it to the Sweet 16. However, they could face No. 5 seed Georgia Tech in the second round, a team that really pushed NC State in the ACC tournament semifinals before falling 66-61. Or possibly No. 12 Stephen F. Austin, which has won 19 in a row.

Texas, Hemisfair’s No. 6 seed, starts with Bradley, the surprise Missouri Valley tournament winner. Regular-season MVC champ Missouri State withdrew rather than play a semifinal against Bradley, which had a Tier 1 positive COVID-19 test the day before the semifinals. Then Bradley beat Loyola in the semifinals and Drake in the final; the Bulldogs were without head coach Jennie Baranczyk, two assistants and four players because of a COVID-19 positive test and contact tracing. So Bradley, making its first NCAA tournament appearance, is on a run facing the Longhorns.

But Texas should be able to get past that. The problem could come in a second-round matchup with No. 3 UCLA and its senior star Michaela Onyenwere.

Iowa State, the No. 7 seed in Mercado, was the only Big 12 team to beat Baylor this season, although it was right after the Lady Bears came off a COVID-19 pause. The Cyclones have to face No. 10 Michigan State in the first round, and a victory there would likely mean No. 2 Texas A&M in the second round. The Aggies just missed being a No. 1 seed.

Oklahoma State, Alamo’s No. 8 seed, will take on Wake Forest in the first round. But Stanford likely awaits that winner.

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