Women's bracket winners, losers and a difficult path for Iowa


There won’t be a rematch of the national championship game in women’s college basketball in 2024, but LSU vs. Iowa could be a blockbuster of an Elite Eight matchup. If both even get that far, that is.

Who are the winners and losers of the women’s NCAA tournament bracket? We start on the losers’ side, and it begins with the last two teams standing in 2023. Both aren’t going to make it to Cleveland. In fact, neither one might be there.

The Albany 2 Regional has three teams that many might have picked to make the Final Four before the bracket was revealed: defending national champion LSU, national runner-up Iowa and UCLA.

Who thought this was a good idea? Apparently the NCAA selection committee, which decided to jam-pack that trio together, along with No. 4 seed Kansas State.

As ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said, South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and top seed in the Albany 1 Regional, earned — and received — what appears to be the so-called “easiest” regional bracket. Iowa — a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1992 — should have earned the second-easiest corner of the bracket, but instead got the hardest.

The Big Ten tournament champion Hawkeyes, SEC tournament runner-up LSU and Pac-12 semifinalist UCLA were all in the top four in the preseason Associated Press poll and are in the top eight now. Of course, poll rankings are one thing and NCAA tournament placement another. Still, it’s a surprise to see them all together.

“Initially, I just thought, ‘Oooh, this is a tough, tough region,'” LSU coach Kim Mulkey said of her first reaction to the bracket.

Let’s further break down the women’s bracket winners and losers, and what the path ahead looks like for unbeaten South Carolina and Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

Winners

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South Carolina Gamecocks

Two-time national champion South Carolina is in Albany Regional 1 along with No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Oregon State and No. 4 Indiana. The Irish are the ACC tournament champions and are playing well, but the Gamecocks have the benefit of having faced them already this season. That was back in November in Paris — a 29-point Gamecock victory — and both teams have since grown a lot.

The Gamecocks have been so good they were probably going to be “winners” regardless of their bracket matchups. But coach Dawn Staley should be pleased with the path in front of her team.

Center Kamilla Cardoso will miss South Carolina’s opener against the Presbyterian-Sacred Heart winner after her ejection for fighting in the SEC tournament final. That will be of little consequence in that game. But the Gamecocks will be glad to have her back against the winner of North Carolina-Michigan State, the 8-9 matchup.

Provided the Gamecocks get through to the Sweet 16 — they last fell in the second round in 2013 — they could face an No. 4 seed Indiana team that hopes to be much healthier since its quarterfinal loss in the Big Ten tournament.

If there is an Elite Eight matchup between South Carolina and Notre Dame, we’ll see two of the best freshmen in the country in the Gamecocks’ MiLaysia Fulwiley and the Irish’s Hannah Hidalgo. But South Carolina’s inside presence and depth should take the Gamecocks through to Cleveland.

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Ivy League

The conference got two teams in the field: Ivy Madness champion Princeton and runner-up Columbia. It’s just the second time two Ivy teams reached the field (Penn and Princeton advanced in 2016).

The Tigers and Lions both finished 13-1 in league play, with Columbia handing Princeton its lone league loss, 67-65 on Feb. 25 in New York.

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Andraya Carter: Regional 3 is the ‘certified bucket’ region

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USC Trojans

Not since 1986, Trojans’ legend Cheryl Miller’s senior year, had the program earned a No. 1 seed until Sunday. USC, the top seed in the Portland 3 Regional, has had a breakthrough season, thanks in large part to JuJu Watkins, the top freshman in a stellar rookie class. But as the Trojans proved in winning the Pac-12 tournament final when Stanford focused on shutting down Watkins, USC is more than just its young superstar.

The Trojans have waited a long time — since 1994 — to host the early rounds of the NCAA tournament again, so that’s exciting for USC, too.

USC looks to have a good path to the Elite Eight, where an epic showdown with Paige Bueckers and No. 3 seed UConn — by far the most decorated team in this corner of the bracket – could await.

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Texas Longhorns

The Big 12 tournament champion earned its first No. 1 seed since 2004. The Longhorns, like fellow No. 1 seed Iowa, didn’t win their conference regular-season title but did won the league tournament.

After losing star guard Rori Harmon for the season in late December to a knee injury, Texas had to navigate Big 12 play without her. They lost to Baylor, Kansas State and regular-season champ Oklahoma twice. In the Big 12 tournament, the Longhorns beat Kansas, K-State and Iowa State, with freshman Madison Booker winning MVP honors.

Texas has made the Elite Eight twice since Vic Schaefer took over as coach in 2020-21. He said after the Big 12 final that he thought the Longhorns had proven they deserved a No. 1 seed. The committee agreed.

“When you win a championship in a league, you play the schedule these kids have played, I don’t know what else we could do,” Schaefer said. “I feel really confident in this team. They’ve done nothing but show me that they can do it.

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UConn Huskies and Tennessee Lady Vols

Both teams could make waves in the bracket. UConn ran the table in the Big East this season. The Huskies could be motivated by a potential revenge matchup with Ohio State Buckeyes in the Sweet 16, as the Buckeyes knocked UConn out of the tournament in that round last year.

Tennessee, the Portland 4 Regional No. 6 seed, comes into the NCAA tournament smarting from a last-second loss to South Carolina in the SEC semifinals. But the Lady Vols know from the way they’ve played the Gamecocks that they can compete with anyone.

Tennessee’s potential path to the Sweet 16, which would likely involve a win at No. 3 seed NC State in the second round, isn’t easy. But the Lady Vols have a chance.

Losers

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Iowa Hawkeyes

Last season, Stanford — the No. 1 seed in Iowa’s regional — was eliminated in the second round by Ole Miss. The Rebels were subsequently defeated by Louisville, which then fell to Iowa in the Elite Eight.

It wasn’t an easy path to the Final Four for the Hawkeyes in 2023, but it seems easier in retrospect to what they could face this season in Albany 2.

The potential difficulty starts in the second round. The Hawkeyes, who shouldn’t have trouble in their opener against the Holy Cross-UT Martin winner, would face the 8-9 West Virginia-Princeton winner next.

Last year, Georgia’s ability to defend Iowa made for a nerve-wracking second round win for the Hawkeyes. It could be similar if they face West Virginia, which leads the Big 12 in steals. Against Princeton, Iowa would face a program that upset Kentucky two years ago.

Should seeds hold, Iowa will have a third meeting this season vs. Kansas State; the teams played twice in November, with the Wildcats winning the first and the Hawkeyes the second. Center Ayoka Lee provides the muscle inside for a K-State team that pushed Texas in the Big 12 semifinals.

If Iowa makes the Elite Eight against either No. 2 UCLA or No. 3 LSU, one of the biggest issues will be how the Hawkeyes combat the size inside for both teams.

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UCLA Bruins

Placement-wise, the Bruins wouldn’t mind trading spots with their Pac-12 rivals Stanford in Portland 4 or USC in Portland 3. But it didn’t work out that way after UCLA fell to the Trojans in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. The Pac-12, in its final season as we know it, has three teams in the top 2 seeds for the first time in conference history. UCLA appears to have the toughest path of the three.

The Bruins won an AIAW championship in 1978. But it’s fair to say UCLA is the best program to never make the women’s Final Four in the NCAA era, which began in 1982. During parts of this season, the Bruins looked as if they had a strong chance to make that breakthrough in 2024. We’re not ruling them out, especially with a fifth-year senior leader in Charisma Osborne and a stellar sophomore class that includes 6-foot-7 post Lauren Betts.

But being in this regional makes it more difficult for the Bruins. If seeds hold, they would have to get through LSU and Iowa back-to-back, two very different types of teams. Can UCLA do it? Yes, but it’s a real challenge.

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LSU Tigers

The defending champs, the No. 3 seed in Albany 2, also fit into our bracket losers. However, their path doesn’t seem quite as tough as for Iowa or UCLA. For three reasons: One, they’ve already played the best team in the country, South Carolina, twice. The Tigers lost their SEC regular-season and tournament matchups with the Gamecocks, but they hung with them both times. Second, LSU won the NCAA title last season, beating Iowa in the final, so the Tigers should face this regional with confidence. Third, Mulkey already has four national championships as a coach. This is her time of year.

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Miami Hurricanes

Last year, the Hurricanes were one of the biggest stories of March on the women’s side. A No. 9 seed, they beat No. 8 Oklahoma State, No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Villanova to reach the Elite Eight, where they lost to eventual national champion LSU.

But last year’s mojo didn’t carry over for Miami to 2024. The Hurricanes went 19-12 overall but were 8-10 in the ACC. Victories over NCAA tournament teams NC State, Duke and North Carolina weren’t enough to offset some of Miami’s losses.



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