What to look out for in the first round
- March 17, 2023
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March Madness begins on St. Patrick’s Day, known for luck, leprechauns and pots of gold. And yes, Notre Dame plays Friday when the first round of the 2023 NCAA women’s tournament begins.
For any teams that have waited a week or two to get back playing, the excitement is contagious.
Your first question about the first half of the season: will there be any surprises? There will almost certainly be some. Which teams could be this year’s versions of Creighton and South Dakota, two 10th-seeded teams who won both preliminary round games by upsets last season?
ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and MA Voepel look at the first round games played Friday and Saturday at the home grounds of the top 16 seeds and project what we might see and where the best games might be played .
Every game of the women’s tournament will be broadcast on the ABC/ESPN family of networks and the opening weekend will be non-stop busy. Follow these links for a full rundown of Friday’s games and Saturday’s schedule. Be sure to register for the Women’s Tournament Challenge and check your bracket once games start.
Which game on Friday are you looking forward to the most?
Creme: Almost by definition, 8-9 games are the most intriguing. 8th seeded Ole Miss vs. 9th seeded Gonzaga in Seattle 4 is the one that stands out. I have a good idea of which team I think will win almost every game throughout the first round. Not in this one. I have no idea, and that mystery is why I’m so looking forward to it. Ole Miss’ Angel Baker was a big player in the NCAA tournament, averaging 24.5 PPG in first-round games over the past two years — one with Wright State and one with the Rebels. But Ole Miss is not efficient on offense (153rd in effective field goal percentage), while Gonzaga leads the country by 3-point percentage (41.5%). The contrast makes for a great matchup.
Voepel: The No. 11 UNLV is 31-2 and is on a 22-game winning streak as the regular-season and tournament champion of Mountain West. The Lady Rebels take on No. 6 Michigan, who ranked fifth in the Big Ten. The Wolverines made the Elite Eight last year and went 22-9 this season after losing to Naz Hillmon in the WNBA draft. Michigan struggled with the top four teams in the Big Ten, but the Wolverines’ 81-79 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament showed just how dangerous they can be.
Philippou: Aside from those already mentioned, 10th-seeded Georgia vs. 7th-seeded Florida State should be a battle of defense and attack, especially with FSU rookie Ta’Niya Latson playing. USC #8 vs. South Dakota State #9 also falls into this category. Lindsay Gottlieb has put the Trojans on track for a while this year with their maiden 20-win season, but the Jackrabbits have not lost since December 15, when they came within range of the Gamecocks ahead of a huge fourth quarter against the defending champion Champions.
Which side has the best group of games and potential encounters in the opening weekend?
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Philippou: The South Bend Pod will just be fascinating. Notre Dame announced Thursday that star point guard Olivia Miles (knee injury) will not play again this season after suffering a knee injury on Feb. 26. In a tough ACC tournament loss to Louisville, it looked like her absence would make itself felt with Niele Ivey’s Irish. Notre Dame’s potential second-round matchup could also be difficult as the Irish would face either 6-seeded Creighton or No. 11 Mississippi State. In the first four, the Bulldogs thwarted Illinois offense and pushed into the transition, and the 6-foot-5 Jessica Carter had 22 points and nine rebounds. She could cause problems for the undersized Creighton. Without Miles, who knows how the Irish will handle a unit that can be tough defensively and produce both inside and out.
Women’s Tournament Challenge
Complete your bracket by picking the winner for each game in the 2023 NCAA Women’s Tournament. Play Tournament Challenge
Creme: Check out the overall wins at Villanova. Florida Gulf Coast won 32 games, Cleveland State won 30 and Villanova 28. Washington State, the only team without a swanky win total (23), has a Pac-12 tournament title. All this success in one place is at least interesting, if not fascinating. While I see the host Wildcats showing up to make the Sweet 16, these should be close games with potentially big points.
Voepel: Texas will be an interesting location. The Longhorns were co-Big 12 regular-season champions but only scored 51 points in losing the league tournament finals to Iowa State. They meet American Athletic Conference tournament champion East Carolina in the first round, while Louisville meets Missouri Valley tournament champion Drake. When No. 4 Texas meets No. 5 Louisville, it’s a second-round matchup between teams who were in last year’s Elite Eight and Final Four respectively. Texas needs to be a lot better offensively than they were in the Big 12 tournament.
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Voepel: You may have heard of her: Caitlin Clark. Iowa fans are so obsessed with Clark and her Big Ten tournament championship team that tickets to the preliminary round games sold out like seats to a Taylor Swift concert. Carver-Hawkeye Arena sold out almost immediately. Clark had another spectacular season, including four triple-doubles, and she and the Hawkeyes are on a mission after last year’s disappointing second-round loss at home to Creighton. Iowa’s most recent game at Carver-Hawkeye was the Feb. 26 win over Indiana, which ended with Clark’s 3-pointer buzzer. Clark’s reputation for big Treys and great passes precedes her, and she has next to no off-games. It will be important that their supporting cast, who did so well in the Big Ten tournament, are also at their best.
Creme: Most of the attention on Virginia Tech since the bracket came out has been centered on center Elizabeth Kitley and the Hokies, who set their first No. 1s. That is certainly justified. But point guard Georgia Amoore was critical to Virginia Tech’s late-season success, and I’m excited to see how that translates to the NCAA tournament. Amoore averaged 24 and 25 points in the semifinals and finals of the ACC Tournament, and during a key stretch of the Hokies’ 11-game winning streak, she averaged 24 points per game against NC State, Florida State and Duke. Amoore’s step-back jumper is something to marvel at and has become a groundbreaking shot for opponents.
Philippou: On Friday it might be more about which must-see players don’t speak up. We know Miles is outside. ACC Rookie of the Year Latson is a day-to-day for Florida State, but coach Brooke Wyckoff could really use her star in the first round against a strong defensive team in Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s Georgia Lady Bulldogs. It’s increasingly looking like Diamond Johnson, the sixth ACC woman of 2022, may not be available for NC State, and given the Wolfpack’s struggles this year, their first-round matchup against Ivy League screams -Champion Princeton after huge potential for excitement.
How many first round surprises do you have in your bracket?
Creme: The word upset has an interesting twist in this first round. For my first pick, I chose Middle Tennessee, No. 11, to beat Colorado, No. 6, Florida Gulf Coast, No. 12, to beat Washington State, No. 5, Princeton, No. 10, NC State, No. 7 , and to defeat No. 10.. 9 seed South Dakota State to beat No. 8 USC. As it turns out, DraftKings doesn’t see some of these as nuisances at all. Middle Tennessee, FGCU and South Dakota State are all betting favorites despite their lower seedings (and the Blue Raiders are the 27th most popular team selected to make the Sweet 16 in the Women’s Tournament Challenge brackets; the other three 11- Seedlings rank 39th or worse). . With a whopping 6.5 points, the Jackrabbits are favorites over the Trojans. I’m sticking with these tips and adding UNLV over Michigan as my really annoyed pick. The Lady Rebels are No. 11 in the seed and still a slight betting outsider.
Voepel: I go with six. Charlie is right: what’s a nuisance in seeding, in reality, isn’t necessarily. I have two of the same potential surprises as him, with Princeton and South Dakota State going through to the second round. I can also see No. 5 Oklahoma coming to the Sweet 16 from the UCLA early round site, Colorado doing the same from the Duke site, No. 9 Gonzaga going to No. 8 Ole Miss Rebels and the tenth-placed West advances past Virginia gets past No. 7 Arizona in the first round.
Philippou: I’ve included five surprises — at least in terms of seeding — in my bracket, but I have another six that I would classify as “under upset-watch.” My two wildest: 6-Seed Creighton losing to his 11-Seed opponent and 12-Seed Drake Bulldogs beating 5-Seed Louisville. Creighton has some nights when his shots just don’t come off. And in the Big East tournament, it almost lost to Seton Hall after allowing Lauren Park-Lane to score 36 points. The Bluejays have to support themselves defensively. And then Drake’s efficient, balanced offensive game could perhaps overwhelm Louisville, who have improved on the track but are still a far cry from the group that advanced to the Final Four last season.