March Madness starts on St. Patrick’s Day, known for luck, leprechauns and pots of gold. And yes, Notre Dame is playing Friday as the first round of the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament tips off.
For all the teams that have been waiting a week or two to play again, the excitement is contagious.
Your first question on the first round: Will there be any upsets? There are almost sure to be a few. Which teams might be this year’s version of Creighton and South Dakota, two No. 10 seeds that won both of their early-round games in upsets last season?
ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel look at the first-round games, played Friday and Saturday at the home sites 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 opening weekend will be nonstop busy. Follow these links for a complete look at Friday’s games and Saturday’s schedule. Be sure to sign up for the Women’s Tournament Challenge and check your bracket once the games get underway.
Which game Friday are you most looking forward to watching?
Creme: Almost by definition, 8-9 games are the most intriguing. No. 8 seed Ole Miss vs. No. 9 Gonzaga in Seattle 4 is the one that stands out. I have a good idea of which team I think is going to win in nearly every game of the entire 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 has been a big-time player in the NCAA tournament, averaging 24.5 PPG in first-round games the past two years — one at Wright State and one with the Rebels. But Ole Miss isn’t efficient on offense (153rd in effective field goal percentage), while Gonzaga leads the country in 3-point percentage (41.5%). The contrast makes for a great matchup.
Voepel: No. 11 seed UNLV is 31-2 and on a 22-game winning streak as the Mountain West regular-season and tournament champions. The Lady Rebels will meet No. 6 Michigan, which finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten. The Wolverines reached the Elite Eight last year, and this season went 22-9 after losing Naz Hillmon to 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 the threat they can be.
Philippou: Aside from the ones already mentioned, No. 10 seed Georgia vs. No. 7 Florida State should be a defense vs. offense battle, especially if FSU freshman Ta’Niya Latson is playing. No. 8 USC vs. No. 9 South Dakota State also falls into that category. Lindsay Gottlieb has the Trojans on track this year with their first 20-win season in some time, but the Jackrabbits haven’t lost since Dec. 15, when they were within arm’s length of the Gamecocks before a huge fourth quarter from the defending national champs.
Which site has the best group of games and potential matchups on opening weekend?
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Philippou: The South Bend pod will be nothing short of fascinating. Notre Dame announced Thursday that star point guard Olivia Miles (knee injury) won’t play again this season after suffering a knee injury on Feb. 26. In a rough ACC tournament loss to Louisville, it looked as if her absence was starting to catch up with Niele Ivey’s Irish. Notre Dame’s potential second-round matchup could be tough, too, as the Irish would face either 6-seed Creighton or No. 11 Mississippi State. In the First Four, the Bulldogs stymied Illinois‘ offense and pushed in transition, and 6-foot-5 Jessika Carter had 22 points and nine rebounds. She could cause problems for undersized Creighton. With Miles out, who knows how the Irish will handle a unit that can be tough defensively and produce both inside and out.
Creme: Look at the win totals in Villanova. Florida Gulf Coast won 32 games, Cleveland State won 30 and Villanova 28. Washington State, the only team without a gaudy win total (23), has a Pac-12 tournament title. All that success in one place is at least interesting, if not fascinating. Although I see the host Wildcats emerging to get to the Sweet 16, these should be close games with potentially a lot of points.
Voepel: Texas will be an interesting site. The Longhorns were co-Big 12 regular-season champions but scored just 51 points in losing the league tournament final to Iowa State. They face American Athletic Conference tournament champion East Carolina in the first round, while Louisville takes on Missouri Valley tournament winner Drake. If No. 4 seed Texas then meets No. 5 Louisville, it’s a second-round matchup between teams that were in the Elite Eight and Final Four, respectively, last year. Texas will need to be a lot better offensively than it was in the Big 12 tournament.
Who’s the must-see player on the court Friday?
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Voepel: You might have heard of her: Caitlin Clark. Iowa fans are so jazzed about Clark and her Big Ten tournament championship team that tickets to the early-round games went about as fast as seats to a Taylor Swift concert. Carver-Hawkeye Arena was sold out almost instantly. Clark has 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 that ended on Clark’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Clark’s reputation for big treys and great passes precedes her, and she pretty much doesn’t have off games. It will be important for her supporting cast, which was so good in the Big Ten tournament, to be at its best, too.
Creme: Most of the attention on Virginia Tech since the bracket came out focuses on center Elizabeth Kitley and the Hokies having their first No. 1 seed. That’s certainly warranted. But point guard Georgia Amoore was vital to Virginia Tech’s late-season success, and I’m anxious to see how that carries into the NCAA tournament. Amoore scored 24 and 25 points in the ACC tournament semifinals and finals, 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 backbreaking shot for opponents.
Philippou: Friday might be more about which must-see players aren’t taking the floor. We know Miles is out. ACC Rookie of the Year Latson is considered day-to-day for Florida State, but coach Brooke Wyckoff really might need her star against a tough defensive team in Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s Georgia Lady Bulldogs in the first round. It’s looking more and more as if 2022 ACC Sixth Woman of the Year Diamond Johnson might not be available for NC State, and given the Wolfpack’s struggles this year, their first-round matchup versus Ivy League champ Princeton screams huge upset potential.
How many first-round upsets do you have in your bracket?
Creme: The word upset has an interesting twist in this first round. For my initial picks, I chose No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee to beat No. 6 Colorado, 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast to take down No. 5 Washington State, No. 10 seed Princeton to knock off 7-seed NC State and No. 9 seed South Dakota State to beat No. 8 USC. As it turns out, DraftKings doesn’t see some of these as upsets at all. Middle Tennessee, FGCU and South Dakota State are all betting favorites despite their lower seeds (and the Blue Raiders are the 27th most popular team picked to reach the Sweet 16 in Women’s Tournament Challenge brackets; the other three 11-seeds rank 39th or worse). The Jackrabbits are a whopping 6.5-point favorite over the Trojans. I’m sticking with those picks, and add UNLV over Michigan as my true upset pick. The Lady Rebels are the No. 11 seed and still a slight betting underdog.
Voepel: I’m going with six. Charlie is right: What is an upset seeding-wise isn’t necessarily one in reality. I have two of the same potential upsets he does, with Princeton and South Dakota State moving into the second round. I can also see No. 5 Oklahoma getting to the Sweet 16 out of the UCLA early-round site, Colorado doing the same out of the Duke site, No. 9 Gonzaga advancing past the No. 8 Ole Miss Rebels and 10th-seeded West Virginia getting by No. 7 Arizona in the first round.
Philippou: I included five upsets — at least seeding-wise — in my bracket, but I have another six I would classify as “under upset watch.” My two wildest ones: 6-seed Creighton losing to its 11-seed opponent, and 12-seed Drake Bulldogs beating 5-seed Louisville. Creighton has some nights when its shots simply don’t fall. And in the Big East tournament, it nearly lost to Seton Hall after allowing Lauren Park-Lane to score 36 points. The Bluejays will need to shore up defensively. And then maybe Drake’s efficient, balanced offense could overpower Louisville, which has shown improvement down the stretch but is still a far cry from the group that advanced to the Final Four last season.