Why each women’s college basketball team in the NCAA’s top 16 could win the 2021 NCAA title

Monday night had an NCAA tournament feel to it as Stanford and Oregon met in a heavyweight Pac-12 matchup and the NCAA selection committee revealed its projected top 16 seeds.

In a women’s college basketball season in which there have been so many games canceled and programs paused by COVID-19, at times the NCAA tournament has seemed more like something to hope for rather than count on. Yet as we get closer to seeing it come to fruition, the picture of how the bracket could look got a little clearer from the committee’s perspective.

A lot could still happen between now and the next reveal on March 1 and Selection Monday on March 15. But here’s a look at the postseason prospects of the current top 16.

1. UConn: The Huskies are relying more on one player — freshman guard Paige Bueckers (21.1 PPG, 5.7 APG) — than they usually do, they have seven freshmen overall, and their upperclassmen have at times been inconsistent. Still, UConn is the top overall seed and new No. 1 in the AP Top 25. Geno Auriemma said Monday that although he has to coach this team differently due to its youth and the impact of COVID-19, his expectations aren’t any different. Can they win the program’s 12th championship? Yes, but they’ll need more than Bueckers firing on all cylinders, especially from juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

2. South Carolina: There was a lot to learn from the team’s two losses this season: to NC State on Dec. 3 and to UConn on Feb. 8. Coach Dawn Staley thought the team didn’t compete well enough in the first defeat, and didn’t execute well enough in the second. The Gamecocks took the shots the Huskies wanted them to take, and their transition offense wasn’t its normal effective self. Led by forward Aliyah Boston, South Carolina can address these issues and go for a second NCAA title. But their guards have to avoid turnovers, and Boston has to get a lot of touches.

3. Stanford: The nomadic Cardinal — nine weeks on the road due to COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County — are home again and have looked good since back-to-back losses to Colorado and UCLA Jan. 17-22. In their seven games heading into Monday’s matchup with Oregon, Stanford had not allowed more than 59 points. The Ducks pushed them, but the Cardinal prevailed 63-61. Stanford might have the deepest team among all the main national championship contenders, led by sophomore Haley Jones and senior Kiana Williams, both averaging 13.9 PPG. Freshman forward Cameron Brink has been efficient in her minutes on court but has struggled at times with foul trouble. That wasn’t the case Monday; she played a season-high 36 minutes and finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and four steals in her best overall game of the season.

4. Louisville: The Cardinals’ lone loss was to ACC rival NC State. Senior guard Dana Evans (20.8 PPG) is a true clutch performer always willing to take the high-pressure shots. Louisville’s top freshmen, guard Hailey Van Lith and forward Olivia Cochran, are both averaging around 11 PPG and are two of the team’s top rebounders. Like the other No. 1 seeds, Louisville has all the weapons necessary to make a run at the national championship, but the Cardinals have to be wary of their occasional up-and-down offense.

5. Texas A&M: If guard play is a mainstay of NCAA tournament success, the Aggies are well-stocked in that department. For the last three years, they went as star guard Chennedy Carter went, but the load is more spread around this season. Guard Aaliyah Wilson leads the Aggies in scoring (13.3 PPG), but they also have weapons like guard Destiny Pitts who can come off the bench and take over a game, like she did Sunday against Tennessee (18 points). Forward N’dea Jones and center Ciera Johnson are dependable seniors inside. Texas A&M won its NCAA championship a decade ago, and could add another one this year.

6. NC State: In the Wolfpack’s victories over South Carolina and Louisville, a trip to the Final Four looked like a real possibility for NC State. Their overtime loss to Virginia Tech could be explained in part by the absence of center Elissa Cunane, who was still in COVID-19 protocol. The subsequent loss to North Carolina was one of the rare times a Wes Moore-coached team seemed out-worked. The Wolfpack’s biggest strengths are defense, led by wing Jakia Brown-Turner (14.2 PPG), guard play, led by Kayla Jones, and inside presence, as Cunane (15.6 PPG) is one of college game’s top pure centers.

7. Maryland: There was some uncertainty to start the season: The only starter back was guard Ashley Owusu, as Maryland lost five key players to graduation or transfer. Plus, prized recruit Angel Reese has been limited to four games by injury. Yet they are still the same old Terps: leading the Big Ten and expecting a good NCAA tournament seed. Sophomores Owusu (19.3 PPG) and Diamond Miller (17.5) lead the way, and transfers Katie Benzan, Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins have stepped in to keep the Maryland mojo going. Coach Brenda Frese just got her 500th win with the program. Never count out the Terps.

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8. Arizona: The Wildcats were one of those teams you really felt for last season, as they were poised to make the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005. But with sensational guard Aari McDonald opting to return rather than leave for the WNBA draft, Arizona will not just make this year’s NCAA field, but could make an Elite Eight run or better. It starts with defense for Adia Barnes’ squad, but performances like Sunday, when Arizona shot 75 percent from 3-point range (12 of 16), show the Wildcats can be a force at that end, too.

9. UCLA: The Bruins have had some big victories, including beating Stanford in January after losing to the Cardinal in December. But depth could be a problem. With some members of their freshman class from Australia not being allowed to travel to the United States, we aren’t seeing the full team that coach Cori Close envisioned. Still, with stars such as forward Michaela Onyenwere and guard Charisma Osborne, UCLA could beat anyone. A bigger concern is the grind of trying to get multiple NCAA tournament wins.

10. Baylor: Nobody gets competitively fired up by perceived slights any better than coach Kim Mulkey and Baylor, and the Lady Bears likely see being outside the top eight seeds as a slight. Admittedly, it hurt that their matchup with UConn was canceled when Baylor went on a COVID-19 pause, and the Big 12 isn’t as strong as some other leagues. But this is still the defending champion from 2019 and perennially one of the best programs. Underestimate NaLyssa Smith and company at your own risk. Baylor could finish the season in another Final Four, and maybe repeat — with a year in between titles.

11. Oregon: A Ducks team that lost so much from last season isn’t necessarily expected to be a Final Four contender, but Oregon took a team that is (Stanford) to the wire in Monday’s 63-61 loss. With fewer turnovers, in fact, the Ducks could have won. There is still plenty of talent in Eugene, and Monday’s loss should show that a lot is still possible, led by Taylor Mikesell’s perimeter shooting, Nyara Sabally inside and exciting point guard play from freshman Te-Hina Paopao.

12. Georgia: The Lady Bulldogs are tied for third in the SEC, and there’s probably not a whole lot separating them from the other league teams like Tennessee and Kentucky. Georgia will get a chance to separate itself a bit because the Lady Vols and Wildcats are its next two opponents. With four senior starters, led by center Jenna Staiti (14.2 PPG), Georgia has the experience to be at least a Sweet 16 team.

13. Tennessee: When the Lady Vols have strong performances from guard/forwards Rae Burrell (17.2 PPG) and Rennia Davis (15.1), they can be hard to stop. It’s a concern for coach Kellie Harper that Tennessee has the same amount of turnovers as assists (272), and the Lady Vols still have to play South Carolina and Georgia. But you could see at least a couple of NCAA tournament wins.

14. West Virginia: The Mountaineers traditionally are known for their defense, but their 75.3 PPG average this season is their highest over the last 10 years. So their NCAA tournament fortunes rest more on offense than is usually the case. West Virginia had a disappointing loss at home last week to Oklahoma. And four of the Mountaineers’ last five scheduled games are on the road, starting with Big 12 giant Baylor on Wednesday. But led by senior guard Kysre Gondrezick (21.2 PPG), they can get back to the form that saw them win 10 in a row.

15. Indiana: At 11-2, the Hoosiers are in the hunt for the Big Ten title, with their only league losses to Maryland and Ohio State. Indiana is second in the conference in scoring defense (59.1 PPG) to perennial defensive stalwart Rutgers, and around the middle of the pack in offense (76.1 PPG), led by forward Mackenzie Holmes (18.0). The Hoosiers could make a run at the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance.

16. Kentucky: The Wildcats have the most losses (five) among the projected top 16 seeds. Three of their SEC defeats are to other teams in the top 16: South Carolina, Texas A&M and Tennessee. And even the loss to Ole Miss doesn’t look that bad. Kentucky avenged its loss to the Lady Vols, and has the chance to do the same vs. the Gamecocks on Feb. 21. The Wildcats are tied for third in the SEC with Georgia at 8-4 and have one of the country’s top players in junior guard Rhyne Howard, who had 31 points and nine rebounds in a victory Monday at Florida. When you have that kind of a star, you have a chance to make an NCAA tournament run.

Weekly superlatives

Player of the week: Octavia Jett-Wilson, Charlotte

Some impressive scoring performances are happening in Conference USA, led by Middle Tennessee’s Anastasia Hayes, the top scorer in Division I at 28.2 PPG. But this past week, another talented C-USA guard, Jett-Wilson, had back-to-back games of 42 and 34 points in two victories against Old Dominion, the first in double-overtime and the second in overtime. Jett-Wilson made 28 of 31 free throws in the two games, and had a combined 22 rebounds and nine assists for the 49ers.

Shout-outs go to Oklahoma wing Madi Williams, who had a combined 48 points, 21 rebounds and 12 assists in beating Iowa State and West Virginia; and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith, who had a combined 42 points and 21 rebounds in wins against Texas Tech and Texas, and led the defensive effort in shutting down the Longhorns’ Charli Collier.

Team of the week: Arizona

After missing four games over two weeks because of COVID-19 protocol, the Wildcats roared back with victories over then-No. 10 Oregon, Washington State and Washington. They held their opponents to 59, 51 and 53 points. Arizona is now in second place in the Pac-12 at 12-2 behind 16-2 Stanford. The Wildcats and Cardinal face off on Big Monday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 9 p.m. ET).

“We feel like we would have had a strong [NCAA] tournament run last year,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “So we don’t have that experience, but this team is more mature and more focused on what we need to do.”

Coach of the week: C. Vivian Rutgers, Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights were on a COVID-19 pause for more than a month before returning with a 78-62 win over Nebraska on Feb. 7. They followed that with victories over No. 21 Northwestern and Purdue — and scored 70 points or more in both those games, too. That’s a big deal for a defensive-minded program. So is the fact that Stringer, who turns 73 in March, has been able to safely return to the sidelines for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have played 11 games thus far, and currently have five more scheduled in the regular season in hopes of boosting their NCAA tournament résumé.

Win of the week: Oklahoma

The Sooners had two of them, beating Iowa State and No. 19 West Virginia. This after what could have been a demoralizing 27-point loss to Oklahoma State in the rivalry known as Bedlam on Feb. 6. Illness and injury have trimmed the Sooners’ active roster down to seven players, but they dug deep and got two splendid performances from Madi Williams. The Sooners are 8-9, and have six scheduled games in front of them in which to try to make an NCAA tournament case. But whether that happens, their play last week was inspirational.

“Before the season started, we talked about pivoting, about how many things were going to be weird, different, shocking and disruptive over the course of the season,” Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. “What a great thing for a bunch of kids to learn how to do: Just move on to the next thing, and do it as well as you possibly can.”

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