Which teams can erase the chalk in the 2021 women’s basketball tournament?
When 714 days have passed since your last women’s NCAA tournament game, even a whole lot of chalk isn’t going to sour the mood. Sixteen games are in the books as the 2021 women’s basketball tournament tipped off Sunday. The better seed won in each game. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of highlights. All four No. 1 seeds — Stanford, UConn, NC State and South Carolina — easily advanced to the second round, and freshmen stars Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers had impressive NCAA tournament debuts. Were there any red flags among the top-16 seeds? How will an injury to another UConn freshman guard impact the Huskies going forward? Will Monday see some upsets? Our team — ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Mechelle Voepel and Royce Young — weighed in on all of the above. Follow this link for Monday’s NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to check your Women’s Tournament Challenge bracket.
Since the women’s NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994, the best record by higher seeds in the first round is 30-2. We’re at 16-0 after Sunday. Which game Monday could be a bracket-breaker?
Creme: If I’m looking at a true upset that will break the current run of the top-four seeds and really throw off some brackets, it’s Monday’s matchup between No. 13 seed Wright State and No. 4 Arkansas (ESPN/ESPN App, 2 p.m. ET). The possibilities for how this game plays out are numerous because of the Razorbacks high-volume shooting approach. An Arkansas team firing on all cylinders could beat the Raiders by 40. If the Razorbacks aren’t clicking, they could be in for a real battle.
According to HerHoopStats.com, Wright State has a defensive efficiency rating of 55. More significant might be that the Raiders are 303rd in the country in possessions per 40 minutes. That means the Raiders play slow. The recipe for the upset would hinge on Wright State’s ability to dictate the pace with a defense that slows down the Razorbacks.
It sounds like a long shot — and it is — but the anatomy of an upset usually originates with a contrast in styles. That is exactly what this game is.
Young: Anticipating upsets in March is like predicting the weather in March: You can forecast it, but things can escalate and change in a hurry. The moment you let your guard down, a 14 beats a 3 and a sunny day turns to a downpour. But let’s just keep an eye on Georgia-Drexel (ESPN2/ESPN App, noon ET), shall we?
Some feel the Bulldogs’ seed got inflated by a strong SEC tourney run, and while Drexel is battling a key injury, it has a steady senior guard in Hannah Nihill. The Dragons are making their first tournament appearance since 2009 and would’ve been there last season had it not been canceled. So a little added motivation mixed with some potential overhyping and the atmosphere might be right for the upset storm.
Voepel: I’m looking at the three 7 vs. 10 games as all possible upsets. Sunday’s 7-10 contest ended up being a close finish, but Virginia Tech avoided the upset with a 70-63 win over Marquette. Monday in the Alamo Region, No. 7 Northwestern meets No. 10 UCF (ESPNU/ESPN App, 4 p.m. ET). The Knights had three battles this season against American Athletic Conference rival South Florida — which won its NCAA opener against Washington State on Sunday — that have prepared them well.
In the Hemisfair Regional, No. 7 Alabama is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, and will face No. 10 North Carolina (ESPN/ESPN App, noon ET). The Tar Heels’ top win this season was Feb. 7 against NC State, which is a No. 1 seed, so we know that UNC at its best is a dangerous team.
In the Mercado Region, No. 7 Iowa State takes on a No. 7 Michigan State (ESPN/ESPN App, 6 p.m. ET), which upset Indiana in the Big Ten tournament and made it to the semifinals. This feels like a pretty even matchup if the Spartans play as well as they did in the conference tournament.
If guard Nika Mühl, who suffered a right ankle sprain in the second quarter of UConn’s win over High Point, misses significant time, how does that impact UConn?
Voepel: UConn is never a team that relies on one player to bring the energy. But Mühl has that passionate element to her game that has been helpful to the Huskies as they’ve grown as a team this season. They will miss that if she is out.
But another freshman, Aaliyah Edwards, had an outstanding game Sunday: 17 points on 8 of 10 shooting from the field and 12 rebounds. The 6-foot-3 forward isn’t a replacement for the Mühl on court. But she has become a post force to be reckoned with, which will be needed against No. 8 seed Syracuse and its 6-7 freshman center Kamilla Cardoso on Tuesday (ESPN/ESPN App, 9 p.m. ET). The Orange blocked 14 shots — six by Cardoso — in their 72-55 victory over South Dakota State on Sunday.
Junior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa had 22 points and seven rebounds Sunday, and sophomore forward Aubrey Griffin had nine and seven. UConn’s post play looks pretty strong heading into the next round.
Young: The Huskies’ youth has been a central storyline around them all season, and while it’s UConn, and their depth is deeper than most anybody, it is a blow to the Huskies’ rotation. Edwards started the second half in place of Mühl and played well overall, scoring 17 against High Point, but as the games get bigger and the opponents tougher, Mühl’s playmaking and ball-handling could be missed. She also sets a defensive tone, something associate head coach Chris Dailey said will require someone else taking over.
Against High Point, Bueckers asserted herself immediately after Mühl’s injury, scoring 10 of her 13 first-half points right after the injury. But teams will load up more and more on Bueckers, and not having a pressure release valve to engineer offense could play a factor in later rounds.
Creme: In the short term, Mühl’s injury probably won’t be too detrimental. But it begs the question: How much can the Huskies withstand? Having to play the first two rounds without coach Geno Auriemma and assistant Shea Ralph, and having just two coaches on the sideline, is tough enough. Now UConn’s on-court depth is challenged.
From a production standpoint, Mühl won’t be missed too much. She entered the NCAA tournament averaging 5.1 points. But Mühl brings intangibles that don’t show up on a stat sheet, plus she gives UConn another ball handler that allows Bueckers to play off the ball more. Mühl is a high-energy defender that often sets the tone for the Huskies on that end of the floor. Her absence means that Christyn Williams and Evina Westbrook will each have to do a little more. They were solid against High Point, combining for 23 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. And Westbrook is more than capable of assuming a point guard role, too. She did it for two seasons at Tennessee. From that perspective, UConn should be fine.
Everyone has said this tournament is wide open, but chalk ruled the day. What were good signs or red flags from the top-16 seeds?
Young: It’s just a good sign for the top seeds, in general, to make it through an opening day with a lot of uncertainty, oddities and challenges. And almost across the board, the top teams made it through comfortably.
For the teams playing in the Alamodome, it felt cavernous without fans as the PA announcer’s voices echoed off the walls, but it didn’t play any kind of a factor. This seemed like the kind of setting ripe for tournament weirdness, with out-of-nowhere upsets springing up for a variety of reasons — like it being a true neutral site — but the good teams looked good and that bodes well for the coming rounds to be played at a high level.
Voepel: We know Baylor, the No. 2 seed in the River Walk Regional, is not a 3-point shooting team; the Lady Bears made just 93 during the regular season, the least among the top eight seeds in the tournament. But in its 101-52 opening win against Jackson State, Baylor hit six 3-pointers. That might not seem like much to a lot of teams, but it’s notable for one that averages 3.4 treys per game.
On Tuesday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET), Baylor plays the seventh-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies, whose 6-foot-5 center, Elizabeth Kitley, had 23 points in a 70-63 over Marquette. Hitting some 3-pointers will give the Lady Bears another advantage in regard to stretching the Hokies’ defense. It’s also important because Virginia Tech is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the tournament, averaging 9.5 per game.
Guard Moon Ursin had three of Baylor’s 3-pointers and a season-high 24 points Sunday, and what a senior year she is having. Ursin is averaging 12.0 PPG, and she gives Baylor another important offensive weapon to go along with NaLyssa Smith (18.1 PPG), DiJonai Carrington (13.3) and Queen Egbo (11.3).
Creme: That Aliyah Boston got 13 shots and finished with 20 points to go along with 18 rebounds is a good sign for South Carolina. That’s about six points more than Boston’s season average. If the Gamecocks are going to reach the Final Four and play for a title, Boston has to score at a higher rate. The Gamecocks struggled from 3-point range (3-of-14) and that is something to watch. As they get deeper into the tournament, Zia Cooke — who had 13 points Sunday but didn’t make a 3-pointer — will become even more important.
NC State’s recent penchant for getting off to slow starts is a red flag. The Wolfpack scored just two points in a nearly five-minute stretch in the first quarter of their ACC quarterfinal against Virginia Tech. They trailed at the half in the semifinals against Georgia Tech. In the ACC championship game against Louisville, NC State had just 26 points at halftime.
That continued on Sunday. NC State trailed North Carolina A&T late in the second quarter before things seemed to click. The Wolfpack scored the final 13 points of the first half to take control, and that spilled over into a big third quarter before NC State won comfortably, 79-58. As the Wolfpack move along, one bad beginning could finally be too much to overcome. And now that might be heading into the second round without senior forward Kayla Jones and her 11.9 points per game. Jones injured her knee in the first half against the Aggies and did not return.
Voepel: The best news for Tennessee on Sunday was the play of Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell (combined 46 points) and how well the Lady Vols shot from two-point range. Things weren’t good for them from behind the arc (2 of 12), but inside it they were 31 of 51 (60.8 percent).
Tennessee’s game Tuesday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 5 p.m. ET) against No. 6 seed Michigan could be one of the best of the second-round matchups of the tournament. Naz Hillmon is the Big Ten player of the year and had her 14th double-double this season, with 14 points and 13 rebounds, in the Wolverines’ victory over Florida Gulf Coast . Fellow junior Leigha Brown had a season-high 28 points, and slowing down that combo will require a strong defensive performance if the third-seeded Lady Vols are to avoid an upset.
Creme: I’ll throw one more out there. West Virginia, which got its offense clicking in the second half against Lehigh in a comfortable 77-53 win, has been without point guard Madisen Smith (ankle) for over a month, and her absence has impacted the offense.
West Virginia averaged just 55 points in three Big 12 tournament games after being held to fewer than 60 points just once during the regular season. But guards Kysre Gondrezick and Kirsten Deans — who also are both playing on sore ankles — were the Mountaineers’ leading scorers Sunday with 26 and 19 points, respectively. Gondrezick played like a star, making 9 of 15 shots from the field, including 6-of-8 from 3-point range, to go along with seven rebounds, five assists and four steals. West Virginia will face a higher-quality defense in the next round against Georgia Tech, but having Deans and Gondrezick scoring and shooting well is a huge boost.