On Sunday night, the college basketball season came to a close with Stanford defeating Arizona 54-53 in the 2021 National Championship game. It was a physical, gritty, and low scoring game – the lowest scoring National Championship game since 2010.

From start to finish, this was a defensive tournament. In the seven post-Sweet 16 games, only one team scored more than 70 points. And defense is exactly what the National Championship came down to, with Stanford holding Arizona to 28.3% from the field and Aari McDonald to 5-21. 

Stanford won with a team effort, but there were plenty of impressive individual performances to go around this tournament. From 30-point scoring efforts to shot-blocking defensive anchors, this is our 2021 All-Tournament Team:

Paige Bueckers, Guard, UConn

With 1:30 left against Arizona, Paige Bueckers came off a screen and nailed a three-pointer two steps behind the three point line. “Don’t go away yet!” ESPN announcer Ryan Ruocco yelled into the microphone. Forget that the Huskies trailed by five points in the Final Four. Forget that Bueckers was a freshman. Forget that she had shot just 4-12 up until that point. Behind Bueckers, UConn could come back to win this thing. 

They didn’t come back to win, but Ruocco’s reaction was a testament to Bueckers’ poise, her patience, and her performance all tournament. Despite her age and the circumstances, every game felt within reach with Bueckers on the floor. 

Her shining moment came in UConn’s Elite Eight matchup versus Baylor, a game in which she dropped 28 points – the second-most Baylor allowed to an opposing player all season. Despite three freshmen playing major minutes, Bueckers led this relatively inexperienced UConn team to the Final Four with averages of 21.6 points per game, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. 

Aari McDonald, Guard, Arizona

You could go on and on about Aari McDonald’s play during March Madness. It was hands down the best performance by any player in the tournament and, probably, the best stretch of games in her entire career. She single-handedly willed the Arizona Wildcats to a NCAA championship appearance. It wasn’t just the program’s first trip to the title game – it was their first time making it out of the Sweet 16. All behind the speedy McDonald.

McDonald’s success came down to her ability to make threes. In regular season games where McDonald made three or more three-pointers, the Wildcats went 5-0. During the NCAA tournament games, McDonald made three or more three-pointers in each of Arizona’s victories over Texas A&M, Indiana, and UConn. It added a whole different dimension to her game. When defenders backed up, she nailed the jumper. When defenders stepped up, she blew by them – and there’s not a single player in the country who can keep up with McDonald. 

On a smaller note, it was also one of the best rebounding stretches of McDonald’s career. After logging zero rebounds in the opening round, she averaged 7.4 rebounds per game over the next five games – including two double-doubles. Often undersized, everyone on the Wildcats had to attack the glass – and that started with McDonald.   

Haley Jones, Guard, Stanford

Haley Jones’ job was to inbound the ball. But when Lexie Hull missed the layup, the ball trickled out from a scrum of rebounders. With 35 seconds left in the clock, Jones scooped it up and hastily fired it away. This long, contested mid-range jumper would put Stanford ahead by one point, and send them to the National Championship game.

Two days later, she would make another game-deciding shot against Arizona. With a little more than two minutes remaining, Jones would power through the defense for an and-one bucket, putting the Cardinal up by four, and sealing their championship victory. 

Those were the two biggest shots of the entire tournament.

But Jones’ impressive postseason performance included more than just those two buckets. As Stanford’s leading scorer Kiana Williams struggled, combining for 13 points in the entire Final Four, Jones emerged as the team’s go-to playmaker, averaging 20.5 points per game over that same span. She posted up smaller players, handled the ball in the half-court, and went 5-8 from beyond the arc, after making just one three-pointer the entire regular season. When Stanford needed a bucket, it was Jones who stepped up.

Christyn Williams, Guard, UConn

Paige Bueckers stole the headlines, but one could argue that Christyn Williams actually outperformed Bueckers during March Madness. After scoring 11 and 13 points to start the tournament, Williams would finish it with three straight 20-point games, the longest streak of her career. That included a 27-point outburst against Iowa, a game in which Williams looked like the best player on the floor – a floor that included both Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers. Against Arizona, Williams was the only player who could consistently find her shot, scoring 26 points on 7-17 from the field.

Williams’ ability to explode to the basket added a whole different dimension to the UConn offense. And, as we saw, an aggressive Christyn Williams is one of the best scorers in the entire country. 

Cameron Brink, Forward, Stanford

How can someone who averaged just 19.5 minutes per game and nine points make the All-Tournament team? There’s no question that Zia Cooke, Moon Ursin, NaLyssa Smith and Lexie Hull all deserve spots on this list. But Cameron Brink deserves her spot as well, because without her, Stanford wouldn’t be celebrating a championship right now.

Stanford rode their defense to a third NCAA title, and that defense revolved around the rim protection of Brink. Whenever Brink came onto the floor, the game felt a little different. The opposing team’s drivers grew a little more hesitant, while their bigs were less efficient. Take Stanford’s Sweet 16 matchup against Missouri State. Despite only logging just 10 minutes, Brink recorded five blocks, swatting away 45.5% of the opponent’s two-point shots when she was on the floor. Over the course of the tournament, Brink averaged four blocks per game. Against South Carolina, she had six, and every one of them counted. 

When Brink wasn’t blocking shots, she was misdirecting them, or at least forcing ball handlers into pull-up mid-range shots. The most prominent example was Aari McDonald, who shot just 1-12 on two-pointers against the Cardinal. Cameron Brink may have only played half of the matchup, but she set the tone defensively, each and every game, for the eventual national champs.

The Stanford Cardinal rarely push the pace. But with 2:50 left in the National Championship, they needed an easy shot. They needed to get their offensive flow back. So Kiana Williams raced down the floor, hoping to out-run the defense for a fast break layup. There was nothing there. The lanes were clogged. She backed it out. The offense looked lost. Timeout. Stanford. 

Trailing 51-50, the Arizona Wildcats seemed to be on the verge of another upset. After a 10-2 run, they owned the momentum. The Cardinal hadn’t scored in the last four minutes. They couldn’t stop turning the ball over and they just couldn’t seem to find an open driving lane. That’s when Tara VanDerveer called a timeout and designed a play for Haley Jones.

By the time Jones caught the ball at the elbow, there were just 8 seconds left on the shot clock and no clear route to the hoop. But somehow, some way, the game felt like it slowed down. Jones collected herself. Jabbed. Dribbled. And spun. Right into the outstretched arms of Arizona guard Bendu Yeaney. Jones hoisted the ball through Yeaney and into the basket. 


For the remaining 2:24 minutes, the Cardinal would not score another point, but Jones’ basket would prove enough to escape with a 54-53 victory and the program’s third National Championship.

After surging to a 16-5 lead in the first quarter, Stanford’s offense struggled to find open shots the rest of the game against Arizona’s pesky defense. On a night when Kiana Williams scored just 5 points and Lexie Hull shot 4-13 from the field, Haley Jones was the stabilizing force. The Cardinal scored just 23 total second half points. Jones scored 13 of them.

When Jones handled the ball, the offense seemed to slow down. When Jones didn’t have the ball, she ran to the block, backed down smaller defenders, and scored easy basket after easy basket. She finished with a team-high 17 points, capping off one of the best six-game stretches of her career, during which she averaged 14.2 points per game and shot 60.6% from the field.

Stanford needed this kind of outing from Jones against Arizona. Offensively, Stanford didn’t play a Stanford kind of game. They shot just 28.6% from three after making 47% of their threes during the five tournament games prior. They coughed up 21 turnovers, significantly higher than their season average of 12.8 per game. They averaged a mere .68 points per possession, their lowest mark all year, a full .10 worse than any other game.

But Stanford still won. And they won because of the dirty work – dominating the rebounding battle 47 to 29, force-feeding the post, and, especially, clamping down on defense. 

“In the NCAA tournament, this is very physical,” VanDerveer said in her postgame presser. “South Carolina is very physical. Louisville is very physical. Missouri State is very physical. So we got more physical as the tournament went on.” 

Stanford’s number one priority was slowing down Aari McDonald. After McDonald knocked down her first three of the game, it looked like we might see another one of her scoring outbursts. On ESPN, the announcers talked over and over again about Aari’s House – a box around the left block that Stanford players could not, under any circumstances, let McDonald enter. 

McDonald tried. She worked and worked. But no matter how much she zipped and zagged around the court, she couldn’t find any openings. The Cardinal blocked off every lane. And when they didn’t block off those lanes, the outstretched arms of Cameron Brink or Ashten Prechtel cleaned up the mess. It forced McDonald, who shot 34.5% from beyond the arch on the year, into taking nine threes – more than the Wildcats probably would have liked. 

Despite struggling offensively, the Wildcats, as they did all tournament, clawed their way into the game. Aari McDonald got to the free throw line 12 times – her highest total all season – and Bendu Yeaney poked away five steals. But it was former Oklahoma transfer, guard Shaina Pellington, who provided the spark. After scoring a combined 20 points in the five tournament games prior, Pellington dropped 15 points in 30 minutes of play against Stanford. She blazed up and down the floor, scoring coast-to-coast lay-ups and forcing the Cardinal to speed up. 

Sped up or not sped up, Stanford found a way to win – through length, toughness and a whole lot of depth. When Anna Wilson missed a defensive assignment, Cameron Brink backed her up with a block. When Lexie Hull clanked a jump shot, Ashten Prechtel fought for the rebound. When Kiana Williams struggled to hit field goals, Haley Jones took over the game. 

“We had to toughen up. We had to dig in,” VanDerveer said after the game. “I’m really proud of our team for doing that. Whether it was Anna trying to take a charge, whether it was Lexie, whether it was Haley or Key [Kiana Williams]. We had a lot of people on the ground. We had to battle.” 

And battle they did, until the final horn, when McDonald’s last shot bounced off the rim, and the Stanford Cardinal became national champions.

What do all of the Final Four teams have in common? The answer is simple: these are four of the best defensive teams in the entire country. Between all 343 Division I schools, UConn ranks 1st in Her Hoops Stats Defensive Rating. South Carolina ranks 3rd. Stanford ranks 4th. And Arizona ranks 6th. 

Their strengths vary. Arizona steals a lot of passes. South Carolina blocks a lot of shots. But it doesn’t really matter how they do it. The result is the same – they all thrive on defense. In a Final Four packed with stars like Paige Bueckers, Aari McDonald, Aliyah Boston, Kiana Williams, and Zia Cooke, defense will decide these Final Four games. 

No. 1 Stanford vs No. 1 South Carolina (6:00pm ET on ESPN)

Stanford started off the season steaming hot. They won 11 straight games. They blew out future NCAA tournament (and Final Four) squads. They locked teams up, holding every single opponent to less than 64 points. 

They looked like the best team in the country.

Then came the back-to-back losses.

They fell in an overtime loss to a 6-6 Colorado team, before losing to UCLA five days later. In both of these games, the Cardinal were destroyed on the boards, giving up 11 offensive rebounds to Colorado and 21 to UCLA. Tara VanDerveer didn’t wait any longer to make an adjustment. The very next game, she inserted 6-foot-5 freshman forward Cameron Brink into the starting lineup. Since then, Brink has started every game, averaging 20.3 minutes, 10.2 points, and 3.1 blocks. Most importantly, Stanford hasn’t lost again.

Stanford’s Final Four matchup with South Carolina will come down to a battle at the rim. Both teams pride themselves on being two of the best rim protecting teams in the country. Stanford allows opponents to make just 35.6% of their two-point shots, while South Carolina allows them to make just 39.1%. And that starts with the long arms of Cameron Brink and the defensive IQ of South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston – the anchors of each team’s defense.

The Gamecocks, especially, make a conscious effort to funnel ball handlers into Boston. 64.9% of opponents’ field goal attempts against South Carolina come from two-point range, the second highest mark in the country. If South Carolina can run Stanford off the three-point line – a team that has shot 46.3% from three over the last six games – this could be a physical and grueling game. That plays to South Carolina’s advantage. They thrive in games like this, games where they might have to bang for buckets and scrap for steals and fight for offensive boards. It might not be pretty, but South Carolina could surprise some people on Friday. 

South Carolina 71, Stanford 68

No. 1 UConn vs No. 3 Arizona (9:30pm ET on ESPN)

The Huskies know how to bottle up a star player. Just ask their past four NCAA tournament opponents. UConn has faced off with a range of individual superstars – from Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith to Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. And in each of those four games, the opposing team’s leading scorer has finished with less points than their season average. On Friday, the Huskies will need to do the same to Aari McDonald. To say that the Wildcats’ offense centers around McDonald is an understatement. She is the offense. Her usage rate of 35.2% ranks 9th amongst players who appeared in 10 or more games this season. It sometimes feels like McDonald is asked to speed around all five defenders to find a shot.

During the NCAA Tournament, McDonald has arguably played the best basketball of her college career. But really, it has been the Wildcats’ defense that has allowed them to reach their first-ever Final Four. In each of their four tournament wins, they’ve held opponents to an average of 50.5 points per game. On the flip side, in each of their five losses this season, opponents have averaged 67.6 points per game. If the Wildcats play defense, they’ll win. If they don’t, they’ll lose.

Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. Maybe McDonald, the Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, clamps up Paige Bueckers, forcing her into turnovers and tough shots. Or maybe Cate Reese, the Wildcats’ second leading scorer, comes alive after averaging just 8.7 points over the team’s last nine games. Maybe they keep it close enough for some more Aari McDonald late-game heroics.

It sounds good, but don’t expect it to happen. Not against UConn. Not against Geno Auriemma and Paige Bueckers. Arizona might play strong defense, holding all teams to 55.2 points per game, but the Huskies haven’t scored below 63 points all season. This game won’t be the exception.

UConn 75, Arizona 58

You might think that all the last teams standing in the NCAA tournament would be built on a similar blueprint. Maybe the secret to success in college hoops is playing fast. Maybe it’s having dominant post players or high-scoring guards. 

But what this year has proven is that there is no single path to success. Each of the remaining teams plays a different style of basketball, and they’re all hard to stop. 

South Carolina, for example, crashes the boards, and then crashes the boards some more. Stanford shoots 38.3% from three, noticeably better than any other remaining team. UConn zips the ball around until they find the best shot. And Arizona? Well, Arizona just lets Aari McDonald go to work. As the lone non-No. 1 seed, that’s what No. 3 seed Arizona will need to do if they want to pull off some more upsets.

But while we already know that McDonald will be an impact player, she’s not alone in playing an outsized role on her team. Below are the five players who will determine who walks away from this weekend as national champions. 

Aari McDonald, Senior, Arizona

In a previous piece, I discussed how McDonald struggled against tournament teams during the regular season, shooting just 32.8% from the field. That didn’t last. Over the last two games, McDonald has put up 32 points per game and eight rebounds, while shooting 11/18 from three-point range. Her scoring has propelled the Wildcats to victory over No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 4 Indiana by a combined 28 points.

The problem? Across both of those games, only one other Arizona player has also scored in double digits. Without McDonald’s heroics, Arizona might not have enough additional firepower to keep up with the top teams. But if she continues blazing by defenders and hitting pull-up threes? Arizona could legitimately win this whole thing.

Ashten Prechtel, Sophomore, Stanford

With 4:30 left in the third quarter, Stanford trailed Louisville 45-37. They looked a bit lost, a bit cold – nothing like the number one overall seed that normally averages 78.9 points per game. Then things changed. But it wasn’t because of projected first round pick Kiana Williams. It wasn’t because of second leading-scorer Haley Jones, who put up a mere two points in the fourth quarter. It was Ashten Prechtel. Yes, Ashten Prechtel, the 6-foot-5 forward who averaged just 13 minutes and five points per game on the season. 

Prechtel brought a different dynamic to the floor. She misdirected shots in the lane with her long arms. She knocked down three after three after three over defenders. In the final 15 minutes of the game, Prechtel scored 16 points on 6-6 from the field and 3-3 from beyond the arc, sprinkling in four assists and two blocks as well. Stanford is already deep, with four players averaging double figures on the year. Add in a three-point shooting big who can defend the rim? How much tougher can a team get?

Aliyah Boston, Sophomore, South Carolina

The Gamecocks have won every NCAA tournament game handily, without All-American Aliyah Boston putting up gaudy numbers. Actually, to be quite honest, Boston has struggled offensively. Over the past two games, Boston has averaged just 9.5 points on 28.5% shooting. But that hasn’t necessarily translated to losses. In the eight games that Boston has scored in single digits this season, the Gamecocks are 7-1, with a differential of 22 points per game (their one loss came against NC State). 

The reason is simple. Boston affects the game in more ways than just scoring, especially on the defensive end. In their Elite Eight matchup against Texas, Boston held All-Big 12 First Team selection Charli Collier to just four points on 2-10 shooting.

Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks don’t need Boston to score to win. If she continues to protect the rim and lock up the opposing team’s big, it’s hard to see a team scoring enough points to beat the Gamecocks.   

Laeticia Amihere, Sophomore, South Carolina

No Aliyah Boston? No problem. Enter sophomore forward Laeticia Amihere, who dropped a season-high 15 points in the Gamecocks’ second round win over Georgia Tech. This has been a trend all season. Boston struggles? Amihere steps up. During Bostons’ eight single-digit scoring games, Amihere averaged 9.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, up from her season averages of 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds. 

In the NCAA tournament, Amihere has played her best basketball of the season, notching three 20-plus minute games and three games with 10-plus points. That’s her best four game stretch since the beginning of the season. But the most impressive stat? In the Gamecocks’ most recent victory over Texas, Amihere blocked nine shots. Nine shots!

Christyn Williams, Junior, UConn

There were moments in UConn’s game against Iowa where the Hawkeyes looked like they might creep back into the game. But every time the Hawkeyes got closer, UConn scored again. And again. Or let me rephrase that: Christyn Williams scored again and again. 

Williams’ ability to heat up and score in bunches will go a long way in helping UConn capture its 12th championship. Against Iowa, that included 15 second quarter points for 28 points total. Against Baylor, that meant scoring 14 of her 18 points in the second half. As one of just two players on the UConn team with legitimate Final Four experience, UConn will need Williams to continue her hot streak.

When people talk about the current state of basketball, they love to talk about the rise of the three-pointer. Teams are learning to jack up three ball after three ball after three ball, whether or not it’s a good shot. A decent three is inherently more valuable than an easy two. Right?

Well, here we are at the Sweet 16 with, presumably, the 16 best college basketball teams in the country. The most interesting thing? Only one team (Stanford) scores 34.1% or more of their points from three-point range, putting them in the top 50 in the country. Only two teams rank within the top 100 — Stanford and Iowa. The nation’s leading scoring team, Maryland, only gets 27.1% of its points from three-point range, 188th in the nation.

The message is clear: An open two-pointer is still better than a contested three. It doesn’t matter if you play fast or slow, if you have two dominant bigs or five speedy guards. The NCAA’s top teams are all doing the same thing. They’re taking high percentage looks rather than shooting threes for the sake of it.

Knowing the three ball might not prove to be a difference maker, these are the three most interesting matchups of the weekend. 

Most likely upset: No. 2 Louisville vs No. 6 Oregon

During the first two games of the NCAA tournament, Oregon is playing some of its best basketball of the season. And Louisville is playing some of its worst. 

The Cardinals have posted an offensive rating below 100 in five of their last seven games. That wasn’t the case for most of the season. In 17 of their previous 21 games, they posted an offensive rating above 100. During this bumpy stretch, Louisville’s star guard, Dana Evans, has averaged just 14.8 points per game while shooting 32.7% from the field.

The Ducks and their suffocating zone defense won’t help much with Louisville’s offensive woes. And the Ducks’ success is directly tied to their defense. In all but one of their 15 wins, opposing teams have shot below 40% from the field. In all but one of their 8 losses, teams have shot above 40%. If Oregon can continue funneling offensive players into 6-foot-5 Nyara Sabally and 6-foot-7 Sedona Prince, they could walk away with another upset.

Most underrated game: No. 2 Maryland vs No. 6 Texas

Of the eight Sweet 16 matchups, Maryland has the second highest chance of winning at 86.6% according to Her Hoop Stats. But don’t write off Texas just yet. Led by forward Charli Collier, a Big 12 All-Defensive selection, and guard Celeste Taylor, who averages 2.2 steals per game, the Longhorns have quietly emerged as one of the country’s strongest defensive teams. In the last 11 games, they have allowed more than 70 points just once. 

But Maryland is a different beast. They put up 91.3 points per game, shoot 40.6% from three, and feature six (six!) players who average double figures. Here’s the thing: Texas has played Baylor — the country’s third ranked scoring offense — three times this season. The Longhorns lost all three of those games, but they held Baylor to 60, 64, and 66 points in each of those outings — three of Baylor’s lowest scoring outings all season. It’s clear that Texas can shut down the NCAA’s best offenses, but it’s unclear if they can score enough in return. 

The difference is, Maryland can’t play defense like Baylor. Could Texas slow down Maryland enough to eke out a win? It’s certainly a possibility. And if Texas can’t stop Maryland, at least you’ll get to watch the Terrapins go for 100 points — for the eighth time this season.

Best head-to-head matchup: Jordan Nixon (No. 2 Texas A&M) vs Aari McDonald (No. 3 Arizona)

Yes, I know, Caitlin Clark versus Paige Bueckers is the most exciting first round matchup. But that’s too easy. I’ll take a different route how about Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon vs. Arizona guard Aari McDonald? 

Nixon has been arguably the hottest player in the tournament thus far, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 57.8% from the field. McDonald, who was named Pac 12 Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year, is arguably the best defender in the country. And McDonald’s playing some solid basketball of her own. Just look at the fourth quarter of Arizona’s last game.

With five minutes left in the Round of 32, the Wildcats trailed BYU by five points. That is, until McDonald willed them to victory. She scored seven points in those final minutes, hitting a mean step back, blazing by her defender for a lay-up, and then sealing the game with a steal. 

“It might’ve been the best five minutes by a UA basketball player, any gender, any game, since Miles Simon at the 1997 Final Four,” wrote Greg Hasen of the Arizona Daily Star.

It’s almost a cliche at this point, but it’s true: In March, you need clutch guards. This matchup has two of them.

Day one of March Madness started out without a single upset. But that didn’t last long. 

By day two, we had No. 13 Wright State knocking off No. 4 Arkansas. We had No. 11 BYU squeaking by No. 6 Rutgers. We even had No. 15 Troy taking No. 2 Texas A&M to the final seconds. 

By the round of Round 32, we had even more upsets, with a trio of No. 6 seeds Oregon, Michigan, and Texas — all defeating No. 3 seeds. 

That leaves us at the Sweet 16 with everything from struggling No. 2 seeds to blossoming No. 6 seeds. To preview the weekend’s games, we’ve re-ranked the remaining teams, 1-16.

1. UConn (No. 1 seed)

Everyone talks about Paige Bueckers and UConn’s dazzling offense — an offense that hums to the tune of an NCAA-leading 20.9 assists per game. But you can’t overstate how strong the Huskies’ defense has been. Only four teams have shot 40% or better from the field all season against them — and only one team has managed to escape with less than 10 turnovers. That was Arkansas, the only team to beat UConn this year.

2. Baylor (No. 2 seed)

Baylor has won 19 games in a row and only two of those games were within 10 points. In the first two rounds, the Lady Bears have outscored opponents by a total of 91 points — the best of any team in the tournament.

3. Stanford (No. 1 seed)

The key to beating Stanford is shutting down their lethal 3-point attack. In both of their losses, they’ve shot just 21.8%. To start the tournament, that hasn’t been the case, as the Cardinal have shot 48.2% from beyond the arc. If that continues, few teams will be able to keep up.

4. South Carolina (No. 1 seed)

Aliyah Boston had just seven rebounds in South Carolina’s round of Round 32 victory over Oregon State. It was her second lowest rebounding outing of the year and her first single digit rebounding outing in 11 games. Still, the Gamecocks managed to rout the Beavers by 17. 

5. Maryland (No. 2 seed) 

Maryland just keeps doing what Maryland does — score a lot of points. Their latest 100-point performance came against Alabama in the Round of 32, and they did so with their two leading scorers, Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, combining for just 23 points.

6. NC State (No. 1 seed)

NC State’s road to the Final Four got a little bumpier with an injury to starter Kayla Jones. In her place, though, sophomore Jada Boyd has stepped up, averaging 30 minutes and 18 points in their first two tournament games.  

7. Louisville (No. 2 seed) 

There are still positives to take away from Louisville’s early NCAA tournament struggles. Despite Dana Evans scoring only 14 points, Louisville came back from 18 down to beat Northwestern, outscoring the Wildcats 55-28 after the first quarter.

8. Texas A&M (No. 2 seed) 

Did you watch the Troy or Iowa State games? If not, you missed out. Not just on good basketball games, but the emergence of Jordan Nixon. The sophomore guard has scored double digit points in eight straight games, after scoring in double figures in just six of the 19 games prior. Nixon dropped a career-high 35 points against Iowa State, topping it off with a coast-to-coast game winner.

9. Arizona (No. 3 seed) 

How far can Aari McDonald carry Arizona? Despite averaging 19.3 points per game, she has struggled against top-ranked teams. In the Wildcats’ seven regular season games against tournament teams, she shot just 32.8% from the field. 

10. Iowa (No. 5 seed) 

Caitlin Clark gets most of the headlines (and for good reason), but the most important player recently hasn’t been Clark. Over their last six games, center Monika Czinano has averaged 24 points. The Hawkeyes have gone 5-1 in that stretch.

11. Indiana (No. 4 seed) 

Indiana’s versatile offensive attack was on full display against Belmont, with four players scoring in double digits. The big question is: Will their lack of three-point shooting hold them back? The Hoosiers knock down just 29.2% of their threes, one of the worst percentages in the country.  

12. Oregon (No. 6 seed) 

Heading into the NCAA tournament, Oregon looked like a team on upset alert, having lost five of their last six games. But boy have they bounced back. In their two NCAA tournament games, the Ducks have held South Dakota and Georgia to a combined 16.6% from three.

13. Missouri State (No. 5 seed) 

Missouri State pride themselves on winning the rebounding battle. Opposing teams average just 6.8 offensive rebounds per game — best in the country. But how good are the Lady Bears? After playing only one ranked opponent all year, we’re still waiting to find out.

14. Michigan (No. 6 seed) 

Before Leigha Brown dropped 28 points in 27 minutes against Florida Gulf Coast, she hadn’t touched 20 points in six games. Brown’s success will be key for the Wolverines moving forward. In games where she scores 20 or more points, Michigan is 8-0.

15. Texas (No. 6 seed) 

Everyone knows about the projected number one WNBA pick, Charli Collier. But Collier, who scored just five points on Wednesday, wasn’t the main reason Texas upset No. 3 UCLA. Celeste Taylor, Kyra Lambert, and Joanne Allen-Taylor combined for 57 of the team’s 71 points. 

16. Georgia Tech (No. 5 seed) 

Georgia Tech’s first win over a ranked team this season came when they needed it most. The Yellow Jackets clamped up No. 4 seed West Virginia, holding unanimous first team All-Big 12 guard Kysre Gondrezick to three points — her lowest total of the year.

Most NCAA basketball fans are already thinking ahead to the Final Four. Will Baylor repeat? Can Maryland score enough to knock off the No. 1 seeds? How good is this young UConn squad?

But that doesn’t mean you should skip the first round, especially this year. With interstate rivalries, high-scoring 15 seeds, and 42-point-dropping guards all descending upon Texas, there will be an excess of competitive games. And if there’s an upset, do you want to be the one to miss it? Probably not.

Here are four of our favorite opening round match-ups:

No. 12 Central Michigan vs. No. 5 Iowa

Sunday, 12:00pm ET on ESPN

One thing’s for certain — this game is guaranteed to be a shootout, with two of the best offenses in college basketball — and two of the worst defenses. 

That spells bad news for the Hawkeyes, who have shown a tendency to struggle when a team can score with them. Iowa has played three teams this season that rank in the top-20 of points per game Maryland (twice), Ohio State (twice), and Iowa State. They went 1-4 in those games, with their only win coming against Iowa State. And Central Michigan can definitely keep with them. They averaged 77.9 points per game on the year, 16th best in the country.

Central Michigan is an interesting case study because they don’t play particularly fast, ranking 137th in points per possession. They’re just efficient, finishing 54.6% of their two-pointers, sixth-best in the country. And while Iowa might have the country’s most dynamic player in Caitlin Clark, Central Michigan has its own pair of guards, Molly Davis and Micaela Kelly, who each averaged 20-plus points per game this year and could readily lead CMU to the upset.

No. 14 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 3 Tennessee

Sunday, 2:00pm ET on ABC 

Tune in for the simple reason of watching Anastasia Hayes. The Middle Tennessee guard is a walking bucket, having averaged 26.5 points per game this season, second-best in the nation. She even dropped 42 in a game. 

It will be interesting to see how Hayes handles Tennessee’s length, with 6-foot-2 guard Jordan Horston wreaking havoc on the perimeter and SEC All-Defensive forward Tamari Key clogging up the middle. Tennessee will need a team effort to stop Hayes, but luckily, they know her pretty well — Hayes spent her freshman season playing for the Lady Volunteers, where she won the 2018 SEC 6th Woman of the Year. No one else on Middle Tennessee shoots above 45% from the field, but if they can find a way to hit shots and open lanes for Hayes, the Blue Raiders could keep it close. And if this game comes down to the wire, Hayes could help send her in-state rival and former squad home.

No. 9 South Dakota State vs. No. 8 Syracuse

Sunday, 5:30pm ET on ESPN2

Most of the time, people hesitate to select a non-Power 5 team for a deep run because they haven’t played a tough enough schedule. Well, that isn’t the case with South Dakota State, which has played five games against teams ranked in the top 75 of simple RPI, including 5th seeded Gonzaga, 5th seeded Missouri State, and 7th seeded Iowa State. The 21-3 Jackrabbits won all of those games and they could certainly give Syracuse some trouble on Sunday. Their biggest problem is that they allow opponents to shoot 30% from beyond the arch. But Syracuse isn’t a great three-point shooting team, knocking down just 29.7% of their threes. 

‘Cuse won’t go down easy, though. They are a veteran squad led by redshirt senior Tiana Mangakahia, the NCAA leader in assists who returned to the court after sitting out last season due to breast cancer. Senior Kiara Lewis, however, will be the key player Sunday. In games that Lewis scores 15 or more points, the Orange are 7-2. If she can get hot, South Dakota State will have trouble catching up. If not, this game could come down to the final possession.

No. 15 Troy vs. No. 2 Texas A&M

Monday, 6:00pm ET on ESPN2

I know, I know. The chances of Troy knocking off Texas A&M are very, very slim. But hear me out — this could still be an entertaining game. Troy plays at the fastest pace in the entire NCAA, averaging 83.1 possessions per 40 minutes and 84.3 points per game. 

Could Troy catch Texas A&M lazy in the first half and keep the game close? Possibly. Troy forward Alexus Dye could always get hot like she did earlier in the season against Mississippi State, when she dropped 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Worst case scenario: Texas A&M puts up more than 100 points, and Troy gets pretty close itself.

This year’s NCAA tournament feels different, and it’s not just because it’s the first in a bubble. Rather, for the first time in a long time, it really feels like it’s anyone’s tournament to win.

The last time we watched March Madness in 2019, only No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made the Elite Eight. And in the last 20 years, there hasn’t been a single Final Four without at least two No. 1 seeds.

But this bracket is jam-packed with teams that could stay a few extra weekends, from one seeds (is it a hot take to pick NC State?) to three seeds (don’t forget about Tennessee’s victory over South Carolina) to five seeds (we see you Caitlin Clark and Iowa).

With games starting on Sunday, March 21, here are our first reactions to the 2021 NCAA tournament draw.

No. 1 seed with the toughest path

When it comes to tournament spoilers, Stanford has multiple of their side of the bracket. Second seeded Louisville might have the country’s best player in Dana Evans. Three seeded Georgia has a mean, physical, and experienced defense. Fourth seeded Arkansas has knocked off UConn and Baylor (more on this below). And Five seeded Missouri State came back from 16 to beat Maryland.

Stanford will have some tough games down the road — that is, if they can even make it out of the second round. The Cardinal will have to face off against either Oklahoma State and Natasha Mack, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, or Wake Forest and their four players averaging double-digit points.

There’s a reason Stanford was ranked as the number one overall seed, but don’t let the headlines deceive you. This will not be an easy journey back to the Final Four for the Cardinal.

The non-top two seed with the best chance to win it all

How about No. 4 Arkansas? The Razorbacks have wins over Baylor and UConn, and lost to Texas A&M twice by a total of three points. They can score in a hurry, averaging 83.1 points per game, fourth-best in the country, despite playing in the SEC. They also have a born scorer in Chelsea Dungee, who lives at the free-throw line and attacks the basket without any regard for the defenders in front of her. Dungee dropped 37 points on UConn, and she can do it again. Just ask Ole Miss, whom she torched for 38 points five games later.

The problems with Arkansas? They’re on the stacked side of the bracket, are 2-6 against top-25 teams, and, for as much as Arkansas can score, they allow opponents to score just as much. In an early-season match-up against Maryland, they gave up 115 points — the Terrapins’ highest-scoring outing of the year. But if this Arkansas team gets hot or Dungee fights her way to the free-throw line 17 times (as she did against Ole Miss), they can beat anyone in the bracket — as they’ve already shown.

Team with the most Cinderella potential

Who doesn’t like watching a team fly up and down the court chucking threes? That’s what you’ll get with Florida Gulf Coast University. Riding a 25-game win streak, the Eagles’ offense averages an NCAA-best 11.9 three-point field goals per game, while they limit opposing three-point shooters to 25.3% on the other end.

Their only two losses came early in the season against Missouri State and Arkansas, games they played without their leading scorer Kierstan Bell, an Ohio State transfer who averaged 24.3 points and 10.8 rebounds this year. When Bell finally did return, Florida Gulf Coast scored 70 points and beat a UCF squad that typically holds teams to 49.9 points per game — the best in the country. The 11th seeded Eagles are a tad undersized, without a true forward or anyone above 6-foot-1 on their roster, but, at full strength, no one in the country has beaten them.

Best conference champion to not make the tournament

That’s right. A team won their conference championship and won’t be making the trip to San Antonio. But it’s not because of COVID or NCAA violations. It’s because they’re still in the process of reclassifying to Division I.

We’re talking about Cal Baptist here, the only team in the country to have an undefeated record after they went 24-0 this season and swept the WAC. Previously a Division II team, Cal Baptist must wait a total of four years before hearing their name called on the Selection Show. In the meantime, they’ll have to settle for a WNIT bid. See you in 2023, Lancers fans.