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NCAA Tournament: LSU, UConn and more teams on upset watch

Kim Mulkey and LSU finished with a 28-2 record but did not face many strong opponents. (Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports)

The NCAA Tournament begins Wednesday with the First Four, and the first round tips off Friday.

Yet while select teams rose to the top during the regular season, some of these will lose out in the tournament. Upsets happen, in spite of high seeding and home-court advantage. It be March Madness otherwise.

Just Women’s Sports takes a look at which top-4 teams are the most vulnerable.

No. 3 LSU

LSU may have finished their season at 28-2. But while the Tigers ran  amok in the SEC during the regular season, they have weaknesses.

For one, they couldn’t manage to hang with the No. 1 team in the nation in their February matchup against South Carolina. The game proved a failed test for an LSU team with a nonconference schedule chock-full of tough opponents such as… (checks notes) Bellarmine and Mississippi Valley.

Then Tigers ran into a roadblock in the SEC Tournament semifinals in Tennessee, which exposed LSU’s vulnerabilities and mounted an improbable comeback to advance to the title game. LSU faces Hawai’i in the first-round, and the Rainbow Warriors could be a tough test. And if LSU advances to the second round, it could face No. 6 seed Michigan, a battle-tested team coming out of the Big Ten.

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No. 4 Tennessee

In all likelihood, Tennessee will advance past No. 13 seed Saint Louis in the first round. But after that, the Vols could run up against No. 5 seed Iowa State. The Cyclones are not only Big 12 tournament champions, but they also boast star player Ashley Joens – who any team in this tournament will find difficult to contain.

Tennessee has its own star in Rickea Jackson, making the possibility of this second-round matchup very enticing. Still, it makes Tennessee susceptible to an early exit.

No. 3 Duke

There’s no telling what kind of run Duke will have in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Some thought that December’s win over NC State was the Blue Devils’ coming out party. But the ACC remained chaotic throughout the season, and Duke received its share of bumps and bruises – in particular, their 58-37 loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament might leave sour taste in the Blue Devils’ mouths as they prepare to face Iona in the first round.

But they’re also the team that put 68 points on Boston College while only allowing the Eagles to score 27. And they also beat Notre Dame back on Feb. 5. Their season-ending loss to UNC was redeemed by a win over the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament, which showcases how hot and cold this team can be – particularly as they approached the end of the season.

If the Blue Devils can bring their best in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, they’ll be hard to beat. But there’s no guaranteeing that an Iona or a Colorado won’t send Duke packing.

Celeste Taylor and Duke lead the ACC, one of the most competitive conferences in the country. (Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

No. 3 Notre Dame

Notre Dame is one of the biggest question marks in this year’s NCAA Tournament, as there’s no telling when they’ll get star player Olivia Miles back from injury – if they do at all.

And if Irish advance past Southern Utah in the first round, they’ll likely face Creighton in the second round. Yes, that Creighton, the same team that upended Iowa in the Sweet 16 last year. The same Creighton who almost beat UConn in February and battled against other top-tier Big East teams like Villanova and Marquette. A Notre Dame team with Olivia Miles going up against Creighton could be one of the best second-round matchups of the tournament. Without Miles, though, the Irish could head home early.

No. 2 UConn

Can UConn stay healthy? That’s the biggest question facing the Huskies in this year’s NCAA Tournament. If they can, then a run to the Final Four isn’t improbable, even in a tough region. Baylor could prove more difficult than anticipated, and Ohio State is a battle-tested No. 3 seed who has also faced injury issues this season but is also once again healthy.

Having Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme back in the lineup helps the Huskies’ chances, and both looked good during the team’s Big East tournament title run. But as the story has been all season, there’s no telling what type of injury this team could face next.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

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