NCAA Tournament: Breaking down picks, bracket busters in every region

Destanni Henderson and South Carolina enter the NCAA Tournament as the title favorites. (Kevin Langley/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If you read my full NCAA Tournament bracket picks earlier this week, you’ve already seen the first-round matchups to keep an eye on. But the excitement of the tournament doesn’t end on Saturday (thank goodness), and there are plenty of storylines to hold the interest of even a casual fan.

So, let’s break down the potential matchups in each region.


Second round: No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 5 North Carolina

I mentioned on Monday that I think UNLV has the potential to give Arizona trouble in the first round. If the Wildcats get past the Rebels, they’ll have another tough opponent in the Tar Heels.

UNC is a consistent team that upset a great Louisville squad late in the season, proving they have what it takes to top elite competition. Led by sophomore guards Deja Kelly (15.9 points per game) and Alyssa Ustby (13.2 ppg, 8.6 rebounds per game), and aided by a rebounding advantage, UNC moves on.

Sweet 16: No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 3 Iowa State

There’s nothing quite like a regular-season rematch in the NCAA Tournament. This one has extra intrigue because the two teams are instate rivals. Iowa State topped Iowa 77-70 on Dec. 8, led Ashley Joens’ 25 points.

But that Iowa team and the one playing now couldn’t be more different. The Hawkeyes blasted through the end of the season, winning eight straight, including the Big Ten tournament championship. And unlike when they were struggling early in the season, it’s no longer just the Caitlin Clark show. Everyone on this squad is playing at a high level, and because of that, they top the Cyclones and move into the Elite Eight.

Elite Eight: No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 2 Iowa

All of that brings me to another juicy matchup. The committee loves a good narrative, and so do I, which is why this game has the potential to be one of the best of the tournament. Caitlin Clark vs. Aliyah Boston, the two favorites for National Player of the Year, will take the court against each other, trying to get their teams to the Final Four. In the end, South Carolina has more weapons, and the guard duo of Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson will give the Gamecocks a leg up.


Second round: No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Oregon

Oregon is a team with the potential to be great. The Ducks have all the pieces and, at times, they’ve come together — a Jan. 17 win over UConn being the prime example. But now that the tournament has come around and they still haven’t realized their full potential, I’m thinking twice about the Ducks even getting past Belmont in the opening round.

Meanwhile, Tennessee looked great for most of the season, before dropping seven of their last 12 games. At least part of that slide can be attributed to leading scorer Jordan Horston hurting her elbow on Feb. 17. If the Vols are healthy, they should handle Oregon. If not, this region could get a lot more interesting.

Second round: No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 7 Ole Miss

Watching Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and Ole Miss’ Shakira Austin battle in the paint will be intense. But Baylor has more pieces, particularly shooters, to keep the Ole Miss defense honest around doubling and sagging on Smith. That gives Baylor the edge.

NaLyssa Smith and Naz Hillmon are two of the premier post players in the country. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sweet 16: No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 3 Michigan

This one, a rematch of Michigan’s 74-68 overtime win on Dec. 19, features another elite post matchup between Smith and Naz Hillmon. Leigha Brown led the Wolverines with 25 points in that contest, and the Bears shot just 22.2 percent from 3. Expect Baylor to have a better defensive game plan and a better performance from beyond the arc. Add those together, and Baylor has the upper hand.

Sweet 16: No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 4 Tennessee

Now, here is a spot in the bracket where I start to question myself. Louisville has been outstanding this season, and as I mentioned earlier, Tennessee has fallen off as of late. So why am I picking Tennessee in this matchup? The Vols have a height advantage with 6-foot-6 Tamari Key, leading to second-chance points and one-shot possessions. The Vols also have athletic defenders to slow down Louisville’s guards. Player to player, this is a good matchup for the Vols, and they just have to play their game.


Second round: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech

Stanford should win this game, but it’s going to get messy. The Yellow Jackets have pulled off several upsets this season thanks to intense on-ball defense, holding opponents to 51.9 points per game as the fifth-best scoring defense in the country. The toughest thing for Stanford is that it’s impossible to replicate Georgia Tech’s defense in practice; the real thing is always more chaotic. That said, Stanford is certainly experienced enough to handle the pressure. The scoreline might be closer than the Cardinal would like, but Stanford will come out on top.

Second round: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 6 Ohio State

This matchup is one between great guards: LSU’s Khayla Pointer and Alexis Morris vs. OSU’s Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell. LSU has an advantage inside with Faustine Aifuwa going up against OSU’s Rebeka Mikulasikova. Aifuwa’s 44 blocks this season will give the Buckeyes something to think about when they drive to the hoop.

Sweet 16: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 4 Maryland

When these two teams played back in November, Stanford came away with a lopsided 86-67 win. But Maryland was short-handed, dressing only seven players, and Angel Reese struggled. She was 2-for-13 from the field and played just 15 minutes before fouling out. On the other side, Cameron Brink played just nine minutes due to illness.

In other words, we didn’t see the full potential of this matchup. Maryland has serious offensive firepower, averaging 78.1 points per game, but the Terrapins can’t match up with Stanford defensively. Because of that, I’m going with the Cardinal.

Texas guard Rori Harmon could give teams problems in the tournament. (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sweet 16: No. 3 LSU vs. No. 2 Texas

Texas freshman Rori Harmon has been incredible all season, but in the Big 12 Championship she was on another level, scoring 30 points against Iowa State and 20 against Baylor. With her attacking, Aliyah Matharu coming off the bench (12.5 points per game) and Lauren Ebo in the paint, Texas has a complete offense. That, plus their overwhelming defense and unrelenting pace of play, will send the Longhorns to the Elite Eight.

Elite Eight: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 2 Texas

When these teams met in November, it was Texas’ coming-out party. The Longhorns forced Stanford into 20 turnovers and just 35.4 percent shooting (14.8 percent from 3). Since then, the Cardinal have figured out their rotation and gotten healthy. Now, Stanford will be ready for Texas’ speed and pressure. The Cardinal will get revenge, and a Final Four appearance.


Second round: No. 1 NC State vs. No. 9 Kansas State

This tournament is full of exciting post matchups, and NC State vs. Kansas State boasts two of the best bigs in the country in Elissa Cunane and Ayoka Lee. The Wolfpack got the better of this matchup back in November, in a 90-69 win, and I don’t think that changes this time around.

Second round: No. 3 Indiana vs. No. 6 Kentucky

There is no team hotter than Kentucky right now, but with Mackenzie Holmes finally looking healthy, Indiana is too good at every position. Expect the maturity and poise of the Hoosiers to be a factor as they move on to the Sweet Sixteen.

UConn's Azzi Fudd and Paige Bueckers form a fierce duo. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sweet Sixteen: No. 2 UConn vs. No. 3 Indiana

With Paige Bueckers back and Azzi Fudd starting to peak, UConn is the team we thought it would be heading into the season. Injuries allowed Bueckers’ teammates to get some much-needed experience, and now everyone is playing at a high level. Expect a player like Christyn Williams to have a huge performance as IU throws all of its resources at Bueckers. Plus, with a short bench, Aaliyah Edwards (6-foot-3) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (6-5) will be too much for the Hoosiers to handle.

Elite Eight: No. 1 NC State vs. No. 2 UConn

Unlike a lot of teams in the country, UConn has the personnel to defend Cunane. The Huskies will also be able to go toe-to-toe with NC State’s guards, and their overall talent will prevail.

Final Four

No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 2 UConn

The Cardinal and the Huskies have met six times in the Final Four and 18 times total since 1988. UConn holds an 11-7 advantage, and I expect the Huskies to add another win to that list. Like with NC State, UConn has the personnel to guard Brink in the paint. And when it comes to overall talent and athleticism, the Huskies have the edge over the Cardinal. Haley Jones could give them problems with her versatility, but UConn takes this one by a slim margin.

No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 2 Baylor

I don’t anticipate this game to be as close. Baylor may have the best player on the floor in Smith, but Boston hasn’t been stopped all season. That won’t change against Baylor, and the Gamecock guards also have a leg up over Baylor’s.Their ability to attack and draw fouls will impact this game enough to send them to the championship.


No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 2 UConn

Apart from two bumps in the road (losses to Missouri and Kentucky), South Carolina has been consistently elite this season. That tells me the Gamecocks have the tools to go all the way. Meanwhile, UConn has been tested with injuries and upsets, but the healthy Huskies can get right back to where basketball fans are used to seeing them.

This game comes down to overall talent. Both squads have star power, but South Carolina doesn’t have a weak spot on the floor. One through five, the Gamecocks are too talented for even the Huskies to stop, giving Dawn Staley’s squad a second NCAA title banner to add to their collection.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.