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NCAA Tournament bracket: Sleeper candidates, title game paths and more

No. 1 seed NC State drew a challenging path with UConn also in the Bridgeport region. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NCAA Tournament brackets are out, the matchups are set and March Madness is officially upon us! We’re just days away from the most exciting weekend on the sports calendar, and the First Four will kick things off even sooner this year. Beginning on Wednesday night, 68 teams will battle it out for one trophy.

With so many games and so much on the line, there are countless storylines to follow. Here are some of my biggest takeaways from this year’s bracket.

The First Four is an excellent addition

As part of the NCAA’s ongoing effort to address gender inequities between the men’s and women’s tournaments, they added four more teams to the women’s field this year to match the men’s side.

We can talk about whether some of the measures — both enacted and proposed — will bring about true equity, but the First Four should have an immediate positive impact.

Consider this: Incarnate Word, who hasn’t even been in Division I for a full decade and has yet to finish .500 or better in a Division I season, will for two hours on Wednesday night have the attention of the entire women’s basketball world as it plays on national TV. The Cardinals never even won an NCAA Tournament game in Division II (they only made it once), but in facing fellow No. 16 seed Howard rather than a No. 1 seed, they have a realistic chance at a tournament win.

That’s the kind of moment that can change the trajectory of a program. From the recruiting boost it will undoubtedly provide, to the revenue it will bring in, the impact of playing in that single game goes far beyond what happens on the court.

The same can be said of the other No. 16 seeds in the First Four, and even the First Four at-large teams to a certain extent. That, without question, is a boon to the sport.

Mid-major disrespect is alive and well

It’s nothing new to see the committee slot teams from outside the traditional power conferences into seed lines that are much too low, but it’s still a conversation we should have every year until they stop doing it.

Some of the best mid-major programs in the country got misplaced again this season. No. 6 BYU, No. 11 Princeton and No. 12 FGCU were each seeded worse than our projections and Charlie Creme’s bracketology, and all deserved to be at least one spot higher.

When the committee makes the decision to under-seed a mid-major, it doesn’t just hurt that team. It also hurts the team slotted across from it, which is usually a power conference team. In this case, No. 6 Kentucky and No. 5 Virginia Tech are forced to face ranked teams in the first round, and No. 3 Michigan will likely have to get past a 26-3 BYU squad to get to the Sweet 16.

When teams beat up on lesser opponents, they continue to get penalized for the lack of strength of their schedule. That shouldn’t be the case if all a team does is blow out everyone it plays. What more could they be expected to do?

High seeds aren’t safe in the Bridgeport region

While we’re on the topic of under-seeded mid-majors, it’s worth pointing out that as frustrating as it can be to see these schools not get the placement they deserve, it also gives us juicy upset potential. Look no further than the Bridgeport region for some prime examples.

Her Hoop Stats gives No. 12 UMass a 47.7 percent chance to knock off No. 5 Notre Dame, and it actually favors Princeton over Kentucky in the 11 vs. 6 matchup. While the model may slightly overrate those upset chances, those matchups should be much closer than the seeds suggest.

Then there’s No. 13 IUPUI vs. No. 4 Oklahoma. IUPUI, led by a must-see player in Macee Williams, took Michigan to overtime and knocked off Iowa. Both of those games were on the road, and both of those opponents are stronger than Oklahoma is. The Jaguars will have no fear going into the Sooners’ building, making this first-round matchup one to watch.

The danger for the high seeds in this region doesn’t just lie in the first round, either. No. 1 seed NC State will have to play a pseudo-road game in the Elite Eight if chalk holds. They are matched up with No. 2 seed UConn in the Huskies’ home state, and it doesn’t help that UConn is finally healthy and clicking. Don’t blame the committee — this was a geography problem — but the top-seeded Wolfpack will have their work cut out for them if they want to end UConn’s streak of 13 straight Final Four appearances.

Tune into Utah vs. Arkansas

When it comes to entertainment value, I don’t really care whether a basketball game is high scoring or low scoring, fast paced or slow. I just want good basketball and a close game. Impressive defense gives us a 47-45 game? Fine with me!

Most fans, of course, would not agree. The Debbie Antonelli school of “shooting ‘till your arm falls off” generally makes for appealing basketball (and for what it’s worth, as long as it’s a close game, I can get into that style, too).

If that’s your speed, don’t miss the 7 vs. 10 matchup in the Spokane region. Arkansas’ offense ranks 35th in points per possession, but they are outside of the top 150 in points per possession allowed on defense. And if you think that’s a big disparity, try Utah’s on for size: eighth on offense and 271st on defense.

Add in the fact that both teams rank in the top 25 in 3s attempted per game, with over 25 each, and this one should be a launch fest. Circle it on your schedule if you enjoy points.

Potential rematches to watch for

There are always going to be potential rematches if you go deep enough into the bracket, but there are two in particular that stand out to me before we reach the Elite Eight.

The first is Indiana vs. Kentucky. If both teams avoid upsets, they’ll meet in the second round in a rematch of one of the biggest games of the season’s first week. The Hoosiers handed their border rival a 21-point drubbing on Nov. 14, but that was before Rhyne Howard went supernova and teammates like Dre’Una Edwards and Jazmine Massengill started stepping up. Indiana hasn’t faced the Kentucky team of the last few weeks — the one that took down South Carolina to win the SEC tournament.

The other will take place in the Sweet 16 if both teams make it. No. 2 seed Baylor and No. 3 seed Michigan find themselves paired up once again after two overtime games in the last year. The first was just under a year ago when Baylor edged out the Wolverines in the Sweet Sixteen, and Michigan exacted its revenge on Dec. 19.

If you don’t have a dog in the fight, you can only hope that we get a rubber match and that it lives up to the previous two thrillers.

South Carolina’s path sets up well

This isn’t exactly noteworthy — the Gamecocks were going to be the favorites no matter how the matchups came out. But the committee did reward their dominance, whether intentionally or not, by providing them with a favorable path to the title.

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South Carolina's Aliyah Boston (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Assumptions in March are probably never a good idea, but if we assume anyway that South Carolina makes it out of the first weekend, the chalk bracket would have them draw No. 4 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats are backing into the tournament on the heels of four losses in their last seven and might struggle to get to 40 against the Gamecocks’ defense.

If chalk holds, South Carolina would have an Elite Eight date with No. 2 seed Iowa, who our bracketology and Charlie Creme’s each had as a No. 3 seed. (And how about the top two National Player of the Year candidates in Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark potentially playing on the same court?)

Finally, South Carolina is on the opposite side of the bracket from arguably the next three best teams: Stanford, NC State and UConn. Dawn Staley’s squad certainly didn’t need any help, but they got some.

Stars on double-digit seeds can fill it up

If you’re here, you’re surely familiar with Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s superstar sophomore who leads the nation in scoring at 27.4 points per game. Are you familiar, however, with the next four on the scoring list?

They’re all in this tournament, and they all play for a double-digit seed.

There’s No. 11 Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, who checks in at second with 25.9 points per game. Behind her is Jasmine Dickey, the Delaware dynamo who dropped a 50-piece in February. Fourth is Kierstan Bell, although she doesn’t qualify officially based on the NCAA’s minimum games played requirement. Her FGCU Eagles play one of the most fun styles of basketball in the country. Rounding out the top five is Dyaisha Fair, whose explosiveness makes No. 13 Buffalo a scary draw for No. 4 Tennessee.

This is the beauty of the NCAA Tournament. Clark has played on ESPN, of course, but as for players like Dickey or Fair? The world deserves a chance to see them hoop, and March Madness gives us that chance.

Illinois State’s journey is an incredible story

I have to end this on a personal note. There’s never a shortage of inspiring stories this time of year, but it’s not every year you get one in your own backyard. As someone who’s been covering Illinois State locally, I couldn’t wrap this up without sharing their story.

It started five years ago when Illinois State took a chance on Kristen Gillespie, who had never been a Division I head coach. They were coming off of three straight seasons with single-digit wins, including a 2-28 campaign in 2014-15.

Through character and culture, Gillespie has spent the last five seasons turning the program around and instilling belief in her players. There’s likely no better example of that belief than the team’s performance this season: The Redbirds endured a 3-7 start and a four-game losing streak in February to rebound and become the Missouri Valley Conference champions two weeks later.

If that wasn’t enough to add credence to their underdog story, they did it on the strength of two stars – DeAnna Wilson and JuJu Redmond – who began their careers at junior colleges.

The national headlines will be about the No. 1 seeds, the Final Four contenders and the trendy upset picks. But stories like Illinois State – that’s what March is all about.

Calvin Wetzel is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering basketball and betting. He also contributes to Her Hoop Stats, CBS SportsLine and FiveThirtyEight. Follow him on Twitter at @cwetzel31.

Costa Rica Holds USWNT to 0-0 Draw in Frustrating Olympic Send-Off

USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan dribbles the ball by Costa Rica forward Melissa Herrera and midfielder Gloriana Villalobos
The USWNT had 12 shots on goal on Tuesday despite failing to find the back of the net. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

The USWNT didn't quite get the going away party they were hoping for, settling for a 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday in their final tune-up match before the 2024 Olympics kick off next week.

The US produced 26 shots — 12 on target — alongside 67 touches in the box, the most in any match where they failed to convert a single goal since at least 2015, per Opta. Yet they also faced a heroic performance from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermúdez, who tallied 12 saves on the night.

USWNT starters remained mostly intact

After Saturday's win over Mexico, USWNT manager Emma Hayes opted for a very similar starting XI, only swapping Crystal Dunn in for Jenna Nighswonger due to load management.

Named starter Rose Lavelle was a late scratch from the lineup after team warmups, with US Soccer attributing her last-minute absence to "leg tightness." Lavelle was replaced by midfielder Korbin Albert, giving the US a slightly less aggressive attacking edge throughout the match.

Casey Krueger, Lynn Williams, Jaedyn Shaw, Emily Sonnett, and rookie Croix Bethune all got minutes in the second half, coming off the bench to contend with Washington, DC's brutally hot conditions.

USWNT forward Sophia Smith and Costa Rica midfielder Gloriana Villalobos battle for the ball
Costa Rica managed to fend off the USWNT with a strong defensive low-block. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY)

Costa Rica's low-block spelled trouble

"Listen, if you play a game of percentages or law of averages, we're creating more and more high-quality chances, and we're getting numbers into key areas — we're getting touches in the key areas," Hayes told reporters after the match, calling attention to Costa Rica's strong defensive low-block.

"The last part's the hardest part. And I'm really patient, because I've coached teams that have to break blocks down, and it's the hardest thing to do in coaching," she continued.

Hayes also noted the team's lack of training time under her management: The decorated coach officially joined the US in early June after finishing the WSL season with her previous club, league champs Chelsea FC.

USWNT pose for a picture after their send-off friendly against costa rica at Audi Field
The USWNT's Olympic group stage run kicks off on July 25th. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Where to watch the USWNT's Olympic games

Tuesday's draw is just the second time the USWNT has entered a major tournament off a non-win. Back in 2015, the US embarked on their legendary World Cup campaign after a 0-0 send-off draw with South Korea.

The next time the USWNT takes the pitch will be at the Paris Olympics, where they'll play Zambia on Thursday, July 25th at 3 PM ET. The match will be broadcast live on USA, with streaming options available on Peacock.

The Late Sub Podcast: This Is Sophia Smith’s USWNT Attack Now

Sophia Smith dribbles during the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico last Saturday. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins breaks down the days leading up to the first USWNT Olympic send-off friendly, discussing player performances, things that worked well on the pitch, and what still needs developing as coach Emma Hayes's team moves towards a crucial Olympic competition set to will dictate the future of the team.

She then sets her sights on the WNBA, previewing WNBA All-Star Weekend and chatting with Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year Joyce Edwards alongside Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally.

Subscribe to The Late Sub to never miss an episode.

USWNT Looks to Extend Winning Streak in Final Olympic Send-Off

USWNT striker Sophia Smith dribbles through Costa Rican defenders during a 2022 Concacaf W Championship game.
The USWNT last took on Costa Rica at the 2022 Concacaf Championship semifinal. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT’s last tune-up match before the Olympics has arrived, with the FIFA world No. 5 US looking for an 18th-straight all-time win over No. 44 Costa Rica tonight at Washington, DC's Audi Field.

Just three days after a redemptive 1-0 victory over No. 29 Mexico, head coach Emma Hayes’s Paris-bound roster appears to be finding its stride. Calling Saturday’s win "a step in the right direction," Hayes went on to say, "I think we’re only scratching the surface. I think there’s a lot of layers to go from everyone."

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 13: USWNT coach Emma Hayes stands on the field before a game between Mexico and USWNT
The new-look USWNT is looking to hit its stride after several matches under Hayes. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's USWNT is still finding its footing

With their first Olympic group stage game against No. 64 Zambia slated for July 25th, the new-look USWNT — which features the youngest roster in 16 years — is working to define its style of play.

While the USWNT’s signature ability to score in transition remains a strong point, the team also acknowledged their shaky first half on Saturday, with midfielder Rose Lavelle commenting that they're "working on being a little more tactically flexible... We’re trying to, as a group, learn how to adjust on the fly and be a little smarter with our adjustments during the games."

The patience required to choose their moments, along with the team’s ability to read and anticipate each other's movements, is clutch to increasing effectiveness in the areas where the USWNT appeared most disjointed against Mexico.

At stake is an Olympic podium finish, where the US hopes to improve on their bronze medal performance in Tokyo — but the team also aims to make a splash amidst their increasingly sophisticated opponents.

Costa Rica captain Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez chases the ball during a match against Panama in 2020.
Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez, Costa Rica's captain, is the only NWSL on their Olympic roster. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Rodriguez leads a rising Costa Rica team

If improving offensive unity and production is tonight’s goal, Las Ticas could provide the ideal matchup: In their 17 previous meetings, the USWNT has outscored Costa Rica 90-2 overall.

That said, Costa Rica has switched things up since the sides last met in July 2022, with the US defeating the Central American squad 3-0 in the Concacaf Championship semifinal. Las Ticas competed in the 2023 World Cup and reached the Gold Cup quarterfinals earlier this year, where they narrowly fell to No. 8 Canada in extra time.

Costa Rica is captained by 30-year-old Angel City midfielder Rocky Rodriguez, the lone NWSL player on their roster and, in 2015, the first Costa Rica national to ever score in a Women's World Cup.

In addition to maintaining a perfect record against Costa Rica, the USWNT will look to extend their current unbeaten streak to nine, which includes three shutouts in Hayes’s first three matches at the helm.

Lindsay Horan drinks water before the USWNT's match against Ireland in April 2023.
An excessive heat warning is in effect for Washington, DC today. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Where to watch the USWNT vs. Costa Rica friendly

Expect some hydration breaks due to DC's scorching temperatures during tonight’s 7:30 PM ET match, airing live on TNT and streaming on Peacock.

TruTV and Max will simultaneously air the first-ever USWNT altcast, hosted by retired USWNT star Sam Mewis, former USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn, and Men in Blazers founder Roger Bennett.

Sizing Up USWNT’s 2024 Olympic Competition

Germany's Giulia Gwinn steps to the ball while Iceland's Sandra Jessen slides in during Friday's UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match.
Germany lost their Euros qualifier against Iceland 3-0 on Friday, less than two weeks before Olympic football begins. (Hulda Margret/Getty Images)

With Olympic soccer kicking off in just over a week, the USWNT isn't the only national squad prepping for the podium with a series of pre-Paris matchups. Both international friendlies and important qualifiers are on the docket, with several European teams competing for a spot in the UEFA Women's EURO 2025.

Regardless of the stakes, these performances might provide some insight into what the USWNT can expect once the Summer Games begin.

Czechia national soccer team celebrates as Spain women's national soccer team defender Laia Aleixandri leaves the pitch
FIFA World No. 1 Spain fell to Czechia on Friday in a 2025 Euros qualifier. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Pre-Olympic matches expose problems for top teams

Of the 12 Olympic teams, recent outings from FIFA world No. 1 Spain and No. 4 Germany featured the most shocking outcomes.

Despite dominating possession behind an opening goal from 2023 Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmatí, the 2023 World Cup winners fell 2-1 to No. 30 Czechia in Friday's Euros qualifier — their first loss of 2024. They managed to bounce back on Tuesday, however, beating Belgium 2-0 to finish out the league stage on top with 15 points.

Spain heads into the Summer Games aiming to become the first women’s team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back, though they’ll need to reclaim their composure to achieve that feat in the face of an Olympic group that includes Japan, Nigeria, and Brazil.

France defender Sakina Karchaoui celebrates her opening goal during Friday's 2-1 win over Sweden.
Defender Sakina Karchaoui scored the opening goal in France's 2-1 win over Sweden on Friday. (ARNAUD FINISTRE/AFP via Getty Images)

No. 2 France took down No. 6 Sweden 2-1 in Friday's Euro qualifier, but flipped the script on Tuesday with a 3-1 loss to last-place No. 25 Republic of Ireland, who notched their first win. However, thanks to England's 0-0 draw with Sweden — also on Tuesday — France still topped their qualifying group with 12 points. Les Bleus will look for more consistent results going into the Olympics, where they're set to face Colombia, New Zealand, and Guinea in the group stage.

But it was Germany who stumbled the hardest, losing out 3-0 to No. 14 Iceland in their own Friday qualifier. After the match, Germany's head coach Horst Hrubesch didn’t mince words.

"We have to assert ourselves from the start in the individual battles. The way we played just wasn’t good," Hrubesch told reporters. "We deserved to lose. We handed them all three goals on a plate."

Tuesday also saw improvement for Germany, as they routed Austria 4-0 to claim first place in the group standings with 15 points.

But the earlier loss was still foreboding for this German squad. The two-time world champions fell to 3-2 to Zambia just weeks before the 2023 World Cup, before failing to advance past the World Cup group stage for the first time in the tournament’s history. Germany also faces some tough Olympic group stage competition, battling Australia and the USWNT before crossing paths with Zambia once again.  

Team Canada celebrate their victory in the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Match with Sweden
Team Canada has their work cut out for them if they want to repeat their Tokyo gold medal run. (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Friendlies rally Olympic teams outside Europe

Defending Olympic champs FIFA World No. 8 Canada defeated No. 12 Australia 2-1 on Saturday, with KC Current forward Nichelle Prince and ex-Gotham striker Evelyne Viens both scoring in the friendly. Canada will play world No. 36 Nigeria in a closed-door friendly on Wednesday before kicking off their Olympic campaign against New Zealand on July 25th. 

For their part, No. 28 New Zealand drew 1-1 in a friendly with No. 64 Zambia on Saturday, while non-Olympic-bound Ecuador handed No. 22 Colombia a 2-1 send-off loss.

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