The Sweet 16 is upon us, and with it comes a few surprises — North Dakota and Creighton — and some anticipated arrivals — South Carolina and Stanford.
Some teams have played better than their seedings have indicated, and others have played worse. Here’s what the field would look like on Friday if the teams were re-ranked. Plus, I offer up my picks for which teams I think advance to the Elite Eight.
The one consistency in this tournament has been the play of the No. 1 seeds. While at least one team at every other spot has been challenged, the one seeds have proved their worth, which is why I’m leaving those four teams atop the rankings.
South Carolina remains my overall No. 1. The Gamecocks defeated Howard 79-21 and Miami 49-33 to advance to the Sweet 16.
They haven’t showcased the offensive prowess that we’ve become accustomed to this season, but that’s no reason to be concerned. The old coach’s cliche, “defense wins championships,” applies here. The Gamecocks held Howard to 15 percent shooting from the field and just eight points in the first three quarters. Then they forced Miami into a 24-percent shooting performance, including three quarters of single-digit scoring. Offense ebbs and flows, but if a team can play defense like that, it has an edge in every contest. Still, the tougher the competition becomes, the more crucial that Gamecocks offense will be.
X-Factor: The re-emergence of elite offense
Through the first two rounds, the Cardinal have put together the best offensive performance of any team. Against Montana State, they shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc with nine 3-pointers. They had four double-digit scorers in the first game, and in the second Lexie Hull erupted for 36 points. The scariest thing about this Stanford team is that it has at least six players who are capable of going off for 20 points.
The Cardinal’s inside presence is tough, with Cameron Brink leading the way. Fran Belibi has emerged as an excellent option off the bench, and Haley Jones, Lexie and Lacie Hull, Anna Wilson and Hannah Jump each bring different skill sets. It all adds up to a dominant offense that is challenging to scheme against.
X-Factor: Continued balance
NC State also keeps its ranking heading into the Sweet 16, largely because of its equal-opportunity offense. At this point in the season, everyone knows what Elissa Cunane brings to the floor, but the rest of the team is clicking as well. The Wolfpack easily handled Longwood thanks to five double-digit scorers. Against Kansas State, Cunane was neutralized with foul trouble, playing just 13 minutes and scoring four points. Kayla Jones stepped up and recorded 18 points, while Raina Perez and Diamond Johnson each contributed 15 points to spread out the scoring.
X-Factor: Guard play stays solid
After an easy win over Albany, the Cardinals were tested by Gonzaga and passed. The Zags kept it close, down by four at the half, but Louisville went on a 20-12 run in the third to help secure the victory. Gonzaga is a disciplined squad, but Louisville was able to force 18 turnovers, including six from Kayleigh Truong, GU’s trusty point guard. Meanwhile, Louisville took care of the ball, giving it away just eight times.
The offense wasn’t perfect — the Cards shot 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc — but Louisville found ways to make up for it. Still, that shooting will need to improve if the Cardinals want to keep dancing.
X-Factor: Shooting heats up
Texas is a team that can beat anyone in the country when it’s playing at its best. And right now, the Longhorns are doing just that. Their win against Utah was an offensive and defensive master class. Texas shot 64 percent from the field and forced 19 turnovers, which led to 18 points on the other end. Rori Harmon continues to be one of the best guards in the country, and right now, I’d pick the freshman over just about anyone.
X-Factor: Harmon continues to play beyond her age
Maryland may have one of the strongest starting fives in the country in Ashley Owusu, Diamond Miller, Katie Benzan, Angel Reese and Chloe Bibby. Offensively, there’s no question Maryland is a top team, but its shortcoming at times this season has been defense. Not so in the tournament.
Against Delaware, the Terrapins allowed Jasmine Dickey to score 31 points, but she had to put up 32 shots to do so, and they limited everyone else. Then they held Florida Gulf Coast’s potent offense in check as well, as the Eagles turned the ball over 15 times and shot 38 percent for the game.
X-Factor: Defense, defense, defense
Maybe I’m getting caught up in the excitement of an upset, but South Dakota and Creighton have played their way into the top half of these teams. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you’ll know I put a lot of stock in maturity on the court. South Dakota certainly has that. The Coyotes are led by three fifth-year seniors: Chloe Lamb (16.1 points per game), Hannah Sjerven (15) and Liv Korngable (12.7). This group is battle-tested and ready for anything, as it showed through the first two rounds.
X-Factor: Ability to defend opposing stars
The other darling of the tournament, Creighton, is next on the list. Putting the narrative of Lauren Jensen upsetting her former team aside, there is a lot to like about the Bluejays. For starters, everyone on the floor can score. Morgan Maly is third on the team in points per game, and she comes off the bench. The offense is well-rounded: The Bluejays love to share the ball, and they also take care of it. Creighton leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.59. Add those things together, and it leads me to believe Creighton can stay hot.
X-Factor: Multiple players continue to score
The Hoosiers are starting to look like the team that was top five for much of the season. With Mackenzie Holmes almost back to full form — she’s averaging 29 minutes, 14.5 points and eight rebounds per game through the first two rounds — and Chloe Moore-McNeil providing a lift as another scoring weapon off the bench, Indiana is in good shape on offense. Princeton was a tough test, but IU survived, showing its resilience. That is important as the competition ramps up.
X-Factor: Holmes’ domination in the paint
Led by Ashley Joens, Iowa State has a solid trio of scorers. The senior is the obvious leader, and has been all season, while Emily Ryan is exactly what a team wants in a point guard. She’s a skilled scorer, but more importantly, she probes defenses with a purpose and helps put her teammates in positions to be successful. Lexi Donarski, their third-leading scorer, put up 20 points in the win over Georgia. But here’s my concern with Iowa State: After those three, what do they have? Through the first two rounds, the Cyclones have just five total bench points.
X-Factor: Role players must step up
I have UConn in my championship game, and though I’ve rethought a lot of the bracket-related decisions I made, that isn’t one of them. So why do I have UConn at 11th on this list? The Huskies are capable of performing as a championship-caliber team, but I didn’t see that against UCF. Had the Knights shot better at the free-throw line, I might be ranking them instead of the Huskies. Most of UConn’s offense didn’t show up in that game, and Paige Bueckers didn’t look like herself. UConn can be great, but the Huskies have a lot to figure out before they meet Indiana on Saturday.
X-Factor: A complete offensive showing
This is a difficult list to make because every team has a ton of upside. It’s the Sweet 16, after all. Michigan being this low doesn’t feel right, but I also don’t think the Wolverines can jump anyone above them, so here we are. Defensively, Michigan has been solid. The Wolverines held American to 1-for-21 shooting from beyond the arc (4.8 percent), and limited Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist (the nation’s second-leading scorer at 25.3 points per game) to just 12 points.
But offensively, this team is similar to Iowa State. Naz Hillmon is phenomenal and Leigha Brown has been solid, but I need to see more from the Wolverines.
X-Factor: Significant offensive output from a player not named Hillmon or Brown
I know I praised Notre Dame for their monster scoring performance, and I stand by that. It was quite the feat. But as far as tournament implications, it doesn’t tell us much. Per Her Hoop Stats, Oklahoma is the 351st team in the country in opponent points per game. That means there are only four squads who give up more points per contest. So, celebrate the 108 points, just do so knowing the context. Aside from that, UMass gave the Irish a scare in Round 1. The Fighting Irish shot great once again (57.6 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from 3), but they allowed UMass to make seven 3-pointers and stay in the game.
X-Factor: Score consistently against better defensive teams
Ohio State got off to a dominant start against LSU, and then weathered a run by the Tigers on their home court in the fourth quarter. Jacy Sheldon continues to impress. She had 23 points and eight assists. Taylor Mikesell added 18, including four of her signature 3-pointers, but the real highlight for the Buckeyes was Rebeka Mikulasikova. She shut down Faustin Aifuwa, holding her to two points, while contributing 12 points of her own. If she’s performing at a high level, Ohio State adds another dimension to its offense.
X-Factor: Mikulasikova holds her own inside
Again, there is no bad team on this list. North Carolina just knocked off a solid Arizona team as its sophomore trio answered the test. Kennedy Williams-Todd had 19 points, Deja Kelly added 15 and Alyssa Utsby finished with 12. The Tar Heels were also tough in the paint, outscoring Arizona 30-18. All that said, I still can’t justify moving UNC up any higher on this list.
X-Factor: Sophomores continue to shine
Remember when I said making this list was hard? Well, picking my 16th team wasn’t. That’s because I still can’t figure out Tennessee. This team has so much talent, and yet they squeaked into the Sweet 16. The win over Buffalo was a bit more convincing than the defeat of Belmont, but the Vols still only pulled away in the fourth quarter despite Buffalo shooting just 35 percent. Tennessee has struggled all season with teams who can shoot from long distance, and to me, that’s a big concern going forward. And yet, well, keep reading to find out …
X-Factor(s): Ability to defend the 3-point line, and the potential return of Jordan Horston
South Carolina over UNC
The Gamecocks have just too much talent at every position for North Carolina to contend with. I stand by my original prediction and choose the Gamecocks.
Texas over Ohio State
The Longhorns are at the top of their game right now. If they continue to click on both ends of the floor, this one goes their way. Still, Ohio State should put up a better fight than Texas’ previous two opponents.
Stanford over Maryland
I like the way Maryland is playing right now, but I love what Stanford brings to the court. Maryland will have to bring its best defensive performance of the season to win this one, and even then, the Cardinal have too many weapons.
Creighton over Iowa State
The Bluejays have a believer in me. I believe in their ability to score, and I believe in Jim Flanery’s ability to put together a defensive game plan for Ashley Joens.
NC State over Notre Dame
Elissa Cunane will be the best post on the floor, and her supporting cast is talented enough to deal with the Notre Dame guards.
UConn over Indiana
If — and only if — Bueckers is at her best, and the Huskies have a better offensive performance than they did against UCF. Otherwise, Indiana will make its second-straight Elite Eight.
Louisville over Tennessee (with a caveat)
I ranked Tennessee 16th on this list. I think the Vols have the goods to defeat Louisville, but I don’t have faith that they will play to their potential. We haven’t seen that in at least a month. If Jordan Horston is somehow healthy enough to make an impact, then Tennessee can do it. Count this as me picking Louisville, but with an asterisk.
South Dakota over Michigan
The Coyotes already solved one elite post player in Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith. They can do it again against Naz Hillmon.
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.