The overarching storyline for the NCAA women’s basketball Tournament has remained the same since 2013: Can anyone beat UConn?
At first glance, the answer is no. UConn has won four consecutive national titles and enters this year’s tournament on a 107-game winning streak. Not only is it deserving of the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, it is the unanimous No. 1 among the 33 Associated Press voters following a perfect 32-0 season featuring just three games (Florida State, Maryland, and Tulane) decided by single digits. UConn already owns victories over Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina — the other No. 1 seeds in the tournament.
But UConn isn’t the absolute lock that it has been in previous years. As terrific a collective as the Huskies have been in 2016-17, this team isn’t as top heavy as the group last year that featured three WNBA first-round selections (Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Moriah Tuck). Most of the players on this year’s roster have not started in a Final Four game, even though UConn placed three players on espnW All-America First Team — junior forwards Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier and junior guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson. They play a seven-women rotation, so depth is a significant issue. If Collier or Williams get into foul trouble, UConn is vulnerable, especially against teams with a strong post player.
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Said UConn coach Geno Auriemma following his team’s win at the American Athletic Conference Tournament: “Are we great? Are we not great? Are we almost great? Are we pretty good? We have been good enough to win every game and every time they have needed to be better than good, they have been better than good. What more can I say about them.”
How can UConn lose? Well, it’s going to take a combination of the opposition shooting around 50 percent (UConn has held opponents this year to 34.6 percent from the field) and the Huskies’ young players getting tight down the stretch. While I’d still bet against that happening, I’d favor the tourney teams that have already played UConn this year, because some of the mystique will have been eliminated.
Which teams are best positioned to pull off the upset? Start with Notre Dame, who has appeared in four of the last six national finals, including two in which it lost to UConn (2014 and 2015). Coach Muffet McGraw has a tremendous inside-outside attack with junior forward Brianna Turner, senior point guard Lindsay Allen and an emerging third star in sophomore guard Arike Ogunbowale. Allen is also a senior point guard, which is a huge advantage in the Tournament. The Irish have not lost since Jan. 16 and have faced quality competition over the last four weeks (wins over Syracuse, Florida State, Louisville and Duke). Notre Dame fell 72-61 to UConn at South Bend on Dec. 7 but the game was tied at 34 at halftime. The Irish will avoid UConn until the final but Stanford, Texas and Kentucky (in Lexington) will be tricky games.
One of the avenues to beating UConn—which lacks size in the post—is having a post player with offensive skills, and Maryland has that in senior 6’3’’ center Brionna Jones (20.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and an absurd 70 percent from the field). She’s aided by senior wing Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (20.6 points), who has three-point range and is a tough mark. Freshman point guard Destiny Slocum is a terrific offensive player but she’s still a freshman. How she handles UConn’s pressure would likely be the key to the game. Maryland would meet UConn in an Elite Eight game, which Auriemma has long believed is the toughest game to win in the tournament. The Terps played the Huskies tight for a half before losing 87-81 on Dec. 29 in College Park.
Speaking of size, Baylor has six players over 6’2’’ on its roster, including 6’7’’ sophomore post Kalani Brown, who led the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game. The Lady Bears are experienced (four seniors), deep, and always well coached by Kim Mulkey. They also will have the crowd on their side if they make it to Dallas but they have the toughest road with Mississippi State, Louisville, Washington, and Tennessee in their region. Baylor lost 72-61 to UConn in Storrs, Ct. on Nov. 17.
South Carolina played UConn very tough through two-plus quarters at Storrs on Feb. 14 before losing 66-55. Junior forward A’Ja Wilson and senior center Aliana Coates give the Gamecocks quality frontcourt players, which is the blueprint to beating UConn this year. South Carolina also has the easiest region of all the seeds, with No. 2 Oregon State very beatable as a high seed. Coates has not played since with a bad ankle. She must be healthy for the Gamecocks to have a shot to win a title.
UConn’s road to another championship is tougher this year. There is a potential second-round meeting with Syracuse —which is better than its No. 8 seed — and if seeds hold, the Huskies will play a talented UCLA team in the Sweet 16, led by All-America guard Jordin Canada. Then comes either Duke or Maryland in the Elite Eight — and Notre Dame and South Carolina are sitting on the other side of the bracket. If the Huskies win another title, they will have earned it. While I wouldn’t bet against them, the tournament is far from a layup this year.