Women's NCAA Final Four preview: Cardinal will rule
By Monica McNutt
Special to FOX Sports
The thrilling 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament will reach its conclusion this weekend, with the Final Four starting Friday night in San Antonio.
It has been largely a tournament for the favorites, with No. 1 seeds Stanford, South Carolina and Connecticut all reaching the final weekend of the Big Dance. The one outlier is No. 3 seed Arizona, which bumped off fourth-seeded Indiana in its regional final matchup.
The action tips off with No. 1 overall seed Stanford against South Carolina at 6 p.m. ET, followed by Arizona against UConn at 9:30.
Even though the Final Four is packed with powerhouse programs, it’s still a tough one to call, with no team that truly stands out above the rest.
Let's break down the Final Four and what we can expect the rest of the way.
UConn freshman Paige Bueckers is racking up Player of the Year awards. Is Bueckers the best freshman in college history? What makes her game so special, and can she continue her run under women’s college basketball’s biggest spotlight?
Bueckers is undoubtedly one of the best to ever come through UConn, and everything that she has had to shoulder as a freshman certainly bolsters her case. She's the only freshman leading her team in points, assists, 3-pointers and steals per game. She’s also in the top three in scoring in the nation and is the first freshman to win the AP Player of the Year award.
As far as what makes Bueckers great, UConn legend Diana Taurasi and opposing coaches like Kim Mulkey have pointed to her passing ability as to what makes her special. I also have been awed both by her playmaking ability and how cerebral her game is. Her pull-up jumper in any direction is lethal, but especially going to her right, and she has an incredible knack for making big-time plays in the game's biggest moments.
It would be unusual to categorize her 28-point performance in the regional final against Baylor as quiet, but in a way it was. As usual, she made shots within the flow of the game and never seemed like she was pressing. Her basketball IQ is spectacular, and she has been such a pleasure to watch.
As far as being the best freshman ever, we’ll have to wait on that. The Huskies measure success by championships – something they haven’t done since 2016. For the record, Bueckers has said her goal is to win four of them – just like Breanna Stewart did!
Arizona is the Cinderella team of the Final Four, joining three No. 1 seeds. What has been the secret to the Wildcats’ success, and can they continue that against UConn?
Without question, Aari McDonald has been the head of the snake for the Wildcats. She was named both Pac-12 Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year and will be a first-round pick in the WNBA Draft.
McDonald led the Pac-12 individually in steals per game, setting the tone for a Wildcats squad that led the conference with 10.5 steals and 18 forced turnovers per game.
This will be crucial because Arizona will have a disadvantage in size against UConn. The Huskies boast a frontcourt with 6-5 Olivia Nelson-Ododa and 6-3 Aaliyah Edwards, both of whom are terrific on the boards and adept at scoring both in the high-low or with their backs to the basket.
Arizona does have the 6-5 Lauren Ware down low, but she only plays about 16 minutes per game, and the Wildcats are otherwise a bit undersized.
What the Wildcats lack in size they’ll have to make up with speed. They’ll need to make sure they box out and will also have to wreak havoc by using a variety of defensive looks, including their full-court pressure, on the Huskies.
For the first time, this Final Four features two Black women coaches on the sidelines. What does this milestone mean for the growth of the game?
Both South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Arizona’s Adia Barnes are not only great coaches but are former WNBA players, too. This is huge for the game and for visibility for Black girls.
Visibility is so important. It's why the women's basketball community has been pushing for more airtime and coverage. These athletes certainly deserve it, but it's also important to show our young women all that they can be beyond playing the game.
This is especially important for Black girls, who see a higher dropout rate from sports participation and are unlikely to have the same support as their white counterparts. More than 70% of the WNBA is made up of Black women, and women's basketball is one of the NCAA sports in which Black women make up the majority. But that hasn’t necessarily translated to leadership opportunities.
Barnes and Staley are living examples that you can excel as both a player and a coach. Their success is a message to Black women that "the end of your physical ability is not where the journey stops," which is incredibly powerful.
Stanford has come close many times under coach Tara VanDerveer, but hasn’t won a national title since 1992. As the No. 1 overall seed, should the Cardinal be favored to end that drought? What are Stanford’s strengths and concerns?
The Cardinal are my personal favorite to win the national championship. I also originally had Maryland and Baylor in my title game, with the Terps winning it all, so take that for what you'd like.
Stanford's depth and versatility stand out to me. In their regional final, they showed both clearly, as Ashten Prechtel, who averages 5.6 PPG, came off the bench to go 3-for-3 from the 3-point line and finish with 16 points. Kiana Williams is the career leader in 3-pointers made at Stanford, Anna Wilson was the Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and Lacie Hull was Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year. All of this speaks to Stanford’s depth and ability to score in a variety of ways.
My biggest concern for Stanford is something we also saw with Maryland – "live by the 3, die by the 3." In their two losses in the regular season, the Cardinal did not shoot the ball well from 3, going 7-for-32 in those losses. In the first half against Louisville, the Cardinal hit only one 3-pointer and were down 12 at the break. If Stanford isn’t making them, what's plan B?
What type of game do you expect in each semifinal, and what are your predictions?
I expect UConn to handle Arizona's pressure and be deliberate about going inside. As long as the Huskies stay out of foul trouble, I expect them to advance.
South Carolina-Stanford is a tougher game to call. I think that defense travels more than 3-point shooting, but Stanford is also a solid defensive unit. I'm giving the slightest edge to the Cardinal because of their depth.
Who cuts down the nets on Sunday night and why?
I expect this to be Stanford's year. The Cardinal are just really good and really deep. In my opinion they have the best depth and versatility left in the field.
Monica McNutt, who played at Georgetown from 2007 to 2011, is a women's college basketball analyst for FOX Sports and the ACC Network.