The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament is finally here. And when the games start in San Antonio on Sunday, we won’t have to wait long for one of the season’s biggest stars to get our hands on the ball. Freshman Caitlin Clark – whom Sue Bird described as “the most exciting college basketball player right now” during ESPN’s Instagram Live on Selection Monday – and Iowa, who ranks fifth in Central Michigan (ESPN / ESPN App, Noon ET) in one of the first games of the Tournament.
We have ranked each team in the NCAA tournament chose the five greatest contenders, a preview each Region and potential bracket busters and called them Top players in the field. Now is the time to make our picks and answer some more big questions – including whether UConn or Baylor are the favorites to get out of the River Walk Regional.
What can we expect from Clark on her NCAA tournament debut, and who is another exciting player you think is a must-see player?
Voepel: Clark is fun to see because so much of what Iowa does offensively is generated by her. She can shoot from anywhere, she has a great connection with the post player Monika Czinano on the pitch and she has a very special flair for her game.
Clark averages 26.7 points and 7.2 assists. She’s an elite goalscorer as well as a playmaker, and that’s not too common. She can hit those long range bomb 3-pointers that make viewers jump off their couches screaming, stretching the defense that way, and then she can take them apart with her passport too. The defense needs to be very alert when they have the ball in hand, which they do most of the time.
Baylor striker NaLyssa Smith plays with a completely different style that is just as exciting. She can soar up the alley for the pass and finish, and the Lady Bears are looking for it. Smith also has a nose for the ball when it comes to scoring on offensive ricochets, and she and her junior queen Egbo can block / alter shots and control games defensively as well.
Cream: Count me as one of those spectators who jump off my couch, Mechelle. I might even have pulled an Achilles tendon when Clark scored a 27-foot hit in the Big Ten against Michigan State. She shoots so effortlessly from this distance, but the rest of her game is nothing but effort. If she doesn’t make a long jump or find Czinano with a no-look post-pass, Clark is likely down after making contact with the basket on hard drive or trying to fight his way through a screen in defense.
I’m expecting more noticeable things in the first round on Sunday (ESPN / ESPN App, Noon ET) as Central Michigan is the perfect matchup. The Chippewas also enjoy playing a wide-open, fast-paced game, and they don’t have the physical players to throw Clark out of the rhythm. She should have space to go anywhere she wants on the square. That should mean big points and support numbers.
Another young Big Ten point guard also has my attention. Maryland sophomore Ashley Owusu plays the same position as Clark, but in a very different way. Owusu doesn’t shoot many 3-pointers (36 to Clark’s NCAA-leading 254). Instead, she plays the position more like a forward force with a responsible mentality and great finishing skills. Owusu will also play for a team with high expectations in their first NCAA tournament. Maryland with the second seed opened Monday (ESPN / ESPN app, 4:00 p.m. ET) against Mount St. Mary’s with the 15th seed.
Quite a few voters on the ESPN panel below selected Baylor to advance to the Final Four from the River Walk region. How concerned are you about COVID-19 complications with UConn? How much did that affect your choices?
Voepel: Since Baylor’s home loss to Iowa State on January 16, we’ve seen the Lady Bears get better. That was right after their COVID-19 hiatus, and it seemed an additional fire was starting below them.
After beating the TCU by 37 points at the start of the Big 12 tournament, the Lady Bears were challenged in the Texas semi-finals and West Virginia in the final. The climbers seemed to have run out of gas in the fourth quarter, but it is Baylor’s credit for wearing them out. Coach Kim Mulkey later said the Lady Bears still had some things to do, but the confidence they showed made them look ready to step into the NCAA tournament.
I think there must be concerns that UConn currently has two coaches even though Chris Dailey is perfectly able to lead the team. The huskies could still win the championship and it wouldn’t be a surprise. I didn’t really decide against UConn. I chose Baylor because of the Lady Bears’ strengths.
Cream: When I picked Baylor to make the Final Four, UConn’s COVID-19 issues didn’t even come to mind. I just think Baylor is the better team.
Mulkey is a master at finding a perceived recklessness and turning it into motivation. The Lady Bears were already playing as well as anyone else in the country. The fact that Baylor was not selected as number 1 must have been part of at least one speech in Baylor’s locker room before the team left for San Antonio.
The Lady Bears path is not exactly easy. River Walk seems like the most challenging of the regions, but Baylor has the type of defense to suit any style of play, and it’s one of the best in the country.
Stanford is the consensus pick as the overall tournament favorite. Why did you choose the cardinal?
Voepel: Full Disclosure: I’ve thought, “How many times in the past three decades have we thought Stanford could win the NCAA title but the Cardinal didn’t? So why choose now?” Well, history doesn’t always dictate everything, does it? Maybe it’s Stanford’s turn again.
After the cardinal won the national championship in 1990 and 1992, no one could have guessed that 29 years later we would be sitting here wondering if a third title was on the way. (Trigger warning to Stanford fans, here’s a brief but painful recap of the Cardinal approaching in the Women’s Final Four but has not been close enough since then.)
Stanford had a great core group that went to the Final Four in 1995, 1996 and 1997 but lost in the semifinals every year. The 2008 team led by Candice Wiggins defeated UConn in the national semifinals, but couldn’t get past Tennessee for the title. In 2009 a semi-final loss to UConn. The 2010 team held UConn to 12 points in the first half of the final but still lost 53-47 in a terrible all-round game.
In 2011 Stanford lost in the national semifinals against eventual champions Texas A & M. Another semifinal defeat in 2012 against a Baylor team 40-0. 2014 and ’17 there were two more semifinal losses.
If all of this was haunted by Tara VanDerveer, she really isn’t showing it. She remains the eternal optimist and has recruited great talent to further promote this optimism. This group of cardinals does not carry baggage from the last four disappointments. Guard Anna Wilson is the team’s only holdover from 2017, having suffered a foot injury and has only played six games this season. She’s a very different player now than a senior starter.
Much has been written and said about the Cardinal’s nine-week street sweep due to COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County – about its depth, about its multi-weapon attack and equally strong defense, about its cohesion. Sure, there have been some periods of drought in games that are a little scary for VanDerveer. And Stanford’s most gifted all-round player, Haley Jones, isn’t exactly the best player. that was Senior Point Guard Kiana Williams. That can be a strength or a problem, depending on how things go.
But I have voted Cardinal # 1 for several weeks and I think they are the best overall team. The best team isn’t always the one to win the NCAA tournament, of course, but it could be this year.
Cream: Mechelle touched on so many reasons – the depth, the chemistry, the versatility of the talent, the coach – and they all contribute to why I chose Stanford. But the overarching trait that I keep coming back to is that the cardinal still has more opportunities to win a basketball game than anyone else in the field.
In the past three weeks, Stanford has scored 92 in one game and 62 in another – and easily won both. The cardinal is the third in the country in percentage field goal defense and 14th in points scored per game. Seven different cardinal players have led the team in the ranking this season. Some games go to newcomer Cameron Brink. In other cases, Williams leads the charges. Or another night when Jones is more involved with the ball and Williams is designated shooter. This role could also include Lexie Hull or Hannah Jump.
Stanford doesn’t win with just one formula. How can anyone come up with a plan to beat them all?
Final four picks
Andrea Adelson: Stanford (Masters), South Carolina, Baylor, Texas A & M.
Katie Barnes: Stanford (Masters), Maryland, UConn, NC State
Charlie Creme: Stanford (Masters), South Carolina, Baylor, Texas A & M.
D’Arcy Maine: Stanford, Maryland, UConn (Masters), Arizona
Kevin Pelton: Stanford (Masters), Maryland, UConn, NC State
Mechelle Voepel: Stanford (Masters), Maryland, Baylor, NC State
Royce Young: Stanford, Maryland (Masters), Baylor, Texas A & M.