After experiencing the First Four for the first time, the 2022 women's NCAA tournament first-round games open Friday on the road to Minneapolis. And one thing we'll be watching for is how strong teams look in countering the home-court advantage of the top-16 seeds.
And that's part of why we've seen so few upsets in the first round; a No. 16 seed has won just once (outside of this year's First Four), and that was in 1998 when Harvard beat top-seeded Stanford. The Nos. 14 and 15 seeds have never won a women's NCAA tournament game. The No. 13 seeds have won 10 times, most recently last year when Wright State beat Arkansas in the first round; however that game -- like all the games last season -- was on a neutral court.
It can get more challenging for teams to protect the home court in the second round. In 2019, the most recent year when games were on home courts, four host teams were upset in the second round. One of them was by a double-digit seed: No. 13 Missouri State over No. 3 Iowa State. And while Lady Vols alum Kellie Harper was going to be a candidate for the open Tennessee job that year anyway, guiding the Lady Bears to the Sweet 16 was a boost for her moving to Knoxville.
Similarly, Wright State's victory last season helped coach Katrina Merriweather move on to Memphis. So while the gears are grinding on court during the tournament, the coaches' carousel and the transfer portal will be active off court, too. There is always plenty to watch and speculate about during March Madness. Here are some of the top storylines that ESPN's Mechelle Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Charlie Creme will be watching Friday and Saturday.
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Which game Friday are you most looking forward to watching?
Creme: Florida Gulf Coast vs. Virginia Tech (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The Eagles are tragically underseeded and should be a No. 9 or 10 at worst, not a No. 12 seed. That puts fifth-seeded Virginia Tech in a tough position. The Hokies are going to have trouble chasing FGCU around the perimeter, where the Eagles make a nation-best 11.7 3-pointers per game. The flip side is that the Eagles don't have an answer for 6-foot-4 All-American Elizabeth Kitley on the inside. Styles make great fights. The struggle for each team to impose its own style should be fascinating.
Philippou: I'm with Charlie here, FGCU-Virginia Tech feels like it shouldn't be a first-round game, but here we are. I'm also intrigued by No. 11 seed Dayton vs. No. 6 Georgia (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNews) in Ames, Iowa. The Flyers demolished DePaul in their First Four game Wednesday, holding the highest-scoring offense in the country to just 57 points on 27% shooting. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they were only the second team in the past 20 years to register 12 3-pointers (on 13-for-23 shooting no less!) and 12 blocks in an NCAA tournament game.
Not only does Dayton have the momentum from its strong outing Wednesday, but it has both the bigs (including 6-5 Tenin Magassa, who recorded seven blocks against Aneesah Morrow and the rest of the Blue Demons) capable of containing Georgia's Jenna Staiti as well as the 3-point shooting (Erin Whalen shot 7-for-12 from the arc Wednesday) that could rock the Bulldogs back on their heels, especially if the Flyers take care of the ball and get going in transition.
Voepel: I'm not saying it will be a pretty game, because it almost certainly won't. But it will be cool to see Spokane No. 8 seed Kansas back in the tournament for the first time since 2013. The Jayhawks will go against a No. 9 seed Georgia Tech team (7:30 p.m. ET Friday, ESPNU) that will be fine with a game in the 40s or 50s; the Yellow Jackets held opponents to an average of 51.9 PPG this season. Georgia Tech got big nonconference wins over UConn and Georgia and started the ACC season 9-2. But the Yellow Jackets lost six of their past nine games. Kansas lost four of its past five, but considering all those losses were to teams in the NCAA top-16 seeds, the Jayhawks proved they belong back in the Big Dance. The winner likely gets defending champion Stanford.
Which site has the best group of games on the opening weekend?
Creme: If I'm buying a ticket, it would be in Norman, Oklahoma, where both of Saturday's games are potential upsets. No. 13 seed IUPUI and Macee Williams, a 6-2 senior center who averages 18.7 PPG and 10.5 RPG, are a tough matchup for No. 4 seed Oklahoma (10 p.m. ET, ESPNU), which does not defend the post well. Remember, Kansas State center Ayoka Lee scored an NCAA single-game record 61 points against the Sooners in January.
UMass' Sam Breen could also be a household name by Saturday morning if the No. 12 seed Minutewomen knock off No. 5 Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). ESPN's BPI gives the Irish a 60.5% chance to win; Her Hoops Stats has the Irish's win probability at 52.3%. If nothing else, both games should be more competitive than the seeds would suggest.
Voepel: I agree that Oklahoma could have three really interesting games. But I also want to draw attention to Friday's games at College Park, Maryland, as the host No. 4 seed Terrapins take on 13-seed Delaware (5 p.m. ET, ESPNU) and fifth-seeded Virginia Tech meets No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast.
Maryland looked ready to take over the Big Ten after victories against Iowa and Ohio State completed a stretch of eight victories in a row on Feb. 14 and 17. But the Terps lost two of the past three, including a dispirited 62-51 defeat to Indiana at the Big Ten tournament.
Delaware doesn't have much size, but the Blue Hens have talent, including wing Jasmine Dickey (25.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG) and forward Ty Battle (13.3, 11.5), who both average double-doubles. And the Virginia Tech-FGCU game, as Charlie mentioned, should be an interesting contrast in teams that play quite differently.
Philippou: I think the Saturday games in Tucson have a chance of turning out pretty interesting. Things might be looking up for No. 4 seed Arizona -- which faces 13-seed UNLV (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2), back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 -- with 6-2 forward Cate Reese expected to return from a late season shoulder injury. But the Wildcats' play has still been so up and down this season that I'll be looking to see how they look now that they're healthy and, in theory, starting fresh in the NCAA tournament, where last time out they advanced to the national title game.
No. 5 seed North Carolina has the edge on paper over No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNews), but the Lumberjacks' style of play makes them a tough squad to go up against. Their full-court press helps them force 23.7 turnovers per game, the second-best mark in the country, and they are great at attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. The Tar Heels will have to play disciplined basketball to avoid a potential upset.
Who's the must-see player on the court Friday?
Philippou: Florida Gulf Coast's Kierstan Bell has gotten a lot of buzz, especially after announcing a few months ago that she'll enter the 2022 WNBA draft. The recently tabbed Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American (who averages 24.1 point and 7.6 rebounds per game) missed a month of the season due to a partially torn meniscus, but since returning helped the Eagles secure their NCAA tournament berth by winning the ASUN championship. In last season's NCAA tournament, Bell -- who despite being listed as a 6-1 guard for the Eagles often plays the 5 for them -- had an inefficient 25 points on 24 shots in FGCU's first-round loss to Michigan. Can she fare better in her last real "tryout" before her professional career is set to begin?
Voepel: We will mention the obvious ones, such as South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Iowa's Caitlin Clark, Iowa State's Ashley Joens and Stanford's Haley Jones. But another player to keep an eye on is Colorado's Mya Hollingshed, who is playing in her first NCAA tournament. The No. 7 seed Buffs are in the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. A "super senior" in her fifth season, she symbolizes the work Colorado has done to get back to this point. Hollingshed, a 6-3 forward, is averaging 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds to lead the Buffs. Colorado plays Creighton in Iowa City, Iowa, at 1:30 p.m. ET Friday (ESPNews).
Creme: No. 7 seed Ole Miss is playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2007. Shakira Austin will be playing in her second. As a freshman at Maryland in 2019, Austin got a two-game taste of March Madness. How will that experience help her, and how can she help her teammates understand the environment? Austin could be poised for a huge game Friday (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) against South Dakota. The Coyotes don't have anyone to physically match the 6-5 Austin, who could dominate in a fashion unlike any player in the first round.
How many first-round upsets do you have in your bracket?
Creme: I picked seven lower seeds to win in the first round. The most notable or biggest underdogs I picked were 13-seed UNLV over No. 4 Arizona, 11th-seeded Villanova over 6-seed BYU and Florida Gulf Coast over Virginia Tech.
Having the Lady Rebels beating Arizona in Tucson might seem a bit crazy, but the Wildcats weren't playing well at the end of the regular season. Yes, they were missing Reese, their leading scorer, but the offense became so anemic that she might not have helped much. The Lady Rebels can score from several different spots, and point guard Essence Booker is someone to watch. UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque played and coached at Stanford and is familiar with all things Pac-12.
In a battle of conference players of the year, I see Villanova's Maddy Siegrist outdueling BYU's Shaylee Gonzales and getting the Wildcats an upset. The Cougars might not be over the sting of losing the WCC tournament championship game.
Voepel: Charlie is more daring than me. I went with just three early-round upsets: No. 11 seed Dayton over No. 6 Georgia, No. 10 Arkansas over 7-seed Utah and No. 9 Kansas State over eighth-seeded Washington State.
The Flyers' dismantling of DePaul in their First Four game impressed me, and if they shoot anywhere near as well from the perimeter again, it could be a tough game for Georgia. Arkansas was upset last year in the first round, so maybe the Razorbacks turn the tables this year. And as good a season as Washington State has had, I'm not sure if they can stop Kansas State if center Ayoka Lee really gets going.
Philippou: There's been, well, a lot of inconsistency across women's college basketball this season, so I have a fairly lengthy list of games that would not shock me if they end as upsets. But the most realistic, remarkable ones in terms of seeding differential I foresee: No. 13 seed IUPUI over No. 4 seed Oklahoma, No. 11 Dayton over No. 6 Georgia and No. 12 FGCU over No. 5 Virginia Tech.
In fact, I'm on the record elsewhere as picking IUPUI to make it to the Sweet 16. The Jaguars have a perfect storm of strong 3-point defense and a dominant post in four-time Horizon League Player of the Year Macee Williams that Oklahoma is likely going to have its hands full. Their win over Iowa and overtime loss to Michigan are eyebrow-raising and demonstrate IUPUI has the capability to go toe-to-toe with Power 5 teams.