UConn might be the favorite to win its 12th NCAA tournament, but there are 63 other teams standing in the way. Here’s how we size up the field before the first round tips off Friday (ESPN2, noon ET).
Best case: Junior guard Shakyla Hill, who posted a quadruple-double earlier this season, does one better with 22 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks — and the Tigers manage to stay within 30 of Baylor.
Worst case: Baylor freshman point guard Alexis Morris bottles up Hill, Grambling doesn’t hit 20 points in the first half and Kalani Brown outscores Grambling all by herself.
Best case: Leading scorer and rebounder Alexis Montgomery, a redshirt senior who missed a year and a half with an injury, plays like she doesn’t want her career to end, and the Red Hawks stay within eight points of Oregon at halftime. The Ducks pull away in the second half, but the Eugene crowd gives Montgomery a standing ovation as she leaves the court.
Worst case: Seattle, playing in its first NCAA tournament, is overwhelmed by the Matthew Knight Arena crowd and never threatens the Ducks, who hit 100 points.
62. Nicholls State
Best case: The Colonels ride the high of their first NCAA tournament berth and catch a Mississippi State team that’s still upset over its loss in the SEC tournament off guard. Nicholls State is still in the game midway through the second quarter.
Worst case: The Bulldogs are still mad about that loss to South Carolina and unleash that fire.
61. North Carolina A&T
Best case: The Aggies win with defense and offensive rebounding, and they hustle their way to a first-quarter lead against South Carolina.
Worst case: North Carolina A&T only has one player in the regular rotation taller than 6-foot-2. Against 6-5 A’ja Wilson and 6-3 Alexis Jennings, there are no offensive rebounds.
60. Cal State Northridge
Best case: Big West player of the year Channon Fluker, who averaged a double-double and also blocked 13 shots in a game, puts them together for a triple-double. The Matadors, who lost first-round games to South Carolina by 15 points in 2014 and Stanford by 13 in 2015, are even more respectable this time and stay within single digits of Notre Dame.
Worst case: The Matadors, still reeling from the fact that they aren’t playing the Bulls (either Buffalo or South Florida), have nothing left in the tank after getting to South Bend.
59. St. Francis (Pa.)
Best case: Junior Jessica Kovatch, who set an NCAA record for the most 3-pointers in a season with 141, and averaged 34.3 PPG in the NEC tournament, puts on a shooting display in the first quarter against UConn that even draws applause from Geno Auriemma.
Worst case: Kia Nurse completely shuts down Kovatch and St. Francis doesn’t even score 34 points in the game.
58. Little Rock
Best case: The Trojans, who hold opponents to 28.2 percent 3-point shooting, make life a little miserable for Florida State’s 40 percent 3-point shooter, Imani Wright, and they pull a third straight first-round upset (beat Texas A&M in 2015 and Georgia Tech in 2010).
Worst case: Little Rock, which gives up just 52.6 PPG, was an 11-seed in 2015 and 2010. As a 14-seed, the Trojans are no match for the Seminoles and surrender 45 points by halftime.
Best case: Keyen Green, the Flames’ undersized post and leading scorer, gives Tennessee fits. The Big South player of the year helps Liberty keep the Tennessee fans a little nervous until the fourth quarter.
Worst case: The last time Liberty played Tennessee was 20 years ago, also in the NCAA tournament. By the end of Friday’s first-round game, most Flames’ fans hope it’s another 20 years before they meet again.
56. Boise State
Best case: The Broncos, who got here on A’Shanti Coleman’s buzzer beater against Nevada in the Mountain West tournament title game, beat the buzzer again — at halftime. A half-court heave by Riley Lupfer, the MWC all-time leader in 3-pointers, is part of a good day for her. Boise State stays in the game until the fourth quarter against Louisville.
Worst case: Arica Carter takes away Lupfer’s open looks, and her Boise State teammates can’t cash in on theirs. The 83-56 loss the Broncos suffered last year to UCLA looks good compared to the drubbing they suffer at the KFC Yum! Center.
Best case: First-year coach Amy Vachon was part of four Black Bear NCAA tournament teams as a player and was the point guard on the only Maine to win a game, a 1999 upset of Stanford under current Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie. That experience passes to her players’ consciousness, and they stun Texas in the first-round’s biggest upset.
Worst case: The five players on Maine’s roster who hail from outside the United States are so taken with Austin they struggle to concentrate on the court. The Black Bears, in the field for the first time since 2004, are easy pickings for Texas.
54. George Washington
Best case: George Washington coach Jennifer Rizzotti plays for her team a recording of the locker room speech Geno Auriemma gave in 1995 right before UConn won its first national championship with Rizzotti as the point guard. The inspired Colonials pull a first-round stunner at Ohio State.
Worst case: GW gets off to a rough start and Rizzotti wishes that point guard Mei-Lyn Bautista had Rebecca Lobo to throw the ball to like Rizzotti did 23 years ago.
Best case: The Bulldogs draw inspiration from a coaching staff rich with NCAA tournament success. Assistant Nicci Hays Fort made five tournaments as an assistant at DePaul and assistant Markisha Wright (Notre Dame) and graduate manager Chantel Osahor (Washington) each appeared in Final Fours. That lifts Drake to a first-round surprise over Texas A&M.
Worst case: The sophomore duo of Sara Rhine and Becca Hittner, Drake’s leading scorers, are no match for Aggies Chennedy Carter and Danni Williams, and the Bulldogs suffer their first loss since before Christmas.
Best case: Patriot League player of the year Emily Kinneston hits double figures in points and assists, and the Eagles come even closer to UCLA than they did in 2015 when they lost to Iowa by eight in the first round.
Worst case: The Eagles learn quickly that, despite their nickname, they don’t fly around the court like Monique Billings and Jordin Canada. UCLA’s athleticism is way too overwhelming in a 30-point Bruins’ win.
Best case: Shay Burnett emulates her coach, Charlotte Smith, who made the NCAA tournament winning shot for North Carolina in 1994, by burying a 3-pointer at the buzzer in Elon’s upset of NC State.
Worst case: Burnett beats the buzzer, but it’s at the end of the first quarter and the Phoenix are already down by 12.
50. Western Kentucky
Best case: Conference USA player of the year Tashia Brown and Oregon State’s Marie Gulich forge an inside scoring duel for the ages that Brown wins, even if the Lady Toppers come up just short.
Worst case: The 6-5 Gulich prevents the 6-1 Brown from any clean looks, and the Beavers’ Katie McWilliams does the same to WKU’s second-leading scorer Ivy Brown, and the Lady Toppers remain winless in the tournament (0-6) since 2000.
Best case: Three-time SoCon player of the year Kahlia Lawrence draws comparisons to Kobe Bryant with her smooth fadeaway jumper, and the Bears avenge a loss earlier in the season to Georgia with a huge upset in Athens.
Worst case: Lawrence gets her points, but the Lady Dogs defense makes her work so hard that she’s out of gas by the fourth quarter — and Georgia pulls away.
Best case: A confident Bulldogs’ team, remembering its upset of Stanford during last year’s regular season, pull off another as Jill Barta dominates inside and out.
Worst case: Stanford’s Alanna Smith plays like a better version of Barta, and the shooting stroke of Brittany McPhee helps Stanford roll into the second round.
Best case: Darby Maggard and Kylee Smith go toe-to-toe with Duke counterparts Lexie Brown and Rebecca Greenwell, and the Bruins only lose when Maggard just misses a potential game-winning 3-pointer.
Worst case: Belmont, which is fifth in the country in points per 100 possessions per herhoopstats.com, is completely shut down by Duke’s changing zone defenses and exits its third straight NCAA tournament without a win.
Best case: Still upset about 2015 — when Princeton was unbeaten but stuck with a No. 8 seed and had to play at No. 1 seed Maryland in the second round — the Tigers take it out on this version of the Terps — and pull the upset this time.
Worst case: Bella Alarie, the 6-4 daughter of former Duke star Mark Alarie, as well as the Tigers’ leading scorer and rebounder (13.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG), and 6-foot Leslie Robinson (10.2 PPG, 7.0 PPG), the niece of Barack and Michelle Obama, are completely shut down by Maryland duo Brianna Fraser and Stephanie Jones in an easy Terps win.
45. Florida Gulf Coast
Best case: The Eagles, who launch 3-pointers at a greater rate than any team in the country per herhoopsstats.com, keep firing away and Missouri, who is a respectable 47th in that same category, can’t keep up in FGCU’s upset win.
Worse case: The Eagles keep firing, but nothing is falling, and the physical Tigers make them pay in an easy win.
Best case: The Bluejays outscore one of the best offensive teams in the country, Iowa, by running their overtime record this year to 6-1.
Worst case: Audrey Faber can’t outscore Megan Gustafson and Creighton’s streak of at least one win per NCAA tournament appearance ends at two.
Best case: The experience of seniors Maddie Manning, Gabbi Ortiz and Vionise Pierre-Louis shines through, and this time the Sooners are on the right end of a 111-108 score against DePaul, avenging a loss on Nov. 13.
Worst case: The inconsistent defense that plagued Oklahoma all season is no match for the red-hot Blue Demons, who score over 100 points again — and this time it’s a blowout.
42. Northern Colorado
Best case: The Bears watch tape of their wins earlier this year over DePaul and LSU set to the “Rocky” theme “Gonna Fly Now” for extra inspiration, and pull off a third upset.
Worst case: Somehow those game tapes get lost and the only one available is the 33-point, 1-for-26 3-point shooting output against Fordham. The Commodores “Brick House” is the soundtrack instead, and Northern Colorado’s first NCAA tournament appearance ends in a thud against Michigan.
Best case: Defense got the Bulls to a 27-win season and it comes through again. The zone is able to pressure Maria Jespersen and Kitija Laksa into just enough hurried shots, and Buffalo makes its second NCAA tournament appearance count.
Worst case: The battle of the Bulls goes the way of South Florida. The north Bulls can’t score enough against the longer and more experienced south Bulls.
40. Central Michigan
Best case: Only four players in this tournament made more 3-pointers than Presley Hudson this year, and LSU has no answer for her hot shooting. She makes a career-high 10 from deep and the Chippewas advance to round two.
Worst case: LSU’s Chloe Jackson harasses Hudson the entire game and that’s too much offensive load for leading scorer Tinara Moore to absorb. The program record for wins in a season holds at 28.
Best case: The Gophers’ four-woman offensive tour de force — Kenisha Bell, Carlie Wagner, Gadiva Hubbard and Destiny Pitts — not only wins the classic contrast in style matchup with Green Bay in the first round, but Minnesota shoots itself to a shocking upset of Oregon in the second.
Worst case: The Phoenix slow the game and Minnesota doesn’t adjust to the precision execution of Green Bay. Wagner scores a bunch in her final game, but gets little help from her younger teammates in a first-round loss.
Best case: The Cavaliers, in the tournament for the first time since 2010, reach the second round. Who doesn’t want to see South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson go up against 6-9 Felicia Aiyeotan?
Worst case: Aiyeotan and the rest of the defensive-minded Cavaliers are overmatched by All-American post player Kristine Anigwe and are bounced out by Cal.
Best case: The improvement of the young Cornhuskers under Big Ten coach of the year Amy Williams continues. Enthusiasm for 2019 grows in Lincoln after Nebraska takes out Arizona State and pushes Texas to the brink in round two.
Worst case: Inconsistent offense, the reason Nebraska was on the bubble most of the season, shows up again in the first round. The Cornhuskers can’t follow up a solid first half against the stingy Sun Devils, who pull away.
Best case: The experience of playing Iowa, Missouri and Ohio State earlier this season, plus that of reaching the Sweet 16 a year ago, pays off, and the Bobcats advance past the less-experienced Miami Hurricanes.
Worst case: The magic of a year ago when it beat Miami in the second round isn’t there as Jen Fay and Aryn McClure never find their rhythm. This time the Hurricanes prevail and the two programs decide they need to play a rubber match in next year’s tournament.
Best case: A 45.7 percent 3-point shooter heading into the tournament, senior Jenna Burdette takes it to another level against Marquette in the first round. Burdette goes for 35 points and the Flyers win the most exciting and high-scoring game of the first round.
Worst case: After dominating the Atlantic 10 all season, losses in two of their last three games prove to be no fluke, and the Flyers are never in the game against high-scoring Marquette.
Best case: The Wildcats play a perfect brand of Villanova basketball — shoot plenty of 3-pointers, make the opponent miss most of its 3-pointers, and don’t turn over the ball — and they knock off South Dakota State in round one and give Notre Dame a huge scare in round two.
Worst case: Playing just a little faster and a little better version of Villanova’s brand of ball, South Dakota State knocks out the Wildcats.
33. Oklahoma State
Best case: The Loryn Goodwin who scored 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting against Oklahoma on Jan. 7 shows up — and the Cowgirls beat Syracuse in the first round.
Worst case: The Loryn Goodwin one who had six points on 3-of-18 shooting and six turnovers against Kansas State just six days later shows up — and Syracuse advances.
Best case: The Orange continue to follow the blueprint that got them to the national championship game two years ago: shoot 3-pointers, force turnovers with the press, and get on the offensive glass. The ball also stays in the hands of Tiana Mangakahia, the nation’s assist leader, as much as possible. The up-tempo style renders Oklahoma State post Kaylee Jensen ineffective and Syracuse moves on.
Worst case: Yes, the Orange advance, but only to face Mississippi State, which dominated them in the first half of a game in Las Vegas just before Thanksgiving. This time there is no letup in the Bulldogs. Roshunda Johnson takes Mangakahia completely out of the game and Miranda Drummond has Victoria Vivians in her face. Mississippi State wins by 30.
Best case: Erykah Davenport, one of the country’s most improved players, dominates the smaller Bobcats from Quinnipiac and Miami “wins” the right to move on to play UConn. While that doesn’t go well, young guards Mykea Gray and Kelsey Marshall absorb important experience that will help next season.
Worst case: Quinnipiac hits another 15 3-pointers like it did a year ago in the second-round upset of the Hurricanes, tearing up Miami’s 29.4 percent 3-point defense.
Best case: Katelynn Flaherty catches fire and shoots the Wolverines all the way to the Elite Eight with a pair of 30-point games against Baylor and Tennessee.
Worst case: Michigan’s first trip to the tournament since 2013 is short. Northern Colorado, which scored 94 against DePaul in its opening game of the season, does the same to the Wolverines in the first round.
29. South Dakota State
Best case: Macy Miller — the player everybody should know, but doesn’t — becomes unforgettable. She passes and shoots the Jackrabbits to a first-round victory over Villanova and then gets South Dakota State to the brink of another huge second-round upset. The Jackrabbits, who lost by a point to Stanford in the second round in 2016, fall to Notre Dame, but once again prove that they belong.
Worst case: South Dakota State beats Villanova, but, unable to slow the Notre Dame offensive machine, is beaten badly by the Irish. Miller and Madison Guebert get their points, but neither is a match for Arike Ogunbowale.
Best case: Sometimes the happenstance of NCAA tournament bracketing provides matchups with interesting backgrounds. Here’s one. Cal coach Lindsey Gottlieb gets to face the coach, Joanne Boyle, who hired her as an assistant at Richmond in 2002 before the two moved onto Berkeley together in 2005. This time mentor beats teacher and the Bears move onto the second round.
Worst case: The Virginia defense, which holds opponents to 61 PPG, suffocates the Cal defense, holding both Kristine Anigwe and Asha Thomas to single digits, and it’s Boyle and the Cavaliers that move on to play South Carolina.
Best case: The Golden Eagles — learning from their youthful mistakes of a year ago when they were upset in the first round by Quinnipiac — take nothing for granted and blitz Dayton in the opener with big games from Danielle King and Allazia Blockton. Then Marquette puts the entire sport on notice, leading Louisville late in the fourth quarter before an Asia Durr 3-pointer ends the season.
Worst case: The defense that deserted Marquette in the Big East final against DePaul pulls a similar disappearing act in round one against Dayton, and leading scorers Blockton and Natisha Hiedeman can’t score enough to overcome the Flyers.
26. Green Bay
Best case: No one holds opponents to fewer points per game than the Phoenix. Much of that is due to Green Bay’s pace of play and ability to limit the number of possessions in a game. Kevin Borseth’s team is able to do that twice to teams that play the opposite way in Minnesota and Oregon, and Green Bay advances to the Sweet 16.
Worst case: The Phoenix miss too many shots early, allowing Minnesota to dictate tempo, and that first-half deficit is too much to overcome despite the best efforts of Allie LeClaire. The Phoenix are one-and-done.
25. Arizona State
Best case: The Sun Devils have won at least one NCAA tournament game in four straight seasons, and that trend continues. Charli Turner Thorne’s defensive scheme, which limited teams to a Pac-12-best 56.8 PPG, holds a young Nebraska team to fewer than 50 and a potent Texas team to fewer than 65. Arizona State reaches the Sweet 16.
Worst case: Nebraska’s freshman center, Kate Cain, gets the best of ASU’s leading scorer Kianna Ibis, and the Sun Devils fall to the Cornhuskers in one of the most intense games of the first round.
Best case: Ayana Mitchell dominates the lane for two games and LSU spoils the hopes of Ohio State reaching the Final Four in Columbus, upsetting the Buckeyes in the second round.
Worst case: Round one becomes a shootout with Central Michigan, something for which the Lady Tigers aren’t built. Raigyne Louis scores a career high, but it’s the last game of her outstanding career as LSU is upset.
Best case: The Hawkeyes got matchups they like and are able to get up and down the court, creating plenty of free space for Megan Gustafson to dominate. That includes the second-round game against UCLA. The Hawkeyes pull the upset in L.A. and advance to the Sweet 16, just like they did in 2015.
Worst case: Creighton has been a scrimmage partner for Iowa over the past few years and the familiarity gives the Bluejays just too much insight as to how to slow down the Hawkeyes. Creighton’s half-court execution is nearly flawless, and Iowa’s trip to the West Coast is a short one.
22. Oregon State
Best case: Perhaps overlooked a bit nationally this year after having high-profile teams the last two seasons, the Beavers change that by bouncing Tennessee in the second round and staging an epic fight against Baylor in the Sweet 16. Marie Gulich outplays Kalani Brown, Katie McWilliams and Kat Tudor make every big 3-pointer they take, and Oregon State reaches the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons.
Worst case: Oregon State orange clashes with Tennessee orange and Mercedes Russell’s post moves clash with Scott Rueck’s strategy to stop them. The Beavers have no answer for Russell or Rennia Davis and can’t overcome the Lady Vols in Knoxville.
Best case: The team that scored 85 points or more 15 times does it twice in the first two rounds, and the Blue Demons reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.
Worst case: DePaul still scores 85, but Texas A&M scores 90 in a second-round matchup of two of the great coaching offensive minds in the game: DePaul’s Doug Bruno and the Aggies’ Gary Blair. The Blue Demons have no answer for Khaalia Hillsman inside and fall short in a thriller.
Best case: The Tigers are systematic, methodical and deadly effective in their execution, and reach their first Sweet 16 since 2001. Freed from the physical play of the SEC, Sophie Cunningham shines for two games in Stanford.
Worst case: The second-round game against the Cardinal becomes a chess match, and in Tara VanDerveer, Missouri is playing against Bobby Fischer. Tigers coach Robin Pingeton is in it move for move until she loses her queen in Cunningham to foul trouble. Check mate.
19. South Florida
Best case: A second consecutive tournament trip to Tallahassee doesn’t thrill the Bulls, but this time they get their shot at host Florida State and make it count. In a game loaded with talent and experience, Kitija Laksa is the best player on the floor and South Florida reaches its first Sweet 16.
Worst case: Buffalo’s zone and high emotional levels become the story of the day, and South Florida plays confused and uninspired. USF tries to shoot its way out of a first-half deficit, but not enough are falling and South Florida exits Tallahassee a first-round victim again.
Best case: The Blue Devils didn’t get to host, but prove to be the better team in round two against Georgia. Lexie Brown sparkles and not just with her play. The bracelet made by teammate Erin Mathias, who has her own clothing line, is the talk of the postgame news conference.
Worst case: Duke still makes the Sweet 16, but playing in the same regional as UConn four times since 2011, the Blue Devils’ season ends in Albany by more than the 35-point margin that separated these two the last time they met in the tournament in 2001.
Best case: The team that overcame injuries and transfers to lead the Big Ten for most of the season returns to Brenda Frese and the Terps cruise into the Sweet 16. Mississippi State proves to be too much there, but Maryland is competitive and positioned well for next season.
Worst case: The team that went 3-4 in the season’s final weeks remains and the Terps are a first-round upset victim to Princeton, leaving Frese to wonder what needs to change in 2019.
16. NC State
Best case: With senior Chelsea Nelson grabbing what seems like every rebound available and Aislinn Konig finding her 3-point range again, the Wolfpack reach the Sweet 16 with relative ease, their first trip to the regional semifinals since 2007.
Worst case: Elon is also a good rebounding team and becomes one of the few teams to chase down more loose balls than NC State. The Wolfpack survive a huge scare, but the energy expended is costly and Maryland upends NC State in round two.
15. Texas A&M
Best case: Chennedy Carter and Danni Williams catch fire at the same time and the spark stays lit for four games. The Aggies are the surprise entry in the Final Four. It’s such a shock even Gary Blair is at a loss for words.
Worst case: The synergy between Carter and Williams is off, as if they are playing two different games. Khaalia Hillsman and Anriel Howard aren’t used nearly enough. While it’s enough to survive Drake in the first round, A&M finds itself no match for the spread offense of DePaul.
Best case: Taja Cole goes toe-to-toe with Lexie Brown, clearing the way for the high-low game of Mackenzie Engram and Caliya Robinson to get the best of Duke. Georgia reaches the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013 when Andy Landers was still the coach. Joni Taylor’s team isn’t ready to beat UConn, but the Lady Dogs remains competitive well into the second half.
Worst case: In a second-round game against the Blue Devils dominated by defense, it comes to a few plays. Brown is the best player on the floor and she makes them. Georgia’s season ends on its home floor.
Best case: The NCAA tournament and Stanford can’t be discussed without “Final Four” entering the conversation — and the Cardinal do it again. Brittany McPhee catches a hot streak like she did in the regionals last March and Stanford shocks Louisville and Baylor to get to its third Final Four in five years and the 14th in program history.
Worst case: The Cardinal reach the Sweet 16, but the season ends there because this is the game Louisville’s Asia Durr finds her stroke again. The Cardinal have no answer even after massive halftime adjustments by coach Tara VanDerveer.
Best case: The talent of freshmen Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes, and Evin Westbrook that has been apparent all season — but not always fulfilled — explodes. Davis, who scored 33 points in a game earlier this season against Arkansas, hits the 30-point mark again in the second round. Veterans Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell take over in the regional and the Final Four-less streak is broken.
Worst case: After an early lead against Oregon State in round two, the turnover-prone Lady Vols return. Reminiscent of the 23-point blown lead to Notre Dame and the home loss to Alabama, Tennessee inexplicably loses what was working. Shot selection suffers as analysts all over the country ask why they stopped getting the ball to Russell. The Beavers take advantage and the Lady Vols faithful continue to scratch their heads.
11. Florida State
Best case: Florida State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, but it doesn’t matter because Imani Wright and AJ Alix barely miss as the Seminoles roll into the Sweet 16. That’s where Shakayla Thomas outplays A’ja Wilson and the much-discussed UConn-South Carolina matchup never happens because it’s the Seminoles who advance to the Elite Eight.
Worst case: The loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament still lingers and the Seminoles sleepwalk through an opening-round win over Little Rock, but can’t find the extra gear against South Florida. Thomas doesn’t have her normal burst, Alix is turnover-prone, and the Bulls have too many weapons.
10. Ohio State
Best case: Kelsey Mitchell catches one of those waves where everything is running downhill for her. She simply can’t be stopped. For four straight games she is able to get wherever she wants on the floor. When she does miss, Stephanie Mavunga grabs every rebound. After an Elite Eight win over Notre Dame, the Buckeyes return home to Columbus for the Final Four.
Worst case: Ohio State wins its second-round game in Columbus over LSU, but never plays there again. The Buckeyes run into a more polished offensive team than themselves in the Oregon Ducks, and the defensive woes that have plagued Ohio State all season are front and center. Mitchell leaves the college game as its second highest scorer in NCAA history, passing Jackie Stiles for that spot in round two.
Best case: The supremely athletic Bruins sprint and jump their way to the Elite Eight with relative ease, playing a pair of the tournament’s most entertaining games against Iowa and Texas. Jordin Canada shines after getting away from Pac-12 teams that know her game so well.
Worst case: The outside shooting woes that have shown up periodically in big games throughout the season hit at the wrong time again. UCLA becomes too dependent on Canada’s dribble penetration. Those lanes aren’t as readily available and Monique Billings can’t get enough touches to be effective. It’s enough to get through the first two rounds, but becomes too much to overcome against Texas.
Best case: The Longhorns, who played much of the season in the shadow of Baylor, UConn, Notre Dame and Oregon, grab a significant part of the NCAA tournament spotlight. Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty explode as the most prolific backcourt in the first two rounds. The big story comes in the regionals, though, when Joyner Holmes, who has struggled with her role in a sophomore season marred by a first-half suspension, finds her way. She plays the best two games of her career and Texas reaches the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
Worst case: Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau is still unable to return from a wrist injury, and when Jatari White gets in foul trouble, the frontcourt depth issues become the Longhorns’ undoing in the Sweet 16 against UCLA. Atkins also struggles to score consistently. McCarty, despite a big night, is unable to shoot Texas to a win and a promising season ends in disappointment.
7. South Carolina
Best case: The momentum from the SEC tournament championship spills over into NCAA tournament play, and for the third time in A’ja Wilson’s career the defending champs reach the Final Four. Wilson is an unstoppable force with double-doubles in every game and she doesn’t stop smiling until the Gamecocks face UConn in the Elite Eight, where South Carolina finally beat the Huskies for the first time. The basketball world is stunned again as South Carolina, not UConn, reaches the Final Four. Wilson goes on to win a second national title by beating Mississippi State once again in the championship game.
Worst case: The same things that derailed the Gamecocks in losses to Missouri, UConn and Mississippi State — a struggling Alexis Jennings or spotty guard play — reemerge simultaneously. Florida State doubles and triples Wilson nearly every time she touches the ball and the open shots for others aren’t falling. The Seminoles dominate the glass and South Carolina’s season ends in Albany but before meeting UConn.
Best case: Ruthy Hebard doesn’t miss a shot through the first two rounds, then Sabrina Ionescu takes over in the regionals with a triple-double in the Sweet 16. But, it’s her assist on a jumper by Maize Carzola at the buzzer against Notre Dame in the Spokane Regional final that gets the Ducks to their first Final Four. The Oregon athletic administration offers coach Kelly Graves a 10-year contract extension on the flight back to Eugene from Spokane.
Worst case: The young Ducks, who were last year’s tournament darlings as a 10-seed during their improbable run to the Elite Eight, don’t handle the role of favorite as well. The defense struggles to slow Ohio State in the regional semis, and even the triple-double by Ionescu can’t save the Ducks. This time they are the upset victim.
Best case: Alexis Morris is the most talked about freshman point guard in the tournament, not because of who she is replacing in Kristy Wallace but because of how well she is playing. She proves in the early rounds that the 19-point, one-turnover, 40-minute performance against Texas in the Big 12 tournament final was no fluke, and she is able to handle the job running the Lady Bears full time. Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox are also dominant right into the Final Four, where Baylor makes the final, proving once and for all that it was one of the two best teams in the country all along.
Worst Case: So much is focused on how Morris can replace Wallace that she starts to wear down by the time Baylor gets to the regionals. The other injuries and lack of depth start to take their toll on Baylor. Brown gets in foul trouble in the regional final and the second-highest scoring team in the country suddenly doesn’t have enough offense — and loses in the Elite Eight for the fifth straight year.
4. Notre Dame
Best Case: Arike Ogunbowale puts on an offensive display that is unmatched through the first four rounds, Jessica Shepard shines in her first taste of NCAA tournament play, Marina Mabrey continues to give an Oscar-worthy performance in her role playing a point guard, and announcers make 12 unintentional puns about how Jackie Young has a nose for the basketball (the sophomore has played most of the season with a broken nose). Notre Dame cruises into the Final Four with its entire rotation feeling as rested and healthy has it has all season.
Worst case: Another injury strikes the already depleted Irish much like it did last year in the second round to Brianna Turner and, finally, it’s one the Irish can’t overcome. They fall in the Sweet 16 again and head home to South Bend instead bolstered by the thoughts of having Turner join Shepard, Ogunbowale, Young and Mabrey on the court all season in 2019.
Best case: The Cardinals shake off some late-season inconsistency and Asia Durr rediscovers the game that led to a 47-point outing against Ohio State in November. When Louisville is done playing and winning in Lexington, the Cardinals have won over Kentucky fans, who show up even wearing a little red for the regional final game. Jeff Walz takes his third Louisville team to the Final Four and spends each press conference in Columbus reminding everyone who Durr is.
Worst case: The continued improvement of Jazmine Jones and Sam Fuehring comes to a halt as the moments get bigger. Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen don’t have enough help and Louisville is unable to emerge from Lexington. Instead of red, the Kentucky fans stick with their traditional blue and any hope for a home-court advantage is gone.
2. Mississippi State
Best case: The Bulldogs shake off the offensive struggles in the SEC tournament title game loss to South Carolina and score at least 90 points in each of their games before arriving in Columbus. Teaira McCowan physically dominates in each, posting double-doubles in all of them and getting 20 rebounds in two. Victoria Vivians is the leading scorer in the tournament by scoring more points than field goal attempts. Vic Schaefer appears on every morning show in the country, leading up to the national championship game, and the phrase “Praise the Lord and Go Dawgs” becomes more recognizable than “Dilly, Dilly.”
Worst case: The hangover of losing a 30-game winning streak lingers. The sold-out home crowd in StarkVegas gets the Bulldogs through the first two rounds, but they aren’t sharp in the regionals. McCowan gets in foul trouble and the normally deadly 3-point prowess of Blair Schaefer and Roshunda Johnson isn’t there. Too much weight falls on the shoulders of Vivians and, despite her best efforts, and those of a more aggressive Morgan William, Mississippi State is upset the Elite Eight.
Best case: The Huskies steamroll their way to Columbus … and the memory of last year’s semifinal loss comes rushing back. And that’s a good thing. Avenging it becomes the emotional rallying cry for the normally business-like Huskies. They hope for another crack and Mississippi State in the final and get their wish. This time there is no dramatic shot because the Huskies take all the drama out of the game as Kia Nurse doesn’t let Morgan William anywhere near the lane. Gabby Williams records the first triple-double in title game history and the Huskies have their 12th national championship.
Worst case: Williams aggravates her hip injury yet again and just isn’t the same as the Huskies get to the Final Four. Without her on the court as much, the offense doesn’t run quite as smoothly in the national semifinals and UConn leans a bit too heavily on 3-point shooting. Katie Lou Samuelson never quite finds her rhythm and the Huskies are upset again. The good news is that Megan Walker has to play more minutes and proves she is ready for a bigger role next season.