This year’s women’s tournament boasts one of the strongest collections of basketball talent gathered in one place at one time.
It’s an exceptional state of affairs, considering that each of the 64 teams, all playing in Texas due to coronavirus restrictions, had to compete with the stresses of a season impacted by the pandemic, on top of the usual challenges of making it to the tournament.
In a season of freshman stars, transfer newcomers, and elite talent across the board, there is no shortage of stories to watch for this year.
The big freshmen are on the biggest stage.
In many ways, this has been the season of the freshman in women’s basketball. UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark have captured much of the national attention.
They’re on the biggest stage now, in front of the widest audience and facing the toughest competition, and they are under the most pressure.
For Bueckers, pressure has been a part of her story all along. Since high school she’s been projected for stardom, and been asked to carry a young UConn squad all season in ways only the best players in the storied program’s history have before.
Clark, despite leading the nation in scoring for Iowa, has been overshadowed by Bueckers’ greatness. On their side of the bracket they are on a near-unavoidable Sweet 16 collision course.
Before they reach that point, though, they have to get through their first tournament games.
So much of Iowa’s offense runs through Clark. In addition to her nation-leading 26.7 points per game, she also averages 7.6 assists. Opposing defenses are wary of her three-point shooting range, and she can pick apart those defenses with her passing, too. Against Central Michigan on Sunday, a fast-paced, offense-minded team, Clark should be front and center.
If she keeps the pace, she’d become the second freshman to lead the nation in scoring over an entire season. Only former Delaware star — and current WNBA legend — Elena Delle Donne has accomplished that feat.
It will be a fun chance to see the two top freshmen, who have played together previously on Team USA under-16 and under-19 squads, in action on the same day and in the first two rounds, as they inch closer to a potential matchup and possibly a future rivalry.
Terps even tougher with Angel Reese back.
That Maryland dominated offensively this season without star freshman Angel Reese says so much about how deep the Terrapins are.
Harvard transfer Katie Benzan and Mississippi State transfer Chloe Bibby work well alongside last season’s Big Ten freshman of the year Ashley Owusu to lead a powerful attack.
Now Reese, who broke bones in her foot earlier this season but has been back for a few weeks and playing well, gives the No. 2 Terps even more offensive prowess.
That should concern everyone on their side of the bracket.
In the first three games of her collegiate career, Reese averaged 17 points and 8.7 rebounds. It appeared she was ready to become a dominant force, following in the footsteps of now-sophomore Owusu as a freshman stalwart of the Maryland offense.
Instead, she went down in early December against Towson and would need surgery for a foot fracture.
The Terps went 21-2 on the way to becoming the top seed in the Big Ten tournament anyway, and Reese returned ahead of schedule on Feb. 23.
She has provided a boost for the already elite offense. In her second game back, she had 17 points and nine rebounds, and scored 10 in the conference championship over Northwestern.
On a bigger stage, Reese could shine even brighter. After missing time, she has more to prove to the basketball world.
Kierstan Bell arrives for a deep run.
Many of the teams expected to make an upset bid will get a chance early on. Florida Gulf Coast has an opportunity against Michigan on Sunday in what many expect to be one of the most fascinating low-seed matchups.
It also means a chance to see sophomore star Kierstan Bell try to take the Eagles on a run. The 6-foot-1 Bell was fifth in the country in scoring with 24.3 points per game and was the first player in Atlantic Sun history to earn player of the year and newcomer of the year honors.
A transfer from Ohio State, Bell knows the big stage. Following her freshman season, she entered the transfer portal and ended up at F.G.C.U.
“Kierstan has had one of the best seasons of all women’s college basketball players this year,” F.G.C.U. head coach Karl Smesko said after Bell was named a second-team all-American. “Having somebody with that size and athleticism to help defend in there, it definitely helps, obviously, but I think we’re going to need more than just one-on-one in the post all of the time.”
In 26 games she became the first player in program history to have a 20-20 game, and the first to score 600 points in a season.
The pandemic kept her from the N.C.A.A. tournament a year ago. Now basketball fans will see how dominant she can be, and she gets the chance to knock off her old school’s rival — Michigan — in the process.
A homecoming for Gabby Connally of Georgia.
Three Georgia seniors are already pursuing master’s degrees. One of them is San Antonio native Gabby Connally, playing at home in the national tournament.
“I’m super excited to be heading back home,” Connally told reporters earlier this week. “I know there are some friends and family that will get to see me in person.”
It’s the first tournament appearance for the Bulldogs since 2018. They were projected to finish ninth in the SEC. Instead, they earned a No. 3 seed for the first time since 2007. Their last Final Four trip came in 1999.
Repeating that long-ago success will be challenging with Stanford and Louisville in their bracket.
Connally has some extra motivation, though.
The senior rolled her ankle at practice last Friday and was on crutches afterward. She’s still expected to play in the first game against Drexel on Monday.
She said earlier this week the injury “is not going to stop me from playing” in front of a home crowd — all 17 percent capacity allowed in the arena.
“We want to bring [a national championship] home, and I know I keep saying it so maybe the more I say it, the more positive vibes get put in the air, but we want to win a national championship,” Connally said.