After months of speculation, the class of 2023 NCAA Tournament is now complete. But before you start filling them with reckless abandon, hoping to outsmart your co-workers in the office suite or outsmart your friends for bragging rights and free drinks, keep in mind that bracket busters are common. Every year, at least one team breaks chalk.
Looking at women’s college basketball arc, I highlighted one prospect from each region with surprising potential as well as four dark horse teams that could make it to the Final Four. This season, outside of South Carolina, the road to Dallas seems wide open.
Download your bow here, and follow along.
Let the madness begin.
Greenville District 1
The Flyers (23-8, 15-3 WCC) haven’t earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2020, and COVID-19 has put an end to March Madness’ dreams before they can even play. This season, Portland entered the Fifa World Cup by defeating Gonzaga in the title game. Although the Flyers do not have a signature to win and fail to beat a ranked opponent during the regular season, they should not be overlooked.
Young forward Alex Fowler is Portland’s point leader and averages 17.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. A first-round tie for No. 5-ranked Oklahoma could prove fateful because the Sooners have lost games against tough defensive teams like Texas and Iowa State. Like the Longhorns, Portland has a solid defense. Pilots love to press, force turns, and make use of transport buckets. If the supporting cast can come up offensively, they have a chance to make life uncomfortable for the Oklahoma offense and cause an upset. A possible showdown against UCLA in the second round is a tougher task. But if the Flyers play their game, they’re going to be tough.
The Flyers take the 12th seed against Oklahoma pic.twitter.com/LJYQquP3aa
– Portland Pilots women’s basketball (PortlandWBB) March 13, 2023
Greenville District 2
It looked as if the Tigers (23-5, 12-2 Ivy League) were going to lose their grip on the Ivy League this season, as they split the series against Harvard and Columbia. But they put together a 15-game winning streak, culminating in the conference championship. Now Columbia is out, and Princeton has a chance to break some brackets, facing a beatable NC State team in the first round.
With one of the best defenses in the country, the Tigers are known for their ability to stifle attacks, putting opponents up to 52.5 points per game. And they almost pulled off an upset against UConn earlier in the season. The Wolfpack struggled and lost games against other good defensive teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech. This is the kind of match that works for Princeton. Slowing down an offensive powerhouse like Utah in the second round can be a challenge. But Princeton was just one point away from beating Indiana in the second round last year, thanks to its defense. This year may be a different story.
Seattle area 3
The Rockets are riding a 16-game championship winning streak after capturing the MAC regular season title and crushing Bowling Green for the conference championship. With an automatic bid, Toledo’s first-round matchup against No. 5 Iowa State could be tough. But this is not impossible. The Rockets (28-4, 16-2 MAC) upset Michigan and beat Missouri State during the season. This is the team that takes care of the ball, shoots 79 percent from the free throw line, pulls down defensive rebounds at a high rate, and makes the most of every possession.
Behind Quinesha Lockett, senior guard and MAC player of the year, Toledo is an effective playmaker who averages 17.7 points per game and has a utilization rate of 31 percent. If the Rockets can keep Iowa’s all-time leading scorer Ashley Jones in check — easier said than done — take care of the ball as it’s been all season, and put up points, the Hurricanes could fall prey to an early exit. And Toledo will advance to the second round where a potential matchup against fourth seed Tennessee could be a battle on the boards.
Seattle area 4
I picked Middle Tennessee as my potential January Sagittarius. Blue Raiders have Cinderella potential, but they play like nothing else. They are a strong team that shoots the ball well, gets to the free throw line and plays one-on-one basketball on both ends of the court. With four players with a double-digit average, Middle Tennessee (28-4, 18-2C-USA) distributes the ball all over and has several scorers.
It’s a complete team that can last a long run, tied in a proper game by opening against sixth seed Colorado, which has lost three of its last five games. The Buffaloes are playing well defensively, but slowing the Blue Raiders down is no easy feat as Louisville discovered earlier in the season with an 18-point loss. If Middle Tennessee beats Colorado, it will likely take third seed Duke in the second round. And this is another winnable match for the Blue Raiders.
Team Dark Horse Final Four
Greenville District 1
Can you really be a team dark horse as a #2 seed? In the case of Maryland, yes. The Terrapins (25-6, 15-3 Big Ten) seem to have been flying under the radar all season, and they’re really going strong. With a productive offensive trio of Diamond Miller (19.7 PPG), Shyanne Sellers (13.8 PPG), and Abby Meyers (14.5 PPG), the Terrapins are hard to stop. They also take good care of the ball, and with 10 steals per game, they’re pretty good at getting it out. Although they need to smash the boards better at both ends, Maryland has Final Four potential. In the Greenville District 1, the road to Dallas may be the toughest because it requires getting past top seed South Carolina. As with every other Big Dance team, the Gamecocks are Maryland’s biggest handicap.
Greenville District 2
The Cougars won their first Pac-12 tournament by defeating Cal, Utah, Colorado and UCLA. This is a loud team that plays with a lot of heart, and that’s the perfect combination for March Madness’ success. Junior guard Charlie Legere-Walker leads the team in scoring (18.1 PPG) and has shone in the big moments, but the recent appearance of number one Bella Morecatetti has been key. She averaged 16.2 points per game in the conference tournament and played solid in the paint.
The Cougars (23-10, 9-9 Pac-12) are making their move at the right time, playing more efficiently on offense and holding their other four opponents by 54 points per game. However, the path to the Final Four will not be easy through this region as potential meetings against No. 4 Villanova, No. 1 Indiana, No. 3 LSU and No. 2 Utah loom large. The Cougars will need all the Cinderella magic they can muster.
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No. 4 Tennessee
Seattle area 3
There is no doubt that playing the toughest regular season schedule in the country has prepared the Lady Vols for a potential championship run. It is solid on both ends of the ground, and hits the attacking glass. Perhaps most importantly, they are a battle-tested team that has fought through adversity.
Despite an up and down season, in which Tennessee lost Tamari Key after just nine games, the Lady Vols (23-11, 13-3 SEC) built their confidence by winning nine straight games before facing resilient UConn. But a win over LSU in the semifinals of the SEC tournament was a definite boost. Seniors Rekia Jackson (19.6) and Jordan Hurston (15.5) play inspiring basketball, and the Lady Vols head into the tournament without the stress of the high expectations they had early in the season. They have nothing to lose.
No. 4 Texas
Seattle area 4
After a rough start, the Texans are finally healthy and back in shape – mostly. The Longhorns are now missing Sonya Morris, who has been out of the lineup with a lower leg injury since February. Texas (25-9, 14-4 Big 12) has lost three of its last 10 games, including a fall in the Big 12 tournament to Iowa State. But defensively, the Longhorns are gritty. They use all-out pressure and douse the opponent on the ball and into the paint with endless energy. However, they also experienced drought at the worst possible time, with baskets hard to come by and nothing falling into the net.
Texas needs to get back into an offensive groove, with or without Morris. If the Longhorns can rediscover their shooting touch, control games at their escalating tempo, force flips and get Rory Harmon to lead the way, they could explode into potential must-see showdowns against No. 1 Stanford or No. 2 Iowa.
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(Top photo by Kaitlyn Chen: Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via AP Images)