The first and second rounds of the women's NCAA tournament are behind us, and the field has been narrowed to 16 teams. Mechelle Voepel and Charlie Creme of espnW weigh in on the regional semifinals, what they're most looking forward to when games resume Friday and what we might expect in the Sweet 16.
What will be the best game in the Sweet 16?
Mechelle Voepel: No. 6 seed UCLA vs. No. 2 seed UConn (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET Friday). UCLA is 0-5 against UConn, including a Sweet 16 loss to the Huskies in 2017. But these Bruins are very confident now, and have the athleticism to play with anyone. Michaela Onyenwere and Kennedy Burke are players who can make a lot happen. Everyone expects UConn to have an edge playing relatively close to home in Albany, and Huskies fans will make up most of the crowd. But the Bruins just beat Maryland on the Terps' home court. They won't be intimidated by anything. UConn's Napheesa Collier has been terrific all season, but incredibly good down the stretch. Last season in a 78-60 win at UCLA, Collier led the way with 23 points and seven rebounds.
Charlie Creme: No. 3 seed NC State and No. 2 seed Iowa (ESPN/ESPN App, 11:30 a.m. ET Saturday) are two very different teams. Styles make for great matchups and these contrasting styles should give us a good one. NC State is guard- and defensive-oriented. Iowa wants to play with pace and have Megan Gustafson dominate on the inside. Wolfpack guard Kiara Leslie, who scored 26 points in the second-round win over Kentucky, should be able to get her offense going against the Iowa guards, and Aislinn Konig should get more open looks, but will that be enough to offset Gustafson? Elissa Cunane might be the X factor. The NC State 6-foot-5 freshman's defense and ability to stay out of foul trouble are key.
What's the biggest surprise in the Sweet 16 field?
Voepel: No. 11 seed Missouri State is the biggest departure from chalk. Having a seed at No. 11 or lower in the Sweet 16 is not unusual; it has happened nine of the past 10 years in the women's tournament. Two No. 11 seeds advanced that far last season (Buffalo and Central Michigan). The surprise is how much Missouri State has turned around its season, after losing seven of its first eight games. The Lady Bears had to win on Iowa State's home court Monday. Every time the Cyclones came close to overtaking them in the second half, the Lady Bears seemed to make a big shot. Of course, they'll be an even bigger underdog against No. 2 Stanford in the Chicago Regional, but they're used to that.
Creme: I agree with Mechelle. But I'll also highlight Arizona State. It's not a shock that the Sun Devils have made the Sweet 16 and it's not even a little surprising they've done it with defense. But to advance despite failing to score more than 60 points in either of its games is unusual. In a field in which eight of the remaining teams make up the nation's top-15 offenses, the Sun Devils were able to advance twice scoring roughly in two games what Baylor scored in five quarters. Credit the defense and game-planning of coach Charli Turner Thorne. Common sense says the Sun Devils will have to score more than 60 to beat Mississippi State (ESPN2/ESPN App, 9 p.m. ET Friday), though.
What one-on-one matchup are you most looking forward to in the regional semifinals?
Voepel: It's always fun to see a senior who is already at the top of her game versus a freshman who hopes to get there. That's Iowa's Megan Gustafson versus NC State's Elissa Cunane, a pair of centers who will meet in the Greensboro Regional. Gustafson is the espnW national player of the year and the nation's leading scorer for No. 2 seed Iowa. Cunane is a youngster still finding her way in Division I, but opposing coaches in the ACC talk about dreading to face her as she matures. Cunane had 13 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists in the third-seeded Wolfpack's win over Kentucky on Monday, but also six turnovers. Gustafson totally might take the kid to school, but Cunane might be able to hold her own a bit.
Creme: Are there two more unconscious, unapologetic scorers in the country than Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale and Texas A&M's Chennedy Carter? And now we get them on the same court (ESPN2/ESPN App, 4 p.m. ET Saturday). When Notre Dame plays man-to-man defense, Jackie Young is likely the defender who will matchup with Carter, so it might not be true one-on-one, but it sure would be fun if, even for just a part of the game, the two decided to go shot-for-shot. No two players in the country have the ability to make improbable shots. Both Ogunbowale and Carter get people off their seats. Ogunbowale has more help and Notre Dame will be the heavy favorite, but if Carter makes enough of those improbable shots, the Aggies could hang around.
Which Sweet 16 matchup are you most looking forward to seeing?
Voepel: Fourth-seeded South Carolina, which faces No. 1 Baylor (ESPN/ESPN App, 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday), has been a bit under the radar. The Gamecocks were bumped early out of the SEC tournament, losing in the quarterfinals to Arkansas. But that might have been a blessing, dropping them a seed line and getting them close to home for the Greensboro Regional. The last time they played a regional there, in 2015, they won it, beating North Carolina and Florida State to make the program's first Final Four. Baylor -- the No. 1 overall seed which has been on cruise control so far -- has a dynamic post duo in Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, which will be a challenge for South Carolina's Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Alexis Jennings. But South Carolina has the guard depth to match up with Baylor's perimeter.
Creme: South Dakota State's upset of Syracuse was more grind-it-out than shootout, but the Jackrabbits can score. They were 12th in the country in points per game (79.9). Of course, their next opponent, Oregon, is third. Give me some offense. Point guard Macy Miller, the best player in South Dakota State history and the Summit League's all-time leading scorer, didn't have her best game against the Orange, but she could thrive against Ducks' open floor style. She isn't the all-around player of her counterpart Sabrina Ionescu, but the matchup could be intriguing. If South Dakota State figures out a way to combat Oregon's size advantage in Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally, the game (ESPN2/ESPN App, 11 p.m. ET Friday) could be close.
What team do you feel differently about now than you did coming into the day?
Voepel: There's no other way to put it: Oregon State was fortunate to escape No. 13 seed Boise State in overtime in the first round. So would the No. 4 Beavers come out in the second round and make a strong statement against No. 5 Gonzaga? Not exactly. The Bulldogs took the Beavers pretty much to the wire, despite Oregon State shooting 13 more free throws and getting eight more rebounds. Credit Gonzaga for hanging in, but defensively, the Beavers haven't been sharp. It raises questions about how effective they'll be in the Albany Regional semifinals in trying to topple No. 1 seed Louisville (ESPN/ESPN App, 9 p.m. ET Friday), which beat Oregon State in the Elite Eight last season.
Creme: UCLA beating Maryland wasn't that surprising. The Bruins getting to the Sweet 16 is no shock, either. But after late-season tight losses to Oregon State and Oregon, I wasn't sure about their ability to close out games against good teams. But they did it against Tennessee and, even more impressively, against No. 3 seed Maryland on Monday. Trailing four entering the fourth quarter, UCLA shut down the Terps and kept grabbing offensive rebound after offensive rebound. It was clutch play borne from effort. The Bruins also made their free throws (20-of-21). The Bruins have veterans in Kennedy Burke, Lajahna Drummer and Japreece Dean, and they have delivered when it matters most.
Which No. 1 seed has been most impressive?
Voepel: All of the top seeds have looked very good. But we'll single out defending national champion Notre Dame. The Irish have continued the upward trajectory they were on in the ACC tournament, which they dominated. They steamrollered NCAA tournament first-timer Bethune-Cookman in the first round. Then what conceivably could have been a little tougher game in the second round against No. 9 seed Michigan State on Monday really wasn't. Four Irish starters scored in double figures, with Jackie Young coming close to a triple-double. They make the short trip to the Chicago Regional against No. 4 seed Texas A&M, a rematch of the 2011 national championship game won by the Aggies.
Creme: Baylor has scored 197 points in two games and had an average margin of victory of 48 points in its two games. Nobody has been as dominant. But those numbers are a small part of what has been so impressive about the Lady Bears. Their inside game of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox is their strength and has been Baylor's staple for the better part of two seasons. That hasn't been the case in the tournament so far. The Lady Bears' guards have been driving the dominance. Chloe Jackson, Didi Richards and Juicy Landrum have been the best part of Kim Mulkey's bunch. That just makes Baylor that much scarier heading into the regionals.
Give up one upset in the regional semifinals that wouldn't shock you.
Voepel: Yes, UConn has played in every Final Four since 2008, so anything short of that would be a major surprise. Still, UConn had stretches in its second-round win over Buffalo when the offense looked stagnant, something we are not used to seeing from the Huskies. They likely will bounce back strong from that, but if they have some similar offensive issues, UCLA could take advantage.
Creme: Much will be made over the next few days of UCLA's ability to grab offensive rebounds (third in the country) and UConn's inconsistency on the backboards. For good reason. This is a problem for the Huskies and was a huge factor in the loss to Baylor in January. Buffalo skewered them for 25 offensive rebounds on Sunday. UConn hasn't been this vulnerable since Breanna Stewart's freshman season. That year the Huskies fixed their problems just in time and won a national title, beginning a run of dominance we might never see again. This doesn't appear to be something that can be fixed in five days. That means UConn will have to overcome it. UCLA's shooting deficiencies might allow that to happen. Or this might be exactly the wrong opponent at the wrong time for the Huskies.