The Sweet 16 of the 2022 NCAA women's basketball tournament tips off Friday in the Greensboro and Spokane regions. All four No. 1 seeds -- the South Carolina Gamecocks, Stanford Cardinal, NC State Wolfpack and Louisville Cardinals -- reached the regional semifinals.
Can they keep winning? What's the best game when the next round tips off? Which of the No. 1 seeds faces the toughest challenge? And which teams will leave the Bridgeport, Greensboro, Spokane and Wichita regionals as champions and head to the women's Final Four in Minneapolis?
ESPN's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel preview and predict the regionals, and along with Andrea Adelson and Katie Barnes make their game-by-game picks.
Maryland and Stanford have been two of the most impressive teams so far. What will decide their matchup Friday?
Creme: These are two outstanding offensive teams, and when the Terrapins are clicking, they are a point-producing machine. But Stanford is also an elite defensive team. That, and the Cardinal's depth, will be the difference.
Her Hoops Stats rates Stanford as the third-best defensive team in the country. Opponents only shoot 36.1% inside the arc against the Cardinal. Stanford is also fourth in the country in blocked shots per game. Cameron Brink and Fran Belibi are hard to score against inside, and Anna Wilson will harass any opposing point guard. Stanford goes nine or 10 deep and can play a multitude of lineup combinations.
Maryland, meanwhile, is a seven-player rotation, and if Angel Reese, Ashley Owusu or Diamond Miller aren't all on the floor, the explosiveness drops exponentially. Maryland's 191 points in two tournament games is impressive, but that came against massively undersized No. 13 and No. 12 seeds. And that is indicative of the Terps' season. They were able to take advantage of the weaker teams on the schedule. Against the better competition, it didn't go as well. Maryland went 2-8 against teams still left in the tournament, averaging 64.2 PPG.
One of those instances was against Stanford in the Bahamas on Thanksgiving weekend, which the Cardinal won 86-68. Granted, Miller missed that game with an injury, but Reese was rendered a nonfactor (6 points, 2-of-13 from the field) by that Stanford length. To further underscore that Cardinal depth, Hannah Jump -- not Brink (who was out sick), Haley Jones or Lexie Hull -- led Stanford in scoring, with 21 points and seven 3-pointers.
Voepel: That's the thing about Stanford. The Cardinal are an ensemble cast like "Ocean's 8" where you find yourself saying, "Oh, that's right! She's in this movie, too!" Jones and Brink are the All-Americans, but we just saw Hull go off for 36 points in the second round against Kansas. And Jump led the way with 15 points in Stanford's opening-round dismantling of Montana State in which Belibi's dunk got all the (well-deserved) love.
One thing the Cardinal want to avoid is one of their slow starts and/or foul trouble for either Jones or Brink. Tara VanDerveer rarely if ever wavers in benching someone (no matter who it is) who picks up a second foul in the first half (no matter when that is).
Philippou: This game comes down to what happens when an unstoppable force (Maryland's offense) meets an immovable object (Stanford's defense). I know Maryland has struggled against some of the top teams in the country this season, but given the way they're playing right now and with such renewed confidence, I'd expect this rematch to be a lot less lopsided.
For the Terps to win, they'll need Reese to stay out of foul trouble (which was an issue in the first game) and for Miller and Owusu to keep playing like they have been in this tournament. While Stanford's experience, depth and consistency on both ends give it an advantage on paper, Maryland's explosiveness and ability to score in different ways provide a distinct challenge.
Of the teams that aren't top-four seeds, which one has the best chance to reach the Elite Eight?
Creme: Creighton and Iowa State are so similar in approach and style that the Bluejays have prepared for this very game every day in practice this season. Both rely heavily on 3-pointers, each ranking in the top 10 nationally in percentage of points from behind the arc. Both are underrated defensively. Neither will get many baskets from the offensive glass, but both have high defensive rebounding rates. All of this helps the underdog, giving Creighton a chance at a third consecutive upset.
Voepel: Like Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, Creighton coach Jim Flanery is also an expert tactician, and he has former longtime head coach and defensive mastermind Connie Yori on his staff. Yori regularly went head-to-head with Iowa State when she was guiding Nebraska while it was still in the Big 12.
Players change in Ames, Iowa, but the program's style doesn't. Fennelly's teams have been fun to watch since he took over there in the mid-1990s, as he was way ahead of the curve in embracing a positionless offense, in which every player can shoot the 3.
So the 3s will be flying in this game. The Cyclones will have the best player on court in All-American senior guard/forward Ashley Joens, who is averaging 24.0 PPG and 12.5 RPG so far in the tournament. And you can be sure Fennelly has dissected the game film from Creighton's upset of Iowa.
Ohio State, the No. 6 seed in Spokane, didn't play in the NCAA tournament last year due to a self-imposed ban after NCAA violations. That and no tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19 has meant this is the first Big Dance for junior guard Jacy Sheldon, and she's making the most of it. She has totaled 48 points, nine rebounds, 13 assists and eight steals while shooting 55.2% from the field in wins over Missouri State and LSU.
The Buckeyes' opponent, No. 2 Texas, is on a 13-game winning streak and will throw guard Rori Harmon and an excellent defense against them, along with forward Aaliyah Moore, who has found the "on" switch this tournament. Texas is the favorite, but Ohio State could be a challenge.
Philippou: Maybe I'm a prisoner of the moment, but I'm intrigued by this South Dakota-Michigan matchup. The Coyotes have managed to contain two potential WNBA first-round picks in their first two games -- bigs Shakira Austin (9 points, 3-for-16 shooting) and NaLyssa Smith (10 points, 4-for-11 shooting). If they can do the same against Naz Hillmon, Michigan's going to need some combination of Leigha Brown, Emily Kiser and Laila Phelia to step up. But if Liv Korngable and Chloe Lamb get hot from 3, the Wolverines could have a tough night ahead of them.
South Dakota has been playing like it has nothing to lose. "Fearless," in coach Dawn Plitzuweit's words. It allowed the Coyotes to jump to a 16-4 lead by the end of the first quarter against 2-seed Baylor. If they could play that way in a hostile environment in Waco, who's to say they can't do the same on the next biggest stage (and on a neutral court, at that)?
Which No. 1 seed is most susceptible to getting upset Friday or Saturday?
Creme: I don't think any of the top seeds are going to lose in the regional semifinals. Louisville is the smallest betting favorite of the four, but I believe it's the likeliest to move through to the Elite Eight. So I'll go with NC State as the most vulnerable, for no other reason than the Wolfpack already lost once to Notre Dame this season (69-66 on Feb. 1), during a stretch in which their offense was struggling. Given the firepower Notre Dame has displayed so far in this tournament, another poor offensive night for NC State could lead to a second consecutive Sweet 16 loss.
Voepel: The No. 1 seeds all look good to make it through to the Elite Eight, but each one could face a challenge.
In Greensboro, South Carolina is a pretty overwhelming favorite, and although its defense has been soul-crushing, the offense has looked wonky. North Carolina has a win over another No. 1 seed this season (Louisville, on Feb. 17). Interestingly enough, the last time the Tar Heels were in the Sweet 16, in 2015, they also faced the Gamecocks and lost.
Louisville held both early-round opponents below 60 points, while Tennessee barely escaped Belmont at home to make the Sweet 16. But the pressure is off the Lady Vols. They have lived up to their seed despite not having injured top scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston. Tennessee can go into this matchup playing with house money.
Philippou: I agree with my colleagues that it's likely all chalk for the 1-seeds to reach the Elite Eight. Though by previous results/head-to-head meetings alone, most would probably look toward a potential upset watch for NC State-Notre Dame, especially given the way Notre Dame has been playing recently (dropping 108 points on Oklahoma and running away with a 35-12 lead at the end of the first quarter). But NC State plays much better defense than the Sooners, so I wouldn't expect another absurd offensive performance like Monday's.
And I wouldn't be shocked if South Carolina-North Carolina is closer than most are anticipating. The Tar Heels are another defense-minded team that can capitalize off the Gamecocks' recent offensive issues, especially if they get out and score in transition. If Alyssa Ustby, Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams can replicate their effort in their win over the Wildcats, things could get interesting.
Which player will be the star over the next four days?
Creme: If NC State reaches the Final Four, Diamond Johnson is a player we'll be talking about come Tuesday morning. The 5-foot-5 sophomore is the Wolfpack's second-leading scorer (11.1 PPG) behind Elissa Cunane despite only starting one game this year. She hit some key 3s against Kansas State -- and because Johnson's game is equal parts deep shooter, crafty penetrator and clever defender, she's one of those players that can go on individual seven- or nine-point runs. Those are moments that completely alter games. There aren't many other players left in this field capable of that.
Philippou: Louisville's Hailey Van Lith could be on her way to having a breakout tournament. That might seem silly to write given she's an All-ACC First Team player. But after some early-season bouts of inconsistency, Van Lith has been playing some of her best basketball in the postseason, opening the NCAA tournament with a pair of 20-point outings in wins against Albany and Gonzaga. The Cardinals will ask for much of the same, if not even more, from the 5-7 sophomore guard going forward.
And for UConn to reach Minneapolis, a lot could come down to Azzi Fudd. Her four 3s and pair of late free throws (for a team-high 16 points) helped the Huskies eke by a tough UCF team in the round of 32. With Paige Bueckers not doing a ton of heavy lifting offensively, the Huskies will need Fudd to get going from the arc, where she's shooting north of 50% so far this tournament, and show some dexterity in getting to the rim, something we saw from her more frequently early in the season.
Voepel: She was an AP second-team All-American this season, but Joens has never fully gotten her due nationally. Maybe it's because while she has star talent, she has a "bring your hardhat and lunch pail to work" personality. Or maybe it's because, as Fennelly says wryly, she's at middle-of-the-Midwest Iowa State. In February, Joens broke Angie Welle's 20-year-old program scoring record and is currently at 2,355 points. If she opts to come back for a fifth "super senior" season, she will put that mark so far out of sight that Cyclones for eternity will be chasing second place. It's nice to see her get a chance to play in the Sweet 16, and possibly even go against a No. 1 seed, if Iowa State and South Carolina advance.
Michigan's Hillmon is another "just get the job done" player, and she and the Wolverines nearly upset Baylor last season to make the Elite Eight, falling 78-75 in overtime in San Antonio. Hillmon was an AP first-team All-American this season, the first Michigan women's player to earn that honor.
The Wolverines face giant-killer South Dakota in the regional semifinals. If seeds hold, they will go for redemption against Louisville in the final. Michigan was mauled 70-48 at Louisville on Dec. 2, with Hillmon held to 12 points. While there is debate on how her skill set will translate to the versatility-demanding WNBA, there is zero question how great she has been in college. Getting the Wolverines to their first Final Four would be the ultimate icing on the cake.
Indiana guard Grace Berger is another player who could "steal the show" if the Hoosiers can top UConn and end the Huskies' Final Four streak that dates to 2008. Yes, Indiana had to fight to get past Princeton 56-55 in the second round, but UConn had its own struggles holding off UCF 52-47. Berger, who is averaging a career-best 16.3 PPG this season, helped the Hoosiers make the Elite Eight a year ago.
And we can't bypass South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, the No. 1 player on our top 25 list. Neither of the Gamecocks' early-round games were aesthetically pleasing, with first a 79-21 blowout of Howard and then a 49-33 "get it over with" win against Miami. But you don't receive bonus points for games being pretty -- you just want to win. South Carolina knows how to do that. Boston has totaled 20 points and 28 rebounds in the early rounds while shooting an uncharacteristic 36.4% from the field. But look for her to be at her best in Greensboro.
Sweet 16 picks
(5) North Carolina vs. (1) South Carolina
Greensboro Regional: Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Andrea Adelson: South Carolina
Katie Barnes: South Carolina
Charlie Creme: South Carolina
Alexa Philippou: South Carolina
Mechelle Voepel: South Carolina
(6) Ohio State vs. (2) Texas
Spokane Regional: Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Barnes: Ohio State
(4) Maryland vs. (1) Stanford
Spokane Regional: Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
(10) Creighton vs. (3) Iowa State
Greensboro Regional: Friday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Barnes: Iowa State
Philippou: Iowa State
Voepel: Iowa State
(5) Notre Dame vs. (1) NC State
Bridgeport Regional: Saturday, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN
Adelson: NC State
Barnes: Notre Dame
Creme: NC State
Philippou: NC State
Voepel: NC State
(3) Indiana vs. (2) UConn
Bridgeport Regional: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
(4) Tennessee vs. (1) Louisville
Wichita Regional: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2
(10) South Dakota vs. (3) Michigan
Wichita Regional: Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Philippou: South Dakota