It’s March Madness and like everyone else, I’m filling out a bracket in the Land-Grant Holy Land Women’s Bracket Challenge competition. While I can’t win the grand prize, it’s a rite of passage to fill out a bracket as the season changes over to Spring. Since adding a challenge for the women’s tournament in 2023, I thought I’d share with you who I chose in this year’s bracket.
With some explanation, here are my picks:
Ohio State’s Run
Last week, I made it clear that I think all the top-16 Big Ten teams have the ability to at least make it out of the first two rounds. Of the four teams who fit that billing, the Ohio State women’s basketball team has arguably the toughest route.
If the Buckeyes beat the James Madison Dukes, it’s no slouch of a second-round game. Ohio State would face either the North Carolina Tar Heels or the winner of the Purdue Boilermakers and St. John’s Red Storm.
While this section isn’t specifically about upsets, I think the Boilermakers can beat St. John’s and North Carolina. More on that shortly. Back to the Buckeyes.
A second-round match against UNC or Purdue would be challenging for Ohio State, but this Buckeyes team is at a different place than they were even during the latter games of their 19-0 run. Outside of that first half against Iowa, the Buckeyes held their own against a tough Maryland Terrapins to end the regular season and had two impressive Big Ten Tournament victories.
Looking ahead at a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup though — it's rough. The UConn Huskies aren’t the same “dominate everyone” Huskies of the last two decades, but they’re still in the top tier of college teams. Something in Ohio State’s favor in the potential game is that it’s played in neutral territory. Not like last year’s UConn “away” game against NC State in Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a No. 2 seed.
However, the Scarlet & Gray would need a perfect night against the Huskies to come out on top. Guard Azzi Fudd is back for UConn after an injury kept her out a chunk of the season and it will be tough for the Buckeyes to stop former member of the Scarlet & Gray, forward Dorka Juhasz. So, I have Ohio State leaving the dance in the same spot they left it last season.
Overall, I have eight games where I chose the lower seed over the favorites. That’s where Purdue and UNC come back into the equation.
This upset impacts Ohio State directly. The Tar Heels have two losses to the Big Ten this season, against the Indiana Hoosiers and Michigan Wolverines. While it's true that Purdue lost to both of those sides in the regular season, head coach Katie Gearlds has instilled a lot of fight in this team.
Purdue is in their first tournament since 2017, and that coupled with the road they took to get to the tournament, defeating ranked Illinois Fighting Illini and Ohio State sides, has them ready for what UNC will throw their way.
The Tar Heels enter Saturday night’s game averaging 56.6 points in their final five games of the season. On the other side, Purdue showed their might with an 18-point comeback against a Wisconsin Badgers team on the rise and held their own against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal.
Elsewhere, I’m likely way too high on the Drake Bulldogs. Drake is a Missouri Valley side that forced overtime from the Iowa Hawkeyes and beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
As the non-conference schedule ended, Drake had their hiccups in conference play but made up for them with a Missouri Valley Tournament championship as a No. 4 seed. Impressive work.
In what’s likely to be my most incorrect pick of the tournament, I have the Bulldogs not only beating the No. 5 Louisville Cardinals but also the No. 4 Texas Longhorns, in Austin, Texas. Every bracket needs a Cinderella, and that’s the Drake Bulldogs. Don’t do me wrong, Drake.
Also, I gave the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles a win over the shock No. 7 Pac-12 Tournament seed champions, the Washington State Cougars. Washington went 9-9 in conference play and FGCU is a team that dominated the ASUN Conference. This pick completely ignores the fact that the Eagles lost handily to Stanford and Duke.
The final mini-upset is with the Creighton Blue Jays. Creighton dismantled the Cornhuskers early in the season, knocking Nebraska out of the top-25, a blow from which Big Red couldn’t recover. They’ll beat Illinois in the first round and a potentially Olivia Miles-less Notre Dame side in the second round.
If the star Notre Dame guard Miles is playing, it’s a different story. Miles injured her knee in the final regular season game, a win over the Louisville Cardinals to lock up the ACC regular season title. While the Fighting Irish managed to beat NC State in their first game of the conference tournament, Louisville held Notre Dame to 38 points in 40 minutes of basketball.
Big Ten’s Year
The Big Ten doesn’t need to win the entire tournament to earn the respect of the rest of college basketball. While the regular season more than proved that the conference is near the top, it won’t matter until there are consistent performances in March, and this is that year.
Iowa and Indiana each get into the Final Four on my bracket. Of the two, Iowa has the toughest road going up against No. 3 Duke and No. 1 Stanford, but when Iowa is on they’re on. For Indiana, I have them in the National Championship game, despite their 24-point lapse against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Tournament.
Of those two picks, the one that gives me the most pause is Iowa. Sure, guard and two-time All-American Caitlin Clark is a phenom, but the Hawkeyes haven’t had the best results against top teams outside of the Big Ten.
Last year’s famous second-round defeat to the Creighton Blue Jays comes to mind, but this year there have been lapses too. The Hawkeyes lost big at home to the NC State Wolfpack in the ACC/B1G Challenge 94-81. Then, against a mostly healthy UConn side, mostly because guard Paige Bueckers is out all season with an ACL injury, Iowa worked to a halftime lead before squandering it in the second half.
Also, a loss to unranked Kansas State and that overtime win over soon-to-be tournament darlings in the Drake Bulldogs, come to mind.
In Maryland’s case, being in the same bracket as the South Carolina Gamecocks is not great. Earlier this season, the Gamecocks embarrassed the Terrapins but that was against a team still adjusting to losing key names last year and without star guard Diamond Miller.
Even so, South Carolina is the team to beat until they get beaten. Something head coach Dawn Staley’s side hasn’t done all season.
Overall, two Final Four Big Ten teams, a national runner-up and six of seven teams winning at least one game is a good start for the conference.