The women’s basketball NCAA selection committee wasn’t about to let South Carolina win another national title without having to go through Connecticut.
Instead, the Gamecocks were sent to Albany as a No. 2 seed and most likely would face the unbeaten Huskies should they reach the regional final. UConn has made the Elite Eight 12 straight times and is striving for a record 12th national championship.
UConn’s four-year title run and 111-game winning streak were snapped at last season’s Final Four by Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs fell to South Carolina in the final. Mississippi State is atop the right half of this year’s bracket as the No. 1 seed in Kansas City and a prohibitive favorite to reach the Final Four in Columbus.
Toughest region: It’s actually a tough call. Do you pick the one (Albany) with the clear favorite and the defending national champs? You could, but it arguably has the weakest 4/5 seeds in Georgia and Duke.
Or do you pick the one (Lexington) with two consensus top-five teams in Louisville and Baylor? But Lexington lacks any other top-10 teams and has only five ranked teams overall. Its No. 3 seed, Tennessee, was the seventh seed in the SEC tourney.
All in all, it’s a balanced bracket.
Easiest region: Spokane. Congratulations to Notre Dame for overcoming four knee injuries to earn a seventh straight No. 1 seed. But the Fighting Irish haven’t made the Final Four since 2015 and are pretty clearly the weakest top seed. Pollsters have Notre Dame at No. 5 in the country.
No. 2 seed Oregon has never made the Final Four, and No. 3 Ohio State last made the Elite Eight 25 years ago. DePaul might be the weakest No. 5 seed.
But if it happens, Oregon-Ohio State might be the most entertaining game of the Sweet 16, featuring superstars Sabrina Ionescu of the Ducks and Kelsey Mitchell of the Buckeyes.
Barely made it: (11) Creighton, (11) Buffalo, (12) Oklahoma. At 16-14, Oklahoma has worst record of any at-large team since Monmouth inexplicably made it in 1983, the second-ever NCAA tourney. The Sooners have tourney pedigree and a pretty tough schedule, though only three other Big 12 teams made the field. Oklahoma may be the final team to get in, but it drew a favorable matchup against the Spokane No. 5 seed, DePaul, on Friday in College Station.
Creighton and Buffalo gave mid-majors (depending on what you consider the Big East) a couple of additional berths. Interestingly, the Big East’s two other teams, Marquette and Villanova, will face two of the top mid-majors in the field, Dayton and South Dakota State.
Snubbed? Purdue, Rutgers, USC, West Virginia. Rutgers went 5-6 against the RPI top-50 teams to Oklahoma’s 1-8. So the Scarlet Knights can’t be thrilled. But they also went 7-9 in the Big Ten and lost to Washington State. Purdue was 9-7 in league play but couldn’t overcome glaring nonconference losses. USC stockpiled competitive defeats but not enough great wins, and West Virginia beat Texas A&M but had an otherwise forgettable non-league slate, plus an 8-10 Big 12 mark.
First timers: Northern Colorado, Mercer, Seattle, Nicholls St. NCU earned a surprising No. 10 seed, and the Bears have a chance to notch a win Friday against Michigan in Waco. Look out for Mercer, which has a favorable draw as No. 13 seeds go.
First-round site to watch: Athens. Georgia might have been the last team to get home-court advantage for the first two rounds, as top-four seeds do. Duke is the No. 5 seed. But 12th-seeded Belmont and No. 13 Mercer are both actually ranked in the AP Top 25. Either team could pull a surprise on Saturday.
Which way do we go? Lexington hosts a regional for the third straight year. South Carolina has won the SEC’s automatic bid each of those years. But the Gamecocks keep getting sent elsewhere, while Stanford has been shipped to Kentucky every time.
Albany is closer to Columbia than Sioux Falls and Stockton, South Carolina’s previous regional spots, but it’s no Lexington. But which No. 2 seed should’ve gone to Albany instead? Baylor, Texas and Oregon all are farther away than South Carolina.
Conference breakdown: ACC (8), SEC (7), Pac-12 (6), Big Ten (6), Big 12 (4), Big East (4), American (2), Atlantic 10 (2), Mid-American (2). No. 7 Green Bay of the Horizon, No. 8 South Dakota State of the Summit, and No. 9 Quinnipiac of the Metro Atlantic earned the best seeds from one-bid leagues. Quinnipiac advanced to the regional semis last season.
What’s next? Round 1 starts Friday at just after noon Eastern, with Saturday games starting shortly after 11 a.m.
✨ So fresh. So clean. ✨
— NCAA Women's BKB (@ncaawbb) March 13, 2018
Men’s NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:
•March Madness bracket: Tournament field of 68 revealed
•Printable bracket: Start making your picks
•Five biggest tournament snubs
•Everything you need to know before filling out a bracket
•Non-traditional ways to spice up your bracket pool