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NCAA women’s Sweet 16 breakdowns and predictions: Is an Iowa-LSU rematch in store?

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The Sweet 16 field is set — mostly as we expected it but with some twists.

The left side of the bracket (Albany 1 and Portland 4 regions) includes every No. 1 through No. 4 seed, while the right side (Albany 2 and Portland 3 regions) low seeds include a No. 5 and a No. 7 seed.

Will more chaos ensue in the regionals? Will top seeds keep thriving? We’re here to break down the matchups and provide predictions.


(All times Eastern)

Friday

Albany 1 | 2:30 p.m. | ESPN

The matchup between the Fighting Irish and Beavers is one of contrasting styles. Fueled by star freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo and an aggressive zone defense, Notre Dame likes to push the tempo and score in transition. The Irish are in the 90th percentile in pace and second nationally in fastbreak points percentage, per CBB Analytics. Hidalgo alone averaged 7.5 fastbreak points per game this season. That all is starkly different from how Oregon State has thrived this year. The Beavers, by comparison, are in the 19th percentile of pace and score only 5.4 fastbreak points a game. On offense, they are efficient from around the rim and from 3-point range. The tandem of junior guard Talia von Oelhoffen and sophomore forward Raegan Beers is especially tough to stop.

How the Beavers contain Hidalgo and guard Sonia Citron will also be imperative, especially considering the Irish often use only six players in a given game. The team that dictates the contest’s flow likely has the advantage on Friday. But even if the game slows to OSU’s liking, Notre Dame has shown it can produce in the half-court. The Irish especially thrive in late shot-clock opportunities. Hidalgo might be a freshman, but she will assert herself as the most impactful player on the floor.

Pick: Notre Dame

— Ben Pickman

Albany 1 | 5 p.m. | ESPN

The Hoosiers picked up a big win on Monday night against Oklahoma in a game that went down to the wire with 21 lead changes and 10 ties. In the end, forward Mackenzie Holmes was sensational for the Hooosiers, scoring a game-high 29 points. Guard Sydney Parrish added 17, as the Hoosiers head to their third Sweet 16 in the last four seasons.

It only gets harder from here, though. The Hoosiers match up with undefeated South Carolina, which just beat North Carolina by almost 50 (!) points and remains the heavy favorite to win it all. How will the Hoosiers stop star center Kamilla Cardoso? IU’s tallest player, Arielle Wisne, is still two inches shorter than 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and averages only 1.8 minutes per game. The Hoosier’s tallest starters, Holmes and Yarden Garzon, are both 6-3. IU also ranks 316th nationally for 3-point defense, which is a problem when the Gamecocks have Te-Hina Paopao on the other side knocking down 46.7 percent of her attempts from deep.

Pick: South Carolina

— Grace Raynor

No. 3 NC State vs. No. 2 Stanford

Portland 4 | 7:30 p.m. | ESPN

In NC State’s 79-72 win over sixth-seeded Tennessee, the Wolfpack committed a season-low four turnovers. Guards Saniya Rivers, Aziaha James and Zoe Brooks were fantastic, both at dictating the game’s tempo and scoring, combining for 58 points. Priority No. 1 for the Cardinal will be slowing the NC State guards. Like Stanford teams of the past, this year’s group is deliberate on both ends. The Cardinal force only 5.3 steals per game and score only 6.5 points in transition. Instead, they rely on their efficient halfcourt offense with Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen serving as fulcrums to play through.

The Wolfpack struggled to defend Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson in the Sweet 16, allowing the likely WNBA lottery pick to score 33 points and add 10 rebounds. Limiting Iriafen, who scored a career-high 41 points, will be their next task — and a daunting one. Expect a low turnover game, in which possessions are at a premium. If Stanford can limit NC State’s wings, it should have a solid chance to advance to a fourth consecutive Elite Eight.

Pick: Stanford

— Pickman

Portland 4 | 10 p.m. | ESPN

The Bulldogs went 7-2 in the regular season against seven tournament teams, including an 18-point December victory against Stanford. Gonzaga proved it’s battle-tested against the fifth-seeded Utes with a 77-66 second-round victory to advance to its first Sweet 16 since 2015.

The Bulldogs are tied for second nationally with a 39.8 3-point shooting percentage. They hit 12 of 22 to beat Utah. Gonzaga spreads the ball around with five players averaging double digits, led by Yvonne Ejim’s 20 points. The Zags may have one more edge: The game in Portland will be just six hours from campus, meaning Bulldogs fans should show up in droves.

But none of that might be enough to stop Texas, whose mettle was tested early this season after Rori Harmon went down with a season-ending knee injury. Led by star freshman Madison Booker (16.8 ppg, 5.1 apg), the Longhorns’ dominant offense averages 112.5 points per 100 possessions, per HerHoopStats. Expect an entertaining battle between teams that can score — both average 81.2 points per game. Junior Aaliyah Moore is coming off a double-double against Alabama. Among tournament teams, Texas’ 40 boards per game ranks fifth in rebounding and its offensive rebounding rate of 42.2 percent, per HerHoopsStats, ranks second.

Pick: Texas

— Shannon Ryan


Saturday

No. 3 LSU vs. No. 2 UCLA

Albany 2 | 1 p.m. | ABC

The defending champions were locked in a struggle against MTSU for two-and-a-half quarters until Flau’jae Johnson turned on the jets. The Bruins were in an even bigger hole in the second half, but similarly relied on a sophomore guard — Kiki Rice — to power their comeback. Now, the two heavyweights — who placed first and third in The Athletic’s preseason power rankings — meet in the Sweet 16.

The reason Albany 2 was considered the Region of Death was because of matchups like this. LSU won it all last year, and it has the current SEC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, as well as a four-time title-winning head coach (who, umm, might be a little more distracted than usual). The Tigers also brought in this year’s No. 1 recruiting class. The Bruins counter with 2022’s top class, which Lauren Betts is now a part of, as well as projected first-round draft pick Charisma Osborne.

The matchup between Angel Reese and Betts will be appointment viewing. Betts has the size and is more polished in the post, but nobody works harder than Reese, who will fight her counterpart for every inch in the post. Osborne will have the task of defending Johnson and specifically preventing the star sophomore from getting loose in transition, but Osborne is no stranger to difficult matchups. UCLA’s advantage could come at point guard, where Rice is bigger and more physical than Hailey Van Lith, potentially forcing LSU to bring in Last-Tear Poa for her defensive prowess.

The Tigers have the edge in experience, but the Bruins are deeper and arguably more talented. UCLA has beaten teams as good as, if not better than, LSU in the regular season, but the Tigers have turned it on in the NCAA Tournament with a similar cast of characters before.

Pick: LSU

– Sabreena Merchant

Albany 2 | 3:30 p.m. | ABC

It’s always fun when the committee plans a rematch. When it came to this specific game, there was a high chance that the Hawkeyes would’ve seen a familiar foe either way — they beat the Buffs last year in the Sweet 16 and split games with Kansas State this season. But that familiarity means we’ll likely see Iowa coach Lisa Bluder and Colorado coach JR Payne throw out some interesting looks as they head-fake one another and dive into each other’s (already understood) weaknesses.

Given how much Iowa struggled with West Virginia’s physical pressuring defense, it’s fair to expect Colorado to come out with a similar attack. The Buffs are in the top 25 nationally in steal percentage and that conversion fuels their offense — nearly one-fifth of their scoring comes on the fastbreak (15 points per game). Nearly half of their points come in the paint between guard Jaylyn Sherrod getting downhill (or pulling up in the midrange) and 6-3 forwards Aaronette Vonleh and Quay Miller.

Iowa, which is coming off one of its worst offensive performances of the season, will look to have a bounceback game after putting up just 64 points against West Virginia and tallying a season-low seven assists. Caitlin Clark is the headliner here, but it’ll be the committee around her that truly determines how much further Iowa goes in March (and maybe April). Outside of Clark, the Hawkeyes shot 0 of 17 on 3-pointers against the Mountaineers, but don’t expect that cold spell to last too long. Colorado has its own 3-point shooting weapons in Frida Formann and Maddie Nolan (who are both 42-plus percent long-range shooters), but that might not be enough against a Hawkeyes arsenal eager to prove they’re much better than their last outing.

Pick: Iowa

— Chantel Jennings

Portland 3 | 5:30 p.m. | ESPN

Two coaches with professional experience (Lindsay Gottlieb in the NBA and Nicki Collen in the WNBA) roam the sidelines for USC and Baylor, resulting in offenses that have pro-style concepts and spacing. Both defenses could struggle to cover ground, at least initially, as the teams feel each other out.

USC’s primary advantage — other than the prodigious talent that is JuJu Watkins — is its size. The Trojans are big at every position and protect the paint well with the combination of Rayah Marshall and Kaitlyn Daivs. Baylor will be overwhelmed physically if the Bears let USC get into the paint. They need to keep the ball in front, and on the other end, keep the Trojans in rotation to avoid attacking their size head-on.

USC can control the game if Watkins is disciplined with the ball and the Trojans keep Baylor out of transition. If they keep attacking the paint and using their length as their strength, this matchup should end favorable for the No. 1 seed.

Pick: USC

– Merchant

Portland 3 | 8 p.m. | ESPN

Perhaps UConn’s Sweet 16 matchup versus Duke will simply come down to the production of Huskies star Paige Bueckers. Bueckers is averaging 30 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists in the Huskies’ first two NCAA Tournament games this March, leading coach Geno Auriemma to say she’s “been the best player in the postseason in the country.” A bigger key, however, might be how the players around Bueckers perform. In UConn’s 72-64 second-round win over Syracuse, only four players scored (just six played), with senior Nika Mühl fouling out after a scoreless 34-minute performance. Despite its depth issues, UConn still has both a top-10 offensive and defensive rating, and its talent often overwhelms opponents.

Duke, meanwhile, pulled off its upset over second-seeded Ohio State largely because of guard Reigan Richardson’s offensive output. She scored 28 points, backing up the 25-point outing she had in Round 1. Richardson could explode again versus the Huskies, but she also had scored merely 15 points combined in Duke’s three prior games. On defense, the Blue Devils are sixth nationally in block shots per game, and they trot out a physical defense ranked top 25 in the country. This matchup is likely to be low-scoring, but the question is whether Duke’s offense can match UConn’s.

Pick: UConn

— Pickman

(Photos of Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Madison Booker: Matthew Holst / Getty Images, Eakin Howard / Getty Images, Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)





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