Women’s Sweet 16 picks, predictions and breakout players

For the first time in a quarter-century, the Sweet 16 of the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament will include just two No. 1 seeds: South Carolina, the defending champion in pursuit of a perfect season, and Virginia Tech, which hopes to make the program’s first women’s Final Four. And for the first time ever, there are just two regional sites: Greenville 1 and 2 in South Carolina, and Seattle 3 and 4.

Some things are very familiar, though, such as UConn — the No. 2 seed in Seattle 3 — going for a 15th consecutive Final Four appearance. The Huskies are probably the healthiest they’ve been all season, at just the right time, including the return of star sophomore guard Azzi Fudd.

No. 1 seeds Stanford and Indiana were upset on their home courts in the second round, which means No. 8 seed Ole Miss is making its first appearance in the regional semifinals since 2007, and No. 9 seed Miami its first since 1992.

Iowa‘s Caitlin Clark and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston continue their campaigns for national player of the year, but both are much more concerned about their teams advancing. South Carolina is seeking its third consecutive Final Four appearance and fifth overall, while Iowa seeks its second appearance but first since 1993.

Games begin in both cities on Friday, with two regional finals on Sunday and two on Monday. All games will be televised on ESPN networks or streamed via the ESPN App.

Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel look ahead to the weekend’s action and predict the winner of each game of the Sweet 16.

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Creme: According to the Vegas odds, Virginia Tech and Tennessee is a coin flip, and I think it will be the most competitive game. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which either team is able to pull away from the other.

Any doubt about the Hokies’ chances to make a Final Four typically rests on their lack of experience in these moments. But that shouldn’t be a factor here. Tennessee reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, but Jordan Walker and Tess Darby were the only players on the roster who played a significant role in that loss to Louisville. Jordan Horston was hurt. Rickea Jackson was in the transfer portal. Sara Puckett and Karoline Striplin were mainly role players. Virginia Tech shouldn’t be any more overwhelmed than the Lady Vols.

Both teams might be tight early, but the Hokies have more scorers and more shooters. Georgia Amoore will outdo Jackson as the best bucket-getter on the court, and Virginia Tech will move on to the regional final.

Voepel: No. 2 seed Utah vs. No. 3 LSU in Greenville 2 could be entertaining. Utah ranks third in Division I in scoring (83.5 PPG) and makes 8.3 3-pointers per game; LSU is fifth in scoring (83.2) and relies a little less on the 3 (5.3). Forwards Angel Reese of LSU and Alissa Pili of Utah are both in the top 10 of ESPN’s ranking of the top 25 players in the Sweet 16.

Utah tied for the Pac-12 regular-season title this season, a big breakthrough for the program. With No. 1 Indiana out, the Utes are the top-seeded team left in this quarter of the bracket. LSU hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2008, but coach Kim Mulkey won her most recent national championship with Baylor in 2019. It would be impressive to make it that far in her second season at LSU. But to get that chance, the Tigers will need to slow down Utah’s offense first.

Philippou: I’m intrigued by the rematch between South Carolina and UCLA. When they met earlier in the season, the score was tied going into the fourth quarter before the Gamecocks won the final frame by nine. Coach Dawn Staley’s South Carolina squad has typically performed much better when facing a team a second time, but can coach Cori Close’s Bruins recreate some of that “magic” from earlier in the year? Charisma Osborne, Kiki Rice and Emily Bessoir will have to have big nights one more time.

Miami slowed down a high-powered offense in Indiana to advance to Greenville, but will the Hurricanes be able to contain the nation’s leading scorer in Villanova‘s Maddy Siegrist? Will the Wildcats get more help outside of Siegrist? Will the Canes stay rolling offensively, both inside and out?

UConn vs. Ohio State could also be a close one if the Huskies revert to some of their turnover-prone tendencies against the Buckeyes’ trademark press.

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Voepel: The bracket has gone well for Tennessee. Saint Louis was no match for the Lady Vols in the first round, 95-50. And with No. 12 seed Toledo upsetting 5-seed Iowa State, Tennessee faced another double-digit seed in the second round, and easily downed the Rockets 94-47.

Yet it’s still notable Tennessee came close to 100 points in both games, regardless of the competition. The only other time since Jan. 1 that the Lady Vols hit 90 was in a double-overtime loss to Mississippi State on Feb. 6.

While some of the other top-16 seeds were upset at home or had to sweat through tough games, Tennessee cruised in the early rounds. If nothing else, it should give the Lady Vols a good boost of confidence heading into the matchup with Virginia Tech in Seattle 3 Regional.

Creme: Indiana was one of my Final Four picks. I saw the Hoosiers as the second-best team in the country. So anyone who can beat Indiana on its home court is impressive. Miami gets my vote.

The game plan from coach Katie Meier was well-conceived, and her players, such as Destiny Harden, Haley Cavinder and Lola Pendande, executed it well. The Hurricanes played through the post, stayed patient for good looks from deep, surrounded the defensive glass and were diligent about transition defense. Indiana only had five second-chance points and four fast-break points. Miami didn’t allow anything easy to a team which has made the game look easy all season.

Philippou: Ole Miss, Miami and Colorado all pulled off big upsets and executed down the stretch. Following a lackluster ACC regular-season run, Hailey Van Lith-powered Louisville surpassed my expectations by boat-racing Texas. LSU looked dominant in its win over Michigan, although I’ll be eager to see how the Tigers look away from the PMAC.

But in terms of true national title contenders? It’s UConn. Fudd still isn’t fully back to her pre-injury form, but the Huskies easily took care of Vermont Catamounts and pulled away in the second half against a tough Baylor team that played better than its No. 7 seed. The Huskies’ February rut seems like a lifetime ago. The offense is clicking (not just Fudd but Aaliyah Edwards and Caroline Ducharme contributing), the defense is suffocating and their depth is finally starting to come into fruition (Baylor coach Nicki Collen said UConn’s Aubrey Griffin — off the bench — was the difference-maker in the second round).

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Philippou: Louisville has its worst NCAA tournament seed since 2013, but coach Jeff Walz has a shot at getting his team back to the Final Four. For it to happen, Van Lith, who is scoring 20-plus points per game on 51% efficiency in the tournament, will have to continue that tear and keep hitting clutch shots when her team needs them.

The entire Greenville 2 Region screams intrigue. We have four relatively inexperienced teams and three absolute stars in LSU’s Reese, Utah’s Pilli and Villanova’s Siegrist, yet each has something to prove. Reese was strongly in the national player of the year conversation before a rough regular-season game at South Carolina. In case there was any doubt she still belongs there, she put up a casual 25 points and 24 rebounds in the second round.

Some fans don’t see Pili as often with her playing late games on the West Coast, while Siegrist hasn’t historically gotten as much shine playing for a Big East school. Whichever team advances from Greenville 2 will undoubtedly be powered by one of these stars.

Creme: Fudd is primed to break out. Since returning for the Big East tournament after missing 14 straight games, Fudd has been easing back into the Huskies’ attack. She averaged just over eight points per game in the Big East tournament, but her minutes increased each game. On Monday against Baylor, she played 37 minutes and her most aggressive game since reinjuring her knee in mid-January. Her 22 field goal attempts were the second-most Fudd has taken this season, and her 22 points were her most since Thanksgiving weekend. It feels like we are about to see that November version of Fudd when she was prominently in the national player of the year conversation.

Voepel: Clark has been so effective leading Iowa’s offense, which leads Division I at 87.4 PPG. She must keep it up because the Hawkeyes have three good defensive teams in their regional.

Iowa’s next opponent, Colorado, is third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing just 58.5 PPG this season. The Buffaloes are second in the league in 3-point field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 29.5% from behind the arc. Iowa shoots 37.4% from long range.

Louisville and Ole Miss meet in the other Seattle 4 semifinals. Allowing 63.4 PPG, the Cardinals aren’t quite the defensive team they have been in past years. But Walz is especially good at game-planning for one-and-done situations. And we saw what the Rebels did in shutting down Stanford. So Clark will need to produce every game, which she is used to. If she does that at her usual pace, it could open the door to Dallas for the Hawkeyes.

Sweet 16 picks

(9) Miami vs. (4) Villanova

Greenville 2: Friday (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Andrea Adelson: Miami
Charlie Creme: Villanova
Kevin Pelton: Villanova
Alexa Philippou: Villanova
M.A. Voepel: Miami

(3) LSU vs. (2) Utah

Greenville 2: Friday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Adelson: LSU
Creme: LSU
Pelton: LSU
Philippou: LSU
Voepel: LSU

(6) Colorado vs. (2) Iowa

Seattle 4: Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Adelson: Iowa
Creme: Iowa
Pelton: Iowa
Philippou: Iowa
Voepel: Iowa

(8) Ole Miss vs. (5) Louisville

Seattle 4: Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Adelson: Louisville
Creme: Louisville
Pelton: Ole Miss
Philippou: Louisville
Voepel: Louisville

(3) Notre Dame vs. (2) Maryland

Greenville 1: Saturday (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN)

Adelson: Maryland
Creme: Maryland
Pelton: Maryland
Philippou: Maryland
Voepel: Maryland

(4) UCLA vs. (1) South Carolina

Greenville 1: Saturday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Adelson: South Carolina
Creme: South Carolina
Pelton: South Carolina
Philippou: South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina

(3) Ohio State vs. (2) UConn

Seattle 3: Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ABC)

Adelson: UConn
Creme: UConn
Pelton: UConn
Philippou: UConn
Voepel: UConn

(4) Tennessee vs. (1) Virginia Tech

Seattle 3: Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Adelson: Tennessee
Creme: Virginia Tech
Pelton: Tennessee
Philippou: Virginia Tech
Voepel: Tennessee

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