2024 Women’s NCAA Tournament bracket picks: Why Chantel Jennings has South Carolina winning it all – The Athletic

Chantel JenningsMar 16, 2024Supported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

There have been more than 5,000 regular-season games this season. They’ve given us stars and storylines we won’t forget. But now, we move onto the 67 games that will determine the unforgettable champion that emerges from this season.

For as much parity as there has been this year, my bracket is relatively chalky. I ended up with three No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, with LSU as my lone non-top seed. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have a ton of close games. I look across this bracket and see loads of contests that could be determined by just a few possessions.

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But don’t get it mixed up. The 2024 bracket is a doozy — Yes, I’m looking at you, Albany 2; go home, you’re drunk. Some regions seem as though the committee perfectly set up some storylines, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that the storylines for this postseason get me just as excited as what we’ll see play out on the floor.

Follow along and print your own bracket here.

Albany 1

The champ is here

In the debate of “South Carolina versus the field,” I’ve gone with South Carolina since about halftime of the Notre Dame season opener. The Gamecocks are too good, too complete and too deep to not win this title. Their SEC tournament semifinal scare against Tennessee should’ve provided a reality check — even a 20-plus point lead still means you’ve gotta execute and close out — and that’s going to serve them well through the six games separating them from the trophy. But like I said: parity! This isn’t going to be easy. I’ve got my eyes on that Sweet 16 matchup against Oklahoma. The Sooners have a fast, high-scoring offense that can knock down long-range shots (they’ve hit 10 in three of their last five games), and though the Gamecocks are far better equipped to handle that kind of game this season versus last (and South Carolina will have the heavy advantage inside), it’s a game to watch, for sure. As a reward for getting through Oklahoma, the Gamecocks likely get a defensive battle with Oregon State in the Elite Eight. In short: We’ll get to see all of South Carolina’s attributes on display through this run.

A 3-point shooting contest

Speaking of the Sooners’ offense, that first-round Oklahoma-FGCU game will be a 3-point shooting clinic. The Eagles’ official roster literally lists every player’s position as “S.” As in … shooter. It won’t be out of the question to see 60-plus triples attempted in that game.

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March Magic in Bloomington?

I’m not going to be making friends in Bloomington with this one. On Sunday night, Mackenzie Holmes said she’s feeling a lot better after sustaining a knee injury in the regular-season finale. IU coach Teri Moren said everyone has been on the floor in practice. Yet, after observing how gingerly she went through layup lines during the Big Ten tournament (where she sat out most of the game against Michigan), I’m just not overly confident in the fourth-seeded Hoosiers.

If Holmes can’t play, perhaps No. 13 seed Fairfield will give us our first dose of March magic this season. The Stags haven’t played nearly the level of competition that Indiana has, but freshman Meghan Anderson is legit. Plus, if I’m going with a 13-4 upset anywhere, this one felt OK. Even if Indiana proves me wrong (Teri, feel free to use this section as bulletin board material if you so choose), I don’t have much faith in the Hoosiers against the Big 12 regular-season champion, either. So, if IU beats Fairfield, I might be messing up only one game on my bracket, rather than picking against a team that I think has a reasonable path to the Elite Eight or Final Four.

What’s Watson’s injury mean to the Irish?

Notre Dame forward Kylee Watson announced Sunday night on Instagram that she had torn her ACL during the ACC tournament. Getting past Kent State without Watson is one thing, especially because second-seeded Notre Dame has the Hannah Hidalgo–Sonia Citron–Maddy Westbeld trio, but that Ole Miss game looms large in the second round. There’s actually a fair amount of overlap in terms of common opponents for these two. Both played South Carolina (both lost by 29). Both played Tennessee (both won by 5). Both played Louisville (Notre Dame went 2-1, Ole Miss went 0-1). So, this should be an excellent game, but — even in South Bend — I’ll give the edge to seventh-seeded Ole Miss and its defense.

Albany 2

Are we sure Iowa is the No. 2 overall seed?

Seriously. Based off its path to the Final Four, I think not. Or the selection committee and I have not watched the same basketball games this year. A second-round game, even at home, against Princeton is one hell of a 1 vs. 8/9 match up. And from there, it only gets tougher. Fourth-seeded Kansas State — against which Iowa split two games this season — looms in the Sweet 16, and a potential rematch with LSU or a game against UCLA would be the most likely Elite Eight meeting. So if you’re a Hawkeyes fan thinking, this is how it feels to get a No. 1 seed? Then I just don’t know what to tell you. It would’ve been more favorable to be a No. 2 seed in either Portland Region compared to this gauntlet.

As a fan of storylines — a potential Iowa-LSU game in the Elite Eight, with a trip to Cleveland on the line — is about as juicy as it gets. As someone who will be sitting courtside in Albany, I’m here for it.

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The Hailey Van Lith Bowl

The committee doesn’t try to drop storylines in the laps of writers, but a second-round Louisville-LSU game (in Baton Rouge) just feels a little too perfect. The guard left Louisville after three seasons and went to the Bayou in the hopes of teaming up with Angel Reese for another national title. The season hasn’t quite gone the way anyone anticipated, and the Tigers’ path to the Final Four would be tough — though, they’re my team coming out of Albany 1. But if Iowa-LSU is this region’s main course before the Final Four, then Van Lith needing to take down her former team en route to Cleveland is the best appetizer on the menu.

Coming to a team near you …

Because the Ivy League isn’t allowing players to use their COVID-19 bonus eligibility to transfer within the league, we’ve seen several players find success at the power conference level the last few seasons. This season, Kayla Padilla (Penn), McKenzie Forbes (Harvard) and Kaitlyn Davis (Columbia), helped lift USC to a No. 1 seed. Abby Meyers was named to the second team in the Big Ten last season and became a first-round WNBA Draft pick.

But Albany 1, feast your eyes on the next big player coming out of the Ivy: Kaitlyn Chen. For the next few games (two, if my bracket holds), she will be donning orange and black for Princeton. But with one year of eligibility remaining, and as a seasoned point guard, she will be a hot commodity in the transfer portal. If she doesn’t end up on a title contending team or top 10 squad before next season, I’d be shocked.

Last-Tear Poa update

It was great to see LSU guard Last-Tear Poa enjoying the festivities and celebration in Baton Rouge during the selection show. She entered the arena for the watch party with her teammates and sat next to Angel Reese during the televised bracket reveal. LSU coach Kim Mulkey said that Poa, who suffered a concussion during the SEC semifinals last weekend, ran on the treadmill on Sunday, which is a fantastic update. Poa also posted on her Instagram that she has been “sleeping and spending time with my family.”

Portland 3

We want Princeton!

Dang. I was really hoping for a USC-Princeton second-round game considering the “nerds” at USC spent the last few years of their Ivy League lives getting beaten by Princeton. A bit of payback would’ve been poetic justice. There is a chance we could see The Nerds reunited with a fellow Ivy League team in Columbia (and Kaitlyn Davis’ alma mater), but the Lions need to get past Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Not impossible, but I don’t see it happening if Georgia Amoore has anything to say about it.

But back to USC … I like the Trojans’ path not only to the Final Four, but to the title game. A second-round matchup against Michigan? USC rolls. A Sweet 16 game against a potentially Liz Kitley-less Virginia Tech? Yup, USC. An Elite Eight game against UConn or Ohio State? (I picked the Huskies to advance this far, but a rematch against Ohio State would be great basketball, too.) USC advances.

Folks outside of the Pac-12 footprint only saw the Trojans on national television a handful of times this season. Now, with every game on ESPN, the country is going to get a chance to witness Watkins’ skills, and I anticipate her being one of the biggest storylines of the offseason after leading USC back to its first national title game since 1984.

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Which play-in team goes the furthest?

The Pac-12 got respect and also got disrespected by the committee with this bracket. It was great to see Arizona get in. (The No. 11 seed Wildcats play Auburn in the play-in game.) But then to see Colorado drop to a No. 5 seed, when there’s a strong argument there for the Buffs to be a No. 4 seed? I don’t quite get it. But coach Adia Barnes will have her team ready to go and make the most of its tournament opportunity. Ultimately, I see that opportunity ending with a rematch against UConn — the team the Wildcats beat to advance to the 2021 national title game. But in the Pac-12’s swan song, these games will matter.

UConn’t believe I have the Huskies getting to the Elite Eight?

OK, I had to throw a dad joke in here somewhere …

The Huskies are going to be rolling with six players, and that lack of depth doesn’t usually bode well for a super deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but I like UConn’s first three matchups.

Paige Bueckers could be one of the most dangerous players in the NCAA Tournament, specifically because she might feel as though the Huskies have been left out of the national conversation. Through the Big East tournament, Bueckers averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game. With a masked Aaliyah Edwards returning (can we please get the Sue Bird mask pep talk transcript or video?), the Huskies will lock in through the early rounds. If Nika Mühl can cut back on the turnovers even a bit, that could be the difference in some closer games and enough to push the Huskies over the edge against Arizona and second-seeded Ohio State. Ultimately, they’re going to run out of gas against USC, which might have more momentum. But remember this run when the Huskies are loading up against next fall.

(Also, wow, I didn’t think the committee would send UConn out West.)

Portland 4

Leaving Stanford and Texas for last

The Cardinal and Longhorns were the two teams vying for the final No. 1 seed, so of course both were still on the board as ESPN entered its last region with Portland 4. Gotta play up that drama!

But, ultimately the selection committee gave the nod to Texas. So, let’s give a nod to freshman Madison Booker. She won co-Big 12 Player of the Year while not even playing in her natural position and led the Longhorns to a top seed line. (And in my bracket, Texas heads to its first Final Four since 2003). The Longhorns have a viable path to Cleveland, although it’s one that will have challenges. No. 9 seed Florida State isn’t a gimme, neither is No. 4 seed Gonzaga. The reward for getting the Elite Eight? Likely a meeting with second-seeded Stanford in its quest to extend the Pac-12’s final season as long as possible.

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I don’t love the idea of riding with a freshman playing out of position, but Booker has been fantastic. With Taylor Jones, Aaliyah Moore and Shaylee Gonzales beside her, I feel more and more confident.

Wes Moore’s memory lane

The bottom half of Portland 2 is just a lovely walk down memory lane for NC State coach Wes Moore. He gets to start out with a first-round matchup against Chattanooga, his previous job where he coached from 1998 to 2013. Then there’s a potential second-round game against Tennessee. Lady Vols’ coach Kellie Harper’s second coaching job was at … you guessed it … Chattanooga under Wes Moore from 2001-04.

Tennessee as a Sweet 16 team?

There’s a reason why I saved this take for the last. It might turn out to be the one I regret most. Tennessee is mercurial, and this is the one pick that makes me think, “Oh God, they might lose in the first round (Green Bay is good!), why am I picking the Lady Vols to the Sweet Sixteen?” But, here I am. I’m going to ride with the Tennessee team that went on a second-half SEC semifinal run with Rickea Jackson. Did I even consider the Lady Vols over Stanford in the Sweet 16? I did. But then I thought better of it (and the Pac-12) and backtracked.

Alas, here we are, at the end of my picks. Harper has made questionable decisions this season, but March is for madness, and so I’m going to go with Jackson and Jewel Spear down the stretch. Could I regret it? Maybe. But, could I also see the Lady Vols pulling it together right now? Yes, I really could.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos from left of Madison Booker, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images, Scott Winters / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, G Fiume / Getty Images)

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.
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Chantel Jennings is The Athletic’s senior writer for the WNBA and women’s college basketball. She covered college sports for the past decade at ESPN.com and The Athletic and spent the 2019-20 academic year in residence at the University of Michigan’s Knight-Wallace Fellowship for Journalists. Follow Chantel on Twitter @chanteljennings

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