Women’s NCAA Tournament power rankings: Notre Dame makes a jump among Sweet 16 contenders – The Athletic

By Mark SchindlerMar 27, 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.)

Four days, 48 games (well, technically 52 when including the First Four), and a weekend devoid of sleep and full of basketball. Now we’re down to the final two weekends of play. The Sweet 16 is set, and the matchups are exquisite.

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So many varying and contrasting styles face one another. Some games present clashes of rosters with similar ethos and questions alike.

There’s a beautiful yet gut-wrenching duality of the NCAA Tournament, which is largely what makes it one of the most compelling phenomena in sports. The tournament is about testing mettle, seeing what a team can do on the fly with limited time in heightened scenarios in front of huge crowds. The stakes elevate and much of what is known and practiced can go out the window because of a random heater by a backup two guard from an unheard-of town in Minnesota.

Great teams with years of legacy and expectation can fall because of an off night. A team that struggled with injury and inconsistency all year might just hit the right groove at the right time, find confidence and ride that high to a Final Four. We’ve already seen our expectations proven wrong with second-seeded Ohio State’s upset loss to No. 7 seed Duke.

Watching that team make a run and find its footing makes you grin ear to ear, but then you’re reminded: Every smile in March is attached to tears. The seconds wane on the scoreboard, but for one of these teams, it’s curtains. Not just on a basketball season, but also on a chapter of life. Hours of practice, months on the road, ceaseless occupation of thought. It’s a lot more than just a game in those moments when the game ends, and it always strikes me once we hit this time of year.

Headed into the second weekend of March Madness, how are teams stacking up?

Conference ACC Big 12 Big East Big Ten Big West Pac-12 SECRegion Albany 1 Albany 2 Portland 3 Portland 4Expand allCollapse allLoadingTry changing or resetting your filters to see more.1

South Carolina Gamecocks

2Last Rank

Is there any better jersey matchup than Trojan gold versus the Kansas red alternates? I think not, and we were treated to an intriguing clash of styles as USC and Kansas played at Galen Center, the Trojans coming away with an 18-point victory. However, this was a much closer affair than that score indicates, Kansas inching within a few possessions midway through the third quarter. The balance and poise of the Trojans continues to impress, including backup center Clarice Akunwafo logging a her most minutes since Feb. 2 against Stanford and coming up big with 6 blocks. She also helped hold Jayhawks star Taiyanna Jackson to 10 points.

Seed1Record28-5GamesNo. 16. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi87-55No. 8 Kansas73-55Pac-12Portland 33

Texas Longhorns

3Last Rank

In one of the most intense games of the yournament, Iowa went wire-to-wire with West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ guard play and smothering defense gave Iowa fits, slowing the pace, applying maximum pressure and forcing the Hawkeyes deep into the shot clock. However, Iowa’s ability to play an uncomfortable style and still come out with the win speaks volumes about its tournament potential. Gabbie Marshall was held scoreless, but she made crucial defensive plays late, including a key block that sealed the game. Sydney Affolter provided a key secondary offensive output, attacking the paint routinely in the second half. Hannah Stuelke finished with 4 blocks and came up big on the glass as Caitlin Clark (32 points) found her way to the line, getting to the rim late despite of defensive pressure. It wasn’t pretty, but much of advancing in the tourney is about finding ways to win outside your comfort zone.

Seed1Record31-4GamesNo. 16 Holy Cross91-65No. 8 West Virginia64-54Big TenAlbany 25

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

5Last Rank

We witnessed the Cardinal play in perhaps the most exciting game of the season, an exhilarating overtime win over Iowa State to advance to the Sweet 16. Kiki Iriafen has dominated all season, but she put together the finest performance of her career against the Cyclones. She was excellent defensively, quieting freshman sensation Audi Crooks, who was coming off of a 40-point game. Offensively, Iriafen set a new career high with 41 points, which was essential as the Cardinal’s Cameron Brink struggled with foul trouble and eventually fouled out in regulation. Also note Cardinal freshman Nunu Agara, who played a sizable role down the stretch to help slow Emily Ryan’s perimeter game. Her 27 minutes against Iowa State were a career high, and it’ll be interesting to see how she factors in moving forward.

Seed2Record30-5GamesNo. 15 Norfolk State79-50 No. 7 Iowa State87-81Pac-12Portland 47

UCLA Bruins

9Last Rank

The Beavers are so dangerous. They’re balanced, play at their own pace, move the ball at a high level and have so many options. Talia von Oelhoffen starred in Oregon State’s final game of the season at Gill Coliseum, finishing with 19 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 combined steals and blocks. She’s a clutch shotmaker and playmaker and the heartbeat of the offense, and she also routinely guards opponents’ best perimeter player. Every night, her assignment is different, but she provides in various ways. She’s a prime reason the Beavers made the second weekend, and have hopes to advance even further.

Seed3Record26-7GamesNo. 14 Eastern Washington73-51No. 6 Nebraska61-51Pac-12Albany 19

LSU Lady Tigers

12Last Rank

In one of the most exciting games of the weekend, the Huskies took down Syracuse to secure their trip to the Sweet 16. Paige Bueckers was everywhere, finishing with 32 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 combined steals and blocks. She played out of position as she has much of the season and thrived against a bigger team. Buckers just makes magic happen. She scores in a phone booth with fluidity while imposing herself as a heady defender. Syracuse could not find anything defensively to make her uncomfortable. Ashlynn Shade now has 45 combined points in her first two tournament games while nailing 10 triples, and KK Arnold hit the biggest shot of her young career, a corner 3 to ice Syracuse’s hopes of a comeback..

Seed3Record31-5GamesNo. 14 Jackson State86-64No. 6 Syracuse72-64Big EastPortland 311

North Carolina State Wolfpack

-Last Rank

The Buffaloes played their best defensive half of the season when they took down Kansas State in Manhattan. They held the Wildcats to single digits in the third and fourth quarters. Colorado forced the Wildcats into 20 turnovers, including 17 steals, hawking passing lanes and denying the ball from star center Ayoka Lee. A balanced scoring attack with six players scoring 9 or more points kept Colorado ahead in a tight defensive battle, and Tameiya Sadler’s 10 points off the bench felt like more. Aaronette Vonleh’s near triple-double of 9 points, 8 rebounds and 7 steals was one of the best individual all around performances in the Albany 2 Region. Coach JR Payne and Co. will need that kind of performance again in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game with Iowa.

Seed5Record24-9GamesNo. 12 Drake86-72No. 4 Kansas State63-50Pac-12Albany 213

Indiana Hoosiers

-Last Rank

Gonzaga fired on all cylinders to take down Utah, earning its first trip to the Sweet 16 since the 2015 season, Lisa Fortier’s first as head coach in Spokane. The Bulldogs shot 54.5 percent from 3-point range, won the battle on the glass and got off to a hot start early to propel them despite of a phenomenal offensive showing from Utah’s Alissa Pili. Gonzaga’s defense, however, was what stood out as the Bulldogs fully locked into denying anyone but Pili the opportunity to score cleanly. Yvonne Ejim, the Big West Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, was key in settling the Bulldogs late when Utah pulled close. They’ll need her more than ever against Texas.

Seed4Record32-3GamesNo. 13 UC Irvine75-56No. 5 Utah77-66Big WestPortland 415

Baylor Bears

-Last Rank

Kara Lawson’s team engineered one of the most improbable comebacks of the season, and one of the bigger upsets of the tournament by beating No. 2 seed Ohio State in Columbus. All-ACC guard, Reigan Richardson, is playing some of the best basketball of her career. She’s on one of the brightest runs in the tournament, scoring 25 points against Richmond and then 28 against OSU the following round to tie her career high. The Buckeyes did not have an answer for Richardson’s mid-range game, nor could they counteract Duke’s aggressive defense on the other end. The Blue Devils held Ohio State to 27 points in the final 20 minutes of play. UConn is in for a grind against one of the best defensive teams in the field.

Seed7Record22-11GamesNo. 10 Richmond72-61No. 2 Ohio State75-63ACCPortland 3

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.
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(Photo of KK Bransford, Hannah Hidalgo and Sonia Citron: Lance King / Getty Images)

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Mark Schindler is a 2021 graduate of the University of Toledo and has been working in basketball in a scouting and writing capacity since 2019. Alongside his current Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch series at The Athletic, you can find his work with Seven Star Digital covering all things basketball.

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