The Women’s NCAA Tournament has whittled its competitors down to 16, with the Sweet 16 set to tip Saturday and run through the weekend to eliminate eight more contenders. A lot of familiar faces are in the mix, but there were some breakthroughs to the second weekend for a handful of non-traditional programs, too.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines heading into the Sweet 16 of the women’s tournament.
Women’s Tournament Sweet 16 Storylines
Paige Bueckers vs Caitlin Clark
If you’ve had ESPN on at all for the last few days, you’ve probably seen promos for the imminent head-to-head battle between the two top freshman in the country: UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark. And for good reason.
Bueckers is leading the No. 1 seed in the River Walk Region in scoring this regular season, averaging 19.8 points per game and is shooting an absurd 47.6 percent from three. She has walked into this UConn team and immediately become its top offensive weapon, and she wasn’t kind to No. 16 seed High Point nor No. 8 seed Syracuse in the first two rounds of this tournament, adding up 44 points, along with 10 assists and 14 rebounds, in the two contests.
But she’s not the only incredibly dominant freshman in the country this season. Clark is atop the entire nation in points per game (26.8), she has range from anywhere, and she’s putting up almost seven assists per game and six rebounds each outing. Most recently, Clark dropped 35 on No. 4 seed Kentucky in the second round, nailing six triples and shooting 61.9 percent from the floor as the Hawkeyes eliminated the Wildcats, 86-72. She has now scored at least 20 points in eight-straight games and has a five-game stretch in February where she wasn’t scoring fewer than 30.
These were two of the top ranked recruits in the Class of 2020, and they’ve both proven why. They’re absolutely ridiculous, and we’re very fortunate to get to see them duel against one another in this Sweet 16. You won’t want to miss it.
Also, Geno Auriemma is back for this contest, which is a whole other storyline on it’s own. But we’ll look elsewhere to not put too much focus on one game.
Can Texas A&M Keep Getting Away With It?
First, a handful of officiating errors served as extremely helpful for Texas A&M in its first round game against No. 15 seed Troy, 84-80, with a missed over-and-back call in particular aiding the Aggies’ cause.
Next, Texas A&M needed a nine-point comeback in the final six minutes of regulation, overtime, and a buzzer beater to survive a serious scare from No. 7 seed Iowa State, 84-82, in the second round.
Survive and advance, that’s all that matters, but how much longer can the Aggies last in this tournament if they keep playing like this? Texas A&M lost the rebounding battle in both games, especially against Iowa State, and players like Kayla Wells and N’dea Jones haven’t quite produced like they did the regular season. But fortunately for the Aggies, Jordan Nixon has been on a tear, including a 35-point performance on 16-of-28 shooting in which she played all 45 minutes of the game versus the Cyclones. Her outstanding night was absolutely necessary for A&M to see the Sweet 16, and she has now scored in double figures for eight games in a row.
What if she cools off, though? If some of her teammates pick up more of the burden, that might be okay. Texas A&M has a very balanced scoring attack, but is relying on Nixon going to work in the Sweet 16 and beyond?
Texas A&M shoots 37.6 percent from three as a team, the ninth-best percentage in Division I, but it went 4-of-19 (21 percent) from deep against Iowa State, which wasn’t very good at defending the three-point line during the regular season. Now, No. 3 seed Arizona awaits the Aggies in the Sweet 16, and it has held opponents to a worse percentage from beyond the arc than Iowa State. A&M will have to find its stroke to put up points against a Wildcats defense that gives up just 55.1 points per game.
Can Maryland Keep Scoring Like This?
The Terps are averaging a Division I-high 91.8 points per game this season, and they surpassed that mark in both tournament games so far, washing out No. 15 seed Mount St. Mary’s, 98-45, in the first round, then dismantling No. 7 seed Alabama, 100-54, in their second game. It’s the second time in three games Maryland has broken the century mark after posting 104 in the Big Ten Tournament Championships versus Iowa. Northwestern and Missouri State are the only teams to keep Maryland below 79 points in a game this season, and the Terps have scoring in triple figures seven different times. Ashley Owusu leads the charge with 18.7 points per game, but she’s far from the only offensive weapon Maryland possesses. Diamond Miller, Katie Benzan, Angel Reese, Mimi Collins, and Chloe Bibby can all fill it up, and they compliment one another incredibly well.
The point is, the Terps will score points. It’s a matter of outscoring them.
That’s much easier said than done, but the Terps will get theirs, so you don’t have much of a choice as their opposition. Sure, you can slow them down some defensively (giving up 80 is much more manageable than letting 100 to be dropped on your head), but you’ll be required to score at a decent clip to stand a chance pretty much no matter how well you defend.
Texas is allowing 62.7 points per game, and it would be massive surprise if it could hold Maryland to anything close to that. But if the Longhorns can lock it down and keep the Terps under 80, can they score enough to win the game? Offense is Maryland’s strength, but it’s no slouch defensively either. It will be an uphill climb for Texas, and I’m curious to see if the Terrapin offensive machine continues to churn its way through the Sweet 16.