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- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
The consensus this women's college basketball season has been that the best hope to make the women's Final Four is to avoid running into defending champion South Carolina before then.
With Sunday's release of the bracket for the 2023 women's NCAA tournament -- which this year switches to two regionals instead of four -- the path to Dallas is set. The undefeated Gamecocks, as has been practically written in stone all season, are the No. 1 overall seed and won't need to leave their state to get to what would be the program's fifth Final Four. Dallas is also the place the Gamecocks won their first national championship in 2017.
South Carolina, Stanford and UConn all have advanced to the Final Four the past two seasons. For the 11-time champion Huskies, the streak goes back to 2008. But the two No. 1 seeds on the right side of the bracket -- Indiana and Virginia Tech -- have never been that far in the women's tournament. History could be made this March.
Here's a look at who will try to stop the Gamecocks' run and end their perfect season, as well as the biggest winners and losers from the bracket reveal.
Dawn Staley talks South Carolina's pursuit of back-to-back titles
Dawn Staley and Aliyah Boston react to South Carolina's path in the NCAA tournament as the bracket is revealed.
What is South Carolina's path to Dallas?
No one is debating the Gamecocks as the top seed and the favorite. There's no suspense there, because South Carolina hasn't cracked the door open for anyone else. The Gamecocks' closest calls have been two overtime games: one expected and one not.
Back on Nov. 20, no one was surprised to see South Carolina go to extra time at Stanford, as they are the past two national champions. The Gamecocks won 76-71, and then also had single-digit wins against UCLA and UConn in regulation. South Carolina's other OT victory was more of a surprise, as the Gamecocks prevailed by seven points at Ole Miss on Feb. 19. When the Gamecocks played Ole Miss again, in the SEC tournament, they won by 29.
Having a superstar like Aliyah Boston and talented and experienced depth means catching South Carolina on a bad day/night is a very slim possibility.
The Gamecocks, who host the early rounds at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, start with No. 16 Norfolk State. Only one 16-seed has upended a No. 1 seed in women's NCAA tournament history -- Harvard over Stanford in 1998 -- and it's not happening again here.
The second round could be interesting. South Carolina will meet the winner of the South Florida-Marquette game. South Florida won the American Athletic Conference regular-season title and has some good nonconference wins over Texas and Alabama. But the Bulls were upset in the American tournament first round, which was a surprise.
Marquette has good wins over UConn, Texas and Gonzaga. Will South Carolina get through the early rounds? Yes, but either the Bulls or Golden Eagles could provide some challenges.
At the Sweet 16 in Greenville, South Carolina -- about 100 miles from the Gamecocks' campus -- could have a rematch with UCLA, which lost 73-64 at South Carolina on Nov. 29. The Bruins made a great run in the Pac-12 tournament, beating Arizona and top-seeded Stanford before falling to Washington State in the final. Exciting freshman Kiki Rice is a player to watch for UCLA. That said, look out for No. 5 Oklahoma, too. They are the Big 12 regular-season co-champions and could give UCLA a battle if they meet in the second round.
If South Carolina advances to the Elite Eight, among the teams they could face are No. 2 seed Maryland and No. 3 Notre Dame. The Terps were no match for South Carolina when they met in College Park, Maryland, Nov. 11, falling 81-56. But that early version isn't much like the team Maryland has turned into. The Terps lost just three times since the calendar turned to 2023, and two of those were to Big 12 tournament champ Iowa.
Notre Dame won the ACC regular-season title, but the uncertainty about star guard Olivia Miles' status due to injury leaves the Irish as a question mark, especially as they are in the same early round bracket as last season's giant-killer, No. 6 Creighton. Last year as a No. 10 seed, the Bluejays made it all the way to the Elite Eight.
Should we see South Carolina in the Final Four for the third consecutive year? Yes, especially since Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville is their home away from home. But there is enough talent in their region to make the Gamecocks work for it.
Tennessee Lady Volunteers
Seed: No. 4 in Seattle 3 Regional
Tennessee lost 11 games, the most of any of the top 16 seeds. But a tough schedule with many marquee opponents helped them in the committee's eyes -- despite the fact they didn't actually win any of those big games until beating then-No. 4-ranked LSU 69-67 in the SEC tournament semifinals. Tennessee lost five of its last 12, but two were to South Carolina, including in the SEC tournament final. Tennessee was in the top 16 in NET rating, but behind Iowa State, which won the Big 12 tournament yet got the No. 5 seed in this regional.
Tennessee has groused the last two months that the SEC was being undervalued, but the Lady Vols have nothing to complain about with this seed. It gives senior stars Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 in front of their own fans in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Seed: No. 1 in Greenville 2 Regional
The Big Ten regular-season champion is the only No. 1 seed that doesn't have a past national champion in its region. The Hoosiers have a three-time champion coach in LSU's Kim Mulkey, but she won those titles at Baylor. In fact, only two programs in this region have even been to the Final Four: LSU, most recently in 2008, and NC State, in 1998.
Indiana lost its regular-season finale on a buzzer-beater at Iowa and then lost a huge lead to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. But the committee gave much more weight to how consistently good the Hoosiers were throughout the season. Behind fifth-year senior Grace Berger and senior Mackenzie Holmes, Indiana is strong on both sides of the ball. As befits a No. 1 seed, they should be favored in every potential matchup on their path to Dallas.
Why UConn is a dangerous team heading into the Big Dance
Rebecca Lobo makes the case that UConn is the favorite to win the Seattle Regional despite being a 2-seed.
Seed: No. 2 in Seattle 3 Regional
Sure, if they win the early rounds, the Huskies have to go all the way to the Pacific Northwest. But it's a well-discussed topic that UConn generally hasn't had to travel nearly as much as most teams in the postseason, due to being a high seed in numerous nearby regionals.
The Huskies aren't going to care where they play as long as they are relatively healthy, which they seem to be. They would match up well with the other top three seeds in their region: No. 1 Virginia Tech, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Tennessee. They've already played the Lady Vols and beaten them 84-67 in Knoxville on Jan. 26. If UConn faces the Hokies in the regional final, it would be a matchup of a program with 22 trips to the Final Four vs. a program that has never sniffed a Final Four yet.
The Big Ten Conference
The league has been lauded all season, and the committee confirmed it. The Big Ten has a record-tying seven teams in the field, and four -- No. 1 Indiana, No. 2 seeds Iowa and Maryland and No. 3 Ohio State -- are in the top 16.
The league has just one national champion (Purdue in 1999), and has been to the Final Four just once since 2005. But it has been a special regular season for the Big Ten, and the same could apply to the postseason.
The Big 12 Conference
The league has six teams in the tournament but just one -- the regular-season co-champion Texas Longhorns -- in the top 16 that get to host early-round games. Yet the Longhorns have a potentially tough second-round matchup with Louisville. The other co-champ, Oklahoma, are being shipped to UCLA as a No. 5 seed. Iowa State -- the Big 12 tournament champion which beat both Oklahoma and Texas to get its title a few hours before the NCAA bracket was released -- is also a No. 5 seed. Iowa State was two spots ahead of Tennessee in NET rankings, but will have to travel to Knoxville for the early rounds.
It's just the second time in the history of the Big 12, which began in 1996-97, that the league tournament champion has not been one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament. It also happened in 2017, when West Virginia upset Baylor in the Big 12 final and were a No. 6 NCAA seed. But those Mountaineers had double-digit losses that season.
There was good news for West Virginia this year: The Mountaineers made the field as a No. 10 seed despite losing in the Big 12 quarterfinals. However, Kansas' loss to TCU in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament was costly, as the Jayhawks didn't make the NCAA tournament.
If the Big 12 is to make an appearance in the Sweet 16 this season, the league's teams will really have to work for it.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Seed: No. 6 in Seattle 3 Regional
Admittedly, the Tar Heels were streaky in ACC play, at one point losing four in a row and going 4-5 in their last nine games. Still, there was some thought they would be a higher seed with two wins over Duke and one against Notre Dame. Instead, they could have a tough first-round game against the Purdue/St. John's First Four winner, and then potentially have to face Ohio State on the Buckeyes' home court.
Washington State Cougars
Seed: No. 5 in Greenville 2 Regional
Like Iowa State, the Cougars won their conference tournament but are not in the top 16. That's not nearly as surprising, though, since Washington State finished seventh in the Pac-12 and didn't beat the top two seeds for the tournament title, while the Cyclones were third in the Big 12 and did beat the top two seeds to win its tournament.
That said, the Cougars will have to travel to Philadelphia for the early rounds hosted at Villanova, and face the always-tough Florida Gulf Coast in the first round. FGCU has won 14 in a row; its last loss was in overtime at Liberty Lady Flames on Jan. 21. Considering Washington State's history, any tournament appearance is one to be celebrated, and winning the automatic bid was epic. But things could get rough fast in this bracket for the Cougars.