Re-ranking women’s NCAA tournament Sweet 16 teams by national championship chances

After the first two rounds of the women’s NCAA tournament, No. 1-overall seed South Carolina has cemented its status as the overwhelming favorite, running over, past and all around No. 16-seed Presbyterian in the first round and No. 8-seed North Carolina in the second round to push the Gamecocks’ record to a perfect 34-0.

But if South Carolina falters, what team has the best chance of grabbing the trophy in Cleveland? Despite a less than confidence-inducing start to their tournament, could No. 3-seed LSU repeat as national champions? Will Caitlin Clark and the No. 1-seed Iowa Hawkeyes fulfill their hoped-for championship destiny? Could JuJu Watkins stake her claim in the women’s college basketball world, leading No. 1-seed USC to the program’s first title since the days of Cheryl Miller?

Ahead of the Sweet 16, we’re ranking the remaining teams by their championship equity. Here’s how we see the race for the 2024 national title.

16. Baylor Bears

No. 5-seed Baylor was up-and-down throughout Big 12 play, and their second-round win did little to alleviate concerns about their ability to find the consistency required to go on a deep tournament run. After a drama-free defeat of No. 12-seed Vanderbilt in the first round, the Bears needed a career night from junior guard Jada Walker to escape in the second round against a Virginia Tech team that was not of typical No. 4-seed quality, as the Hokies were without grad center and ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, who missed the tournament with a torn ACL.

Walker scored 26 of her career-high 28 points in the second half. It was the kind of effort that makes March magical, but not one that is sustainable. For the season, Walker averages 8.2 points per game; her previous single-game season high was 19 points. Another Bear, such as grad forward Dre’Una Edwards or senior guard Sarah Andrews, will need an offensive outburst for Baylor to advance. They also must play with the defensive attention to detail that sophomore forward Darianna Littlepage-Buggs recently described to Swish Appeal’s Edwin Garcia. Expect head coach Nicki Collen, who has experience on the WNBA sidelines, to have a scheme ready for Baylor’s next opponent: No. 1-seed USC and freshman phenom JuJu Watkins.

15. Gonzaga Bulldogs

The only mid-major to make it to the Sweet 16, No. 4-seed Gonzaga may not have the talent of their high-major counterparts, but skill and strategy could very well carry them beyond the Sweet 16.

The Bulldogs are the nation’s best 3-point shooting team, converting just over 40 percent of their long-range efforts for the season. The triples were flying and falling for the Zags in the second round, as a 12-for-22 performance (54.5 percent) from behind the arc propelled them past No. 5-seed Utah, despite 35 points from Utes senior forward Alissa Pili. Grad guards and sisters Kaylynne and Kayleigh Truong combined for seven of the Zags’ 12 3-pointers, as Kayleigh led her team with 21 points. Senior forward Yvonne Ejim takes care of things inside the arc for the Bulldogs; on Monday night, she had a 17-point and 11-rebound double-double.

To become the tournament’s Cinderella and defeat No. 1-seed Texas in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga must lean further into their strength, stretching out a stout Longhorn defense by upping their 3-point volume and hoping the gods of shooting variance smile on them.

14. Duke Blue Devils

No. 7-seed Duke does not make things easy on themselves. In the first round, they trailed No. 10-seed Richmond by nine points at the half; in the second round, the Blue Devils fell down by 16 points to No. 2-seed Ohio State in the first half.

But no matter the deficit—and no matter if they struggle through a seemingly interminable scoring drought—the Blue Devils trust their process, which begins with playing aggressive, high-execution defense. Defensive stops eventually turn into easier scoring opportunities, creating a virtuous feedback loop that fuels the Blue Devils. And if junior guard Reigan Richardson, who has 25- and 28-point performances in two tournament games remains on a heater, Duke is dangerous—even against their Sweet 16 foe, No. 3-seed UConn. However, while the Blue Devils effectively stalled Ohio State guard Jacy Sheldon in the second round, slowing the brilliant Paige Bueckers is a tougher task.

A team full of freshman, sophomores and transfers, the Blue Devils are ahead of schedule. Next year, when head coach Kara Lawson welcomes the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class to Durham (a class that could become more highly-regarded if the top recruit in the class of 2024, forward Sarah Strong, chooses Duke), a Final Four run will be the expectation.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 24 Div I Women’s Championship Second Round - Duke vs Ohio State

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13. Indiana Hoosiers

A nip-and-tuck second-round game between No. 4-seed Indiana and No. 5-seed Oklahoma became a Hoosier victory when Mackenzie Holmes went to work. The 6-foot-3 grad center might be the most skilled post player in the tournament. She certainly looked like it late in Monday night’s game, demanding the ball, dipping deep into her bag of moves and scoring six-straight points down the stretch to deliver the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16.

Holmes, however, likely will struggle to show off her smooth moves in the next round, as No. 1-seed South Carolina and the nation’s top-ranked defense, anchored by 6-foot-7 senior center Kamilla Cardoso, awaits. Indiana’s lack of depth also profiles as a problem against South Carolina, as the Hoosiers benefited from only one point from a reserve against Oklahoma. South Carolina, in contrast, has depth for days.

To have a chance to challenge, much less defeat, the Gamecocks the Hoosiers must go all in from behind the arc. The nation’s third-best 3-point shooting team at 39.6 percent, Indiana averages 20.8 3s per game. They have to take more. Indiana’s other four starters—fifth-year senior guard Sara Scalia, senior guard Sydney Parrish, senior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil and sophomore guard Yarden Garzon—cannot hesitate to fire away. And if their shots are falling, that could then open up things for Holmes inside. The Hoosiers do own an upset of Iowa, which should give them an extra dose of confidence on Friday.

12. Oregon State Beavers

When dreaming of a Pac-12 team saying goodbye to the conference with a national title, one might imagine USC, UCLA or Stanford raising the trophy. Why not No. 3-seed Oregon State? (Well, because South Carolina is in their way.) Throughout the 2023-24 season, more than a handful of skepticism has surrounded the Beavers, requiring them slowly and steadily rise in the AP poll until, finally, earning the respect requisite of their play.

Oregon State has size, shooting and a solid defense — a formula that can carry a team far in March. They showed it off in taking care of business against No. 14-seed Eastern Washington and No. 6-seed Nebraska. And although it might be a March cliche, they also have heart, embodied by junior guard Talia von Oelhoffen. In Sunday’s win over Nebraska, she penned “heart” on her arm sleeve, and then led the Beavers with 19 points. She’s also cold-blooded, evidenced by the buzzer-beating 3 she drained to take down UCLA in mid-February.

Oregon State Beavers vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

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11. Colorado Buffaloes

On Monday night, No. 8-seed West Virginia introduced the blueprint for causing trouble for Caitlin Clark and No. 1-seed Iowa, defending with physicality and grounding the Hawkeyes’ offensive attack. The Mountaineers were unable to finish the job. But might the Buffaloes be able to?

Like West Virginia, No. 5-seed Colorado wins with defense; they’re comfortable turning games into grinds. On Sunday they held No. 4-seed Kansas State and star senior center Ayoka Lee, who once scored 61 points in a single game, to 15 total second-half points. Grad guard Jaylyn Sherrod provides point of attack pressure, junior center Aaronette Vonleh is a presence in the paint and grad forward Quay Miller is full of thankless hustle. The lightning-quick Sherrod also can pack a scoring punch in transition or the half court, while the likes of senior guard Frida Foreman is capable of catching fire from downtown.

The Buffaloes also are upset certified. On opening night of the 2023-24 season, Colorado stunned defending-champion LSU in dominating fashion.

10. NC State Wolfpack

No. 3-seed NC State began the season with a bang, with wins over then-No. 2 UConn and then-No. 3 Colorado. After beginning the season unranked, the Wolfpack ascended to as high as No. 2 in the AP poll. Down the stretch of the regular season, however, NC State struggled through a few uninspiring wins and even less inspiring losses before rebounding to advance to the ACC Tournament title game.

Although the Wolfpack won by nearly 20 points over No. 14-seed Chattanooga in the first round, they did so scoring only 64 points and shooting a pretty putrid 33.3 percent from the field. In the second round, a nine-point third quarter allowed No. 6-seed Tennessee to turn what was tracking to be a comfortable Wolfpack win into a down-to-the-wire contest.

In short, it’s been a mixed bag for the Wolfpack. One encouraging development for NC State has been the emergence of junior guard Aziaha James as the team’s top scoring option. After several strong showings in the ACC Tournament, she’s led the Pack with 19 points and 22 points in their two tourney games. Against the Lady Vols, four of her 22 points came in the game’s tensest moments, as she converted a tough floater before draining the dagger 3-pointer. Although it might not always be pretty, NC State’s experience playing under pressure could pay off, including as soon as in the Sweet 16 against No. 2-seed Stanford.

9. Note Dame Fighting Irish

If No. 2-seed Notre Dame did not share a region with South Carolina, they’d rank higher on this list. Notre Dame has won 10-straight games, defeating No. 15-seed Kent State in the first round before holding off No. 7-seed Ole Miss in the second round.

It’s not just about the results for the Irish. After freshman fireball Hannah Hidalgo tried to do everything for the Irish through much of the season, she’s now formed a threatening trio with junior guard Sonia Citron and junior forward Maddy Westbeld. The three combined for 56 of Notre Dame’s 71 points against Ole Miss, led by 20 points from Westbeld. In the first round, Citron dropped 29 points, further proving that she has rediscovered her top form after being sidelined for part of the season with a knee injury.

And still, Hidalgo has the potential to go off and carry Notre Dame to victory. An offensive dynamo and defensive pest, she’s built for the bright lights of March. She introduced herself to the women’s college hoops world by pouring 31 points on South Carolina on the season’s opening day, albeit in a blowout loss. Look for her to give the Gamecocks all she’s got in an expected Elite Eight showdown.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Notre Dame

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8. Stanford Cardinal

A second-round overtime win over No. 7-seed Iowa State showed the promise and pitfalls of No. 2-seed Stanford.

The promise? Junior forward Kiki Iriafen. While senior forward Cameron Brink, the presumptive No. 2 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, receives more shine, Iriafen is just as essential to the Cardinal’s success. Her 41-point and 16-rebound double-double powered Stanford into the Sweet 16, carrying the load with Brink limited by foul trouble. That’s the pitfall for the Cardinal. Brink may be the best defensive player in the nation, but her propensity to find herself in foul trouble stunts her impact, and could prove costly to the Cardinal. In a Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3-seed NC State, you can bet that Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore will challenge his squad to go at Brink, especially if she accumulates a few early fouls.

Stanford also was able to survive a second-round scare due to some timely shotmaking. For the season, their perimeter play has been uneven. Steady performances from sophomore guard Talana Lepolo and senior guard Hannah Jump are prerequisites if the Cardinal are to make it to Cleveland.

7. UCLA Bruins

On Monday night, No. 2-seed UCLA was met with a tournament test—and passed.

Trailing No. 7-seed Creighton 42-34 at the half, UCLA responded to the demands of head coach Cori Close. After the game, she shared, “At halftime, I really laid into them about the choices. We don’t give up that many points in a half to anybody. So we needed to just get back to doing things with our defense. I knew if we could get enough stops we would score enough points.” Close was correct. The Bruins held the Bluejays to 21 second-half points, while sophomore guard Kiki Rice provided the offense pop. She scored 13 of her game-high 24 points in the second half, taking advantage of the defensive attention on 6-foot-7 sophomore center Lauren Betts.

Compared to Creighton, UCLA’s Sweet 16 opponent, No. 3-seed LSU, is better equipped to defend the Bruins. Thus, UCLA must learn from their lack of first-half focus against the Bluejays and play attentive ball from tip off against the Lady Tigers. If so, UCLA has the personnel required to match the talent of the defending champs, with Betts’ interior size and skill complemented by dynamic perimeter play from Rice, grad guard Charisma Osborne and sophomore guard Londynn Jones.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Los Angeles UCLA

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6. Texas Longhorns

Freshman Madison Booker can make one forget that No. 1-seed Texas is missing their best player. Junior guard Rori Harmon was playing like an All-American when she tore her ACL in a late-December practice. It was expected that the then-undefeated Longhorns would tumble without their two-way engine. But, Booker didn’t let that happen. The Big 12 Freshman of the Year assumed control of the offense, captaining the Longhorns to the Big 12 Tournament title and a No. 1 seed.

Like a former Longhorn who also sported No. 35, Booker is money from the midrange, a tough shot maker with an enviably soft touch. Her individual talent as an isolation scorer, along with a defense characteristic of teams coached by Vic Schaefer, equips the Longhorns to persevere through March’s toughest moments. Thus far, Texas hasn’t been tested in the tournament. Although unable to fully pull away from No. 8-seed Alabama in the second round, the Longhorns were never truly threatened by the Crimson Tide. A favorable matchup against No. 4-seed Gonzaga awaits in the Sweet 16, suggesting the Longhorns could arrive in the Elite Eight with energy to spare.

5. UConn Huskies

Yes, they are a No. 3 seed. Yes, they are depleted, losing six players to season-ending injuries. Yes, Geno is older and grayer. But, they’re still UConn. And, they have Paige Bueckers. And, Auriemma is not NOT wrong when he says that the redshirt junior is the “best player in America.”

Bueckers is playing the best ball of her career, following up a MVP-effort in the Big East Tournament with 28 points, 11 boards and seven assists in UConn’s first-round romp of No. 14-seed Jackson and 32 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the second-round escape against No. 6-seed Syracuse. She’s been supported by senior forward Aaliyah Edwards, a guaranteed near double-double game in and game out. Freshmen guards Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold have continued to play fearlessly. Shade busted out for 26 points in her tourney debut, draining five 3-pointers. She made five more triples against Syracuse, while Arnold’s second 3-pointer of the evening was the dagger. Senior guard Nika Mühl grinds defensively, eagerly extinguishing the opponent’s top perimeter option.

A bout of foul trouble could spoil the paper-thin Huskies’ march to Cleveland. Case in point, when Mühl fouled out on Monday night, Syracuse soon found enough offense to threaten UConn’s advantage. But as long as Bueckers in on the court, it’s unwise to underestimate the Huskies.

Connecticut v Syracuse

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4. LSU Lady Tigers

It appeared the defending national champions had overcome their early-season turbulence and were coalescing into the best version of themselves as the calendar turned to March. However, No. 3-seed LSU’s performance in the first two rounds—a sluggish effort against No. 14-seed Rice followed by an out-of-sorts first half against No. 11-seed Middle Tennessee—has left much to be desired. And, the off-the-court drama has returned for the Lady Tigers, with head coach Kim Mulkey issuing a prickly, preemptive statement against a forthcoming reported story from The Washington Post.

That said, it’s hard to bet against the talent of the Lady Tigers. Their top four—junior forward Angel Reese, junior wing Aneesah Morrow, sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson and freshman wing Mikaylah Williams—can rival any team’s best. It’s also a group that has proven that they can rise to the occasion when the competition gets tougher and the lights get brighter. If LSU sees Iowa on the other side of the court with a trip to the Final Four on the line, there’s little doubt that the Lady Tigers will be undeterred by any distractions, and only be ready to dominate. But first, can they bring their best against No. 2-seed UCLA?

3. Iowa Hawkeyes

Should No. 1-seed Iowa’s close call against No. 8-seed West Virginia raise doubts about the Hawkeyes’ Final Four destiny? Quite the opposite.

The Mountaineers dictated the terms of Monday night’s second-round game, dragging Caitlin Clark and the usually high-flying Hawkeyes into a physical, defensive tussle. Iowa shot 36.2 percent from the field, their third-worst shooting performance of the season. Clark was an inefficient 8-for-22 from the floor, collecting 11 of her 32 points from the foul line. Yet, Iowa prevailed, proving that they could win an ugly affair where offense was hard to come by. As sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke said after the game, “I think a lot of people think we’re only an offensive team. And we do work on defense all the time. I’m glad we got to show that tonight. That’s what won this game. So I’m really proud of that.”

To survive the tournament’s toughest region, Iowa cannot ride singular, superstar showcases from Clark; instead, additional two-way, team-wide efforts will help the Hawkeyes find their way to Cleveland. The return of senior guard Molly Davis from a knee would also benefit the Hawkeyes, giving them a steady secondary ball handler.

2. USC Trojans

In 1983, a freshman lead the Women of Troy to a national championship. 41 years later, could it happen again?

It should be blasphemous to compare any player to the legendary Cheryl Miller, but freshman JuJu Watkins has elevated into such rarified air. A school-record 13 games of 30 or more points. A 51-point masterpiece at Stanford. A measured, mature performance in the Pac-12 Tournament final, where she leveraged Stanford’s preoccupation with her every move on the offensive end to allow her teammates to thrive and take the Trojans to their first conference tourney title in a decade.

USC’s tournament path has yet to require Watkins to marshal an other-worldly effort. The Trojans cruised against No. 16-seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the first round before a wire-to-wire win over No. 8-seed Kansas in the second round. Watkins spurred USC to a 7-0 start on Monday night before finishing with a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, along with five assists. However, that she still has not had to tap into the depth of her talent should concern upcoming opponents. Furthermore, as proven by the Pac-12 title game, other Trojans are ready to step up in key moments, providing a steady support system around the freshman star. On Monday, it again was grad wing McKenzie Forbes, who swished a career-high six 3-pointers.

USC v Kansas

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1. South Carolina Gamecocks

It wasn’t surprising when No. 1-seed South Carolina crushed No. 16-seed Presbyterian in the first round. Then, the Gamecocks nearly replicated the massive margin of victory over the other Carolina, the No. 8-seed Tar Heels. The second-round slaughtering was a statement of South Carolina’s readiness not simply to survive the madness of March, but to thrive above it all. South Carolina is 34-0, propelled by, rather than feeling the pressure of, their perfection.

Amongst the Gamecocks’ depth of talent, the magnificent MiLaysia Fulwiley has shined brightest, with the freshman guard turning takeaways into easy transition scores and draining off-the-dribble triples. She scored 17 off-the-bench points in the first round, followed by 20 points in the second round. Fulwiley’s offensive arsenal is illustrative of what makes this Dawn Staley squad so seemingly unbeatable. While previous South Carolina teams lacked dynamic, perimeter scoring, these Gamecocks have a number of players capable of creating and converting from perimeter, in addition to South Carolina’s characteristic dominance of the interior and unrelenting defensive execution. It’s a combination of skill, strength and smarts no other team can come close to claiming.

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