Five teams that could win the women’s NCAA tournament, and 10 players who could ignite title runs

    Mechelle 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.

A popular refrain this March is that the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament is up for grabs, some saying as many as 10 teams are in the mix to win the championship. Part of the reason is the large amount of talent — several standout seniors and three strong draft-eligible juniors — lost to the WNBA in 2020. Plus there’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which limited nonconference matchups, and the fact that every team will be on neutral courts, with the entire tournament to be played in the San Antonio area.

But now that we’ve seen the bracket and gone over the matchups, which teams appear to have the best chance to raise the trophy in the Alamodome on April 4? Here’s a look at five championship contenders and why they stand out, plus 10 players who might help ignite a title run.

Stanford Cardinal: Deep and dependable

  • Seed/Region: No. 1 seed, Alamo Regional

  • Opener: vs. No. 16 seed Utah Valley, 10 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN/ESPN App)

The top overall seed, the Cardinal will be the team least impacted by a potential three-week stay in a hotel in San Antonio. That’s because they lived in hotels for nine weeks from December to February because of COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County.

“We stuck together and really leaned on each other,” senior guard Kiana Williams said. “It was hard at times living out of a suitcase and hotel rooms, but we wanted to play so bad.”

Stanford (25-2) has a lot more going for it than adaptability to being on the road. The Cardinal are the deepest team in the field, an advantage even though rotations tend to get shorter in the postseason. Stanford has had seven different players as its leading scorer in games this season, six different leading rebounders and seven different assist leaders. So one player having an off game likely isn’t going to sink the Cardinal.

If there’s a nearly indispensable Stanford player, it’s Williams. She leads the team in scoring (14.3 PPG), assists (2.9), 3-pointers (65) and minutes played (31.7 MPG). She hasn’t had to be the go-to scorer every time; junior Lexie Hull, sophomore Haley Jones and freshman Cameron Brink, among others, are all capable of taking on that role, too. But Williams is a crunch-time player.

“Big players make big plays, and my teammates and coaches have confidence in me,” said Williams, a San Antonio native. “So I have confidence in myself. But I think our strength is that we don’t have that one person that you can really key on.”

Williams and fellow guard Anna Wilson lead a defense — another big Stanford strength — that has allowed opponents an average of 52.7 PPG this season.

“I do feel like we can guard people,” coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I also feel like we can shoot the ball really well. We have a lot of different weapons. No matter who’s out there, they’re playing hard for each other and with each other. There’s not a loose cannon that’s all about herself, trying to get her points, or someone that you can’t depend on. This is a dependable team.”

Stanford could be tested by No. 4 seed Arkansas if they meet in the Sweet 16, and there’s the possibility of an Elite Eight matchup with No. 2 Louisville. But Stanford should have the answers in the Alamo Region, and then at the Final Four, too.

UConn Huskies: Steady improvement, championship history

  • Seed/Region: No. 1 seed, River Walk Regional

  • Opener: vs. No. 16 seed High Point, 8 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN/ESPN App)

With seven freshmen and no seniors this season, coach Geno Auriemma admitted he grew frustrated at times. But he adjusted his methods without changing his expectations, and the Huskies steadily improved. After they won the Big East tournament, Auriemma talked about how his players this season didn’t always do things the way he wanted, but they still got the job done.

“I’ve never been more proud of any team, with all these young kids,” Auriemma said after the Big East tournament final. “How much they’ve grown up over the course of four or five months. It’s really been refreshing to watch.”

That growth will help because the Huskies will be without Auriemma for the early-round games, as he is quarantining at home after testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. His decades-long sidekick, associate coach Chris Dailey, and assistants Shea Ralph and Jamelle Elliott are better positioned than some staffs would be to deal with the loss of a head coach because of all the experience they bring.

And as Auriemma said, UConn’s players have become a much sharper unit on the offense and defensive ends. Freshman Paige Bueckers leads the Huskies in scoring (19.7 PPG) and assists (6.1). Juniors Christyn Williams (15.8 PPG) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (12.5 PPG) and freshman Aaliyah Edwards (10.2 PPG) are all scoring in double figures, too. Junior Evina Westbrook is averaging 9.2 points and is second in assists at 4.2.

The Huskies hold opponents to 50.5 PPG. Admittedly, they dominated the Big East and weren’t tested in their conference the way other top teams were in their leagues. But UConn is used to not being challenged much in league play but still reaching the Final Four.

This team might have a strong youth element, but led by Bueckers, it also has a lot of skill. And with or without Auriemma, the coaching staff knows more than any other staff in the country about winning national championships.

The region could provide some tests for UConn, including former Big East foe Syracuse and Iowa, which boasts a powerful offense. Don’t count out Kentucky in the Huskies’ part of the bracket, either. Still, the Huskies’ most difficult potential matchup would be in the Elite Eight with No. 2 Baylor.

Baylor Lady Bears: Prowess in the paint and on defense

  • Seed/Region: No. 2 seed, River Walk Regional

  • Opener: vs. No. 15 seed Jackson State, 4 p.m. ET Sunday (ABC)

The Lady Bears (25-2) are still the defending champions (from 2019) and they once again were the bosses of the Big 12. As a result of their dominance there for the past decade, Baylor at times is taken for granted.

Baylor perhaps wasn’t given as much national acclaim this season because the Lady Bears lost their only marquee nonconference game (at Arkansas on Dec. 6). Their Jan. 7 game against UConn was canceled because Baylor was on a COVID-19 pause.

Right after they came back from the pause, the Lady Bears lost to Iowa State 75-71 on Jan. 16. But they haven’t lost since. They have three wins over West Virginia, which is a No. 4 seed, and three against Texas, a No. 6 seed.

Baylor typically wins the old-fashioned way: with high-percentage shots and getting to the free throw line. The Lady Bears have made the fewest 3-pointers of any of the top eight seeds, going 93-of-286 from long range. But of those teams, Baylor is second in free throws made (380-of-531), trailing only Maryland (409-of-518).

But if you think Baylor can’t win an NCAA title with its relative deficit of 3-pointers, just look at its last two national championship teams. The 2018-19 Lady Bears made 117 3-pointers in 38 games (3.1 per game) and the 40-0 team in 2011-12 made 143 treys (3.6 per game). This year, they’re averaging 3.4 made 3-pointers per game. In other words, pretty standard for Baylor.

The other thing that’s typical of these Lady Bears? Outstanding post play. Center Brittney Griner led the way in 2012, and center Kalani Brown and forward Lauren Cox anchored the inside in 2019.

Forward NaLyssa Smith (18.1 PPG, 9.1 RPG), an athletic marvel who already looks ready for the WNBA and was Big 12 Player of the Year, leads Baylor. She teams inside with center Queen Egbo, whose has played particularly well the past few weeks, including an 18-rebound game in the Big 12 tournament semifinals against Texas.

Baylor’s guards are also solid. The best from long range is DiJonai Carrington (34 treys, 13.5 PPG), with Moon Ursin averaging 11.6 PPG. Those two plus DiDi Richards — who was temporarily paralyzed after a collision in practice in October — and Trinity Oliver form one of the best defensive backcourts in the tournament.

The River Walk Regional has a lot of talent, and Baylor could face third-seeded Tennessee — a team that was good enough to beat South Carolina this year — in the Sweet 16. But if seeds hold, we’ll get the UConn-Baylor matchup that everyone was looking forward to back in January.

And if the Lady Bears reach the Final Four, they’ll be there with a ton of confidence.

Maryland Terrapins: Catch the high-scoring Terps if you can

  • Seed/Region: No. 2 seed, Hemisfair Regional

  • Opener: vs. No. 15 seed Mount St. Mary’s, 4 p.m. ET Monday (ESPN/ESPN App)

If the Terps are to win the program’s second national championship, they’ll do it with the best offense in the country. Maryland leads Division I women in scoring (91.3 PPG) and has six players who are averaging double figures.

The closest any team came to shutting down Maryland’s offense was Northwestern in their regular-season matchup on Feb. 28. That’s not a surprise, as the Wildcats are led by defensive star Veronica Burton. Yet the Terps still won 62-50.

Guard Ashley Owusu leads the Terps with 18.3 PPG, and fellow sophomore guard Diamond Miller is at 17.2 PPG. Both of them average 2.7 assists. Then add in the team’s best 3-point shooters: guard Katie Benzan (88 treys, 13.3 PPG) and wing Chloe Bibby (52, 13.4). Forward Mimi Collins (10.7 PPG) and Angel Reese (10.0) are taxing to opposing defenses, too.

The fact that Maryland lost five of its top six scorers to graduation or transfer from last year and is still in position to compete for a national championships says a lot about Brenda Frese and why she was the ESPN.com national coach of the year. But it also is a testament to how quickly this year’s players bonded, and how well their personalities meshed together on court and off.

The better teams in Maryland’s half of the region might not be able to really slow down the Terps offensively, or keep up with them. No. 7 Alabama, a potential second-round opponent, allows 70.0 PPG and scores 74.8.

In the Sweet 16, Maryland might face third-seeded UCLA (scores 72.0, allows 58.1) or No. 6 Texas (scores 69.9, allows 62.8). In all three cases, the Terps probably just have too many weapons.

Basically, if the game is played at the Terps’ preferred pace, they can beat anyone. A very strong defense with a dominant post is probably the biggest threat to Maryland. That describes Hemisfair’s top seed, South Carolina.

South Carolina Gamecocks: Defensive focus and a centerpiece player

  • Seed/Region: No. 1 seed, Hemisfair Regional

  • Opener: vs. No. 16 seed Mercer, 6 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN/ESPN App)

The Gamecocks have had the right pieces all season. The issue was putting them all together in the right order, which was something point guard Tyasha Harris did so well the previous four years.

With her gone, there have been times when South Carolina didn’t seem to get the ball into the hands of its biggest offensive weapon, sophomore forward Aliyah Boston, enough. After South Carolina’s loss to NC State on Dec. 3, coach Dawn Staley basically said it had been a long time since she had a team that failed to listen or execute the way the Gamecocks did that night.

With Harris and forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan gone to the WNBA, this was a team that was going to have some growing pains.

Yet when the dust settled on the SEC season, who was holding the conference tournament trophy? The Gamecocks, for the sixth time in program history. And Boston had probably her best overall game of the season in the SEC final against Georgia, with 27 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.

South Carolina resembles Baylor in how it scores. Of the top eight seeds, the Gamecocks have the second-fewest 3-pointers (only Baylor has fewer, with 114), but the third-most made free throws (379) behind Maryland and Baylor.

Guard Zia Cooke leads in scoring (15.9 PPG), followed by Boston (13.7 PPG) and guard Destanni Henderson (12.6). Losing senior guard LeLe Grissett to injury in the SEC tournament hurts South Carolina’s overall depth and experience, but there are other players to step forward.

The biggest concern for South Carolina is when its offense falls short, which happened in all four of its losses this season: to NC State, UConn, Tennessee and Texas A&M. In three of those games, South Carolina scored fewer than 60 points.

And if it comes down to a regional final matchup with high-scoring Maryland, a lot of pressure will be on the Gamecocks’ defense. If South Carolina beats the Terps to go to the Final Four, the Gamecocks still might have to get past Stanford just for a shot at the national title. But if their defense holds against the Terps, it might hold against anyone.

Ten players who deserve more attention

We’ve already looked at most of the star players for our top five picks to win the national title. But what about the potential X factors on those teams, plus the top two seeds in the Mercado Region, No. 1 NC State and No. 2 Texas A&M? Maybe the Wolfpack or Aggies will have the last laugh (it would mark the first NCAA title for NC State). We shouldn’t look past Louisville, the No. 2 seed in the Alamo Region, either.

Here are 10 players (in alphabetical order) who aren’t necessarily in the spotlight, but will likely be crucial for a title run among the top eight seeds.

Cameron Brink, Stanford: Foul trouble is about the only thing that holds back the freshman forward. When she’s on the court, she contributes in a lot of big ways, averaging 10.2 PPG and 6.8 RPG, with a team-high 64 blocked shots.

Mimi Collins, Maryland: One of the transfers who has been so effective for the Terps, the forward is averaging 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds and is shooting 51.7 percent from the field.

Jakia Brown-Tuner, NC State: The sophomore guard/forward generally takes on the toughest defensive assignments, along with being the Wolfpack’s second-leading scorer (13.6 PPG).

Aaliyah Edwards, UConn: The freshman forward leads the Huskies in field goal percentage (68.0), is second in rebounding (5.4 RPG) and fourth in scoring (10.2 PPG).

Lexie Hull, Stanford: The guard influences games with her scoring (11.5 PPG), rebounding (4.8), defense and energy. She might not be the Cardinal’s star, but she’s a vital part of their success.

Raina Perez, NC State: The smallest player (she’s 5-foot-4) on the Wolfpack hit one of the biggest baskets this season for NC State: a jump shot with 2 seconds left to beat Louisville in the ACC tournament final and help secure the team’s No. 1 seed. She also leads the Wolfpack in assists (4.9 APG).

Victaria Saxton, South Carolina: The junior forward leads the Gamecocks in field goal percentage (55.7) and steals (32), is second in rebounding (5.9 RPG) and fourth in scoring (8.7 PPG).

Moon Ursin, Baylor: The senior guard is having her best season: She’s second on the team in assists (3.9 APG) and steals (37) and third in scoring (11.6 PPG) and rebounding (6.7).

Hailey Van Lith, Louisville: Another standout freshman, the guard ranks third on the Cardinals in scoring (11.2 PPG), rebounding (5.5), and assists (2.2).

Aaliyah Wilson, Texas A&M: The senior guard (12.6 PPG) leads one of the country’s most balanced attacks, and is first on the Aggies in steals (45) and is second in assists (2.5 APG).

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