Bueckers, Clark among returning stars in women’s NCAA field

Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBIA, S.C. – Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark are back, this time as talented sophomores in the women’s basketball NCAA Tournament.

The duo commanded center stage and the nation’s attention last year in one of the most anticipated women’s Sweet 16 showdowns between top freshmen Bueckers and her UConn squad and Clark with Iowa.

This time, Bueckers has played modest minutes in her four games since returning from knee surgery for an injury she suffered in early December.

Clark has picked up where she left off last year, winning the Big Ten Conference player of year award and leading the country in scoring at 27.1 points a game. Clark has have five triple-doubles this season and a career-high 46 points against Michigan.

Bueckers said her challenge is “accepting what I’m going to be and what I am for the rest of the season and just trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

It was Bueckers and UConn outplaying Iowa last March in San Antonio, with the Huskies winning 92-72. Bueckers had 18 points, Clark had 21.

But they’re just two of several players to watch in this year’s tournament.

NaLyssa Smith led Baylor to the Big 12 Conference regular-season title in the first year after national championship coach Kim Mulkey left for LSU. Smith, who averaged 23.1 points, was the first to win back-to-back Big 12 player of the year honors since former Bear Brittney Griner did it three straight years from 2011-13.

Haley Jones of Stanford was the Final Four’s most outstanding player last year as the Cardinal beat Arizona for the championship in a Pac-12 showdown. She averaged 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds this year – second in the Pac 12 – and was named the conference player of the year. Stanford is trying to become the first women’s team with consecutive titles since UConn’s run of four straight ended in 2016.

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, enters the NCAA Tournament with 24 straight games with double-figure points and rebounds.

Louisville’s Emily Engstler, a 6-foot-1 transfer from Syracuse, led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 2.5 steals a game, along with 11.5 points and a team-leading 9.1 boards per game.

Some other things to know about this year’s women’s tournament:

LEVELING THE FIELD

The NCAA took several steps to make the men’s and women’s tournaments more equal this year.

Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video last year about the lack of amenities – training equipment, food, tournament gifts – that the women had in San Antonio compared to the men in Indianapolis.

The NCAA commissioned a study, released last summer, that found gross inequalities between the tournaments. This year, the women’s field will have 68 teams, just like the men, and the term “March Madness” will branded on the court instead of just “Women’s Basketball” as in the past.

The NCAA has said men’s and women’s teams also will have equitable hotel rooms and food.

INAUGURAL FIRST FOUR

Howard, Incarnate Word, Missouri State, Florida State, Longwood, Mount St. Mary’s, Dayton and DePaul will enter the record books as the teams in the inaugural women’s First Four games.

Howard and Incarnate Word – making their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearances – will play, with the winner facing No. 1 overall seed South Carolina in Columbia. Also in the Greensboro Region, Dayton and DePaul will play for the chance to take on sixth-seeded Georgia.

In the Spokane Region, Missouri State and Florida State will meet to see who takes on sixth-seeded Ohio State. And in the Bridgeport Region, Longwood faces Mount St. Mary’s with the advancing to take on top-seeded North Carolina State.

DOUBLE DIP

There are 24 schools that have teams in both the men’s and women’s tournaments, including all four top seeds on the men’s side in Gonzaga, Arizona, Kansas and Baylor.

Perhaps the most intriguing school with teams in both events is Longwood. Both the Lancers men’s and women’s teams won Big South Conference Tournament crowns to earn NCAA berths for the first time in school history.

Other schools with teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments: UConn, Arkansas, Norte Dame, Montana State, North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, Villanova, Delaware, Creighton, Iowa, LSU, Iowa State and Miami.

HOME, SWEET HOME

Don’t look for many surprises in opening games as the NCAA Tournament returns to campus sites.

However, there could be a few upsets in the second round.

No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds are 324-1 in opening round games since the field was set at 64. The lone upset was No. 16 Harvard defeating top-seeded Stanford on its home court in 1998.

No. 4 seeds have gone 108-10 against 13th-seeded opponents.

The second is a different story: In each of the past three NCAA Tournaments that started on home courts in 2017, 2018 and 2019, only 12 of 16 homes teams advanced from the second round to the Sweet 16.

BACK HOME

The tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, South Carolina, will host its first home NCAA game since 2018. The Gamecocks played in Charlotte in 2019 because a men’s NCAA regional was held at their home building. The 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 while last year’s event was played entirely in San Antonio.