The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know

March 20, 2024
It’s the most wonderful time of the year — the Division I (DI) women’s basketball national tournament (aka March Madness) tips off with today’s First Four matchups.
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The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know
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🧑‍🏫 How it works

The women’s 68-team, single-elimination bracket works just the same as the men’s — six rounds (plus the First Four) of high-stakes hoops culminate with the April 7th national championship.

  • The main difference between the women’s and men’s tourneys’ structures? Location, location, location.

While each quadrant (aka “region”) of the men’s bracket gathers in a pre-planned, neutral city from the first round through to the Elite Eight, the women’s first few rounds are scattered across the country. Each quadrant’s top four seeds host the first two rounds at their home courts, a massive advantage the best men’s teams are not afforded.

  • For example, in the women’s bottom-left quadrant, No. 1–seed Texas hosts their first-round game against No. 16 Drexel and the second-round matchup between the winner of their game and the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game in their quadrant.
  • The quadrant’s next three best teams — No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 NC State, and No. 4 Gonzaga — play host through the first two rounds as well.

From there, the surviving contenders travel to neutral sites. Albany, NY, hosts the top-left and top-right quadrants, aptly named Albany 1 and 2, for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. The bottom quadrants, Portland 3 and 4, will head to — you guessed it — Portland, OR.

  • The four teams still dancing then advance to the sport’s biggest stage: the Final Four and, if they’re lucky, the national championship in Cleveland, OH.

🥇 The No. 1 seeds

The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know
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🐓 South Carolina Gamecocks (Albany 1): The 2022 champs are the No. 1 overall seed for the third straight year. Under head coach (HC) Dawn Staley, the Gamecocks earned a spotless 32-0 record while outscoring their opponents by a league-leading average of 29.8 points per game (PPG). Perfection or bust.

  • But the Gamecocks’ hunt for a fourth consecutive Final Four appearance is led by an inexperienced crew: All five of last year’s starters have since graduated. March Madness rewards poise above all else, so young players’ stage fright will be their biggest challenge.

🦅 Iowa Hawkeyes (Albany 2): The Hawkeyes are campaigning to return to the national championship game, but this time, they’re coming for all the marbles. Iowa was blown out in last year’s final, which will likely only fuel megawatt star and fierce competitor senior Caitlin Clark. Notably, the Hawkeyes lost four games this season, but no one’s beaten them twice.

✌️ USC Trojans (Portland 3): Freshman phenom JuJu Watkins put USC back on the map for the first time in 30 years. In just one season the program has gone from a March Madness afterthought to Pac-12 tournament champ and a No. 1 seed. Watkins’ legend will only grow if she can lead the Trojans on a deep tourney run.

🐂 Texas Longhorns (Portland 4): Texas has been knocking on the door all season long, and their strong finish featuring a Big 12 title pushed them over the edge to secure their first No. 1 seed since 2004. Freshman Madison Booker stepped up big to fill the gap left by an injured Rori Harmon, and the rest could be history come championship weekend.

💪 The other best bets

The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know
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🐯 No. 3 LSU Tigers (Albany 2): The reigning national champs dropped some winnable games early on in the season, but since February, the only team that’s been able to contain them is South Carolina…and LSU certainly didn’t go down without, ahem, a fight. The Tigers landed in Iowa’s region, meaning a title game rematch in the Elite Eight is more than likely.

  • First, they’ll have to fight their way through a bloodthirsty bracket, including a possible second-round matchup with No. 6 Louisville — the former team of LSU point guard senior Hailey Van Lith. Judging by her reaction, the reunion could be aca-awkward.

🌲 No. 2 Stanford (Portland 4): Stanford was on a fast-track to a No. 1 seed until aforementioned USC upset them in the Pac-12 tourney to steal the honor. Led by the all-time winningest HC in college basketball history, Tara VanDerveer, count the 2021 national champs as the symbolic fifth No. 1 seed.

🌰 No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (Portland 3): Like Stanford, the Buckeyes saw their shot at a No. 1 seed slip away after they were upset in the Big Ten quarter-finals. In other words, this talented squad has a chip on their shoulder heading into the loaded Portland 3 quadrant. Dangerous.

🐻 No. 2 UCLA Bruins (Albany 2): UCLA and superstar center sophomore Lauren Betts have flown under the radar in terms of national attention, but they went undefeated in pre-conference play (including wins over Ohio State and No. 3–seed UConn) and cut their teeth in the brutal Pac-12, where they finished tied for second with USC. Underestimate them at your own risk.

💤 The sleeper picks

The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know
Source: Hartford Courant

🐺 No. 3 UConn Huskies (Portland 3): It feels strange to count the dynasty of all dynasties as an underdog, but UConn dances into March with only eight healthy players. Still, it’s impossible to overlook legendary HC Geno Auriemma or his star duo of junior Paige “Buckets” Bueckers and senior Aaliyah Edwards.

☘️ No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Albany 1): ND’s picked up some serious steam to cap off the regular season with eight straight wins (including five over nationally ranked teams) and an ACC title. Notre Dame’s path runs through South Carolina, who embarrassed them in the season opener…but the Irish have sharpened their elbows in the cutthroat ACC since then.

🦃 No. 4 Virginia Tech Hokies (Portland 3): The Hokies’ fate rests on star center senior Elizabeth Kitley’s shoulders knee. Her status since suffering an injury in her team’s regular-season finale is still unclear, an unnerving reality for the Hokies’ scoring and rebounding leader. If she’s out, VT will seriously struggle; if she’s in, their chances of returning to the Final Four are strong.

🧡 No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers (Portland 4): Former HC Pat Summitt’s legendary program is the only team to participate in all 42 national tournaments. The Vols started the preseason ranked No. 11 and came this close to beating South Carolina in the SEC tournament last week. That game alone makes Tennessee worth keeping on your radar.

⭐ More names to know

The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know
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Caitlin Clark, Iowa senior: DI’s all-time leading scorer and three-point shooter, reigning Player of the Year, triple-double queen, and face of the women’s game…Clark needs no introduction.

Angel Reese, LSU junior: Last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player is even more lethal this season playing alongside transfer teammates junior Aneesah Morrow and the aforementioned Van Lith. A mysterious absence generated some drama in January, but since then, the Bayou Barbie has let her stats do the talking.

Cameron Brink, Stanford senior: Steph Curry’s godsister leads the country in blocks while also putting up a cool 17.8 points and 12 rebounds per game. Brink brought home Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards, a testament to her dominance on both ends of the court.

Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame freshman: The aforementioned JuJu Watkins of USC is the frontrunner for National Freshman of the Year, but Hidalgo is hot on her tail. A two-way terror who leads the league in steals, Hidalgo trails only Watkins and Clark in PPG. WNBA superstar Chiney Ogwumike (pronounced chi-NAY oh-GWOO-mi-kay) is a stan, so you know she’s the real deal.

Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina senior: At 6-foot-7, the Gamecocks’ star senior center pushes opponents around the court with ease. However, you won’t see her in their first-round matchup — she caught a one-game suspension for her role in the scuffle with LSU in the SEC championship. Once she’s back though? Watch out.

📺 How to watch

The Women’s NCAA National Basketball Tournament starts today — here’s what you need to know
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The tournament’s first game tips off tonight at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU in the U.S. and TSN+ in Canada when Sacred Heart and Presbyterian take the court in a First Four battle for a No. 16 seed…and the privilege of playing South Carolina in the first round. *Gulp*