Women’s NCAA tournament preview: Picks to win each region, first-round best bets

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Iowa guard Caitlin Clark calls to the crowd for support after making two intentional foul free throws against Ohio State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Big Ten women's tournament Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Minneapolis. Iowa won 105-72. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Many women’s teams playing in the NCAA tournament had the week off to rest and now the bracket has been set for the Big Dance. Games start Wednesday, with the round of 64 tipping off Friday. There are already odds in the market available for the whole weekend.

There are some eye-opening spreads for the first round, especially in the No. 1 vs. No. 16 seed games. The most significant is heavy tournament favorite South Carolina, which is a massive 43.5-point favorite against Norfolk State. Iowa is a 29.5-point favorite over Southeastern, and LSU, the No. 3 seed in the Greenville 2 region, is a 29-point favorite over No. 14 Hawai’i on Friday.

Getting to the Final Four is a long road, but here are teams from each region I think can make it there.

Greenville Regional 1

It’s impossible to pick anyone but South Carolina here.

The Gamecocks are -175 to win the national championship at FanDuel Sportsbook. While undefeated, they have been challenged a few times, most recently in an overtime win over Ole Miss.

Still, it’s hard to see anyone else emerging from this region. Defense is the name of the game for the Gamecocks and it starts with Brea Beal, a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, with teammate Aliyah Boston. If you can lock someone up on defense and laugh while doing it, you are the catalyst for your team.

Another factor: South Carolina scores nearly half of its points from players coming off the bench — including 46 bench points in a virtuoso performance against LSU last month. Part of that is because they’re in so many blowouts, but superior depth is a factor in a tournament like this.

Greenville Regional 2

The pick here is No. 2 seed Utah over top-seeded Indiana and LSU. The Utes are the Pac-12 co-champion with Stanford and have 40-to-1 odds to win the championship. But their rise this season has been something to behold under Lynne Roberts and center Alissa Pili, who averages 20 points and five rebounds per game. It also doesn’t hurt that she is 58.5% from the field. It’ll be a difficult road for Utah, but playing in the tough Pac-12 will be good practice for potential games against the Tigers and Hoosiers.

Seattle Regional 3

No. 3 seed Ohio State has a good shot of making it to the Final Four. Their last game against Iowa in the Big Ten tournament championship was rough because Caitlin Clark caught fire early. But the Buckeyes’ guard play of Taylor Mikesell and Taylor Thierry is hard to stop. Against Iowa, it was Mikesell that tried to lead a comeback to swing momentum, but the Hawkeyes just kept shooting. Ohio State can too, and if they can make it to the Final Four they need to be hot from the opening tip. No. 1 Virginia Tech is a candidate to fizzle out and get upset early, and No. 2 seed UConn has gotten into the habit of finding itself in holes that are hard to get out of.

Seattle Regional 4

Another Big Ten pick here. The No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes are flying high. Their 102-75 victory over Ohio State set a record for most points in a Big Ten championship game. Clark is the best shooter in the country and in only her junior season has 10 triple-doubles. If Clark is double-teamed and dishes the ball, Gabby Marshall is a threat from the corner. Monika Czinano can power her way to the basket or shoot a decent midrange jumper. It will be hard for any team to stop the Hawkeyes. As for top seed Stanford, the Cardinal has been too inconsistent towards the end of the season for my tastes.

Cinderella watch

Drake is the No. 12 seed in Seattle Regional 4 and is a live underdog against No. 5 Louisville. The Cardinals had an up and down season and clawed their way to a 23-win season. Haley Van Lith is the engine for that team, but I think against Drake, Louisville will sputter out. The Bulldogs’ Maggie Bair is a 60% shooter from the floor and leads her team in scoring and rebounds. Anna Miller and Courtney Becker are also strong forwards who can shoot. With multiple assets and an easier road to the Sweet 16 than other double-digit ranked teams, Drake looks like a worthy Cinderella to choose in your brackets.

First-round best bets

Florida State -1.5 over Georgia, 1:30 p.m. Friday

The Bulldogs are a top-rated defensive team, but their offense cannot get anything going for the life of them. Florida State has the offensive power to cover here.

Alabama -1.5 over Baylor, 5:30 p.m. Saturday

The Crimson Tide has a strong starting five in Sarah Ashlee Barker in the post and Hannah Barber a shooter.

Drake +3 over Louisville, 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Haley Van Lith can’t do it all for the Cardinals, and with such a small spread it will be a tight game.

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