Will any team be able to upset a one-loss Baylor squad in this region?
Team to beat
Top seed Baylor (31-1) enters with the nation’s longest active win streak (23) and shows no signs of slowing down — literally. Sleek and selfless, the Bears have outscored their opposition 343-77 on the fast break this season and lead the country with 723 assists. Moreover, their plus-1.73 assist-turnover ratio ranks second only to Oregon (plus-1.91). Four players have at least 114 assists, led by 5-foot-8 LSU transfer Chloe Jackson (11.4 ppg, 5.4 assists).
Sophie’s swan song
Two years after helping break USF’s collective heart in an NCAA Tournament first-rounder, Missouri senior Sophie Cunningham has evolved into arguably the greatest player in Tigers’ history. The only Mizzou player to earn three first-team nods on the coaches all-SEC team, Cunningham became her school’s career scoring leader (2,157 points and counting) with a 33-point effort in an SEC tourney semifinal loss to Mississippi State. She enters her final NCAA Tournament averaging 18 points and 6.1 rebounds, with 82 3-pointers. She has scored at least 20 points 15 times this year, and has eclipsed 30 three times.
Local girls hoops fans might recognize one of South Carolina’s key contributors. Freshman guard Destanni Henderson starred at Fort Myers High, where she was last season’s Gatorade state player of the year and Miss Basketball. Her run to the Class 7A state title included dropping 22 points on Clearwater High in the region final. She is averaging 15 minutes in 28 games (six starts).
Iowa’s spot as a two-seed is a deserving award for the Big Ten champ and may be a good sign for the Hawkeyes’ tournament. Iowa gets to play the first weekend at home, where the Hawkeyes are 15-0 this season. They haven’t finished perfect in Iowa City since 2014-15, when they advanced to the Sweet 16. Iowa is a good bet to get back there behind Megan Gustafson, the nation’s leading scorer (28 ppg).
No denying the ’Noles
Despite having to replace all five starters from last season’s 26-7 squad, FSU (23-8) is back in the Big Dance for the seventh consecutive season (and 14th time in the last 15 years). Picked to finish in the middle of the ACC pack, the fifth-seeded ’Noles have over-achieved behind 6-foot-2 Maryland transfer Kiah Gillespie (16.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg), a coaches first-team all-conference pick. FSU will seek its seventh consecutive opening-round win against No. 12-seed Bucknell.
Women’s Final Four
Amalie Arena, Tampa
April 5: Semifinals, 7 and 9:30
April 7: Final, 6
More info/tickets: www.ncaa.com/womens-final-four