Stanford's Haley Jones against the Utah Utes during the championship...

Stanford's Haley Jones against the Utah Utes during the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament. Credit: Getty Images/Joe Buglewicz

"March Madness" has officially arrived for all of college basketball.

The NCAA announced in September that the March Madness branding and marketing —– long associated with the Division I men’s basketball tournament — will also be used for the the Division I women’s tournament beginning in 2022. The announcement was made after the NCAA conducted a review of inequities during the 2021 men’s and women’s tournaments.

Other changes for this year’s tournament will provide gender equality. The women’s field expands from 64 teams to 68 teams, creating First Four games to start the tournament and mirror what the men’s tournament does. The women will also compete with the men with separate selection shows on Sunday.

With the long overdue changes now in place, get ready for one of the most intriguing tournaments in recent memory.

Defending champs

Defending national champion Stanford (28-3) is expected to land the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Regional. The Cardinal won the Pac-12 Tournament last Sunday and take a 20-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament. Stanford has a deep roster and most of the players are back from last season’s national title team. Tara VanDerveer’s squad is a serious threat to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis.

Stanford junior guard Haley Jones, selected as the most outstanding player of the Pac-12 Tournament, was asked after beating Utah for the conference title about defending the national title.

"I think we know what it takes to get there, but we’re going to have to work twice as hard because everybody is coming after us," Jones said. "I’m excited. We’re all really excited."

Paige needs to be Paige

It’s been perhaps the most challenging season of Geno Auriemma’s career at Connecticut. UConn lost five games this season, the most since the 2011-12 season. Returning Player of the Year Paige Bueckers suffered a tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in her left knee late in a game in early December that required surgery. UConn also had other players miss games because of injuries and COVID-19. The Huskies, however, are healthy now and can go nine players deep. UConn (25-5) has a 10-game winning streak and is playing the type of stingy defense needed for a trip to Minneapolis and a 14th straight Final Four.

The key, however, will be the status of Bueckers. The sophomore guard made her return on Feb. 25 but hasn’t played more than 18 minutes in any game since and has been coming off the bench.

Paige Bueckers of the UConn Huskies shoots during the first...

Paige Bueckers of the UConn Huskies shoots during the first half against the Baylor Lady Bears in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on March 29, 2021, in San Antonio. Credit: Getty Images/Carmen Mandato

"I’m glad we have these 10 days, 11 days, whatever it is," Auriemma said after the Big East Tournament title game win over Villanova on Monday night "She’s got a lot of work to do. She has her good days, she has her bad days. She has her good days mentally, she has her bad days mentally. My big thing is, yeah, get her physically feeling better, but I think she has to get her mind right now because she hasn’t been in that mode for three months or whatever it is now. That’s going to be job No. 1 the next 10 or 11 days."

UConn could land a No. 1 seed in the tournament, but ESPN has the Huskies projected as a No. 2 seed. The Huskies would obviously like to be placed in the Bridgeport Regional — regardless of seed — and stay close to home, but that won’t be known until Sunday night.

Other likely No. 1 seeds

The other No. 1 seeds are expected to go to South Carolina (29-2), which lost to Kentucky in the SEC title game last Sunday, and ACC champion N.C. State (29-3).

South Carolina has been the No. 1 team in the country for most of the season. Junior forward Aliyah Boston has an SEC-record 24 straight double-doubles and is considered the frontrunner for national Player of the Year. She’ll be a player to watch as the Gamecocks try to reach Minneapolis. ESPN has South Carolina in the Greensboro Regional and Louisville in the Bridgeport Regional.

The No. 1 seed for the Wichita Regional may come down to Louisville (25-4) and Baylor (27-5). Louisville appeared to be a lock for a No. 1 seed but lost early in the ACC Tournament. Baylor, led by senior forward NaLyssa Smith, is the top seed in the Big 12 Tournament and will play Texas for the championship on Sunday. Baylor is projected as a No. 2 seed by ESPN.

Iowa on a roll

Iowa (23-7) won’t be a No. 1 seed (a No. 3 seed is likely), but the Hawkeyes won the Big Ten Tournament last Sunday and have serious momentum. Sophomore guard Caitlin Clark will be absolutely worth watching throughout the NCAA Tournament. Clark leads the country in scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (7.9 per game). Iowa is a dangerous team.

The Hawkeyes shared the Big Ten regular-season title, then beat Indiana for the tournament title, a very impressive feat in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

"We got the best of both worlds," Clark said after the Big Ten title game. "And this is an incredible feeling for us to be the first Iowa women’s basketball team to be regular-season champs and Big Ten champs. You can say we’re hitting our stride at the right time. It’s perfectly fun."

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