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Undefeated No. 1 UConn is the women’s favorite but field has good depth

The Huskies return a seasoned team that lost in the Final Four last year on a buzzer-beater, a loss that snapped their 111-game winning streak.

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, center, and player

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, center, and player Katie Lou Samuelson, left, smile as seniors Gabby Williams, center, and Kia Nurse leave play for the final time in regular season play during an NCAA college basketball game against South Florida, in Storrs, Conn. on Feb. 26, 2018. Photo Credit: AP / Jessica Hill

Mississippi State did what many thought couldn’t be done last season by upsetting Connecticut in the Final Four on Morgan William’s buzzer-beater in overtime and snapping the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.

The Bulldogs then lost to SEC foe South Carolina in the national title game. That snapped a string of four straight national titles for UConn.

A year later, the Huskies again are undefeated (32-0) and the No. 1 overall seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament. But will Connecticut, coming out of the Albany Region, finish the job this season?

NATIONAL TITLE FAVORITE

UConn played an extremely tough regular-season schedule — as always — to prepare them for the tournament, beating Stanford, Maryland, UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas, South Carolina and Louisville, to name a few. Junior guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson has evolved into a more complete player and is averaging a team-high 17.9 points, with 4.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, along with much improved defense. The Huskies also will lean on a healthy Gabby Williams, the steady play of point guard Crystal Dangerfield, and the all-around game of 6-6 forward Azura Stevens, who has been playing well.

FINAL FOUR CONTENDERS

Mississippi State, with 6-7 center Teaira McCowan, Victoria Vivians and William, is primed for another run at a national title as the No. 1 seed in the Kansas City Region. Big 12 tournament champion Baylor, the No. 2 seed in the Lexington Region, will miss the leadership of senior point guard Kristy Wallace, who is out with a torn ACL, but still have the formidable duo of 6-7 center Kalani Brown and 6-4 forward Lauren Cox. ACC tournament champion Louisville, the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Region, has serious momentum heading into the tournament. Notre Dame, the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region, had an 11-point lead on the road against Connecticut in early December before the Huskies rallied. Oregon, the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Region, won the Pac-12 tournament for the first time and hasn’t lost a game since Feb. 4.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Chennedy Carter, Texas A&M: The freshman guard has been sensational, averaging 21.9 points and 4.7 assists.

Megan Gustafson, Iowa: The junior center is averaging a Division I-leading 25.6 points to go with 12.7 rebounds per game.

Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon: The sophomore point guard, who is averaging 19.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.8 assists, already has an NCAA-record nine triple-doubles in her career.

Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State: The senior guard, averaging 24.5 points, skipped the WNBA draft to return for a shot at the Final Four.

Alexis Morris, Baylor: The freshman point guard, subbing for Wallace, scored a career-high 19 points in the Big 12 title game win against Texas.

TOUGHEST REGION

The Lexington Region is loaded. Louisville and Baylor are serious Final Four contenders. Missouri and Stanford could be a fabulous second-round game with the winner potentially playing Louisville in the Sweet 16. Baylor has a difficult road, possibly playing Michigan and high-scoring Katelynn Flaherty in the second round and then meeting Tennessee in the Sweet 16.

TOP MATCHUPS

BEST FIRST-ROUND GAME

No. 7 Green Bay vs. No. 10 Minnesota (Spokane Region): Green Bay has won 29 games, including non-conference wins over Arizona State and Marquette, and can play defense, giving up a Division I-best 46.1 points per game. Minnesota, an at-large selection, won 23 games, including 11 in the Big Ten.

BEST POTENTIAL SECOND-ROUND GAME

No. 4 Stanford vs. No. 5 Missouri (Lexington Region): Missouri, led by junior guard Sophie Cunningham, is a physical team with some nice wins in the tough SEC. Stanford, a Final Four team last season, got off to a slow start, but is 14-4 since Jan. 1.

BEST POTENTIAL SWEET 16 GAME

No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA (Kansas City Region): Texas, led by guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty, and UCLA, led by seniors Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, would be a fantastic showdown with the winner potentially getting a shot at Mississippi State in the Elite Eight.

BEST POTENTIAL ELITE EIGHT GAME

Connecticut-South Carolina in the Albany Region or Louisville-Baylor in the Lexington Region are excellent potential matchups. But Notre Dame-Oregon in the Spokane Region matches a traditional power that has overcome a ton of injuries this season against an upstart program trying to make its first Final Four. The Ducks made a historic run to last year’s Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.

FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS

Connecticut (Albany Region) over Oregon (Spokane Region),

Mississippi State (Kansas City) over Baylor (Lexington Region).

National championship prediction:

Connecticut over Mississippi State

NATIONAL TITLE FAVORITE

UConn played an extremely tough regular-season schedule — as always — to prepare them for the tournament, beating Stanford, Maryland, UCLA, Notre Dame, Texas, South Carolina and Louisville, to name a few. Junior guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson has evolved into a more complete player and is averaging a team-high 17.9 points, with 4.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, along with much improved defense. The Huskies also will lean on a healthy Gabby Williams, the steady play of point guard Crystal Dangerfield, and the all-around game of 6-6 forward Azura Stevens, who has been playing well.

FINAL FOUR CONTENDERS

Mississippi State, with 6-7 center Teaira McCowan, Victoria Vivians and William, is primed for another run at a national title as the No. 1 seed in the Kansas City Region. Big 12 tournament champion Baylor, the No. 2 seed in the Lexington Region, will miss the leadership of senior point guard Kristy Wallace, who is out with a torn ACL, but still have the formidable duo of 6-7 center Kalani Brown and 6-4 forward Lauren Cox. ACC tournament champion Louisville, the No. 1 seed in the Lexington Region, has serious momentum heading into the tournament. Notre Dame, the No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region, had an 11-point lead on the road against Connecticut in early December before the Huskies rallied. Oregon, the No. 2 seed in the Spokane Region, won the Pac-12 tournament for the first time and hasn’t lost a game since Feb. 4.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Chennedy Carter, Texas A&M: The freshman guard has been sensational, averaging 21.9 points and 4.7 assists.

Megan Gustafson, Iowa: The junior center is averaging a Division I-leading 25.6 points to go with 12.7 rebounds per game.

Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon: The sophomore point guard, who is averaging 19.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.8 assists, already has an NCAA-record nine triple-doubles in her career.

Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State: The senior guard, averaging 24.5 points, skipped the WNBA draft to return for a shot at the Final Four.

Alexis Morris, Baylor: The freshman point guard, subbing for Wallace, scored a career-high 19 points in the Big 12 title game win against Texas.

TOUGHEST REGION

The Lexington Region is loaded. Louisville and Baylor are serious Final Four contenders. Missouri and Stanford could be a fabulous second-round game with the winner potentially playing Louisville in the Sweet 16. Baylor has a difficult road, possibly playing Michigan and high-scoring Katelynn Flaherty in the second round and then meeting Tennessee in the Sweet 16.

TOP MATCHUPS

BEST FIRST-ROUND GAME

No. 7 Green Bay vs. No. 10 Minnesota (Spokane Region): Green Bay has won 29 games, including non-conference wins over Arizona State and Marquette, and can play defense, giving up a Division I-best 46.1 points per game. Minnesota, an at-large selection, won 23 games, including 11 in the Big Ten.

BEST POTENTIAL SECOND-ROUND GAME

No. 4 Stanford vs. No. 5 Missouri (Lexington Region): Missouri, led by junior guard Sophie Cunningham, is a physical team with some nice wins in the tough SEC. Stanford, a Final Four team last season, got off to a slow start, but is 14-4 since Jan. 1.

BEST POTENTIAL SWEET 16 GAME

No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA (Kansas City Region): Texas, led by guards Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty, and UCLA, led by seniors Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, would be a fantastic showdown with the winner potentially getting a shot at Mississippi State in the Elite Eight.

BEST POTENTIAL ELITE EIGHT GAME

Connecticut-South Carolina in the Albany Region or Louisville-Baylor in the Lexington Region are excellent potential matchups. But Notre Dame-Oregon in the Spokane Region matches a traditional power that has overcome a ton of injuries this season against an upstart program trying to make its first Final Four. The Ducks made a historic run to last year’s Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed.

FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS

Connecticut (Albany Region) over Oregon (Spokane Region),

Mississippi State (Kansas City) over Baylor (Lexington Region).

National championship prediction:

Connecticut over Mississippi State

Mississippi State did what many thought couldn’t be done last season by upsetting Connecticut in the Final Four on Morgan William’s buzzer-beater in overtime and snapping the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.

The Bulldogs then lost to SEC foe South Carolina in the national title game. That snapped a string of four straight national titles for UConn.

A year later, the Huskies again are undefeated (32-0) and the No. 1 overall seed in the women’s NCAA Tournament. But will Connecticut, coming out of the Albany Region, finish the job this season?

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