Starting Five: March Madness is no longer just a guy’s thing

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When watching ESPN’s Selection Sunday special revealing this year’s field for the NCAA basketball tournament, the phrase March Madness being used to describe said tournament was music to the ears of women’s sports aficionados like us who want a level playing field with the men’s side of the ledger.

This year’s rendition of said tournament will be the first one that will include some modicum of normalcy since the entire world was upended by the pandemic. Last season, Stanford defeated Arizona to claim national championship glory. This season, the Cardinal are back as one of the top four seeds along with Louisville, NC State and South Carolina.

Of course – every tourney is filled with storylines and this one is no different. Without further adieu, here are five storylines to think about as March prepares to get mad.

Aliyah vs. Caitlin?

The committee thinks it was being slick when it put Iowa as a two seed and in the same bracket as the Gamecocks. It was not. It sees an Elite Eight matchup between the Gamecocks and Hawkeyes in its future, especially considering how Aliyah Boston and Caitlin Clark have been the two favorites for National Player of the Year.

Especially considering South Carolina and Iowa have yet to play each other this season, there was no way ESPN and the NCAA were going to miss this golden opportunity to get these two future WNBA stars on the court at the same time with a berth in the Final Four up for grabs.

Could This Be the Year?

The year was 2016 – the last season when Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies climbed to the top of the women’s college basketball mountain when someone named Breanna Stewart was preparing to step into the glitz and glamour of WNBA stardom. Since then, UConn has been within striking distance but no national championships since then?

Could this be the year? The Huskies have plenty of future WNBA draft picks (per usual) on its 2021-22 rendition including Paige Bueckers, Evina Westbrook, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Christyn Williams and Aaliyah Edwards. UConn managed to get through the regular season – that included an injury to Bueckers – and enter the tournament a two seed.

Defending Champions

For all of the attention that has been placed on teams such as South Carolina, UConn and Iowa, it can be easy for fans of Tara VanDerveer’s Cardinal to think, “Hey! Over here! Defending champions over here!”

Stanford is indeed the defending champions and once again poses a talented roster that includes Cameron Brink, Lexie Hull and Haley Jones. A perennial power, the Cardinal has proven that once again.

Stock Up…Stock Down

While a championship is front and center on the mind of every tournament participant, a select few are likely also aware of their WNBA draft status. Aari McDonald’s draft stock took a big step in the right direction last season leading to her being selected third overall by the Atlanta Dream.

Whether it is Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith, Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, Ole Miss’ Shakira Austin, Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj or South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson, someone’s draft stock is slated to take a hit and others will rise since the draft is literally a week following the tournament’s close.

Let the Madness Begin!

This was highlighted extensively during the coverage of the unveiling of the women’s bracket, but thank you Sedona Prince. Her viral TikTok video from last year’s tournament in San Antonio completely undressed the NCAA, revealing it as a sports emperor with no clothes.

While more still has to be done to truly get the women’s tournament (which gained viewers last season) on par with the men’s NCAA’s (which lost viewers last season), the expansion of the field to 68 and the addition of the iconic March Madness brand to the women’s side are two noteworthy steps in the correct direction.

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