Starting Five: A look ahead to this year’s NCAA March Madness and Final Four staff picks!

We know how last season’s NCAA tournament concluded – an unforgettable matchup between LSU and Iowa that furthered the process of solidifying women’s sports as being where they belong – in the mainstream. 

With the talent – both individual and teamwise – that is in this year’s rendition of March Madness it is likely the 2024 tournament could top what was accomplished in 2023. 

With the 68 teams remaining that have been unveiled, there is once again plenty to look at in this year’s NCAA tournament field. Without further adieu, here are the five things we are looking at as play commences this week.  

South Carolina is once again the No. 1 overall seed. Going into this season, many a pundit said that Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks were poised for a rebuild. Thanks to a cast of characters that includes Te-Hina Paopao, Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, Kamilla Cardoso, Ashlyn Watkins and MiLaysia Fulwiley, South Carolina is once again the team to beat. 

Then there is Iowa. We obviously know who runs the show for Lisa Bluder’s Hawkeyes – that is Caitlin Clark. The concern going into this season’s – Clark’s last before she is drafted first overall into the WNBA by the Indiana Fever – was that this year’s team was not as deep as last year’s that was in the championship game. Iowa being a No. 1 seed is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The third No. 1 seed is USC. The Trojans have, of course, been a huge story this season because of the heroics of their superstar freshman in JuJu Watkins. In similar fashion to how Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie once left their respective marks on the Trojans, Watkins is doing the same – and then some. 

Finally, there is Texas. Vic Schaefer is one of the premier coaches in women’s college basketball – and he has proven it once again with the 2023-24 rendition of the Longhorns. Freshmen have been a huge story of this season and Texas has one of its own in Madison Booker. She wears No. 35. So did Kevin Durant. He turned out pretty well, at last we checked. 

For anyone who watched the Selection Show on ESPN, one could not help but think of the murderer’s row that is that Albany 2 Region. 

Iowa, LSU, UCLA, Kansas State and Louisville are all in that region. If we get a rematch of last year’s national championship game, it will be in the Elite Eight. 

But the committee did those teams no favors. Whoever gets out of that region will certainly have been battle tested en route to a Final Four and a likely showdown with USC in Cleveland. 

And then the national championship game – which likely will be vs. South Carolina. 

For prospective 2024 WNBA draftees, March Madness serves as the final – and best – chance one has to improve one’s draft stock prior to the big day in April. 

With much of the focus being on Clark, we sometimes forget that Rickea Jackson has had a season certainly worthy of her being a lottery pick. Many a mock now has the Tennessee Lady Vols star going third to the Chicago Sky (a pick they acquired from the Phoenix Mercury in the Kahleah Copper deal). 

Look at Alissa Pili at Utah. She is likely going to lead the Utes on a deep NCAA tournament run. She has a following that rivals Clark’s and she had a breakout game against South Carolina that proves she can compete with the elites of the game. 

One cannot help but stare at tweets that have been released since the brackets were unveiled that saw that average ticket prices for the Women’s Final Four in Cleveland were actually outdoing the Men’s Final Four in Phoenix. 

What it tells us is that women’s basketball has arrived and it is here to stay. And, no – it is not only because of the heroics of one player from Iowa. The entire sport is loaded with star power that the men’s game simply cannot duplicate because of players utilizing the one-and-done rule before going into the NBA. 

And with the talent pool in the women’s game only getting deeper and deeper? It’s up. 

We watched both the Women’s Selection Show and the Men’s Selection Show. On the men’s side, we could not help but be disappointed when we noticed that both HBCUs that made the men’s tournament – Howard and Grambling State – were both placed into First Four matchups. 

Meanwhile, there were two HBCUs that got in on the women’s side – and both will play when the field of 68 becomes the field of 64. Norfolk State was seeded 15th against 2-seed Stanford and Jackson State will get 3-seeded UConn in the first round.