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Swish Appeal Staff Brackets: Maryland, UConn, Texas A&M and Baylor are our national championship picks

Zack Ward takes the No. 2-seed Maryland Terrapins because of their offensive firepower, Cat Ariail takes the No. 1-seed UConn Huskies because of Paige Bueckers’ “it-factor,” Jim Savell takes the No. 2-seed Texas A&M Aggies because of the combination of their paint command and 38 percent 3-point shooting and Eric Nemchock takes the No. 2-seed Baylor Lady Bears because of their defense and rebounding.

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Stanford and UConn are the favorites to win this year’s NCAA Tournament, with Baylor, Maryland and South Carolina all being given a decent shot by ESPN and NC State and Texas A&M hanging onto title hopes as well. No. 3 seed Georgia, which upset Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, will be a popular pick to beat No. 2 seed Louisville, the most vulnerable 2-seed. Indiana may be the strongest 4-seed, but after the Hoosiers you get into teams like Kentucky and Arkansas (both 4-seeds) who are vulnerable to upsets. The vulnerability continues into the 5 and 6 lines.

At Swish Appeal, all of our national champions come from the group of seven main contenders, but we expect some surprises in the earlier rounds. Here’s a look at how we arrived at our selections:

Zack Ward

Champion: Maryland

Final Four: Stanford, UConn, NC State, Maryland

Upsets (by two seeds or more):

  • (11) South Dakota over (6) Oregon
  • (10) Michigan State over (7) Iowa State
  • (6) Rutgers over (3) Arizona

Oregon will likely be without Te-Hina Paopao for the entire tournament and unfortunately for the Ducks, they will be playing Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award finalist Hannah Sjerven and the South Dakota Coyotes in the first round. Sjerven has enough star power and the Coyotes have enough momentum from winning the Summit League Tournament for me to take them over Oregon. The other first round upset I’m picking is Michigan State over Iowa State. While it’s tough to pick against Ashley Joens and an Iowa State team that was ranked No. 15 to start the season, I think Michigan State is too tough to lose this game. With a scrappy star guard in Nia Clouden, a renewed sense of hope from beating Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament and a clean slate, I think the Spartans make it to the second round.

In the second round, I’m taking Rutgers over Arizona because the Wildcats’ overall resume doesn’t wow me and I think Arella Guirantes is going to have a phenomenal NCAA Tournament. Rutgers gave Maryland all it could handle in a loss on Dec. 14 and has been one of the best-kept secrets in the nation because of all the time it missed due to COVID. I think the Scarlet Knights can give the Texas A&M Aggies a run for their money in the Sweet Sixteen as well.

I think NC State will have a tough time against Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen, but if they can get past that, I like their chances against either A&M or Rutgers. I think Stanford and UConn will have tougher times with Louisville and Baylor, respectively, but Stanford has too much depth and UConn has too much balance not to make the Final Four. I’m picking NC State over UConn in the Final Four because I think the Wolfpack are just as talented as the Huskies and that Elissa Cunane will come up big. In a close national championship game, I like Maryland over NC State because of the firepower that Maryland has on offense. The Terps don't have a single post player as good as Cunane, but I think Mimi Collins and Angel Reese will provide enough inside scoring to open up the perimeter for Maryland’s shooters.

Cat Ariail

Champion: UConn

Final Four: Stanford, UConn, NC State, South Carolina

Upsets (by two seeds or more):

  • (11) South Dakota over (6) Oregon
  • (11) FGCU over (6) Michigan and (3) Tennessee
  • (6) Rutgers over (3) Arizona and (2) Texas A&M

Although I agree with the widely-held assumption that this tournament will be unpredictable, I somehow ended up with all No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. I wanted to take my Georgia Lady Dawgs to the Final Four, but still-painful memories of the Miller twins’ tears prevented me from doing so. I also trust the all-round depth of Stanford too much to knock the Cardinal out before the Final Four. Like Zack, I also believe in NC State as a balanced team and Elissa Cunane as an impactful player.

However, my two finalists are the teams that have the players that I believe in the most — UConn’s Paige Bueckers and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston. It is appropriate that Boston rocks the Embiid Ones because, like the Philadelphia 76ers’ big man, she is a supremely skilled big that can carry her squad down the stretch of a tight contest. But I don’t totally trust South Carolina’s guards to consistently get the ball to Boston. That’s why I’m going with Bueckers and UConn. I don’t necessarily see this is an all-time great UConn team, but, echoing Diana Taurasi in 2003, I think Bueckers’s individual “it-factor” can take the Huskies to a 12th national title. Bueckers will have the ball in her hands when the game is on the line and she already has proven that she can come up big in those moments.

I also love the idea of a UConn-South Carolina title game because this could become women’s college basketball’s tentpole rivalry for the next half decade. Next year, Boston and South Carolina’s other super sophomores will welcome the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class to Columbia, while No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd will join her buddy Bueckers to form a dynamic duo in Storrs. We need to see multiple Final Four and national championship battles between these teams!

In terms of significant upsets along the way, Zack covered my skepticism about Oregon and my endorsement of Rutgers and Arella Guirantes. Because of FGCU’s offensive firepower, driven by their ability to do damage from deep, I think the Eagles could soar into the Sweet Sixteen and send an inconsistent Tennessee team home earlier than expected.

Jim Savell

Champion: Texas A&M

Final Four: Stanford, South Carolina, Baylor, Texas A&M

Upsets (by two seeds or more):

  • (10) North Carolina over (7) Alabama
  • (11) South Dakota over (6) Oregon
  • (11) BYU over (6) Rutgers
  • (6) Texas over (3) UCLA
  • (6) Michigan over (3) Tennessee

Oregon seems to be the one upset no one would be surprised by and I agree but I also think BYU can be dangerous at times and that is why I have them over Rutgers. Petra Holešínská powers the North Carolina Tar Heels to an upset win over the Alabama Crimson Tide who have one of the worst 3-point defenses in the country.

In the second, I thought some more upsets were in order. UCLA is beatable — they’ve dropped games this season against teams that they were more than capable of beating in the Pac-12. Charli Collier is a player to watch and with three players in the backcourt shooting over 35 percent from beyond the arc, Texas has what it takes to get the win. The matchup between Naz Hillmon and Rennia Davis will be great to watch in the second round. The Lady Vols are a good team but have been plagued by turnovers and have struggled to overcome it at times and that could very well see the Wolverines through to the Sweet 16.

I love the talent of the top eight teams this year and I have the No. 1-seeds and No. 2-seeds advancing to the Elite 8. Stanford and South Carolina are deep and talented, and I view them as the favorites to come out of their respective regions. UConn and Baylor were scheduled to play in the regular season but the game was canceled. UConn is talented but will run into an experienced Baylor team ready to play. I don’t think the Huskies will be ready for such a challenge after running through the Big East. There are a lot of fun matchups with NC State and Texas A&M facing off and I could see it going either way. The Aggies advance on their command of the paint.

The defensive-minded Gamecocks will face a balanced attack from the Stanford Cardinal. The Gamecocks have been on the wrong end of a few close games this season but I think this one goes to South Carolina. NaLyssa Smith and Baylor have run through all their opponents this seasons and do everything well but shoot the three-ball. Texas A&M shoots the deep ball at 38 percent clip which could push them into the national title game. Texas A&M knows the formula to beat South Carolina and will be able put it into action yet again as they take the crown.

Eric Nemchock

Champion: Baylor

Final Four: Stanford, South Carolina, Baylor, Texas A&M

Upsets (by two seeds or more):

  • (10) UCF over (7) Northwestern
  • (10) North Carolina over (7) Alabama
  • (11) FGCU over (6) Michigan

Don’t sleep on the reigning champs. This Baylor team looks a lot different than the one that won it all in 2019, but it still embodies the usual Kim Mulkey philosophy of physicality, defense, and pace. Big 12 Player of the Year NaLyssa Smith’s best days are still ahead of her and the Lady Bears as a unit have enough perimeter defense and rebounding to neutralize just about any top-caliber player they may run into.

The River Walk region is certainly rife with tough matchups, and it seems I’m not alone in picking FGCU to upset Michigan. The Eagles’ historical reliance on 3-point shooting has always made them a trendy candidate to get hot and knock off a higher seed, but this season they have a legitimate next-level talent in Kierstan Bell, who ran roughshod through the ASUN and gives FGCU an elite perimeter athlete.

Elsewhere in the River Walk, I know we’re all pining for a matchup between UConn and Iowa (mainly for the Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark storyline, of course), but have we all forgotten about Rhyne Howard’s existence? Even Iowa’s first-round matchup against Central Michigan bears some upset potential, though I ultimately went with the Hawkeyes there. Regardless, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a tougher road to the championship for Clark and Iowa than the one they’re currently presented with, and I’m looking forward to seeing her perform on the biggest stage in the nation.

Among the other storylines I’m watching for: Maryland’s offense once again seems unstoppable, but is it just a product of playing in the Big Ten? If the Terrapins reach the Elite 8 to play the Gamecocks (assuming South Carolina also advances that far), it will be the ultimate battle of an unstoppable force vs. an immovable object — one I think South Carolina would prevail in. We also have an all-Tennessee first-round matchup in River Walk, with Middle Tennessee’s Anastasia Hayes (whose 26.5 points per game ranked second in DI) taking on her former program in the Lady Vols. If you’re into “revenge” storylines, that’s going to be a must-watch game.