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NCAAW Tournament Preview: Seventh heaven? Can a No. 7 seed make a Cinderella run?

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The possible fates of the four No. 7 seeds — Northwestern, Alabama, Iowa State and Virginia Tech — encapsulate the expected unpredictably of the 2021 NCAA tournament. The Wildcats, Crimson Tide, Cyclones and Hokies have strengths that make them potential Cinderellas, as well as weaknesses that could result in a first-round out.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 11 Women’s Iowa State at Oklahoma
Can Ashley Joens and Iowa State cause trouble for a higher-seeded team?
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When attempting to predict the perfect bracket, No. 7 seeds often are identified as potential upset victims. But maybe, No. 7 seeds are better imagined as Cinderellas themselves, poised to potentially take down a No. 2 seed?

In a season defined by COVID-induced complications, could one of four No. 7 seeds cause more chaos, busting brackets as they threaten to dance into the second week of tournament action? Or, will they in fact flame out in the first round, floundering against a No. 10 seed?

The prospects of the Northwestern Wildcats, Alabama Crimson Tide, Iowa State Hawkeyes and Virginia Tech Hokies encapsulate the unpredictability of the 2021 NCAA tournament.


Alamo Region: No. 7 Northwestern Wildcats (15-8)

First round: vs. No. 10 UCF Bulls (Monday, 4 p.m. ET on ESPNU)

Potential second round: vs. No. 2 Louisville Cardinals (TBD)

Head coach Joe McKeown certainly is ready to dance! If Northwestern wants to keep dancing, possibly all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, they will need to have their defense dialed in.

Back-to-back Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Veronica Burton led the nation with 4.04 steals per game and 93 total steals. Captained by Burton, the Wildcats forced 11.7 steals and nearly 21 turnovers per game. Sydney Wood also joined Burton on the All-Big Ten Defensive Team, underscoring the dangerousness of Northwestern’s perimeter defense.

Their opening game with No. 10 UCF should be a defensive showdown. Like the Wildcats, the Knights win with an aggressive defense, goading opponents into 9.4 steals and over 19 turnovers per game. However, expect it to be difficult for UCF to disrupt Northwestern, as the Wildcats own the nation’s best turnover margin and the eight-best assist-to-turnover ratio. The Wildcats and Bulls will face off on Monday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

But, if Northwestern advances, they could struggle to trouble No. 2-seed Louisville with their defensive aggression, as the Cardinals’ All-American Dana Evans is one of the nation’s best point guards. That said, the Wildcats did score a couple of quality wins without relying on their elite thievery, defeating Michigan State and Michigan — two NCAA tournament teams — even though they tallied only seven and six steals, respectively, in those contests. Efficient scoring offense, something that has eluded the Wildcats for much of the season, also will be a prerequisite for an upset bid.

Hemisfair Region: No. 7 Alabama Crimson Tide (16-9)

First round: vs. No. 10 North Carolina Tarheels (Monday, 12 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Potential second round: vs. No. 2 Maryland Terrapins (TBD)

In 1999, the last time they went dancing, a fifth-seeded Alabama team advanced to the second round, where they encountered fourth-seeded North Carolina. 22 years later, in their long-awaited return to the tourney, the Tide again meet the Tarheels. No. 7-seeded Alabama faces No. 10-seeded North Carolina on Monday at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN.

In 2021, the Bama-Carolina matchup could be a contest for conference bragging rights. Although many consider the SEC the nation’s best conference, eight ACC teams earned a tournament berth compared to seven SEC teams. However, as noted by ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alabama is the SEC’s lowest-seeded team, while four ACC teams are seed No. 9 or lower, including North Carolina. If the Tide prevail, they can strengthen the SEC’s case for conference supremacy.

To do so, the Tide must address their biggest weakness — allowing opponents to sink too many shots from behind the arc.

For UNC, Petra Holešínská has the potential to do damage from 3. If Bama survives Carolina, the No. 2-seed Maryland Terrapins — the best 3-point shooting team in the nation — certainly could light them up from long range.

However, the Tide, led by First Team All-SEC honoree Jasmine Walker, Second Team All-SEC honoree Jordan Lewis and fellow senior Ariyah Copeland, are battled tested. Even though they did not manage to defeat any of the other SEC teams that made the NCAA tournament, they forced Georgia and Texas A&M to gut out wins during the regular season before refusing to quit against South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.

Mercado Region: No. 7 Iowa State Cyclones (16-10)

First round: vs. No. 10 Michigan State Spartans (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN)

Potential second round: vs. No. 2 Texas A&M Aggies (TBD)

For the second season in a row, the Cyclones took down the Baylor Lady Bears, thus proving that they can be giant killers. Iowa State also flashed their upside in their Feb. 24 win over then-No. 18 West Virginia, sinking 13 of their 27 three attempts as they cruised to a comfortable 85-68 win.

The Cyclones’ ability to weaponize the 3-pointer gives them bracket-busting potential. Iowa State enters the tournament fourth in 3-pointers attempted and tied for third in 3-pointers made. As a team, they converted almost 36 percent of their 3s, with Big 12 Freshman of the Year Lexi Donarski shooting 41.9 percent and All-Big 12 Second Teamer Kristin Scott shooting 42.9 percent from deep.

If they advance to face No. 2-seed Texas A&M in the second round and their 3-balls are falling, Iowa State could extinguish A&M, as they Aggies do not have an explosive offense.

But first, they must escape No. 10-seed Michigan State. Iowa State and Michigan State meet Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN. The boom-and-bust nature of 3-point shooting makes the Cyclones vulnerable to an upset, especially if the Spartans’ Nia Clouden also turns in a big scoring game.

Luckily, Iowa State can rely Ashley Joens, an unanimous selection to the All-Big 12 First Team and an AP Honorable Mention All-American, to generate good offense from all over the floor. While she averaged a Big 12-best 23.4 points per game, Joens also shot a career-best 90.1 percent from the free throw line, a reliability that could come in handy in a down-to-the-wire contest.

River Walk Region: No. 7 Virginia Tech Hokies (14-9)

First round: vs. No. 10 Marquette Golden Eagles (Sunday, 12 p.m. ET on ESPNU)

Potential second round: vs. No. 2 Baylor Lady Bears (TBD)

Like Iowa State, Virginia Tech has used the 3-pointer to drive its success.

Aisha Sheppard is a high-volume 3-point-shooting machine. The unanimous First Team All-ACC member and AP Honorable Mention All-American finished the regular season second in the nation with 237 threes attempted and sixth with 85 threes made. The senior tweaked her ankle in Hokies’ first game in the ACC tournament, which limited her in their tournament loss to NC State.

More than two weeks of rest should have Sheppard fully ready to fire away in Virginia Tech’s first round game against No. 10-seed Marquette. The Hokies take on the Golden Eagles on Sunday at 12 p.m. ET on ESPNU. Georgia Amoore, an ACC All-Freshman Team member, also is a 3-point threat, shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc. If Sheppard, Amoore and the Hokies’ other shooters struggle, First Team All-ACCer Elizabeth Kitley will need to exploit her height advantage by dominating the defensive glass and scoring off of offensive putbacks.

If they advance, Virginia Tech’s resume suggests they could cause trouble for No. 2-seed Baylor. Even though NC State was without Elissa Cunane, the Hokies’ impressed in back-to-back games against the Wolfpack in late Jan., losing by two points to the then-No. 2 team in the nation before prevailing in overtime three days later. Virginia Tech also tested the ACC’s other higher seeded tournament teams, falling 71-67 to then-No. 2 Louisville and 56-54 to Georgia Tech.