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Why Arizona’s run to the 2021 national championship game shouldn’t be too surprising

The No. 3 seed Arizona Wildcats, led by Aari McDonald’s 30 points per game since the Sweet 16, have advanced to face the No. 1 overall seed Stanford Cardinal in the national championship game. Is their run a shock or the balance in women’s college basketball over the past two seasons coming to fruition?

Arizona v Connecticut
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes (center) and her team have taken on an “us against the world” mentality.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats earned a No. 2 seed in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical NCAA Tournament bracket in 2020. So did the UCLA Bruins and Iowa Hawkeyes. The Northwestern Wildcats and Oregon State Beavers were 3 seeds and the Florida State Seminoles and Indiana Hoosiers were 4 seeds.

That handful of non-dominant programs represented the parity in women’s college basketball, which had only increased since the 11-time national champion UConn Huskies last won the title in 2016.

At the beginning of this season we knew that UConn still wasn’t back to being a prohibitive favorite (even though they had added No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit Paige Bueckers) and by season’s end the door was wide-open for any of the top seven overall seeds to win the national championship. We also knew that many of the teams in the 3- to 7-seed range could make runs as well.

The No. 3 seed Tennessee Lady Volunteers had all the talent in the world, had taken No. 1 seed UConn to the brink and had defeated the No. 1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks. The No. 3 seed UCLA Bruins and No. 3 seed Georgia Lady Bulldogs had wins over the No. 1 seed Stanford Cardinal and the No. 2 seed Texas A&M Aggies, respectively, and No. 3 seed Arizona had been as high as No. 6 in the AP poll and featured one of the best players in the country in Aari McDonald.

Arizona v Connecticut
Aari McDonald (with ball) is the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

On the 4-line, there was potential future No. 1 WNBA Draft pick Rhyne Howard and the Kentucky Wildcats, the Arkansas Razorbacks (the only team who defeated UConn in the regular season) and an Indiana Hoosiers team that had all the balance and tools to make a deep run. On the 5-line, there was a Missouri State Lady Bears team that had handed a dominant Maryland Terrapins team one of just two losses, an Iowa team that featured one of the best players in the nation in Caitlin Clark and a Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets team that eventually made its way to the Sweet 16.

Things got particularly interesting when you looked at the 6- and 7-lines because there was legitimate hope that one of those teams could make a deep run like their counterparts in the men’s tournament often do.

The No. 6 seed Texas Longhorns were already talking about forming a dynasty under new head coach Vic Schaefer and believed they could start building toward that this season. They were dangerous with projected 2021 No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick Charli Collier on the squad and were only a 6-seed because of inconsistency. They lived up to the hype with an Elite 8 bid.

Michigan, which made it to the Sweet 16, had at times been talked about alongside Maryland as the co-best team in the Big Ten and had the potential to become one of the best teams in the country.

And to have teams as good as Northwestern and the Iowa State Cyclones (both ranked as high as No. 15) on the 7-line was incredible. It truly showed the depth of talent in the nation this year.

So why are we surprised that a 3-seed, Arizona, has made it to the national championship game, when teams like Texas, Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa State (all 6 and 7 seeds) seemed worthy of similar runs?

Arizona was even in a position to make a national championship run last year and had a lot of hype surrounding it entering this season.

Was it their late-season loss to the lowly Arizona State Sun Devils that took away from our belief in the Wildcats? Possibly. Or did we fall back into chalk-like thinking, which usually dominates women’s college basketball, in the later rounds? None of the 1 seeds in this year’s tournament should have been considered prohibitive favorites and Arizona exposed some of UConn’s weaknesses in an upset win in the Final Four on Friday night.

Lots of 3 through 7 seeds had the talent to make deep runs in this year’s tournament. However, not just any team could have made it this far. Arizona truly is a special group. The Wildcats rose to the occasion far more than any of the other teams in the 3 to 7 range and they are playing their hearts out right now.

At this point, they really shouldn’t even be considered underdogs against Stanford. It’s the national championship game so anything can happen and they have enough positive energy and momentum to make this one seem even.