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Bridgeport preview: NC State is an interloper in its own bracket

The Wolfpack are a stronger no. 1 seed than a year ago, but the field has improved too.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 20 Women’s - Syracuse at NC State Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 NCAA Tournament begins on Friday, March 18, and each day this week, Swish Appeal will be diving into one region at a time to prepare you for the madness that is to come. We’ll begin today with the region that alphabetically comes first: Bridgeport.

How the No. 1 seed got here

The NC State Wolfpack won the ACC regular-season title for the first time in 32 years in 2022 and followed that up by earning their third-straight conference tournament crown, avoiding the upset bug that seemed to plague so many top seeds over the past two weeks. The Wolfpack were a no. 1 seed in 2021, falling to Indiana in the Sweet 16, but they responded by tying a program record with 29 wins — a mark that should easily be eclipsed during the first round of this year’s tournament — deservedly ending up on the top line for a second-straight season.

NC State has the second-best offensive rating in the country and sixth-best defense, per Her Hoop Stats. The Wolfpack are efficient scoring from everywhere on the court, their lone blemish an inability to regularly get to the foul line. Defensively, they force opponents to shoo 35.6 percent from the field, an astounding figure that helps explain why the team has only won two games by fewer than double digits in the last month.

Elissa Cunane leads the way for NC State, a post hub who has multiple moves to finish inside and who can draw the defense to create perimeter shots for her teammates. It’s no accident that the Wolfpack shoot 36.9 percent from three, 10th-best in Division I, thanks to those open looks. NC State has been fortunate to have its starting lineup of Cunane, Jakia Brown-Turner, Kayla Jones, Raina Perez, and Kai Crutchfield available for all of two games. The Wolfpack also bring second-leading scorer Diamond Johnson (10.9 points per game) off the bench, as well as Jada Boyd, who has the best shooting percentage on the team.

NC State only lost three times all season and just once in this calendar year, a 69-66 defeat in South Bend to Notre Dame on Feb. 1. The Wolfpack have run the table since and look primed to avenge themselves after an early exit from last year’s tournament.

Who are the challengers to NC State?

This is the first non-single site tournament since 2019, and that’s an important note in the Bridgeport region, where the team with homecourt advantage isn’t the top seed. That would be No. 2 Connecticut. The Huskies had an uncharacteristic start to the season with injuries and absences galore, but the team that demolished its competition during the Big East tournament looks a lot more like the UConn program that hasn’t missed a Final Four since 2007 (checks notes: yes, it’s been 15 years).

This Huskies squad gets the job done defensively, starting with Nika Muhl at the point of attack. UConn has the fourth-best defensive rating in the country and has conceded 43.8 points per game over its last ten contests, all wins. This is a team that is finding itself at the best possible time and its reward is essentially four home games to get back to the national semifinals.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Big East Women’s Tournament - Villanova v UConn
Four players average double figures for UConn, led by Christyn Williams at 14.6 points per game. Olivia Nelson-Ododa (#20) almost makes it five with her 9.8 points per contest.
Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The No. 3 seed in Bridgeport isn’t any less terrifying for NC State, as the Hoosiers beat the Wolfpack in the Sweet 16 a year ago. This year’s Indiana crew isn’t coming in as the hottest team in the country, though three of losses in the past month are to the same Iowa team, but don’t look past the Hoosier defense. Led by Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, Indiana is a feisty outfit to score on. Opponents score 99 points per 100 possessions against the Hoosiers, the lowest mark in the country per Her Hoop Stats. Having already knocked off a giant once last year, Indiana knows how to get the job done.

Rounding out the top four in Bridgeport is Oklahoma. This team is as offensively-gifted as any in the country. Three Sooners average at least 17.0 points per game, including Taylor Robertson, whose 1.26 points per play is second-best among all Division I players. That efficiency is an anomaly for a 5’11 guard. Oklahoma hasn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2017 and hasn’t advanced to the second weekend since 2013 — this might be the team to break that streak.

Any lower-seeded teams to keep an eye on?

No. 5 Notre Dame has collected some impressive wins this season, including one over NC State, but the Fighting Irish have coupled those with some perplexing and ugly losses, including losing a close one to Duke and getting routed by Louisville twice. Notre Dame has the ability to be great on any given night depending on which version of the Irish shows up.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 06 SEC Women’s Tournament - South Carolina Gamecocks v Kentucky Wildcats
Until further notice, Dre’una Edwards has the March moment to beat with her 3-pointer to take down South Carolina.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No. 6 Kentucky just beat the best team in the country, capping a 10-game win streak with an SEC tournament championship to resurrect its season. No. 9 Kansas State has Ayoka Lee, author of the greatest scoring performance in Division I history. And No. 11 Princeton keeps chugging along, the Tigers not missing a beat despite the Ivy League cancelling play in 2020-21. Princeton hasn’t lost since December, and it turns out Courtney Banghart wasn’t the only reason the Tigers consistently have an elite defense.

Players to watch

Elissa Cunane, NC State: The best player on this region’s best team

Paige Bueckers, UConn: The reigning national player of the year hasn’t even factored into Connecticut’s surge to end the season; what if she gets going?

Mackenzie Holmes, Indiana: The junior forward was out for more than a month but has returned to give the Hoosiers some extra offensive oomph

Olivia Miles, Notre Dame: As a freshman, Miles already ranks third in the country in assists per game

Rhyne Howard, Kentucky: The projected No. 1 pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft

Ayoka Lee, Kansas State: She scored 61 points in a game. Enough said.

Abby Meyers, Princeton: The unanimous Ivy League player of the year who cans more than 40 percent of her threes