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Wichita preview: This region is up for grabs

Can Louisville hold court as the top seed?

Duke v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Welcome to the most wide-open region of NCAA Tournament! Let’s dive into the Wichita Regional, where your Final Four guess is as good as mine.

How the No. 1 seed got here

The Louisville Cardinals earned the final top seed in the Wichita region somewhat by default after Baylor lost in the final of its conference tournament. But that shouldn’t diminish what the Cardinals accomplished throughout the course of the regular season considering Louisville was a one seed during the latest pre-Selection Sunday bracket reveal on Feb. 28. Another team was going to have to take the top line away from the Cardinals, and no one did.

This is the third time in four tournaments that Louisville has been a No. 1 seed, the lone exception coming last season when the Cardinals were a two seed. This year’s Louisville squad beat five teams with a top 25 NET rating and boasts a top-10 offensive and defensive rating, per Her Hoop Stats.

Virginia Tech v Louisville
Hailey Van Lith isn’t just an NIL superstar; she’s averaging 13.8 points per game while canning 37 percent of her threes.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Cardinals have ten players averaging double-digit minutes, and only one (Norika Konno) missed more than two games, giving the ACC’s second-best squad at least a nine-deep rotation on any given night. The three-headed monster of Hailey Van Lith, Kianna Smith, and Emily Engstler provides the scoring, each averaging at least 11.5 points per game, with Engstler also chipping 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest.

Louisville’s four losses came by a combined 14 points this season, but that small margin is also cause for some concern. The Cardinals blew a lead to Stanford in the Elite Eight of last year’s tournament, and also surrendered late leads to North Carolina, NC State, and Miami this season. That could give other teams in this region some hope, in spite of Louisville’s otherwise sterling resume.

Who are the challengers to Louisville?

No. 2 Baylor was poised to jump the Cardinals for the top seed in Wichita until the Lady Bears suffered a surprising loss to Texas in the Big 12 tournament final, along with an injury scare to NaLyssa Smith. Fortunately, Smith appears to be fine, and she is a force to be reckoned with, having finished top-3 in Division I in total points and rebounds. Jordan Lewis, Sarah Andrews, and Queen Egbo all also chip in double-digit points, with Lewis and Andrews as the primary playmakers and Egbo helping Smith on the glass.

Baylor played one of the toughest schedules in the country and still emerged with 27 wins, fourth-most in Division I, along with one of the most efficient offenses in the country despite changing their shot profile under first-year head coach Nikki Collen. The Bears can still dominate opponents inside — look no further than Smith, a presumptive WNBA lottery pick, and Egbo — but they have more variety to their offense this year, making them even more formidable as they adapt to opponents in the tournament.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Texas Tech at Baylor
Good luck finding a frontcourt as good as Baylor’s in the Wichita region.
Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 3 Wolverines have similar top-end talent to Baylor, with Naz Hillmon joining Smith as a first-team All-American. But Michigan isn’t at its best right now: the team lost four of its last six games and is still smarting about missing out on a share of the Big Ten title due to imbalanced scheduling. Leigha Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer, returned from a leg injury that cost her most of February and hasn’t been herself yet. If she isn’t ready to contribute, the Wolverines will have even more to regret looking back on 2022.

Joining them in the bad injury luck department is No. 4 Tennessee. The Lady Vols were rolling until Keyen Green went down for the season. Now, they’re also without Jordan Horston, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, and it isn’t clear what Horston’s availability will be for the opening rounds. Tamari Key’s presence means Tennessee can always hang its hat on defense — Key has been among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots each of the past three seasons — but there are questions on the offensive end with Horston’s status in flux.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 04 SEC Women’s Tournament - Tennessee Lady Vols v Alabama Crimson Tide
No matter who is missing for the Lady Vols, Tamari Key will make sure their opponents are missing a ton as well.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And then there are the Oregon Ducks, whose mediocre record belies their talent level. The Ducks were a top-10 team in the preseason thanks to the presence of Endyia Rogers, Nyara Sabally, and Te-Hina Paopao, but injuries meant the team never really coalesced. Everyone on Oregon is healthy now, though, and head coach Kelly Graves has a habit of figuring things out in March. This Ducks squad has firepower and experience and the belief that their best is yet to come.

Any lower-seeded teams to keep an eye on?

Brigham Young is everyone’s favorite No. 6 seed with the eighth-best scoring offense in the country, led by Shaylee Gonzales. Who doesn’t love an underdog, especially one that puts up a lot of points? The automatic bid in the WCC actually went to Gonzaga, though, after the Bulldogs upset the Cougars in the tournament final. Maybe that win will give No. 9 Gonzaga some momentum heading into the Big Dance.

The No. 7 Ole Miss Rebels have one of the best centers in the country in Shakira Austin. No. 11 Villanova was the last team to beat UConn, even if the Wildcats did get trucked by the Huskies in the rematch. And the No. 13 Buffalo Bulls have Dyaisha Fair, another finalist for the Becky Hammon mid-major player of the year, along with BYU’s Gonzales.

Players to watch

Emily Engstler, Louisville: Gets it done on both ends of the floor for the Cards

NaLyssa Smith, Baylor: She had 24 double-doubles this season, including one 20-20 game

Te-Hina Paopao, Oregon: One of the most exciting guards in Division I

Jaz Shelley, Nebraska: This Cornhusker makes an impact everywhere on the court

Maddy Siegrist, Villanova: She can collect points in a hurry