No Caitlin Clark in the Final Four? 10 bold predictions for women’s NCAA Tournament

An undefeated team. Star power. Return of longtime contenders, once forgotten. USA TODAY Sports makes 10 bold predictions for the women’s tournament.

Caitlin Clark and the No. 1 seed Hawkeyes are trying to get back to the Final Four.

Caitlin Clark and the No. 1 seed Hawkeyes are trying to get back to the Final Four.

It’s the best time of the year and goodness, if you thought women’s basketball during the regular season was fun, just wait till the NCAA Tournament tips Wednesday. There’s an undefeated team (South Carolina), loads of star power (Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers, etc.), longtime contenders finally climbing back to the top after a few decades wandering in darkness (Southern California) and plenty of other storylines.

There’s more parity than ever before in women’s basketball, which NCAA selection committee chair Lisa Peterson said is due, at least in part, to the transfer portal.

The portal, and its instant eligibility, have allowed bad teams to improve quickly, and regular powers to reload even faster. That, coupled with NIL and players who have been hyper-focused on basketball since they were young girls, has led to an explosion in talent that’s dispersed throughout the country.

“I think now it doesn’t matter if you don’t go to the four schools that you always heard of back in the ’80s and ’90s,” Peterson said. “You can go to any school and you can win a national championship.”

And with that in mind, don’t be surprised if there are more than a few upsets over the next three weeks. In fact, to help you get in the upset mindset as you fill out your bracket, USA TODAY Sports offers 10 bold predictions. Take our advice, and place your bets, at your own risk.

1. Caitlin Clark and Iowa won’t make it back to Final Four

Sorry Hawkeyes, take it up with the selection committee, not me. I expect third-seeded LSU to upset No. 2 UCLA in the regional semifinals and then, in a rematch of the 2023 title game, Angel Reese and the Tigers will dominate in the paint and head to their second consecutive Final Four.

Part of Clark’s dominance in the Big Ten is how much she intimidates other teams. That won’t be an issue for Reese & Co.

2. Kamilla Cardoso will redeem herself and be named Most Outstanding Player at Final Four

After an ugly ending to the SEC championship game, where Cardoso got hit with a fighting penalty and was ejected after a shoving match, the 6-foot-7 senior will be anxious to change the storyline.

She has tositout South Carolina’s first game vs. either 16th-seed Sacred Heart or Presbyterian, but when she comes back, expect her to dominate the paint on both ends of the floor and lead the Gamecocks to their third title. If Cardoso plays like she’s capable, it’s all anyone will want to talk about.

3. Everyone will be rocking the JuJu Watkins’ bun in Cleveland

Southern Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb likes to call her star, the best freshman in the country, “your favorite player’s favorite player.” That’s the type of praise that JuJu Watkins has earned from some of the game’s greatest, including LeBron James.

And should she lead USC back to the Final Four, a place the Trojans haven’t been since 1986, you can expect hundreds of people in the crowd rocking the JuJu bun, as they go crazy for the next face of the women’s game.

4. This will be the last March Madness go-round for at least one legendary coach

Who’s going to retire first, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer or UConn’s Geno Auriemma? Could both step down at the same time?

Does Lisa Bluder decide to bid adieu at the same time as her generational talent? College basketball, with NIL, the transfer portal and conference realignment resulting in numerous cross-country plane rides, is a young person’s game. Don’t be surprised if one, or several, of the game’s longest-tenured coaches decide to call it quits after this season. Other potential candidates: Texas coach Vic Schaefer and Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly.

5. Virginia Tech will be the first 2023 Final Four team to get knocked out − and it’ll happen via upset

This really isn’t anyone’s fault, but how far can one reasonably expect the Hokies to go without Liz Kitley, the three-time ACC player of the year? Kitley, who returned this season for her COVID year, didn’t play in the ACC tournament and her availability for the NCAAs is up in the air.

Virginia Tech set to play in Sweet 16 this Saturday

We suspect she’s done, and without her, fourth-seeded Virginia Tech will be upset by fifth-seeded Baylor in the second round on the Hokies’ home floor.

6. The last Gonzaga team standing will be the women, not the men

Sorry, guys, but it’s just a matter of seeding: The Gonzaga women, the top mid-major team all season in women’s hoops, are a No. 4 hosting at home. The men, who were in danger of missing the tournament altogether not that long ago, are on the top end of the dreaded 5-12 seed matchup, and they’ve got to play in Salt Lake City.

The women will be home and while a tantalizing second-round matchup with Utah likely awaits and could go down to the wire, the Zags’ veteran squad will earn a trip to the Sweet 16.

7. The Ivy League is going to make major noise

It was party time for the nerds Sunday, when it was revealed that both Princeton (automatic) and Columbia (at-large) would go dancing, just the second time the Ivy League has sent two teams to the tournament.

It’s also Columbia’s first trip. This was a win not just for some of the most prestigious academic schools in the country but mid-majors at large. And I expect them to win their first games, Columbia over Vanderbilt in the First Four, and Princeton over West Virginia in the first round.

This prediction applies to players, too − specifically, the three Ivy League grad transfers who will help push the Southern California women to the Final Four.

8. Stanford will miss the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year

The Cardinal has had a rough last couple weeks, being upset by Arizona at home (Arizona barely made the tournament, for what it’s worth), then falling to Southern Cal in the Pac-12 tournament championship game.

That was the second time the Trojans beat them this year in as many tries, a sure sign that something is amiss. Then, to add insult to injury, USC was the West Coast team awarded a 1 seed while Stanford fell to a 2 behind Texas.

It’s easy to imagine the Cardinal feeling deflated, and playing like it. While Stanford is obviously tough to beat in Maples Pavilion, it’s been done before, especially during tournament time. Iowa State won’t be intimidated.

9. Hannah Hidalgo will steal the ball, and then the show

Don’t be surprised when the 5-foot-6 point guard for Notre Dame, a player casual fans have yet to hear enough about, becomes the breakout star of March Madness.

The rookie, who plays with more passion than probably anyone else you’ve seen, can do it all, from scoring to dishing to rebounding. She’s best known as a menace on defense, where she always finds a way to steal the ball. And by the time you’ve figured out how she did it, she’s taken off for a layup at the other end.

10. The women’s Final Four will outdraw the men’s

You might think this is impossible, especially if prediction No. 1 turns out to be true, and Clark is not playing for a shot at the national championship. But hear me out: Clark, who will soon become the No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, is a generational talent who has done more than any other individual to elevate the game. People are tuning in because they want to see what ridiculous record she breaks next.

But the best part about her drawing so many new fans to the game is that they’ve found other, younger players to follow.

There’s more excitement and energy around the game than ever before, and while Clark has certainly helped build it, the game itself is bigger than just one player − and this March and April will prove that. (It also helps that the women’s title game will be on ABC, while the men’s is scheduled to air on TBS.)


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