NCAA tournament, Seattle 3 preview: Tennessee looking to break through; watch out for UConn
Virginia Tech earned its first NCAA tournament No. 1 seed after winning the ACC tournament for the first time. The Hokies may face the toughest regional challenge, though, as they’re joined by No. 2 seed UConn, No. 3 seed Ohio State and No. 4 seed Tennessee.
Here’s what you should know about Seattle 3 ahead of the NCAA tournament:
NCAA tournament region previews: Greenville 1 | Greenville 2 | Seattle 3 | Seattle 4
UConn (29-5, Big East tournament champions)
The UConn Huskies have made the last 14 Final Fours — the longest streak in NCAA basketball history. Even with all the struggles they’ve faced this season — no Paige Bueckers, five weeks without Azzi Fudd, head coach Geno Auriemma missing games due to illness — it’s hard to imagine this being the year that streak snaps. The “UConn of March,” as Marquette coach Megan Duffy described them at the Big East tournament, always finds a way.
[Free bracket contests for both tourneys | Printable Women's | Men's]
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Can the Lady Vols win big games?
This season, Tennessee (23-11) seemed to have the opposite of LSU’s problem.
While the No. 3-seeded Tigers only dropped two games this season, their lackluster strength of schedule made them difficult to evaluate. Conversely, the Lady Volunteers, despite losing 11 games this season, earned the No. 4 seed in their region because of their onerous schedule.
Tennessee faced every No. 1 seed in the tournament and each of the other top seeds in their region during the regular season. It lost all seven of those contests. But the Lady Vols haven’t lost to anyone other than South Carolina since Feb. 6, as NCAA committee chair Lisa Peterson pointed out during the selection show. Tennessee also accumulated three wins over NET top 25 teams this season, including a dramatic victory over LSU in the SEC tournament semifinals.
Perhaps the Lady Vols’ tough schedule provided enough pressure to prepare them for March. While star senior Rickea Jackson has never gone dancing, Tennessee can also lean on a wealth of experience in the tournament as the only program in the country to have appeared in all 41.
Clearer path for Ohio State ahead?
Ohio State (25-7) spent the first 12 weeks of the season inside the top three in the Associated Press poll. Then three straight losses in January to Iowa (72-83), Indiana (65-78) and Purdue (65-73) sent the Buckeyes tumbling down. Follow that up with a brutal 90-54 loss to Maryland, then another one at the hands of the Hoosiers (83-59). And to top off the regular season: a 76-74 defeat courtesy of Maryland.
The Buckeyes showed resolve in their conference tournament. They held on to beat Michigan despite its best attempt at a second-half comeback. Then they used their defensive prowess to make the biggest comeback in Big Ten history and finally vanquish Indiana, 79-75.
But the next day saw the Buckeyes on the receiving end of the biggest loss in Big Ten title game history. Iowa played one of its best games in program history en route to walloping Ohio State, 105-72, for a second consecutive conference tournament championship.
Still, Ohio State has a top-10 scoring offense (eighth nationally with 80.8 points per game). And five of its players average at least 11 points per game — Taylor Mikesell, Cotie McMahon, Taylor Thierry, Jacy Sheldon and Rebeka Mikulasikova. The Buckeyes earned the No. 3 seed in their corner of the bracket, which luckily for them, contains neither Iowa, Maryland nor Indiana. Perhaps this is their chance.
Tennessee has played each of the top three seeds in its region already this season.
The Lady Vols lost to Virginia Tech by just three points in December, but they dropped their games against UConn and Ohio State by double digits (17 and 12, respectively).
Tennessee would have to advance to the Sweet 16, which it did for the first time since 2016 last season, for another chance to knock off the Hokies. But in order to meet either UConn or Ohio State again, the Lady Vols would have to make their first Elite Eight in head coach Kellie Harper’s tenure.
North Carolina (21-10)
Consistency has been a struggle for the Tar Heels this season. They’ve experienced high highs, like winning the Phil Knight Invitational and a week in the top 10 of the AP poll. But they’ve experienced low lows as well, like a four-game losing streak spanning December and January and two single-digit scoring quarters in a flat 44-40 loss to Duke in the ACC quarterfinals.
While North Carolina’s record (and conference resume of 11-7) doesn’t exactly sparkle, its six wins against AP Top 25 opponents do. Plus the Tar Heels are one of eight ACC teams in the tournament, which leads all other conferences and speaks to the depth of quality basketball they’ve faced. As a result, the decision to give them the No. 6 seed and Tennessee the No. 4 could be seen as controversial.
North Carolina looks to build off last year’s Sweet 16 performance, where it lost to eventual champion South Carolina by eight points — the closest scoring margin in the Gamecocks’ tournament run. Four starters from last year’s squad return, including Deja Kelly — this season’s leading scorer — and Alyssa Ustby — the Tar Heels’ leading rebounder. Don’t count them out.