March Madness: Re-ranking the women's Sweet 16 by championship potential

It is all chalk on one side of the 2024 NCAA women’s basketball bracket and the other side isn’t looking all that chaotic, either. There have been only two major upsets through the first weekend, one of which knocked out No. 2 seed Ohio State.

Despite that, there weren’t a lot of major winning margins in the second round. The women’s side still hasn’t reached parity from the overall No. 1 seed all the way through to No. 68, but the top 30 or so teams are all relatively even and it showed in the back-and-forth nature of the second round. No. 1 seed Iowa faced a tall task against an underseeded defensive unit, and No. 2 seeds Stanford and UCLA survived scares.

As the competition shifts to super regionals in Albany, New York, and Portland, Oregon, there could be more instant classics and tight moments. Yahoo Sports re-ranked the remaining 16 teams to reflect who has the best chance at lifting the trophy in Cleveland on April 7.

Up next: No. 4 Indiana

The Gamecocks (34-0) dropped a 99-point winning margin over their first two games. Bouncing No. 16 Presbyterian by 52 points is one thing. Sending No. 8 North Carolina home with a 47-point loss is quite another. South Carolina had trouble against the Tar Heels in one of its closest games earlier in the season, but head coach Dawn Staley made the adjustments to crush their souls and send a message to the entire country.

This is still South Carolina’s title to lose and the Gamecocks don’t plan on doing that.

South Carolina once again looks like an unstoppable force in the NCAA tournament. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)South Carolina once again looks like an unstoppable force in the NCAA tournament. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

South Carolina once again looks like an unstoppable force in the NCAA tournament. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

No. 2: Texas (1 | Portland 4)

Up next: No. 4 Gonzaga

Can the Longhorns (32-4) defense be even better? Apparently. Texas blocked a season-high 11 shots in a win over No. 8 Alabama, blowing by its 4.6 per-game average. The game margin was about 12 the entire second half, but it felt over because of a Longhorns defensive effort that included nine steals, 18 offensive rebounds and 15 forced turnovers. They still have the upper hand in their region and fall slightly behind South Carolina as favorites to reach the title game.

No. 3: USC (1 | Portland 3)

Up next: No. 5 Baylor

JuJu Watkins continues to carve up the competition with a super-charged two-game tournament total of 51 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists, four steals and four blocks. She’s shooting 43% from the field. USC (28-5) didn’t have to work very hard in wins over No. 16 Texas A&M Corpus Christi and No. 8 Kansas. And the rest of the bracket cleared out when Duke upset No. 2 Ohio State. The Trojans had nice settle-in games for Watkins’ first foray into the tournament, though she probably didn’t need them.

No. 4: Iowa (1 | Albany 2)

Up next: No. 5 Colorado

Usually a No. 1 seed impresses in the first weekend by running it up on an opponent. But Iowa drew a tough matchup in No. 8 West Virginia in the second round. The Hawkeyes (31-4) posted near season-lows in 3-pointers, assists and points, but they had enough to advance. That says more about them than a shootout win could at this point in the season. They know how to win those. Now they know how to win an ugly offensive game.

Caitlin Clark hasn’t had her best games, but she’s still totaled 59 points (second most in the tournament), 16 rebounds, 13 assists and five steals. She does have 12 turnovers, near dead-last in the field, and is shooting 39% overall and 34.8% from 3-point range. Those lower clips are probably going to turn around soon.

Caitlin Clark has 59 points through two NCAA tournament games. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)Caitlin Clark has 59 points through two NCAA tournament games. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Caitlin Clark has 59 points through two NCAA tournament games. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

No. 5: LSU (3 | Albany 2)

Up next: No. 2 UCLA

The Tigers (30-5) continue to be hot and cold. They played a poor first-round game against No. 14 Rice and struggled in the first half of the second-round against No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee. Sophomore guard Flau’jae Johnson lit the fire in the second half and LSU took advantage of the Raiders’ foul trouble. Given all of the extra drama around the Tigers, it’s tough to pick against them. This squad internalized the criticism last year and rolled to a national title with an us-against-the-world mentality. Expect the same over the next few weeks.

No. 6: UConn (3 | Portland 3)

Up next: No. 7 Duke

The Huskies (31-5) had trouble shutting down individual scorers in the regular season and impressively held Syracuse’s Dyaisha Fair to 20 points in the second-round game. Syracuse made a strong push late, but that slow start from Fair is what doomed the Orange. That gives hope the UConn defense has a chance against USC’s JuJu Watkins, should the two meet in the regional final. Paige Bueckers continues to do Paige Bueckers things, and the freshmen stepped up with big shots in pivotal moments for a well-rounded showing from the Huskies.

No. 7: UCLA (2 | Albany 2)

Up next: No. 3 LSU

UCLA (27-6) gave up seven 3s to Creighton and until Kiki Rice lit it up in the second half, the Bruins were in danger of an upset to the No. 7 seed. The Bruins’ perimeter defense gives pause when looking at matchups with LSU and Iowa. Teams that shoot better than 46% from 3 are 4-2 against UCLA. And that region is so tough, it’s hard to see high title chances.

Lauren Betts missed the team’s first game, but returned to post a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double with three assists. Rice has 44 points, 13 rebounds and five assists over two games.

No. 8: Stanford (2 | Portland 4)

Up next: No. 3 NC State

The Cardinal’s win against Iowa State was the best game of the first two rounds. (Baylor-Virginia Tech takes second place.) Stanford (30-5) showed it can win without Cameron Brink, who fouled out in her final game at Maples Pavillion. Kiki Iriafen showed up in a major way and will be crucial in a potential regional final against Texas’ defense. But first up is the Wolfpack, a game Stanford could also have to battle out. The Cardinal guards haven’t always been consistent and will have to play tight defense on the Wolfpack.

No. 9: Notre Dame (2 | Albany 1)

Up next: No. 3 Oregon State

The Fighting Irish guards are lighting up the tournament behind freshman point guard Hannah Hidalgo. Notre Dame is 7-0 when Hidalgo, Sonia Citron and Maddy Westbeld score at least 15 points each, per ESPN Stats and Information. That three-headed monster is dangerous enough to make noise in Albany 1 and the defense ranks top five in Her Hoop Stats’ database. Notre Dame (28-6) is in a good position to make a deep run, but South Carolina standing in its regional pushes its chances down.

No. 10: NC State (3 | Portland 4)

Up next: No. 2 Stanford

The Wolfpack’s guard duo of Aziaha James (20.5 ppg, 3.5 apg), Saniya Rivers (18 ppg, 2 spg, 2 bpg) and Zoe Brooks (10.5 ppg, 3.5 apg off the bench) led them through No. 14 Chattanooga and No. 6 Tennessee. But don’t forget about center River Baldwin, a veteran who comes up clutch with big buckets and rebounds in gritty moments. She’s averaging 10.5 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the tournament. Defensively, NC State (29-6) kept everyone except Rickea Jackson quiet in the second-round win. Stanford and Texas each pose bigger threats.

No. 11: Gonzaga (4 | Portland 4)

Up next: No. 1 Texas

The Zags (32-3) are back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015 with wins against No. 13 UC Irvine and No. 5 Utah. Their balanced attack pushed them past Utah’s Alissa Pili (35 points in her final collegiate game). Yvonne Ejim, an Associated Press All-American, has 39 consecutive games of double-digit scoring and the team’s 3-point shooting came alive in the second half to extend their home winning streak to 36. Texas’ defense won’t let it be that easy.

Gonzaga advances to face Texas in the Sweet 16. (Robert Johnson/Getty Images)Gonzaga advances to face Texas in the Sweet 16. (Robert Johnson/Getty Images)

Gonzaga advances to face Texas in the Sweet 16. (Robert Johnson/Getty Images)

No. 12: Colorado (5 | Albany 2)

Up next: No. 1 Iowa

Colorado rather quietly went through its first two games against Drake and Kansas State, setting up a rematch of the 2023 Sweet 16 that Iowa won, 87-77. Aaronette Vonleh, a 6-foot-3 junior center, needs to be aggressive in the paint against the undersized Iowa crew to advance. This region remains an absolute gauntlet that is living up to the billing, and Colorado’s chances seem the least likely of any.

No. 13: Baylor (5 | Portland 3)

Up next: No. 1 USC

The Bears (26-7) performed in the final five minutes to advance over a Virginia Tech squad playing only its fourth game without star center Elizabeth Kitley (ACL). Baylor is shooting the ball well and forcing tournament opponents into a 20.5% turnover rate. But going up against Watkins and USC is a tall task that limits its potential. Clara Strack, a freshman center, showed up in her first NCAA tournament, but it doesn’t compare to the level of an experienced Kitley.

No. 14: Duke (7 | Portland 3)

Up next: No. 3 UConn

The Blue Devils (22-11) shut down Ohio State, holding the Buckeyes to their third-worst offensive showing of the season. It was their own offense that was more surprising since it’s been a struggle for Kara Lawson’s crew. The 75 points went over their average per game (68.9) against a strong defensive team. But they square off with UConn in the next round, and the Huskies showed their defense can shut down a strong individual scorer like Reigan Richardson after her second-round explosion.

No. 15: Oregon State (3 | Albany 1)

Up next: No. 2 Notre Dame

Oregon State (26-7) shut down No. 14 Eastern Washington and No. 6 Nebraska, keeping both to 51 points. Against Nebraska, the Beavers secured a season-high 10 blocks, led by Timea Gardiner’s four. That defense (86.2 rating ranks 57th) puts Oregon State in decent title contention, but it’s in a regional led by the incredible defenses of South Carolina (74.5 defensive rating ranks first) and Notre Dame (81.1, 12th). Those squads have better offenses too.

No. 16: Indiana (4 | Albany 1)

Up next: No. 1 South Carolina

Congrats, Indiana, you’re back in the Sweet 16 after an upset kept you from the second weekend last year. Unfortunately, your reward is No. 1 overall seed South Carolina. And for that alone, Indiana sits dead-last in the rankings.

The Hoosiers (26-5) have the best defense in the Big Ten, but probably not enough of it to deal with South Carolina. The Gamecocks look even more dangerous than during the regular season.

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