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Women’s basketball picks: Things to watch with NC State in driver’s seat of Mercado Region

By Doug Feinberg

AP Basketball Writer

The women’s NCAA Tournament field is set and now the fun begins with 64 teams descending on the San Antonio region for the event that was canceled in 2020.

This will be a tournament like no other, with every game played on neutral courts and teams that make the Final Four having to basically live out of a hotel room for three weeks. Here’s a look at what could happen over the next few weeks in tournament brackets.

There are a couple of rules to live by:

CHALK RULES: A No. 1 seed has won the national championship the past eight tournaments and 12 of 13. The only time that didn’t happen was 2011 when Gary Blair led Texas A&M to the title as a two seed. Also since 2005, at least two of the No. 1s have made the Final Four every year except for 2016.

LACK OF MAJOR UPSETS: Looking to pick a 14, 15 or 16 seed for an upset? Might want to look elsewhere as there has been only one victory by any of those seeds in the 38-year history of the tournament. That was when 16th-seeded Harvard knocked off No. 1 Stanford in 1998. The No. 14, 15 and 16 seeds are winless since.

WATCH OUT FOR THOSE 12s: Just like in the men’s bracket, the 12 seeds have some success in recent years upending the 5s. At least one 12 has made it out of the first round in three of the last four tournaments.

And some advice too:

WAIT: Don’t rush to fill out your bracket this year because there is that chance a key player or coach could test positive for COVID-19, which could really change the dynamic of the tournament.

And now the picks:

ALAMO REGION: Stanford is definitely the top overall seed for many reasons. The Cardinal are deep, led by Haley Jones and Kiana Williams, talented, and have already spent two months on the road, so three weeks in a hotel room shouldn’t faze them too much. It won’t be easy with a high-scoring Arkansas team as a potential Sweet 16 matchup. Dana Evans and Louisville potentially await the Cardinal in the regional final.

Other players to watch: Chelsea Dungee, Arkansas; Natasha Mack, Oklahoma State; Hannah Sjerven, South Dakota.

Upset watch: UC Davis will continue the trend of 12s knocking off 5s as the Aggies have a good shot to upset Missouri State, which opted out of the Missouri Valley Conference tourney before the semifinals because of COVID-19 concerns for its opponent.

First-round winners: Stanford, Oklahoma State, UC Davis, Arkansas, South Dakota, Georgia, Northwestern, Louisville.

HEMISFAIR REGION: South Carolina has a lot of young talent, but unfortunately not much tournament experience. The Gamecocks could go a long way led by Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. Getting to the Final Four, Dawn Staley’s squad will have to get through an Oregon State team that has figured itself out after a long coronavirus pause, and then potentially UCLA or Maryland.

Other players to watch: Janelle Bailey, North Carolina; Kysre Gondrezick, West Virginia; Ashley Owusu, Maryland.

Upset Watch: Stephen F. Austin has won 19 straight and has a good shot to pull off the victory as a 12 seed over Georgia Tech.

First-round winners: South Carolina, Oregon State, Stephen F. Austin, West Virginia, Texas, UCLA, North Carolina, Maryland.

RIVER WALK REGION: UConn has made the Final Four every season since 2008 and the young Huskies will be tested to get there. No coach Geno Auriemma for the first two rounds and then potentially a tantalizing matchup awaits in the Sweet 16 with either Iowa and freshman sensation Caitlin Clark, or Kentucky with star Rhyne Howard. Get to the Elite Eight and Baylor could be waiting for the Huskies. They were supposed to play in January, but that got canceled when Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey had COVID-19.

Other players to watch: Paige Bueckers UConn; Tiana Mangakahia, Syracuse; Reinna Davis, Tennessee; NaLyssa Smith, Baylor.

Upset watch: Florida Gulf Coast is led by Ohio State transfer Kierstan Bell. Once she became eligible early on, the team hasn’t lost. The Eagles will have to find a way to slow down Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon.

First-round winners: UConn, Syracuse, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast, Tennessee, Marquette, Baylor.

MERCADO REGION: Analysis: N.C. State knocked off two No. 1 teams this season, beating South Carolina and Louisville. So the Wolfpack, led by versatile post Elissa Cunane, can clearly play with anyone in the country. However ,it might come down to balance, and no team in the region is more balanced on offense than Texas A&M.

Other players to watch: Arella Guirantes, Rutgers; Aari McDonald, Arizona; Ashley Joens, Iowa State.

Upset watch: BYU could give Rutgers a tough test in the first round, but watch out for Indiana potentially knocking off N.C. State in the Sweet 16. The Hoosiers have had a great season and have a talented post player of their own in Mackenzie Holmes, who could match up with Cunane.

First-round winners: N.C. State, South Florida, Gonzaga, Indiana, Rutgers, Arizona, Iowa State, Texas A&M.

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