In the women’s NCAA tournaments, the No. 1 seed usually has the upper hand. In the event’s first 39 years, 87 of the 156 (55.7%) top seeds have made it into the Final Four, with at least two No. 1s in 33 of the 39 competitions reaching the third weekend. Still, with an expanded field and increased parity across the sport, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking to see a number of other teams crash the Minneapolis party.
The following list includes eight teams who could-to varying degrees — take a deep run in March and find your way to the Final Four. Some of the sleeper choices are more realistic, while others would make true Cinderella stories. (Note: Seeds #2 were also removed from this exercise, as picking one of them isn’t exactly a huge surprise.)
No total shockers
Michigan (Seed #3, Wichita Region)
The team has never advanced to the Final Four in the history of the Wolverines program, but this year’s group has as good a chance as any to break that streak. Led by senior forward Naz Hillmon, coach Kim Barnes Arico’s group plays a tough, physical style and is tournament-hard. Hillmon averaged 21 points and 9.4 rebounds per game this season while shooting 56.5% from the field. She’s a force from the arc, where she averaged 7.9 two-point field goals per game, the eighth best in the country, and 4.4 offensive rebounds per game, fourth best in the country. The Wolverines defeated Baylor, the No. 2 in the Wichita area, earlier this year. And while they struggled with a 22-point loss to Louisville in December, they surpassed the Cardinals in the second half of that contest. Additionally, Louisville has lost two of their last four games and looks to be the shakiest of all the No. 1 seeds. The Wichita area could be in for a slew of surprises that open the door for the Wolverines.
Indiana (No. 3 seeds, Bridgeport area)
Want another Big Ten team capable of making a deep tournament run? Indiana is a name to watch. The Hoosiers have made their first appearance in a conference championship game in 20 years and are looking impressive in tournament victories over Rutgers, Maryland and Ohio State. Coach Teri Moren’s team relies heavily on its juniors and seniors, with the backcourt of Grace Berger, Nicola Cardona-Hillary and Ali Patberg being the kind of trio no opponent wants to face.
Last year, IU advanced to its first Elite Eight in program history, beating top-ranked NC State. Possible holdovers from that game included how Moren adjusted their rotations — no Hoosier played more than six minutes off the bench and four reserves combined for just 15 minutes. The Wolf Pack avenged that loss earlier this season, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Indiana choke out Elissa Cunane & Co. all over again. A possible matchup with UConn in the Sweet 16 is also a big factor, but if there were ever a group that wouldn’t be shaken playing this close to the Huskies’ home, it would be the veteran-laden IU.
State of Iowa (#3, Greensboro Region)
The Greensboro area is South Carolina’s loser. But if you’re looking for another team that could make it to Minneapolis, look no further than Iowa State. Senior wing Ashley Joens, who averaged 20 points and 9.2 rebounds for a career-best 37.2%, led the Cyclones to a school-record 25 wins last season. And ISU has three players, Joens, Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski, who made the All-Big 12 first-team (although 10 players received first-team honors). Donarski was also named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
While the collegiate basketball world seems anxiously awaiting a possible matchup between the nation’s two top performers in South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, Iowa State could be crashing this party. The Cyclones have already beaten the Hawkeyes this season and the two teams have comparable profiles. (Both have two of the top five attacks in the country, for example, and they’re #7 and #8 in the team ranking of HerHoopsStats.) Is Iowa State the most likely choice in the region to advance to the Final Four? No, but wilder things have happened.
The popular sleeper
Kentucky (#6, Bridgeport area)
No one in the women’s college basketball world sleeps on Kentucky considering it progressed through the SEC tournament and defeated top-ranked South Carolina to take home its first conference title in 40 years. Even so, reaching the Wildcats’ first Final Four in school history would still be a true Cinderella run. Led by star guard Rhyne Howard, Kentucky open their tournament against Princeton (more on that team later). While the matchup is certainly tough, the Bridgeport region feels like one of the more open in the bracket. A possible second-round game against Indiana would be exciting, as would a Sweet 16 matchup against UConn. The road to Minneapolis is tough, but the Wildcats have proven they can shine in the most important games of the season. You could do it again.
Gonzaga (#9, Wichita area)
While college basketball fans rave about the possibility of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team making another Final Four, the Gonzaga women’s team is one of the hottest sleepers in its class. Winners of both the WCC Conference regular-season and tournament titles, the Zags offer incredible depth — seven players play an average of between 18.8 and 25.6 minutes per game — and don’t rely on a single player to provide the burden bears. Nobody averages more than 11 points per game. Instead, the Bulldogs play solid basketball on both ends of the floor. Per HerHoopsStats, Gonzaga is in the top 20 in the country in both offensive and defensive scoring. It’s also No. 12 in the outlet’s overall team standings. Key to a potential deep run in March is that the Zags limit opposing teams from three-point range and keep them at 27.1% shots from deep, and they make their offensive free throws at 77.2% shots. On November 21, the Bulldogs led Stanford at halftime, 2:36 behind in the game. While they eventually lost at four and fell to the Cardinal again weeks later, it was the kind of performance that indicated what they could do in the NCAA tournament.
Gonzaga faces Nebraska in the first round and could immediately piss off Louisville in the second round. When the Wichita region takes off, they have the potential to be one of the biggest surprise beneficiaries.
Princeton (#11, Bridgeport area)
The Tigers’ opening game against Kentucky could be the most interesting first-round matchup, and if the Tigers can prevail, they have all the makings of a tournament sleeper. Per HerHoopsStats, Princeton is ranked No. 5 in the country in defensive rating, keeping opponents down to just 50.9 per game. It has won 17 straight games and is undefeated in the Ivy League. As important to their resume, the Tigers also picked up non-conference victories over Villanova, FGCU, Buffalo and Temple. Their style of play is disruptive, forcing 19.4 turnovers per game and making up for the fact that forward Ellie Mitchell is their tallest starter at just 6’1″. They are ranked 24th in the AP for last week’s Ivy League Conference tournament entered the poll and likely would have made the dance even without a win against Columbia on Saturday, a win that marked their third straight conference title. If they get out of the first round, they could have to play IU, Connecticut and NC State. Even so, Princeton’s defense alone will make the team a tough nut to crack.
Noise in the early round
FGCU (#12, Spokane Area)
Few teams in the country have displayed the kind of offensive firepower that the Eagles have. Winners of 26 games this season, FGCU leads the nation in attempted three-point games and ranks second in completed three-point games. And despite that high volume, the Eagles still care about basketball, averaging just 11.3 turnovers per contest. Now in its fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance, FGCU is still trying to get through its first weekend of action. But since this is guard Kierstan Bell’s last chance — she’s already signed up for April’s WNBA draft — there could be added pressure to make a run.
Bell only played 19 games this season after missing a month with a partially torn meniscus. While she has completed five games since returning from injury, she shot under 30% from the arc in three of the competitions, a worrying mark for a player who averaged 9.3 attempts per game. Still, any offense that scores more than 75 points per game and can stretch a defense like the Eagles can’t count. First-round opponent Virginia Tech makes for a bit of a style break as the Hokies draw on ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley in the suit. Possible second-round opponents Maryland could also make for a tough game if both teams advance. Of all the teams we’ve spotted as sleepers, it’s particularly hard to envision FGCU in the Elite Eight (since that would also mean beating Stanford), but the Eagles could make some noise early on.
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (No. 12, Greensboro area)
As with FGCU, it’s hard to imagine Stephen F. Austin getting past the Sweet 16 — the Ladyjacks might have to beat South Carolina to do that. But the team could potentially advance into the second weekend. Winners of both the WAC regular season and the conference tournament, the Ladyjacks have one of the best defenses in the country. They only allow 76.3 points per 100 possessions, fifth best in the nation. While offense isn’t as prolific as some other mid-majors, seniors Stephanie Visscher and Aiyana Johnson are still averaging more than 14 points per game. First-round opponents North Carolina also have one of the best defenses in the nation, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Tar Heels’ offense falter. Potential second-round opponent Arizona also doesn’t appear to be as dangerous as last year since lead guard Aari McDonald has turned pro.
More March Madness coverage:
• Breakdown of the women’s NCAA tournament bracket
• What we learned from women’s conference tournaments• SI’s All-Americans 2021-22