Michigan’s up, Tennessee’s out and the Bueckers-Clark showdown everybody wanted

The Big Ten had a big day in the 2021 women’s basketball tournament on Tuesday, including a breakthrough moment for Michigan. But it was a difficult day for the SEC, including another early-round exit for Tennessee. No. 1 seeds Stanford, UConn, NC State and South Carolina each advanced to the Sweet 16, where the showdown everyone was hoping to see — UConn and Paige Bueckers vs. Iowa and Caitlin Clark, who had 35 points Tuesday — awaits. The Big Ten has a chance to make more headlines on Wednesday, as eight more teams punch their tickets into the regional semifinals. Our team — ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Mechelle Voepel and Royce Young — weighed in on all of the above. Follow this link for Wednesday’s NCAA tournament tip times, and visit here to check your Women’s Tournament Challenge bracket.

It has been a good tournament for the Big Ten, with two teams into the Sweet 16. With three more Big Ten teams playing Wednesday, will it get even better?

Voepel: It definitely could get better, but Tuesday was pretty great for the Big Ten in the River Walk Regional. After No. 6 seed Michigan upset No. 3 seed Tennessee 70-55 to clinch the Wolverines’ first Sweet 16 appearance, coach Kim Barnes Arico said, “It’s great for the rest of the country to see that Michigan is not only a football and men’s basketball school, but it’s also a women’s basketball school.”

In her 10th and final year at St. John’s, Barnes Arico led the Red Storm to the 2012 Sweet 16. Then she took over at Michigan, but she hadn’t gotten past the NCAA tournament’s second round in three previous tries. On Tuesday, the Wolverines were in control throughout the game to move into the regional semifinals. Big Ten player of the year Naz Hillmon (19 points, 15 rebounds) and teammate Leigha Brown (23 points) dominated offensively and defensively. The Wolverines didn’t look like themselves in a Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Northwestern, but led by Hillmon and Brown, they’ve been an NCAA tournament force.

Tuesday’s victory moved Hillmon to tears: “I think this year I’ve gotten a lot of individual accolades, and they’re always great. But seeing the work that my team has put in throughout the year and to finally be recognized as a team is the best accolade that I could ever get.”

In No. 5 seed Iowa’s 86-72 victory over No. 4 seed Kentucky, the Hawkeyes led 23-11 after one quarter and never looked back. Clark has 58 points and 13 assists in her first two NCAA tournament games.

It seems like the Big Ten has a good chance to get at least two more teams into the Sweet 16. On Wednesday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 1 p.m. ET), Maryland, the No. 2 seed in the Hemisfair Regional, will meet Alabama in what could be an interesting matchup if the Crimson Tide’s offense is as good as it was in a first-round win over North Carolina when they hit 11 3-pointers. Indiana, the No. 4 seed in the Mercado Regional, will try to avoid an upset by 12-seed Belmont (ESPNU/ESPN App, 5 p.m. ET ). And No. 7 seed Northwestern will be looking for an upset of second-seeded Louisville (ESPN2/ESPN App, 5 p.m. ET) in the Alamo Regional.

Creme: After the success of Iowa and Michigan, two lower-seeded teams advancing over higher-seeded opponents, it would be disappointing if the Big Ten didn’t put four teams in the Sweet 16.

Alabama is experienced and can be explosive, but Maryland is a big favorite in that game. The Crimson Tide could not slow the best offenses in the SEC during the regular season — South Carolina averaged 80 points in three games against them, and Arkansas scored 94 in one meeting — and now they face the nation’s highest-scoring team. The Terps have six players averaging in double figures. Katie Benzan makes more than half her 3-point attempts and leads the country in accuracy. Ashley Owusu is an All-American. Freshman Angel Reese, the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2020, is healthy and back in the rotation. Diamond Miller (first team), Chloe Bibby (honorable mention), and Mimi Collins (honorable mention) all made All-Big Ten. That talent is striking.

Indiana also should get through. Belmont was outstanding in its win over Gonzaga, slowing the pace, bottling up the middle and forcing 20 turnovers. The Hoosiers’ offense is more diverse, with Mackenzie Holmes, Ali Patberg, and Grace Berger all averaging over 14 points per game, and Indiana has the seventh-best turnover rate in the country. In the past two NCAA tournaments, double-digit seeds are 2-5 in the second round.

Northwestern’s task, obviously, is much greater against No. 2 seed Louisville, but if Maryland and Indiana advance, the Pac-12 is the only conference that could match the Big Ten with four teams in the Sweet 16.

Tennessee lost in the early rounds for the fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. What went wrong in San Antonio, and what’s next for the Lady Vols?

Voepel: Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said the Wolverines’ physical play bothered the Lady Vols, who never seemed in very good rhythm the whole game. Tennessee was 2-of-14 from 3-point range. But Harper thought the Lady Vols’ many missed shots inside — which were affected by Michigan’s defense — were as big a problem.

Tennessee had its ups — like beating South Carolina in the regular season — and downs — like Tuesday’s loss — this season. In the Lady Vols’ past two losses, they scored 52 points (versus the Gamecocks in the SEC tournament ) and 55 points.

Tennessee has made every NCAA tournament, and it didn’t lose before the Sweet 16 until 2009’s first-round loss to Ball State. The idea of Tennessee not having any players with Sweet 16 experience would have seemed absurd until recent years. But that’s the situation the Lady Vols found themselves in this season.

“Throughout my career as a head coach, I feel like having those experiences have been so good for the following year,” Harper said. “I think this will be growth for our team moving forward. It’s a process: There’s a lot about learning how to win and understanding what it’s going to take.

“You can flip on the TV and see the teams that walk around with a different confidence, because they’ve been there and done that.”

The thing is, no program — other than 11-time champion UConn — has been there and done that more than the eight-time champion Lady Vols. Former coach Holly Warlick lost her job largely because of the NCAA early-round losses in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Harper knew that even as a beloved alum who won three titles as a player, she would still have heat on her from the start to try to return Tennessee to its past glory. That’s going to be a challenging project, to say the least. Lady Vols fans likely wouldn’t have been too disappointed topping out with a Sweet 16 appearance in this, Harper’s first NCAA tournament as Lady Vols coach after she had taken three previous teams to the Big Dance. But a second-round exit adds a little more to the pressure cooker.

Creme: Mechelle hit on it. The Lady Vols, especially on offense, were just too inconsistent. One of the those bad offensive days showed up on Tuesday.

It’s particularly hard for Tennessee to win when Rennia Davis struggles. Against Michigan, she scored 12 points on 4-for-17 shooting. Davis played in seven of the Lady Vols’ eight losses, averaging 14.6 points on 36% shooting in those games. Harper had put together a solid roster, but it wasn’t good enough to overcome poor outings from its best player.

The potential game everyone anticipated on Selection Monday is official: Freshman phenoms Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark and UConn and Iowa will meet in the Sweet 16. What are your early thoughts on the matchup?

Young: It was the game everyone was quietly hoping for coming into the tournament, and both teams — and their star freshmen — delivered to make it happen. Already both Clark and Bueckers are downplaying the head-to-head element, talking about how it’s UConn versus Iowa and such. All the right things to say, of course, but in a game that often comes down to individual excellence, the thought of the two unbelievable talents squaring off is not only what the tournament is about, but what basketball is about in general.

“Obviously a good friend of mine,” Clark said of Bueckers. “A tremendous player. But we would both say, we’re not going to win it alone, no matter who wins that game.”

And while that’s obviously true, and the supporting casts will play their parts, there is a much bigger burden on Clark to carry her team. Bueckers has the backing of the UConn machine, with talent and depth — albeit young — and other excellent players like Olivia Nelson-Ododo and Aaliyah Edwards. While Monika Czinano is one of the most efficient players in the country, the Hawkeyes don’t have the same kind of two-way firepower.

And while Iowa is a terrific offensive team, the defensive side is its weakness (last in the country in scoring defense during the season). Though it has been a significant area of improvement so far in the tournament, if Iowa and Clark want to shock the world, it’s going to be because the Hawkeyes play their best defensive game of the season.

Creme: Is it too obvious to say plenty of points? Both are going to score and Clark will probably score more, but the only happy freshmen in this matchup will be the one on the winning side. If that team is Iowa it will probably take another signature game from Clark, like the one she had on Tuesday against Kentucky. And with UConn on the other side, it might take even more.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Bueckers spends the early part of the game trying to get others involved. Clark has help and her gaudy assist numbers (7.1 APG) prove it, just not the same level of help as Bueckers, so she might not have that luxury.

Watching Bueckers and Clark go head-to-head in a mini 3-point contest would be fun, but what might disappoint some is that it’s unlikely they will match up defensively. UConn will mix in some zone, and when the Huskies go man-to-man Christyn Williams or Evina Westbrook is the more probable matchup for Clark.

Voepel: These are the kinds of matchups every sport wants: Two young superstars at the same position going head-to-head in a winner-take-all game. That said, there will be a lot going on in this game beyond Clark and Bueckers; it’s how everyone else plays that most likely will decide the winner. But all eyes will be on the youngsters and their chess match against each other.

Those viewers with UConn fatigue (everyone except Huskies fans) will join Hawkeye Nation as huge Iowa fans. And the thing is, no matter how this game goes, it’s cool to think it’s just the beginning for these two players.

Name one other player who really impressed you Tuesday?

Voepel: Let’s hear it for Hemisfair No. 5 seed Georgia Tech, which advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history, and Lorela Cubaj, the senior forward from Italy. After a first-round squeaker in overtime, 54-52, against a Stephen F. Austin team that seemed to be underseeded at No. 12, the Yellow Jackets powered past No. 4 seed West Virginia 73-56. Cubaj led the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds, and she’s averaging 12.4 PPG and 11.7 RPG this season. Let’s see how she matches up with Aliyah Boston and No. 1 seed South Carolina in the regional semifinals.

Creme: With Kayla Jones sidelined with a knee injury and Elissa Cunane struggling to a 3-for-15 shooting day, NC State sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner jumped to the forefront. Her 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting led the Wolfpack against South Florida in a game they might not have been able to win without her. Jada Boyd, in the starting lineup in place of Jones, was also solid. She scored seven of her 18 points during the decisive third quarter in which NC State outscored USF 24-11.

Young: If I’m being honest, I’m kind of tempted to just disregard the instructions to this question and gush about Caitlin Clark some more, but a big shout-out is necessary for Rhyne Howard of Kentucky. The Wildcats got off to an awful start, falling behind 11-0 in the opening minutes and trailed not just Iowa, but Clark herself, at the half.

Kentucky has had a challenging season with the stunning forced retirement of head coach Matthew Mitchell following a serious head injury after falling on vacation. But the Wildcats responded all season under associate head coach Kyra Elzy and showcased resilience in the second half against Iowa. The game was never all that close, but Howard battled to the end, scoring 28 points in 38 minutes, plus 8 assists and 6 steals. An admirable way to go out.

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