The first weekend of the women's NCAA Tournament is in the books, and as you'd expect once 32 games are played, we've learned quite a lot about the shape of both the season so far and what to expect over the next two weeks, when a champion will be crowned. Here are the biggest takeaways from the paring down of 64 teams to the Sweet 16, which resumes this Friday night, beginning with Notre Dame vs. Ohio State at 7:06 p.m. ET (all games air on ESPN and ESPN2).
Parity is real
A foolish dismissal of the women's game usually begins with the idea that there's too much power concentrated at the top, specifically UConn. But this tournament once again demonstrated that any number of teams can compete, even against the very best.
For the third time in the history of the tournament (which dates back to 1982), a pair of double-digit seeds are still dancing here in the second weekend. There's No. 10 seed Oregon, who went out and beat No. 7 seed Temple in an instant classic first-round matchup, 71-70, before besting No. 2 seed Duke in Durham to advance to the Bridgeport Regional. Oregon starts three freshmen, and either guard Sabrina Ionescu or center Ruthy Hebard would be a worthy national freshman of the year.
Then there's Quinnipiac, which rode strong three-point shooting and a defense that ranked sixth nationally in points per possession past No. 5 seed Marquette and No. 4 seed Miami in Miami to advance. It wasn't a fluke, keyed by poor performances from the favorites, either. "I don't think we did a whole heck of a lot horribly," Miami coach Katie Meier said following the game. "They just were really special tonight."
Even in the first round, the near-misses included Penn blowing a 21-point lead as a No. 12 seed to fall to Texas A&M, No. 13 Belmont missing a shot at the buzzer to take No. 4 Kentucky to overtime, and No. 15 Long Beach State coming one point short of No. 2 Oregon State. The talent base is getting bigger, and more teams are competing every year.
The strong assert themselves
Even so, a few teams have reaffirmed their status as elite title contenders heading into the Sweet 16. There's UConn, of course, who decimated a solid Albany team among the top 20 in defensive efficiency, 116-55, then put up 94 against a Syracuse team that lives to trap and turn teams over. Kia Nurse, who is both a future WNBA lottery pick and somehow the fourth offensive option at times on this Huskies team, made nine three-pointers out of 10 attempts Monday night against that stout Syracuse defense. If any obvious deficiencies exist for UConn, they didn't manifest themselves in the first two rounds.
The same is true for fellow No. 1 Baylor, who scored an NCAA record 119 points in an 89-point win over Texas Southern, then crushed a solid Cal team seeded ninth 86-46 to advance to the Oklahoma City Regional. (Note: point guard Alexis Jones, who was slowed by injury late in the season, appears to be more than fine.) Maryland, which received a No. 3 seed due to strength of schedule despite looking every bit like a top five team all season, proved it with routs of Bucknell and a West Virginia team, seeded sixth, that just beat Baylor and Texas. And Washington, led by Kelsey Plum, made history -- Plum set the single-season scoring record previously held by Jackie Stiles, and the Huskies put up 108 against Oklahoma to advance to Oklahoma City, where they'll face Mississippi State in a highly-anticipated matchup.
The Pac-12 really is great, and so is the Big Ten
All season, the Pac-12's RPI has put them atop the heap of college basketball conferences, and the first two rounds did nothing to argue against that stat. Of the seven conference teams in the tournament, five advanced to the Sweet 16. It took a pair of No. 1 seeds, Baylor and South Carolina, to knock out Cal and Arizona State, the latter giving the Gamecocks everything they could handle in front of a raucous pro-South Carolina crowd. As for the Big Ten, a poor bottom of the conference dragged down strength of schedule numbers for the top. Too bad, because Maryland played like the top seed it should have been, Ohio State shook off the No. 5 seed to win at Kentucky and advance to a showdown with Notre Dame, and even Purdue, seeded ninth, nearly defeated the Fightin' Irish in the second round. Think Michigan should have been in the field instead of Auburn?
The best is yet to come
The Sweet 16's best matchups start with that Ohio State-Notre Dame game in Lexington. Kelsey Mitchell, told by coach Kevin McGuff to act like the best player on the floor in Round Two, responded. The Buckeyes have Final Four talent, and they may be getting big Stephanie Mavunga back from injury for the game. Mavunga is the nation's leader in rebounding percentage, and if Notre Dame is without Briana Turner, who left the Purdue game with a knee injury, the Fighting Irish could be the first No. 1 seed to fall.
Then there's Baylor-Louisville, with rightful (though not named) ACC Player of the Year Asia Durr in peak form going up against Baylor's ridiculous front line, fronted by Kalani Brown, an offensive player few can answer and rim protector extraordinare. And don't miss Nina Davis for the Bears, either: one of the brainiest players in the game, intent upon reaching the Final Four in her senior season.
We are also one win for each team away from a Maryland-Connecticut showdown in Bridgeport. No team has played the Huskies tougher over the past two seasons than the Terrapins. Back in December, Maryland lost to Connecticut, 87-81, a game close until the final minute. Last year, Maryland nearly beat Breanna Stewart's UConn, losing 83-73 in Madison Square Garden. Brionna Jones, the uber-efficient center, scored 24 in that one. Destiny Slocum, the ridiculously talented freshman point guard, scored 23 against the Huskies this season. Her upper body strength combined with next-level court awareness makes her my freshman of the year, and that was true even before she did this.
It says here the Final Four will be Maryland, Washington, Ohio State and Oregon State. But it will be a wild ride to get there.