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NCAA women’s basketball tournament predictions — Most exciting player, the River Walk debate and Final Four picks

The 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament is finally here. And when the games tip off Sunday in San Antonio, we won’t have to wait long for one of this season’s biggest stars to get the ball in her hands. Freshman Caitlin Clark — whom Sue Bird called the “most exciting player in college basketball right now” during ESPN’s Instagram Live on Selection Monday — and fifth-seeded Iowa face No. 12 seed Central Michigan (ESPN/ESPN App, noon ET) in one of the tournament’s first games.

We’ve ranked every team in the NCAA tournament, picked the five biggest contenders, previewed each region and potential bracket busters and named the top players in the field. Now it’s time to make our picks and answer some additional big questions — including whether UConn or Baylor is the favorite to advance out of the River Walk Regional.

What should we expect from Clark in her NCAA tournament debut, and who is another exciting player you think is must-watch in the tournament?

Voepel: Clark is fun to watch because so much of what Iowa does offensively is generated by her. She can shoot from anywhere, she has great on-court connection with post player Monika Czinano and she has a panache to her game that comes naturally.

Clark is averaging 26.7 points and 7.2 assists. She is as elite a scorer as she is a playmaker, and that’s not all that common. She can hit those long-range bomb 3-pointers that will make viewers jump off their couches yelling, so she stretches defenses that way, and then she can also pick them apart with her passing. Defenses have to be hyper-alert when she has the ball in her hands, which is much of the time.

Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith plays with a completely different style that is equally exciting. She can soar for the alley-oop pass and finish, and the Lady Bears look for that. Smith also just has a nose for the ball when it comes to scoring on offensive rebounds, and she and fellow junior Queen Egbo can block/alter shots and control games defensively, too.

Creme: Count me as one of those viewers jumping off my couch, Mechelle. I might have even pulled a hamstring when Clark hit a 27-footer against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. She shoots from that range so effortlessly, but the rest of her game is nothing but effort. If she’s not making a long jumper or finding Czinano with a no-look post pass, Clark is probably on the ground after taking contact on a hard drive to the basket or trying to fight through a screen on defense.

I am expecting more eye-popping things Sunday (ESPN/ESPN App, noon ET) in the first round because Central Michigan is the perfect matchup. The Chippewas like to play a wide-open, fast-paced game, too, and they don’t have the physical players to take Clark out of rhythm. She should have room to get anywhere she wants on the court. That should mean big points and assist numbers.

Another young Big Ten point guard has my attention, too. Sophomore Ashley Owusu of Maryland plays the same position as Clark, but in an entirely different way. Owusu doesn’t shoot many 3-pointers (36 to Clark’s NCAA-leading 254). Instead, she plays the position more like a power forward with a take-charge mentality and great finishing abilities. As the engine that makes Maryland’s high-scoring offense go, Owusu will also be playing in her first NCAA tournament for a team with high expectations. Second-seeded Maryland opens Monday (ESPN/ESPN App, 4 p.m. ET) against No. 15 seed Mount St. Mary’s.

Quite a few voters on ESPN’s panel below picked Baylor to advance to the Final Four from the River Walk region. How concerned are you about COVID-19 complications with UConn? How much did that affect your picks?

Voepel: Ever since Baylor’s upset loss at home to Iowa State on Jan. 16, we’ve been watching the Lady Bears get better. That was right after their COVID-19 pause, and it seemed to light an additional fire under them.

After beating TCU by 37 points in their Big 12 tournament opener, the Lady Bears got good challenges from Texas in the semifinals and West Virginia in the final. The Mountaineers appeared to run out of gas in the fourth quarter, but credit goes to Baylor for wearing them down. Coach Kim Mulkey said afterward the Lady Bears still had some things to work on, but the confidence they showed made them look ready to take on the NCAA tournament.

I think there have to be concerns with UConn having two coaches out right now, even though Chris Dailey is perfectly capable of running the team. The Huskies still could win the championship, and it would be no surprise. I didn’t really pick against UConn; I picked Baylor for the Lady Bears’ strengths.

Creme: When I picked Baylor to reach the Final Four, UConn’s COVID-19 issues didn’t even occur to me. I just think Baylor is the better team.

Mulkey is a master at finding a perceived slight and turning it into motivation. The Lady Bears were already playing as well as anyone else in the country. The fact that Baylor wasn’t chosen to be a No. 1 seed must have been part of at least one speech in the Baylor locker room before the team left for San Antonio.

The Lady Bears’ path isn’t necessarily easy. River Walk looks like the most challenging of the regions, but Baylor has the kind of defense that matches up with any style of play, and it’s one of the best in the country.

Stanford is the consensus pick as the overall tournament favorite. Why did you pick the Cardinal?

Voepel: Full disclosure: I have thought, “How many times in the last three decades did we think Stanford might win the NCAA title, but the Cardinal didn’t do it? So why pick them now?” Well, history doesn’t always dictate everything, right? Maybe, at last, it’s Stanford’s turn again.

After the Cardinal won the national championship in 1990 and ’92, no one could ever have guessed we’d be sitting here 29 years later wondering whether a third title was on the way. (Trigger warning to Stanford fans, here is a quick but painful summation of the Cardinal getting close in the Women’s Final Four but not close enough since then.)

Stanford had a terrific core group that went to the Final Four in 1995, ’96 and ’97 but lost in the semifinals each year. The Candice Wiggins-led 2008 team beat UConn in the national semifinals but couldn’t get past Tennessee for the title. In 2009, a semifinal loss to UConn. The 2010 team held UConn to 12 points in the first half of the final but still lost 53-47 in a dreadful all-around game.

In 2011, Stanford lost in the national semifinals to eventual champ Texas A&M. Another semifinal loss in 2012 to a Baylor team that went 40-0. There were two more semifinal losses in 2014 and ’17.

If this has all haunted Tara VanDerveer, she really doesn’t show it. She remains the eternal optimist, and she has recruited great talent to keep feeding that optimism. This group of Cardinal players are not carrying any baggage from past Final Four disappointments. Guard Anna Wilson is the only holdover from that 2017 team, and she had a foot injury and played just six games that season. She’s a completely different player now as a senior starter.

Much has been written and said about the Cardinal’s nine-week road swing because of COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County — about their depth, about their multiweapon offense and equally strong defense, about their cohesion. Sure, there have been some scoring droughts in games that are a little scary for VanDerveer. And Stanford’s most gifted all-around player, Haley Jones, is not necessarily its go-to player; that has been senior point guard Kiana Williams. That could be a strength or a concern, depending on how things play out.

But I’ve been voting the Cardinal No. 1 for several weeks and think they are the best overall team. The best team isn’t always the one that wins the NCAA tournament, of course, but it could this year.

Creme: Mechelle touched on so many of the reasons — the depth, the chemistry, the versatility of talent, the coach — and they all factor into why I picked Stanford. But the overriding characteristic I keep going back to is that the Cardinal still have more ways to win a basketball game than anyone else in the field.

In the past three weeks, Stanford has scored 92 in a game and 62 in another — and won both easily. The Cardinal are third in the country in field goal percentage defense and 14th in points scored per game. Seven different Cardinal players have led the team in scoring in games this season. Some games they go inside to freshman Cameron Brink. In others, Williams leads the charge. Or another night Jones handles the ball more and Williams is the designated shooter. That role could also belong to Lexie Hull or Hannah Jump.

Stanford doesn’t win with just one formula. So how does anyone devise a plan to beat them all?

Final Four picks

Andrea Adelson: Stanford (champion), South Carolina, Baylor, Texas A&M

Katie Barnes: Stanford (champion), Maryland, UConn, NC State

Charlie Creme: Stanford (champion), South Carolina, Baylor, Texas A&M

D’Arcy Maine: Stanford, Maryland, UConn (champion), Arizona

Kevin Pelton: Stanford (champion), Maryland, UConn, NC State

Mechelle Voepel: Stanford (champion), Maryland, Baylor, NC State

Royce Young: Stanford, Maryland (champion), Baylor, Texas A&M

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