The Huskies Get a Major Boost and Three Other Things to Watch in the Round of 32
In the nearly two-week break between UConn winning its 20th Big East tournament title and its 2022 NCAA tournament opener on Saturday, star guard Paige Bueckers tried to get both her mind and body prepared for the run ahead. While it was clear in the No. 2 Huskies’ 83–38 blowout win over No. 15 Mercer that she is still working her way back after her lengthy absence, the added layoff looked to be beneficial.
Bueckers returned to UConn’s starting lineup Saturday and played 24 minutes, the most she’s logged since suffering a left knee injury that kept her out nearly three months of the season. Coach Geno Auriemma said afterward he didn’t have any limit for how much time last year’s national player of the year would log, and that he wouldn’t have one going forward.
“It could be 20 tomorrow. It could be 30 or 20 on Monday, ”Auriemma said. “I think a lot depends on what the game looks like and what it looks like.”
Bueckers was active on defense in the win and aggressive on offense, making five of her seven shot attempts and recording five assists. While her seven shots attempts would have been a season-low a year ago, she’s not concerned about her output on that end.
“If the game calls for me to take 15 shots, then, or two shots, doesn’t really matter to me,” she said.
Bueckers’s expanded role is, of course, a boost for the Huskies. But how UConn’s defense performs might be the most important factor in determining how far it advances. The Huskies have allowed more than 55 points only once since Feb. 13. They’ll look put together yet another stout performance on Monday when they play No. 7 UCF.
Here’s what else you should be watching for as the round of 32 gets underway.
How will the No. 1 seeds perform when pushed?
All four No. 1 seeds cruised into the second round, with NC State’s 28-point win over Longwood being the closest of the four contests. But the road ahead should get exponentially tougher for the tournament’s top teams. Both Miami and Kansas defeated their opponents convincingly in the first round to set up matchups with South Carolina and Stanford, respectively. And Gonzaga, who will face Louisville, was one of my favorite sleeper teams from the tournament’s outset; I even went so far as to pick the West Coast Conference tournament champions to pull off a stunning upset over the Cardinals in my bracket. No matter if that happens or not, though, we’ll start to learn a lot more about the top seeds going forward.
Will a double-digit seed advance to the Sweet 16?
While the tournament’s title favorites all advanced out of the first round, that doesn’t mean we were spared any madness. Two No. 10s, two No. 11s and two No. 12s moved to the round of 32, with each now looking to push their March run even further. (We also almost had a historic 14 vs. 3 upset!) Keep a particularly close eye on the Florida Gulf Coast, whose three-point shooting could present problems for Maryland, and No. 11 Princeton, whose defense could pose problems for Indiana.
Star power will be on full display
South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith return to action Sunday, highlighting a group of three SI first-team All-Americans and two second-team All-Americans who will take the floor. But if you’re looking for a mid-major player to watch, look no further than South Dakota senior center Hannah Sjervin, who scored 20 points and hauled in seven rebounds while stifling Rebels center Shakira Austin in Thursday’s win over Ole Miss.
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• All four No. 1 seeds survived the first-round madness, but the same cannot be said for the round of 32 in the men’s tournament.
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UNC had the honors of being the first to knock a no. 1 seed out, taking out defending champs Baylor in overtime. The Tar Heels had built a monster lead by as many as 25 points until the game flipped with 10 minutes left.
The Bears mounted a big enough comeback to force OT, but UNC outscored Baylor 13–6 in overtime to avoid an epic collapse.
Gonzaga and Kansas were pushed until the very end too, but both survived to advance to the second weekend of play.
• Meanwhile, one first-round Cinderella is still dancing. No. 15 Saint Peter’s is off to the Sweet 16 after taking down No. 7 Murray State. The Peacocks are the third No. 15 seed in tournament history to make it past the second round.
• On the women’s side, the madness began when No. 11 Princeton took down No. 6 Kentucky and it didn’t stop. No. 11 Villanova continued the trend thanks to 25 points from Maddy Siegrist in a win over No. 6 BYU. And No. 12 Belmont played the role of Cinderella for a second straight year, knocking out No. 5 Oregon in a double-overtime thriller.
No. 14 Jackson State also put on a show against No. 3 LSU. Kim Mulkey’s Tigers were in trouble late, but pulled it out just in time to hold off the upset attempt. No. 13 seeds UNLV and IUPUI also kept their games close until the very end.
• Speaking of those bracket-busting games.… Jeremy Woo makes sense of the bizarre UNC-Baylor game and Emma Baccellieri goes through what women’s upsets mean in the steady climb of parity.
• After not having won consecutive games since January, Michigan is into the Sweet 16. Kevin Sweeney on how the Wolverines found consistency just in time to halt red-hot Tennessee.
• Before Michigan State and Duke square off Sunday, Jason Jordan breaks down the highly anticipated second-round clash of two Hall of Fame coaches.
What to watch
• No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 10 Creighton: Expect a lot of points in this contest as Iowa and Creighton are both in the top 20 of offensive rating nationally. Clark is the headliner for the Hawkeyes, but don’t sleep on the importance of senior center Monika Czinano, who recorded 18 points and seven rebounds in Iowa’s first-round win. 1 pm ET, ABC
• No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 9 Gonzaga: The Cardinals came into the tournament looking like the most vulnerable No. 1 seed and Gonzaga entered as a sleeper to make a deep run. The Bulldogs are sound on both ends of the floor and feature incredible depth — seven players average between 18.8 and 25.6 minutes per game. They have the kind of balance needed to pull off a stunner. 7 pm ET, ESPN
• No. 3 Iowa State Vs. No. 6 Georgia: Cyclones senior guard Ashley Joens recorded one of the best individual performances of the first round, scoring 36 points and hauling in 15 rebounds in ISU’s 78–71 victory over Texas-Arlington. Georgia, sporting the No. 11 defensive unit in the country, will look to slow her down and pull off a major upset and prevent a (potential) in-state ISU – Iowa rematch. 8 pm ET, ESPN2
• No. 2 Duke vs. No. 7 Michigan State: Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo will meet for the final time in a rivalry Coach K has dominated (12–3 all-time against Izzo-coached MSU teams). But in 2019, the last time they met in the tourney, the Spartans ousted Duke in the Elite 8. These Blue Devils have a talent edge but are significantly younger, which leaves the door open for a nail-biter. 5:15 pm ET, CBS
• No. 3 Wisconsin Vs. No. 11 Iowa State: These teams enter on differing trajectories, with Wisconsin and Johnny Davis laboring through a first-round win over Colgate and the Cyclones ousting LSU behind a star turn from stellar freshman Tyrese Hunter (a native of Racine, Wi.). The Badgers have had major fan support in Milwaukee, but with Davis visibly not 100% after a bad ankle sprain two weeks ago, expect this to be close throughout. 6:10 pm ET, TNT
• No. 2 Miami Vs. No. 10 Auburn: The Tigers, led by projected No. 1 pick Jabari Smith Jr., are rightfully favored coming in, but the ‘Canes have the personnel to make this interesting. Miami’s guards are older and battle-tested, and their five-out system will try to pull Auburn’s Walker Kessler out of the paint. Keep a close eye on this one. 6:45 pm ET, TruTV
• No. 1 Arizona Vs. No. 9 TCU: After Baylor became the first No. 1 seed to exit, and Kansas and Gonzaga were pushed, it’s worth checking in on Arizona, who will have to handle a physical TCU team to advance. The Wildcats play an entertaining brand of ball and are worth getting familiar with now. 9:40 pm ET, TBS