Bueckers and Clark among stars returning to NCAA women’s field

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Stanford guard Haley Jones (30) shoots against Utah guard Dru Gylten, left, and forward Jenna Johnson (22) during the second half of a college basketball game at the NCAA for the Pac-12 Tournament Championship on Sunday, March 6, 2022 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)

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Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark are back, this time as talented sophomores in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

The duo took center stage and captured the nation’s attention last year in one of the Sweet 16’s most anticipated women’s matchups between top freshman Bueckers and her team UConn and Clark with the ‘Iowa.

This time, Bueckers has played modest minutes in her four games since returning from knee surgery for an injury she suffered in early December.

Clark picked up where she left off last year, winning the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year award and leading the nation in 27.1 points per game. Clark had five triple-doubles this season and a career-high 46 points against Michigan.

Bueckers said his challenge was “to accept who I am going to be and who I am for the rest of the season and just try to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

It was Bueckers and UConn who outscored Iowa last March in San Antonio, with the Huskies winning 92-72. Bueckers had 18 points, Clark had 21.

But these are just two of many players to watch in this year’s tournament.

NaLyssa Smith led Baylor to the Big 12 Conference regular season title the first year after national championship coach Kim Mulkey left for LSU. Smith, who averaged 23.1 points, was the first to earn back-to-back Big 12 player honors since former bear Brittney Griner did so three straight years from 2011-13.

Stanford’s Haley Jones was the standout player in the Final Four last year as the Cardinal beat Arizona for the championship in a Pac-12 showdown. She averaged 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds this year — second in the Pac 12 — and was named conference player of the year. Stanford is trying to become the first women’s team to win back-to-back titles since UConn’s four-game streak ended in 2016.

South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, enters the NCAA Tournament with 24 straight games with double-digit points and rebounds.

Emily Engstler of Louisville, a 6-foot-1 transfer from Syracuse, led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 2.5 steals per game, as well as 11.5 points and 9.1 boards per game.

A few other things to know about this year’s women’s tournament:

LEVEL THE GROUND

The NCAA has taken several steps to make men’s and women’s tournaments more equal this year.

Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video last year about the lack of amenities — training gear, food, tournament giveaways — the women had in San Antonio compared to the men in Indianapolis.

The NCAA commissioned a study, published last summer, that found glaring inequities between tournaments. This year, the women’s field will feature 68 teams, just like the men’s, and the term “March Madness” will be branded on the field instead of just “Women’s Basketball” as in the past.

The NCAA said the men’s and women’s teams will also have fair hotel rooms and food.

FIRST FOUR INAUGURAL

Howard, Incarnate Word, Missouri State, Florida State, Longwood, Mount St. Mary’s, Dayton and DePaul will enter the record books as teams in the first four women’s games.

Howard and Incarnate Word — making their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearances — will play, with the winner facing No. 1 seed South Carolina in Colombia. Also in the Greensboro area, Dayton and DePaul will play for the chance to face sixth-seeded Georgia.

In the Spokane area, Missouri State and Florida State will meet to see who will face sixth-seeded Ohio State. And in the Bridgeport area, Longwood faces Mount St. Mary’s with the lead to take on top-seeded North Carolina State.

DOUBLE DIP

There are 24 schools that have teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments, including the top four seeds on the men’s side in Gonzaga, Arizona, Kansas and Baylor.

Perhaps the most intriguing school with teams in both events is Longwood. The Lancers men’s and women’s teams won the Big South Conference Tournament crowns to earn NCAA berths for the first time in school history.

Other schools with teams in the men’s and women’s tournaments: UConn, Arkansas, Norte Dame, Montana State, North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, Villanova, Delaware, Creighton, Iowa, LSU , Iowa State and Miami.

THE SOFTNESS OF HOME

Don’t expect many opener surprises as the NCAA Tournament returns to campus venues.

However, there could be a few surprises in the second round.

The No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds are 324-1 in first-round games since the field was pegged at 64. The only upset was No. 16 Harvard beating Stanford , seeded, on his home turf in 1998.

The No. 4 seeds went 108-10 against 13th-seeded opponents.

The second is a different story: In each of the last three NCAA tournaments that started on home courts in 2017, 2018 and 2019, only 12 of the 16 home teams advanced from the second round to the Sweet 16.

BACK HOME

Tournament No. 1 seed South Carolina will host its first NCAA home game since 2018. The Gamecocks played in Charlotte in 2019 because an NCAA Men’s Regional was held in their building. The 2020 tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 while last year’s event was played entirely in San Antonio.

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More March Madness AP coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/college- basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25