The Sporting Tribune’s guide to March Madness

Big West Conference
Will Despart breaks down the bracket for all of The Sporting Tribune's teams competing in March Madness.

Selection Sunday is now behind us, and it may have been the craziest one we’ve ever seen. That being said, it’s time to dance.

The Sporting Tribune, as many of you probably have gathered by now, focuses on teams and events in the Southern California, Las Vegas, and Hawai’i regions. It’s a combination I’ve come to affectionately refer to as “Tribune Territory”. We have a handful of teams in our territory competing for a national championship in the upcoming NCAA Men’s and Women’s NCAA Tournaments, so let’s go through the list and see where they all stand, and where I think they’ll end up.

NCAA Men’s Tournament

San Diego State-5 seed, East Region

The defending national runner-up is in a pretty similar predicament to where they stood on this exact day last year, before they made their incredible run to the final.

They are again the five seed in the region that also houses the tournament’s number one overall seed. Last year, it was in the South Region with Brandon Miller and Alabama. This time, it’s a bit more daunting, as the number one overall seed is a UConn program that has had a dominant season after beating the Aztecs by 16 in last year’s national championship game.

However, the East region is a region of death if we’ve ever seen one. Each of the top four seeds appeared in the top 10 of Monday’s AP poll in addition to being ranked in the top ten of the infamous KenPom rankings.

As it stands, I don’t even think the Aztecs will make it to that UConn rematch. I have them beating upstart UAB in the First Round before bowing out to Auburn in the Round of 32. Auburn is ranked seventh in Monday’s AP Poll, but is fourth in the KemPom rankings which has them listed as the fourth best adjusted offense and the tenth best adjusted defense in the nation.

In comparison, San Diego State is ranked 24th in Monday’s edition of the AP poll. KenPom’s metrics have them slated as the 21st ranked team in the country, with the 68th ranked adjusted offense and ninth ranked adjusted defense. Needless to say, I don’t see the Aztecs making it past Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers in that weekend matchup.

Long Beach State-15 seed, West Region

The Beach was maybe the best story from all of the nation’s respective conference tournaments over the last few weeks. Last week, Long Beach State fired their head coach Dan Monson going into the Big West Tournament but determined they would allow him to see the season through and finish it with his team.

I’m sure the Long Beach State administration, like the rest of us, didn’t have what happened next on their bingo card.

In a twist fit for a cheesy 90s sports film, the four seeded Beach shocked The Big West and ran the table in the conference, beating each of the top three seeds on their way to the program’s first Big West title and tournament berth since 2012.

Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be a short run for The Beach in The Big Dance. The 15 seed drew Arizona in the first round and I don’t see that game becoming much of a contest. Arizona is a top-15 team nationally in both adjusted offense and adjusted defense, which will be a suffocating combination for any Big West team to face. Much less a team that was limping through the conference in the regular season before their Disney movie-esque run.

NCAA Women’s Tournament

USC-1 seed, Portland 3 Region

It’s been a dream season for star Juju Watkins and the Women of Troy, but like another Los Angeles basketball legend once famously said, “The jobs not finished.”

For the first time in 37 years, USC’s women’s basketball program has earned a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was at that time that Cheryl Miller and the original Women of Troy were carving their paths as immortals not just in women’s basketball but for women’s sports as a whole and doing it with style and dominance. Those years are remembered with great fondness in Los Angeles, and for many Angelenos, Watkins and this 2023-24 group is as close to the glory days as they have ever come.

USC is coming off an impressive and resilient run in the Pac-12 tournament, winning the storied conference’s final championship game by beating at the time second-ranked Stanford 74-61.

They open the tournament against 16 seed Texas A&M Corpus Christi. I don’t think we need to dive too deep into that one, as they should win quite handily barring an absolute catastrophe. The second round will be a bit tougher as they’ll meet eighth-seeded Kansas, but these Jayhawks don’t have the pedigree or the premier talent the men’s program in Lawrence has. I expect that to be a little tougher, but still a relatively easy USC victory.

That whole easy path thing is dead once they reach the Sweet Sixteen. That’s where they will either meet fourth-seeded Virginia Tech or fifth-seeded Baylor. I currently have Baylor slated to meet USC in the Sweet Sixteen, where I expect The Women of Troy to overcome a fierce challenge from a Baylor program still trying to find a place on the national stage post-Kim Mulkey.

If they survive that matchup and everything goes as predicted, they’ll meet either two-seeded Ohio State or three-seeded UConn in the Elite 8, with an outside shot of it being seventh-seeded Duke. USC actually beat Ohio State in their season opener at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and if they met again at this point I would expect a similar outcome. Although I wouldn’t have said that a month ago.

I would also expect them to beat Duke, if that scenario came into play. Juju Watkins and Rayah Marshall would simply be too much firepower for the Sisterhood to handle. Still, if Duke makes it that far, it would be a hell of a run.

The concern for USC, in my opinion, comes if UConn emerges from that matchup with either Ohio State or Duke to meet them in the Elite Eight. Which I believe they will.

The Huskies are a matchup nightmare for USC. All-American center/forward Aaliyah Edwards has proven that she can be enough of a force to neutralize Rayah Marshall’s impact by getting her share on the offensive end against even the toughest matchups. In addition, two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year winner Nika Muhl will present a legitimate defensive challenge to Watkins with her physical play and scrappiness. Despite Watkins having a significant height advantage in that matchup, we saw how much the physicality and scrappiness wore down and effected Juju in the Pac-12 quarters against Arizona.

This is before I even mention the current, two-time Big East Player of the Year and 2021 Wooden, Naismith and AP Player of the Year award winner Paige Bueckers, who is anchoring a UConn team that is somehow being called a “sleeper.” Oh, and Geno Auriemma. Only the third winningest coach in the history of collegiate basketball. I’m sure he’ll have more than one answer to the Juju problem.

UCLA-2 seed, Portland 2 Region

UCLA drew the second seed out of the Portland 2 Region after an incredible campaign that saw the Lady Bruins ranked in the top five for a chunk of the season. They earned wins over UConn, USC, Stanford, Ohio State and several other tournament teams throughout the season and proved themselves to be a legitimate contender to run the table here.

They meet the 15 seed Big West champion California Baptist Lancers in the first round. UCLA faced two Big West opponents this season and outscored them by a total of 100 points in those two games, beating UC Riverside 90-52 and CSU Northridge 111-48 in the non-conference portion of the schedule.

Once the Bruins handle that, it starts to get real messy in “Tribune Territory”. That’s because if tenth-seeded UNLV (who I’ll get to next) beats seventh-seeded Creighton in the first round, we would have a UCLA-UNLV matchup on our hands in the second round. Without getting too much into detail before we talk about UNLV, I do think the Bruins will advance from this matchup into the Sweet Sixteen.

Should the Lady Bruins make the Sweet Sixteen as expected, they will likely be met with the reigning and defending national champion LSU Tigers. Kim Mulkey is a terror to get out of the picture in March, and Angel Reese and Flau’Jae Johnson are still anchoring the Tigers in their quest for a repeat. The addition of former Louisville star Hailey Van Lith has been a gain, albeit a turbulent one, on both ends of the floor.

Despite all of that, I actually do think UCLA wins this matchup. They’ve been battle tested all year in matchups like these, and while they split with most of the other Pac-12 powers, they did exceptionally well in their top non-conference matchups. Cori Close has proven she can get this group to rise to any challenge on the schedule, and I see them as the perfect candidate to end LSU’s reign.

The next round is where reaper comes for the Lady Bruin’s title dreams, and she comes wearing that #22 Iowa jersey that has become as iconic as any in the history of American collegiate sports.

That’s right. UCLA’s reward for beating the reigning champs? A matchup with Caitlin Clark and the top-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes in a game that will almost likely go down as one of the ten most-watched games in the history of women’s college basketball, thanks to the mania that surrounds Clark and this prospective title run for Iowa. It’s a phenomenon not seen in collegiate sports since Tim Tebow nearly 20 years ago now, and I think Clark backs that up with one of her signature performances to prevent the Lady Bruins from reaching the Final Four.

UNLV-10 seed, Portland 2 Region

Oh, the disrespect. The Lady Rebels went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular season and tournament championships, beat Oklahoma and Arizona on the road and were ranked #19 in last week’s edition of the USA Today poll. What do they get from the selection committee? A measly 10 seed, and a difficult matchup against a Creighton program that advanced to the Elite Eight just two years ago.

I have the Lady Rebels winning that first round matchup and getting over the hump in a closely contested game, but truthfully I could be just as easily convinced that Creighton could come to Los Angeles and beat the brakes off them. After all, the Lady Rebels lost by 30 to a Seton Hall team that Creighton swept in Big East play.

If they do manage to get by Creighton in that first round matchup, they’ll almost certainly be met by the two seed UCLA. I really don’t give the Lady Rebels much, if any chance in this game should it come to be. Desi-Rae Young was fantastic in the Mountain West, but if Lauren Betts played a Mountain West schedule she probably would have averaged 35 points and 20 rebounds. I expect Betts to be a suffocating presence in this matchup, and UNLV won’t get much relief in the backcourt as Charisma Osborne and Angela Dugalic will easily outmatch what Kiana Jackson and Ashley Scoggins bring to the table.

Still, an appearance in the Round of 32 would be a welcome sight for the program. It may not be the tournament run the Vegas faithful has been dreaming up all year, but the truth is this is as stacked a tournament as we’ve ever seen in women’s college basketball.