With Champ Week done and dusted, attention now turns to the ‘Big Dance’ – the NCAA Tournament. Four Aussies reached the tournament as conference champions, whilst seven more picked up at-large bids to see 11 Aussies split evenly across 11 teams enter the 64-team bracket.
Alanna Smith and Tiana Mangakahia will each get the chance to extend their outstanding seasons, with Smith’s Stanford team upsetting Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game, whilst an at-large bid was never in doubt for Syracuse even prior to their semi-final run in the ACC Tournament. Buffalo’s Courtney Wilkins and Portland State’s Courtney West were solid contributors to their teams’ championship game victories in the MAC and Big Sky, whilst a Mississippi State side featuring the injured Chloe Bibby round out the conference champions.
Four of the at-large bids belong to a quartet of Pac-12 teams, with Oregon (Morgan Yaeger), Oregon State (Jasmine Simmons), UCLA (Chantel Horvat), and California (Sara Anastasieska) all securing positions. A Tennessee team meandering through a down year, with Aussie graduate transfer Louise Brown out for the season, managed to extend their campaign with an #11 seed, thanks in no small part to their six Top 50 victories, with Lauren Mills and Iowa State also securing a spot after a solid season that saw the Cyclones ranked in the top 15 for much of the season.
Aussies in the Bracket
#4 Oregon State (Jasmine Simmons) v Boise State
#6 UCLA (Chantel Horvat) v #11 Tennessee (Louise Brown)
#10 Buffalo (Courtney Wilkins) v Rutgers
#2 Stanford (Alanna Smith) v #15 UC Davis
#3 Iowa State (Lauren Mills) v #14 New Mexico State
#8 California (Sara Anastasieska) v #9 North Carolina
#1 Mississippi State (Chloe Bibby) v #16 Southern
#2 Oregon (Morgan Yaeger) v #15 Portland State (Courtney West)
#3 Syracuse (Tiana Mangakahia) v #14 Fordham
Assessing the Draw
Among the players that will take to the court, Pac-12 pair Alanna Smith and Morgan Yaeger appear to have the best chance of securing a national championship, with their respective Stanford and Oregon sides each landing #2 seeds. The performance of ESPNW All-American selection Smith in particular will be integral to Stanford’s chances of making a Final Four run, with the Cardinal likely to face defending national champions Notre Dame in the Elite Eight in the Chicago regional. The two teams met in 2017’s Elite Eight in an identical seeding situation, with Stanford getting the win on that occasion before falling to eventual national champions South Carolina in the Final Four. Prior to that, Smith may see another Aussie on the opposing side, with Lauren Mills and Iowa State drawn as the #3 seed in the Chicago regional. Meanwhile, Yaeger will see another Aussie in Ducks’ first round game, with Courtney West and Portland State earning a face-off with their in-state foes courtesy of their success in the Big Sky championship.
Tiana Mangakahia’s Syracuse team have also landed on the #3 line, and similarly to Smith at Stanford, the Aussie star will play a vital role for the Orange after averaging 16.7 points and 8.4 assists per game, with that latter number good enough for second in the nation behind fellow Australian, St. Francis Brooklyn’s Amy O’Neill. Should they make it to the Sweet 16, a potential battle with Yaeger and Oregon awaits, with the Australian pair likely to match up against one another if both are on court at the same time. In a perfect world, the winner of that game would face a #1 seeded Mississippi State side featuring Chloe Bibby, and whilst the Bulldogs are favourites to make the Final Four from the Portland regional, Bibby won’t be on court after suffering a season-ending knee injury early in the campaign.
Jasmine Simmons and Oregon State will also host games on the opening weekend after being selected as the #4 seed in the Albany regional. That home crowd at a packed Gill Coliseum could prove to be the X-Factor for the Beavers as they potentially face a Gonzaga team that already has a win over Stanford this year in the Round of 32.
Buffalo may be down three Aussies from last year’s Sweet 16 run, but Courtney Wilkins remains as the Bulls attempt to make another trip to the second weekend. It won’t be easy though as the MAC Champions will have to go through a #7 seed in Rutgers before coming up against #2 seed UConn. It may be strange to see UConn not on the top line of a bracket, but that won’t make Buffalo’s task any easier.
Injuries robbed Aussie fans of a first-round matchup, with Chantel Horvat’s UCLA and Louise Brown’s Tennessee sides facing off in a #6 v #11 game, although it would be fair to say that if those teams had their respective player available, their seedings would probably sit a little higher. Meanwhile, California’s Sara Anastasieska will also be forced to watch her team take on North Carolina from the sidelines as injuries continue to plague the Golden Bears’ sharpshooter.