The madness is here.

After one of the most exciting regular seasons in women’s college basketball history – Caitlin Clark broke all the all-time scoring records, South Carolina went undefeated, and freshmen JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo and Madison Booker established themselves as rising stars – the NCAA Tournament has finally arrived.

The First Four begins on Wednesday, and then we’re in full-on tourney mode starting Friday.

Here’s what you need to know:

Of the top four seeds, who has the most favorable draw?

No question, it’s South Carolina. 

After losing all five starters from last year’s Final Four team, the Gamecocks responded by posting their second consecutive perfect regular season record at 32-0. Dawn Staley’s team has once again rightfully earned the No. 1 overall seed, and were awarded the smoothest path to another Final Four. 

This is a highly motivated group that’s been on what sophomore guard Raven Johnson has called a “revenge tour” after losing to Iowa in the semifinal last year. The Gamecocks have an edge no matter who they face on the court with players like Kamilla Cardoso, Bree Hall, Johnson and Te-Hina Paopao, who was an important pickup from the transfer portal. MiLaysia Fulwiley, who earned the SEC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player as a freshman, is an electric young player that can do some mesmerizing things with the ball in her hands.

The Gamecocks will play some tough opponents on their way to a national championship, including potential matchups with Indiana, a regular-season rematch vs. Notre Dame, and possibly Texas or Stanford in the semifinal. Both the Fighting Irish and Longhorns pose threats. South Carolina beat Notre Dame 100-71 in Paris on Nov. 6 – Hidalgo scored 31 points in the loss – but the Irish have improved since. Texas is fresh off winning a Big 12 Tournament and has been on an impressive run this season after losing Rori Harmon – its best player – to a torn ACL in December.

But when South Carolina is playing its best ball, Staley’s team is nearly impossible to beat.

What is the most intriguing first-round matchup in the tournament?

Let’s go with Columbia vs. Vanderbilt in the First Four. 

Before her team heard its name called on Selection Sunday, Columbia coach Megan Griffith called out the selection committee for not including enough mid-major teams in the tournament.

“You know, the NCAA talks about wanting to grow the game, and we just consistently put SEC teams in that are 15-14,” Griffith said, before noting that the Lions have “been competitive in every single loss.”

There are eight SEC teams in the 68-team field, and Griffith and her team will ironically face Vanderbilt on Wednesday for a chance to make it to the Round of 64.

Who are three must-see players in the tournament?

Caitlin Clark, guard, Iowa

Clark has been must-see TV all year. But for anyone who might only tune into college basketball during March Madness, now is the last time to see Clark before she heads to the WNBA.

Clark became the Division I all-time leading scorer – in men’s and women’s college basketball – this year. First she knocked off Kelsey Plum’s record, and later, it was Pete Maravich’s. She has scored a grand total of 3,771 points in her career so far (there are plenty of more points to be scored in the coming weeks). 

She also became the first player ever – man or woman – to accumulate 3,000 points and 1,000 assists. She’s a generational talent who sold out arenas up and down the Big Ten, and we might never see a prolific scorer like her again. This season, she led the country with 31.9 ppg and, for reference, Watkins is averaging the second-most points per game with 27.0.

A year ago, Clark led the Hawkeyes to a Final Four upset over South Carolina before losing to LSU in the national championship game. Yes, Clark is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in April’s WNBA draft, but right now, more than anything, she wants to help Iowa win its first title.

JuJu Watkins, guard, USC

While Big Ten teams are ecstatic to never have to play Clark again, they have another challenge coming with Watkins. USC joins the conference next season, and as one record-breaking scorer leaves the league, another one enters.

In her freshman season, Watkins became the nation’s second-best scorer behind Clark and led USC to its first Pac 12 title since 2014 and first NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed since 1986, which was Cheryl Miller’s senior year.

The 18-year-old guard is capable of taking over games, and could very well do that in her first NCAA tournament.

Paige Bueckers, guard, UConn

Bueckers, who was the 2021 national player of the year, didn’t get to play in the NCAA tourney last year. She missed the entire 2022-23 season recovering from a torn ACL. 

But she’s come back even stronger. This year she averaged 21.3 ppg during the regular season, and went on a tear through the Big East tournament, scoring 27.7 ppg (plus 8.3 rpg) on the way to helping UConn win the conference title.

Bueckers announced on Senior Night that she’s returning for one more year, so there’s likely one more NCAA tourney left in her, too. But you know she’ll do everything in her power to spoil everyone’s bracket and help the No. 3-seeded Huskies win a national championship for the first time since 2016.

What team should be on upset alert in the first or second rounds?

After making a run to the program’s first Final Four last year, things could be grim for No. 4 seed Virginia Tech this time around.

That’s because fifth-year senior Elizabeth Kitley suffered a knee injury in the Hokies’ regular-season finale loss to Virginia. Kitley, who averaged 22.8 points (sixth-best in the nation) and 11.4 rebounds (also sixth-best) per game this season, missed the ACC Tournament and her status is unknown for the NCAA tourney. Virginia Tech plays No. 13 seed Marshall in the first round, but there’s certainly a chance the team falters without its best player in the second, where a matchup with No. 5 seed Baylor might await.

How long can the Hokies realistically make it without their star? The team enters the tournament having lost three of its last four games.

Which team do you view as the potential Cinderella of the tournament? 

No. 7-seeded Ole Miss knows how to pull off an upset in March. After all, last year the Rebels caught everyone’s attention when they made it to the Sweet 16 after knocking off No. 1 seed Stanford in the second round.

Could another early upset be brewing? If things pan out, the Rebels have a potential matchup against ACC champion Notre Dame lurking in the second round this year. And if they can beat the Irish, there’s another winnable game against Oregon State in the Sweet 16. 

Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin is building something in Oxford, which has been evident over the last several years. Her team is resilient, can frustrate opponents defensively, and is fresh off a close loss to LSU in the semifinal of the SEC Tournament and is anxious to avenge that result by making a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Who will make it to the Final Four and who will win the national championship?

On one side of the bracket, South Carolina and Texas will be the lone No. 1 seeds to make it to Cleveland. On the other side, it will be No. 3 seeds LSU and UConn.

In the end, the Gamecocks will prevail, beating the Huskies in the national championship game. Staley’s team is simply too talented, experienced and deep. They’re physical, play stout defense and can also shoot from 3. 

As it’s been said all year, when South Carolina is playing lights out, it can beat anybody.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her at @LakenLitman.

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