The 2010s were a decade of growth for women’s basketball. And yet throughout it, the sport’s worst-kept secret spread openly. The college game, for years, remained remarkably top-heavy.
Since 2012, there have been eight NCAA tournaments. Five of eight national title games pitted two No. 1 seeds. A top seed won the other three by an average of 25.3 points. And 20 of 32 Final Four participants were No. 1s. Some juggernaut battles were riveting, and some championships unforgettable, but the top-seed dominance made for little unpredictability on the first and second weekends of March Madness.
This, however, is a new decade. And in 2021, the landscape has changed.
The NCAA tournament is back after a COVID-enforced hiatus, and some familiar names are favored to win it. But this year’s field is arguably deeper than ever before. There are more top-tier contenders than there are on the men’s side. Eight teams could realistically cut down nets in San Antonio. Roughly 12 could reach the Final Four and not be considered a surprise.
So, we’ve ranked those 12 teams, from most to least likely 2021 national champion.
(In parentheses: region and seed | record | NET rank)
1. UConn (R1 | 24-1 | 2)
After a “down year” by UConn standards, and a postseason wiped out by the coronavirus, the Huskies have now gone four seasons without a national title. The last time they went five? The early 90s. So it is according to natural hoops law that the sport’s most dominant program is back atop it.
But only barely.
And largely because of Paige Bueckers.
The entire college basketball world knew the freshman guard would be good. But not this good, this soon. And perhaps most importantly, she’s the exact type of good that UConn desperately needed. The Huskies’ primary weakness is shooting. No other player is better than 35% from 3-point range. Bueckers, though, shoots a cool 47.4% from deep. She’s arguably the most versatile freshman scorer ever.
But neither she nor UConn is untouchable. The Huskies only played one game against a top-15 opponent all season, and won it in OT, in part thanks to this ridiculous Bueckers shot.
They’ll be fine without Geno Auriemma on the first weekend. And almost by default, they’ll be the “team to beat” thereafter. But they’re beatable.
2. Stanford (A1 | 25-2 | 1)
The deepest, most complete team in the field has won 14 straight. It’s the No. 1 overall seed for a reason. It has shooters, a post presence, experience and a wonderful coach.
Our main point of hesitancy: The Cardinal haven’t played a single game against this top tier of eight contenders. Are we sure they can beat three of them in quick succession?
3. South Carolina (H1 | 22-4 | 4)
The Gamecocks were on the wrong end of that Bueckers shot in early February. It was one of their three losses that month, and four on the season – more than any peer on the top two seed lines.
But don’t be fooled by their record. They played half their games against ranked teams. They aren’t vulnerable; they’re battle-tested. And menacing.
Junior point guard Destanni Henderson runs the show. Zia Cooke is an aggressive perimeter scorer alongside her. But Aliyah Boston is the reason South Carolina can win it all. She’s an absolute force around the rim, gobbling up missed shots and playing with her back to the basket. The Gamecocks have begun to run more offense through the 6-foot-5 sophomore, and rode her 27 points and 10 boards to an SEC title. Boston can lead them on a similar charge through March.
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4. Texas A&M (M2 | 23-2 | 11)
A&M beat South Carolina head-to-head, and only lost once throughout the regular season – in overtime, back in January, at LSU. So why aren’t the Aggies ranked higher?
Because they don’t seem impervious to an upset. In 18 games against power-conference foes, their average margin of victory was in single digits – a far cry from Stanford’s 22.3, for example, or even South Carolina’s 13.4 against a tougher schedule. They’ve proven they can win big games, but haven’t proven they can avoid trouble against the type of team they’ll begin seeing in Round 2.
The good news, though, is that A&M doesn’t rely on the 3-ball, and therefore isn’t susceptible to prolonged dips in performance.
5. Maryland (H2 | 24-2 | 5)
Prepare for points. A lot of ‘em. The Terps have the best offense in the nation. They shoot over 40% from 3, and 53% from inside the arc, and 79% from the free throw line. Five players average double figures. As a unit, they score a mind-blowing 91.3 points per game. Ashley Owusu is the multi-talented talisman, but Maryland moves the ball and crashes the boards as a team.
The problem: It doesn’t play much defense.
But if the offense is cooking, as it often is, that might not matter.
6. NC State (M1 | 20-2 | 7)
The Wolfpack rode a Dec. 3 win over South Carolina and a two-game sweep of Louisville to an ACC title and No. 1 seed. But those are the only two ranked opponents they’ve played all season. Similar to Texas A&M, they aren’t the machine-like force that a few of the teams above them are.
7. Baylor (R2 | 25-2 | 3)
The defending national champs, 24 months later, remain one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in America. And NaLyssa Smith is a star. But outside shooting – or a lack thereof – could be the Lady Bears’ downfall.
8. Louisville (A2 | 23-3 | 6)
If there were a player capable of leading a one-woman run through three weekends in San Antonio, it’s Louisville junior guard Dana Evans. But the Cardinals, who are 0-2 against ranked teams since the start of February, don’t quite have enough around her.
9. Georgia (A3 | 20-6 | 13)
An SEC semifinal upset of Texas A&M sent a message to the entire field: These Lady Bulldogs are dangerous.
10. UCLA (H3 | 16-5 | 8)
The Hemisfair region, with South Carolina, Maryland and UCLA on the top three seed lines, is the toughest of the four.
11. Rutgers (M6 | 14-4 | 12)
A five-week COVID pause demoted the Scarlet Knights to a No. 6 seed. But it didn’t disrupt their basketball flow. They ran off nine wins in a row coming out of it. In Arella Guirantes and Diamond Johnson, they have a dynamic scoring duo capable of making noise beyond the first weekend of the tournament.
12. Indiana (M4 | 18-5 | 9)
The Hoosiers went undefeated in February, and could give NC State a run in the Sweet 16.
Just missed the cut: Kentucky, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Arizona.
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