By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
The Sweet 16 features a new format and a bit of history when it begins later this week.
The NCAA changed its setup for the women’s tournament this season, trimming the traditional four regional sites to two. Seattle and Greenville — a city of 71,000 in South Carolina about halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina — will each host eight teams before sending the winners on to Dallas for the Final Four.
It is also just the second time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994 that two of the No. 1 seeds didn’t reach the regional semifinals after Mississippi and Miami knocked out Stanford and Indiana, respectively. It also happened in 1998.
The other top seeds — South Carolina and Virginia Tech — advanced. The Gamecocks, led by star Aliyah Boston, are four wins from completing their own historic journey and back-to-back national championships. They are seeking just the 10th undefeated season ever in women’s basketball, and the next steps for coach Dawn Staley’s team are just a 90-minute trip from campus.
There are a lot of teams that have ended long Sweet 16 droughts, like the Hokies, Hurricanes, Colorado and Villanova. UConn, on the other hand, will be playing in its 29th consecutive regional semifinal.
Despite the parity that took place during the regular season and the exit of those two No. 1 seeds, it is the second time in the past six years that no double-digit seed reached the round of 16. It’s also the first time since the Big 12 was formed in 1996 that no teams from the conference reached the second weekend.
GAMES TO WATCH
No. 1 seed Virginia Tech (29-4) vs. No. 4 seed Tennessee (25-11), Seattle, Friday
A rematch of a Dec. 4 game won by the Hokies 59-56 in Knoxville, although the Lady Vols were without star forward Rickea Jackson in that game. Star power abounds with the Hokies having All-American and two-time ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley and guard Georgia Amoore and the Lady Vols having Jackson and plenty of scoring. Virginia Tech is in just its second Sweet 16 – the first came in 1999 – while the Lady Vols will be in their 36th.
No. 3 seed LSU (30-2) vs. No. 2 seed Utah (27-4), Greenville, S.C., Friday
Kim Mulkey has the Tigers headed to the second weekend for the first time since 2014, and first-team All-American Angel Reese had a huge hand it that in LSU’s second-round rout of Michigan with 25 points, 24 rebounds, six blocks, four assists and three steals. The Utes have an All-American, too, in Alissa Pili, who had 28 points and 10 rebounds in a 63-56 victory against Princeton. Utah had not been to the Sweet 16 since 2006.
No. 5 seed Louisville (25-11), vs. No. 8 seed Mississippi (25-8), Seattle, Friday
The Cardinals didn’t get to host the first weekend like they usually do, but it hardly seemed to matter as they routed Texas 73-51 on the Longhorns’ home floor to reach the Sweet 16 for the sixth consecutive year. In Ole Miss they will face a defensive-minded team that pulled the first huge upset, never trailing in a 54-49 victory over No. 1 seed Stanford to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years.
No. 2 Iowa (28-6) vs. No. 6 Colorado (25-8), Seattle, Friday
First-team All-American Caitlin Clark will continue to be a handful for Iowa opponents after her 22 points and 12 assists led them past Georgia 74-66 and on to the Sweet 16. The Buffaloes needed overtime in a 61-53 victory at Duke. Quay Miller came up huge to help Colorado get to its first Sweet 16 in 20 years with 17 points and 14 rebounds.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The women’s tournament field is filled with stars, including South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, last season’s AP player of the year who is back in hopes of winning a second straight national title and has more than 80 double-doubles in her incredible career. She will have plenty of competition for the honor this year, including sharp-shooting Iowa star Caitlin Clark.
The Cavinder twins, gym rats who are wildly popular on social media, made their first tournament after transferring from Fresno State to Miami. The Hurricanes are headed to their first Sweet 16 since 1992.
The field is also remarkable for the high number of international players, a growing trend in women’s basketball.
Standout performances abound.
Charisma Osborne scored a career-high 36 points to help UCLA rally after blowing an 18-point lead against Oklahoma to reach the Sweet 16. Grace Stone nailed her fifth 3-pointer of the game with 4.7 seconds remaining to lift 10th-seeded Princeton to a 64-63 win over North Carolina State. Alissa Pili had a career-high 33 points, eight rebounds and a career-high eight assists to lead No. 2 seed Utah over Gardner-Webb.
Then there is Angel Reese, who scored 59 points and grabbed 40 rebounds for LSU through two wins while fellow All-American Caitlin Clark scored 48 points and added 24 assists over two wins to help Iowa reach the Sweet 16.
Gun violence has cost lives and disrupted college sports all season, touching some of the top programs in college basketball. Coaches have been thrust into uncertain and unwelcome roles in trying to navigate the topic — as well as the fallout from the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
On a lighter note, the Big Ten is loaded and eager to climb back into the title game. And if you think you know the women’s tournament, try this 25-question quiz from AP.
Want to hear from the athletes themselves? UCLA freshman Kiki Rice and injured UConn star Paige Bueckers have each written diaries for AP about their “tourney journeys.”
HOW TO WATCH
The title game will be on a national network — ABC — for the first time since 1996 in a stroke of good news for the game. ABC plans to air at least a half-dozen other games, too.
Beside that, every game of the women’s tournament will be available on ESPN’s networks or streaming, with fans encouraged to navigate to the “Watch” tab on ESPN’s sites. The NCAA will have a women’s basketball specific March Madness app by AT&T.
There are multiple sites listing game times and other details, including the NCAA site.
Who’s going to win the national championship? The initial betting favorites to reach the Final Four were (in order): South Carolina, Indiana, UConn, Stanford, LSU and Iowa, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. With Indiana and Stanford gone, the Gamecocks are an even bigger favorite to become the first repeat champion in the women’s tournament since UConn won the last of four straight in 2016.
MARCH MADNESS CALENDAR
Selection Sunday set the brackets for First Four games and first- and second-round games through Monday at campuses across the country.
Sweet 16 weekend brings a twist this year for the women’s teams: There will be two regional sites instead of four, with Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle each hosting eight teams.
Where is the women’s Final Four? In Dallas, where the semifinals are March 31 and the championship game is April 2. As it happens, the men’s Final Four is a four-hour drive down the road in Houston that same weekend.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25