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Women’s Selection Sunday: What to Watch in Bracket Reveal

A 68-team field of stalwarts, potential spoilers and national tournament newcomers will play for the N.C.A.A. championship in Division I women’s basketball.

South Carolina, the juggernaut that lost only two games, including the Southeastern Conference tournament championship, earned the national competition’s top seed and will anchor the Greensboro quadrant of the bracket.

Louisville, North Carolina State and Stanford, the reigning champion, are the other No. 1 seeds and will lead the Wichita, Bridgeport and Spokane regions ahead of next month’s Final Four in Minneapolis.

The tournament field, announced on Sunday night, is the largest in the sport’s history and, for the first time since 1994, matches the size of the men’s event. Although the tournament’s expansion by four teams reflects the increasing popularity of women’s sports in the United States, it is also an answer to the firestorm over gender equity that often overshadowed last year’s competition in San Antonio and made plain years of N.C.A.A. failures and revenue-fueled priorities.

The 2022 tournament will formally open on Wednesday, when the first play-in games will be contested. The round of 64, which the top 16 seeds will host, will start on Friday.

Despite the expanded field, women’s basketball is a sport that has only recently started to see greater parity in its ranks, and there is reason to think that at least some early contests will prove little more than glorified scrimmages for the game’s greatest powers.

Three of this year’s No. 1 seeds — North Carolina State, South Carolina and Stanford — were atop their regions at the start of last season’s tournament.

No marquee contender, though, may be more questionable than second-seeded Connecticut, the university with 11 national titles and, this time, a season-long struggle to meet its own standards.

There have already been five losses, UConn’s worst regular-season showing since 2004-5. Three defeats were by double digits. A run of 169 consecutive conference wins ended last month with a loss to Villanova in Hartford, Conn. Point guard Paige Bueckers, who had been the centerpiece of her team, hurt a knee in early December and has not yet regained the form or minutes that made her the 2021 Naismith Trophy winner, for most outstanding player. Injuries to other players have added to the season’s stumbles.

No one in college basketball, of course, is counting out the name-brand program of the Big East. UConn won the conference title game against Villanova by 30 points, avenging the earlier defeat. But even though UConn landed in the Bridgeport region and will play every game before the Final Four in its home state, it is acutely aware that it does not have a certain path to a 14th consecutive season as one of the last four teams standing.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Geno Auriemma, the Connecticut coach, said after the Huskies dominated in the Big East tournament. “We have to get better, obviously, because every other team that’s got a chance to win is going to go home and try to get better.”

His team, though, is on a 10-game winning streak, and Bueckers, who played 45 minutes across three conference tournament contests, is making a careful return. Azzi Fudd, a freshman guard who missed more than two months with a foot injury, has averaged 13.7 points per game since rejoining the lineup. The defense has tightened up, too: Since Feb. 11, when the winning streak started with a victory over DePaul, UConn has allowed at least 50 points just three times.

Before then, the Huskies had given up 50 or more points in 16 of their 20 games.

“We’re pretty efficient on defense, and that’s what we hold ourselves to,” Aaliyah Edwards, a sophomore forward, said at the end of the Big East tournament. “Being able to switch one through five is very impactful, and it also shows how aggressive we can be on defense, which can lead to our offensive aggression, as well.”

With his roster healing and the season in its win-or-go-home phase, Auriemma said he was directing his attention toward preparing his players for the mental rigors of the N.C.A.A. event.

“You can’t go into this tournament with anything more important than where your mind is,” Auriemma said. “I think that’s one reason we’ve been so successful over the years in the N.C.A.A. tournament: I don’t necessarily worry about physically where they are. I could care less physically where they are; I care about where are we mentally, and if we’re in a really, really good place, everything else will take care of itself.”

Stanford emerged from the chaos of the 2021 tournament to win the title over Arizona, and the university, which won the Pac-12 Conference tournament and regular-season championships this season, will have a chance for a repeat. South Carolina, the sport’s most dominant team this season and a squad that pummeled UConn in November, will try to put distance between an upset loss to Kentucky, a No. 6 seed in the national competition, in the Southeastern Conference tournament and its championship ambitions.

Coach Dawn Staley, who led the Gamecocks to their lone women’s basketball title in 2017, got her team to the Final Four last season, when it lost to Stanford by a single point.

North Carolina State, again a regular-season power, is aiming for its first Final Four since 1998, and Baylor, a No. 2 seed, is looking to prove that it can thrive in March without Coach Kim Mulkey on the sideline.

Mulkey’s new team, third-seeded Louisiana State, will be trying to extend its remarkable turnaround: The Tigers posted a losing record last season, but have gone 25-5 since. Louisville, which has appeared in the round of 8 in the last two tournaments after making the Final Four in 2018, is still looking for its first title, but will need to recover from an upset loss to Miami in a quarterfinal game at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. And Caitlin Clark, a sophomore who is the leading scorer in Division I this season, will try to steer Iowa, the Big Ten tournament champion and a No. 2 seed, to a title game that has so far been out of reach.

But those are just the familiar teams, the ones that will most likely be in the mix by the end of the month. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, known as I.U.P.U.I., will make its N.C.A.A. tournament debut as a No. 13 seed after it won the Horizon League tournament. The school, which will face fourth-seeded Oklahoma in the first round, had been poised to play in the 2020 national tournament before it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Longwood, a member of the Big South Conference, had appeared in Division II tournaments, but it captured its first Division I berth when it beat Campbell in the conference tournament final. If it beats Mount St. Mary’s in a play-in game on Thursday, Longwood will move on to meet North Carolina State.

Nevada-Las Vegas, a No. 13 seed from the Mountain West Conference, returns to the national tournament for the first time since 2002; it has never advanced beyond the round of 16 and will play fourth-seeded Arizona in the first round. Howard, which last appeared in the national competition in 2001 and won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament on Saturday, will face Incarnate Word in a play-in game.

Incarnate Word will be making its N.C.A.A. tournament debut. Both schools are classified as No. 16 seeds; the winner will play South Carolina.

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