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Caitlin Clark, Connecticut, cowboy hats: Here's what to watch for on Selection Sunday

Iowa star Caitlin Clark has helped drive a surge in interest in women's college basketball this season. Look for her Hawkeyes squad to land a 1-seed in the women's tournament.
Matthew Holst
Getty Images
Iowa star Caitlin Clark has helped drive a surge in interest in women's college basketball this season. Look for her Hawkeyes squad to land a 1-seed in the women's tournament.

It's the most wonderful time of the year: Will Caitlin Clark end her historic college career with a ring? Will Cinderella wear a 10-gallon cowboy hat? Can Purdue avoid another embarrassing early exit?

The brackets for the men's and women's NCAA Division I college basketball tournaments will be unveiled Sunday. The men's bracket will be revealed first on CBS at 6 p.m. ET, followed shortly after by the women's bracket on ESPN.

Then, we're underway. The men's tournament tips off on Tuesday, March 19, and the first full day of games will be Thursday, March 21. The women's first games take place on Wednesday, March 20, and the full round of 64 will begin on Friday, March 22. The championship games will take place on April 7 (women's) and April 8 (men's).

Here are a few things to watch for on Selection Sunday and beyond as the tournaments begins next week:

Can Caitlin Clark win a title in her last year?

Look, it's Caitlin Clark's world. Clark is the biggest star in the entire sport — man or woman — and having announced she intends to go pro after this season, this will be her final crack at the NCAA tournament.

Her Iowa Hawkeyes will likely land a top seed. But they won't be the favorites: Undefeated South Carolina, led by legendary coach Dawn Staley, will still be top dog.

Last year, Iowa and then-undefeated South Carolina met in the Final Four, and the 77-73 showdown was an instant classic in which Clark scored 41 points en route to handing the Gamecocks their only loss of the season. But a hard comedown cost Iowa the title game. Clark and the Hawkeyes came out flat against a hot Louisiana State team led by Angel Reese, who cruised to a 102-85 win and a championship ring. LSU and Reese will be back, too. [eyes emoji]

As the bracket is unveiled, watch out for those rematches, which would be sure to draw big audiences.

It's hard to overstate what Clark has done for the women's game. She passed the record set by Pistol Pete Maravich in 1970 to become the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history. Ratings for women's college basketball are up 60% across all national networks, and they've topped ratings for the men's game on FOX, according to the network's analytics chief. Last weekend, as Clark led Iowa to a comeback victory in the Big Ten championship game, the audience averaged more than 3 million viewers, peaking in overtime at nearly 4.5 million. That's not just decent; that's better than nearly every men's game yet this season.

The final 1-seed in the men's tournament may still be up for grabs

Three of the four top seeds in the men's tournament seem locked down by Houston, Connecticut and Purdue. But who will nab that final spot?

The early money had been on Tennessee, a program that has never reached the Final Four nor earned a 1-seed despite 25 tournament appearances. But the Volunteers faltered last weekend at home against the Kentucky Wildcats, then dropped a total dud in the opening round of the SEC Tournament on Friday, falling 73-56 against bubble team Mississippi State.

That has opened the door for North Carolina, a perennial powerhouse and six-time champion. The 26-6 Tar Heels have lost only one game by double digits, despite a bruising non-conference schedule. If they win this weekend's ACC Tournament, they're likely a lock. But if they fall out early, they could lose their shot to a strong showing on Saturday by Iowa State.

The final 1-seed will join some usual suspects in the Connecticut Huskies, the returning champions hoping to become the first team to go back-to-back since 2007, and the Houston Cougars, the likely top overall seed who hasn't lost since early February. As for the Purdue Boilermakers, every tournament these days seems to be a struggle. After losing in their first matchup last year to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson — only the second 1-seed to ever lose to a 16-seed — Purdue fans may be relieved to win a single game.

Heavyweight Houston, likely the top overall seed, defeated the Stetson Hatters and their leading scorer Jalen Blackmon back in November. Now, the Hatters have secured their first-ever berth in the men's NCAA tournament.
David J. Phillip / AP
Heavyweight Houston, likely the top overall seed, defeated the Stetson Hatters and their leading scorer Jalen Blackmon back in November. Now, the Hatters have secured their first-ever berth in the men's NCAA tournament.

Put on your cowboy hat and root for Stetson

Let your longshot Cinderella pick for the men's tournament be Stetson, the tiny Florida school that will appear in the tournament this year for the first time ever. (Their mascot is the Hatters! As in the cowboy hats! Yes, that Stetson!)

The Hatters are likely to be a 16-seed, meaning they'll have to knock out a 1-seed in order to advance. That's a tall order, yes, but one that no longer feels impossible now that it's happened twice before. (They could also wind up in a play-in game against another 16-seed in order to earn the chance to play a top seed.)

Still, here's why Stetson just might have a fighting chance: The Hatters are led by one of college basketball's top scorers in 6'3" guard Jalen Blackmon. Blackmon has averaged more than 21 points this season and scored 43 (!) points, his highest total of the year, in last week's Atlantic Sun conference championship final against Austin Peay, a 94-91 thriller.

Blackmon may enter the tournament having scored more this season than any other player in the country second only to one (the very dominant and very tall man at Purdue, Zach Edey). Sometimes the fairy dust hits guys like this at just the right time — and even Goliath can be toppled when David has a hot hand.

Other could-be Cinderellas to keep your eye on: Watch out for the Drake Bulldogs (a perennial mid-major darling back for another shot after a disappointing first-round ouster last year), the Grand Canyon Lopes (coached by one-time Cinderella himself Bryce Drew, whose Valparaiso squad toppled Ole Miss in 1998) and the James Madison Dukes (31 wins, including an opening night stunner against then-No. 4 Michigan State; who can say they can't do it again?).

Get ready to say farewell to the current lineup of conferences

The Pac-12, what was once a storied conference, will be no more next season. No program has ever come close to the absolute dominance of John Wooden's UCLA squads (10 championships, a run of 10 straight Final Fours), and three-time champion Stanford has been a modern-day heavyweight in the women's game.

But this year's basketball tournaments mark the end for the conference as we know it. Next year, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington will join the Big Ten; Cal and Stanford will join the ACC; and Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will join the Big 12. (The two remaining teams, Oregon State and Washington State, still hope to rebuild a new Pac-12. "We will fight it out," Oregon State's president told NPR last fall.)

The Pac-12 is just the latest casualty of how college football continues to drive a reshaping of college athletics. The era of the regional conference is over, and the era of the super-conference may soon begin.

And there's an ever-looming threat that the new power conferences could choose to break away from the NCAA in order to form their own league. Doing so could devastate the NCAA tournaments, which draw their magic from the single-elimination format that pits big-time programs against little upstarts in do-or-die contests. It's irreplaceable. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.