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What to look out for in this weekend's NCAA Women's Sweet Sixteen

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For women's basketball fans, this college season has been historic thanks to the epic game of Iowa's Caitlin Clark. She has helped shine the spotlight on the court. She has electrified fans. But this is, of course, a team sport. And there are only 16 teams left, including last year's two finalists. For a preview, we're joined now by Sabreena Merchant, who covers basketball for The Athletic. Hey there.

SABREENA MERCHANT: Hi there.

KELLY: Hi. OK, so tomorrow, Friday, we are looking at the first four games of the NCAA Sweet 16 - headlines of what you're watching for.

MERCHANT: I think No. 1 has to be undefeated South Carolina. They won their second-round game by 37 points, and, honestly, that felt not representative of how close the game actually was. It felt like it was even more of a blowout. They made it to the Final Four last year before losing to Iowa in, you know, what was, I think, Caitlin Clark's national coming out party. And now they're back. To see how the Gamecocks do is No. 1 on my priority list.

KELLY: And then talk to me about LSU, the reigning champion. They play UCLA on Saturday.

MERCHANT: Correct, and for my money, this is going to be the game of the tournament because they're going up against UCLA, who I think is the second most talented team in the country behind South Carolina. Two programs with vastly different histories of success - UCLA's never actually been to a Final Four, whereas LSU just won the national title last year. They have this experience of playing in close, tight games as they did throughout the tournament in 2023, whereas UCLA has kind of struggled in these clutch-time situations over the course of the year. They have a team that runs nine deep, whereas LSU can only rely on 6 to 7 players. So maybe you don't need to get to that point where it is so close at the end of the game.

But Angel Reese was the most outstanding player of last year's tournament. I think she's even better this year. They've got a super freshman in Mikaylah Williams. Flau'jae Johnson is having an excellent tournament and is the kind of player who can listen to her own track when she's warming up because she's a musician when she's off the court. They actually played her song in the Final Four arena after they won the championship last year, which I literally cannot think of a cooler moment. Definitely a lot of star power in that part of the tournament.

KELLY: Speaking of star power, I have to ask about Caitlin Clarke, who will graduate this year from Iowa. She has made history, as we all know now - the all-time leading scorer across men's and women's college basketball. She's off to the WNBA next year. What are you watching for?

MERCHANT: You know, it's interesting. At this time last year, when Caitlin was playing in Seattle during the Sweet 16, there were actually empty seats. And to think that we're one year later and you can't even get a ticket on the secondary market for less than four figures, it's just an amazing ascent that has happened for her. And I think there's probably going to be a little bit less pressure on her now that she's not playing at home, and she gets to just focus on the basketball and not worrying about, like, oh, this is my last game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

And I think you could kind of see the team tense up a little bit against West Virginia in that second round game. And I do believe that there's just a burden that's going to be lifted now that they're back on a neutral site. You know, every time Iowa scores under 70 points, they just respond with an absolute vengeance in the next game. So I think that they're going to be super motivated against Colorado. They're going to put up a really high point total. It's going to bring in a lot of eyeballs.

KELLY: And then let me home in on a rising star - a freshman at University of Southern California, Juju Watkins, who appears to be so good that if she wanted, she could just go straight to the WNBA if the rules would allow that.

MERCHANT: Yeah, absolutely. She is unlike any freshman I've ever seen, and that is saying something considering how many of the teams remaining in the Sweet 16 are led by super freshman. Even within this just phenomenal generational class, JuJu, I think, stands alone. You look at her and, like, close your eyes and wonder if you're watching just, like, the female reincarnation of Kobe Bryant. Like, you can tell that she grew up in Los Angeles watching her moves.

KELLY: Yeah.

MERCHANT: But, you know, this is a program that experienced historical success. They won titles in the 1980s, and yet they haven't made it to the Sweet 16 since 1994. You know, nobody on this team was born the last time they went to the Sweet 16.

KELLY: Wow, yeah.

MERCHANT: And the complement of JuJu and then all of these grad transfers that have also joined her at USC is just a really interesting match of star power and experience. And it's leading the Trojans to this place that, you know, they haven't been in a generation.

KELLY: Sabreena Merchant, staff writer with The Athletic, getting us geared up for the Sweet 16 action coming at us starting tomorrow. Thanks so much.

MERCHANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.