NCAA Women’s Tournament Sleeper Pick: Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa women's basketball

There are still just a select few haves and many have-nots when it comes to women’s college basketball.

Wilt Chamberlain famously said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.” Most seasons feature a prohibitive favorite leading into March Madness, and this time the Goliath is defending NCAA champion South Carolina, which improved to 30-0 Friday and has won 36 consecutive games since losing in the finals of the 2022 SEC tournament.

Perennial powers Stanford and UConn are among the oddsmakers’ top challengers to the Gamecocks, while recent upstart Indiana — which has reached the regionals each of the last two seasons — is also in that select group. That leaves a very large second tier of teams to consider when looking outside the box for a potential women’s champion.

One of the most important things when looking for an outsider to at least get to the Final Four and have a puncher’s chance of cutting down the nets in Dallas is to find a team with an elite scorer. NCAA Women’s Tournament history has plenty of examples of such players carrying their teams to that level: Jackie Stiles at the school formerly known as Southwest Missouri State in 2001; Alana Beard at Duke in 2003; Kelsey Plum at Washington in 2016; and Sabrina Ionescu at Oregon in 2019.

This season, there are two such players to choose from in Iowa‘s Caitlin Clark and Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist. Both have lifted their teams to national prominence, with the Hawkeyes No. 8 in the current AP Top 25 and Villanova 11th. Both are carrying expectations of reaching their respective conference tournament finals and at least giving themselves a chance to win the Big Ten and Big East, respectively.

Siegrist leads Division I women’s basketball in scoring at 29 points per game; Clark is not far behind at 27.2 per contest.

But when it comes down to picking one for a potential flyer for sports wagering purposes as the next national champion, Clark and Iowa are the obvious choice as they open Big Ten tournament play Friday night versus Purdue.

It’s not just the points, though she scores a lot of them

Caitlin Clark game winner with 1.5 seconds left.
She is unbelievable @CaitlinClark22 @IowaWBB @espn @espnW

— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) February 26, 2023

Simply put, Clark has “in the gym” range. She is shooting 37.7% on 3-pointers this season and is capable of hitting from 35 feet a la Stephen Curry. While the 6-foot junior is both a volume scorer and shooter, her 18.5 shots per contest this season is a career low.

Clark also leads Division I players in assists at 8.2 per contest, powering an Iowa offense that is tops in the nation both in points per game (87.5) and shooting percentage (50.9%). The Hawkeyes also rank third in efficiency at 113.1 points per 100 possessions.

Clark is far from a one-woman show when it comes to Iowa’s offense. Senior Monika Czinano is the inside complement to Clark’s long-range prowess, averaging 17.2 points and 6.5 rebounds while ranking fourth in the country in shooting at 66.5%. McKenna Warnock does a little of both, shooting 41.1% from beyond the arc and averaging 10.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.0 assists.

Another reason the Hawkeyes are worth the flyer is they have played a quality non-conference schedule in addition to the rigors of Big Ten play. Iowa played UConn and North Carolina State reasonably well in losses and also defeated then-No. 10 Iowa State at home. Their only clunker in conference action was a 96-68 pasting on Feb. 21 by then-No. 7 Maryland, a team they beat by 14 at home earlier that month.

A Final Four run for Clark and company definitely feels viable. Iowa has some unfinished business from last season after being stunned on its own court in the second round by Creighton as a No. 2 seed. It has not been to the Final Four since 1993, coming close with a regional final appearance in 2019 led by Megan Gustafson. Gustafson is the only player to win the AP Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year Award and not make the Final Four since it has been handed out in 1995, something Clark — the prohibitive favorite to win the award this year — would like to avoid duplicating.

Scanning the sportsbook scene

Caitlin Clark. From the parking lot. BANG.

— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) December 2, 2022

Remember, pretty much every road to cutting down the nets in Dallas is expected to go through South Carolina. The shortest odds for the Gamecocks are -177 at the Kambi platform powering BetRivers and Barstool Sportsbook, while BetMGM and FanDuel have the best listing at -145.

Iowa, on the other hand, has a much wider range. The best value can be found at both FanDuel and DraftKings at +4000. The price is shorter at other books, with BetRivers, BetMGM, and Barstool offering +2500. For in-state Iowa residents, Q Sportsbook also has the Hawkeyes at +2500. Caesars Sportsbook had the shortest odds at +2000, ranking Iowa sixth among its offerings.

Previous NCAA Tournament sleeper picks: Saint Mary’s; Iowa State; Xavier; Kansas State; Marquette; San Diego State.

Photo: Getty Images

Author: Ryan Gonzales