Women No. 1: South Carolina, NC State, Stanford, Louisville

Connecticut's Christyn Williams, center, reacts after receiving the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award as head coaches Geno Auriemma, left, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, right, after a basketball game- NCAA varsity ball against Villanova in the Big East Tournament Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Uncasville, Connecticut.  (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Connecticut’s Christyn Williams, center, reacts after receiving the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award as head coaches Geno Auriemma, left, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, right, after a basketball game- NCAA varsity ball against Villanova in the Big East Tournament Finals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Uncasville, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

PA

Dawn Staley and South Carolina are once again the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament — a familiar role for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina won the first seed in this year’s tournament, which was announced Sunday night. The Gamecocks have been No. 1 in a region six times since 2014.

The women’s tournament itself also finds a familiar setting.

For the first time since 2019, the tournament will feature matches at campus venues with fans in the stands.

“I just think the semblance of normalcy, I hope brings back some good feelings and the excitement and the hype that’s part of this event, which is what makes it so great, is the fans,” said l UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “I think their return is going to make all the difference in the world.”

The Auriemma Huskies are a No. 2 seed in the competitive field this year.

North Carolina State, Stanford and Louisville are the other No. 1 seeds.

Staley does not accept the argument that, as the top seed, his Gamecocks will have an easy path to winning their second national championship.

“They said the No. 1 seed overall had an easier path to the Final Four. I don’t see that,” Staley said. “But I believe we’re going to play our best basketball from now on.”

Potentially waiting for Aliyah Boston and the Gamecocks in the regional final could be Caitlin Clark and No. 2 Iowa in a clash of two best players in the sport.

While there is a lot of familiarity with the tournament, there are also some major changes, including expanding the field to 68 teams.

This year’s squad has grown to match the men’s field with Wednesday and Thursday’s play-offs. The Gamecocks, who dominate the Greensboro area, will face the winner of Howard and Incarnate Word – one of the first four games.

The widening of the field was one of many changes made to the women’s basketball tournament following the inequities revealed during last season’s NCAA.

North Carolina State is the top seed in the Bridgeport area and could face UConn in the regional final. The Huskies are finally getting back to health with reigning Associated Press Player of the Year Paige Bueckers returning from a knee injury that sidelined her for two months.

“They’ve got all the pieces, all of their players are playing,” said women’s basketball selection committee chair Nina King. “Compared to Bridgeport, we place teams on the starting lines on an S-curve. When we place them in regionals, we try to stay true to the S-curve. … That’s how it goes. passed this year and that’s why Connecticut is in Bridgeport.”

Defending champion Stanford is making headlines in the Spokane area. The Cardinal has come through the Pac-12 and will be looking to win a second consecutive national title. Texas, which won the Big 12 earlier on Sunday, handed the Cardinal one of three losses this season.

Louisville is the top seed in the Wichita area. The Cardinals were the most surprising of the seeds, edging out second-seeded Baylor after the Bears lost in the Big 12 title game.

The NCAA announced the selections Sunday for the first time since 2006 this year. Officials hope to bring the announcement back to its normal Monday night slot next year. NCAA officials would also like to play next year’s opening-round qualifying games at a neutral venue, similar to the men’s event in Dayton, Ohio.

As part of a return to normal, the top 16 seeds will host the first and second round matches. Last year, the entire tournament was held in a makeshift bubble in San Antonio due to COVID-19 issues. However, as the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc in the country, the women’s group – much like the men’s tournament – has teams on standby in case a school cannot play due to COVID-19.

King said the first four teams on standby are Boston College, Missouri, South Dakota State and UCLA. But the NCAA expects to be able to play the tournament in all of its normal locations, including campus venues for the first weekend.

Bridgeport, Connecticut; Greensboro, North Carolina; Spokane, Washington; and Wichita, Kansas will host the regionals and Minneapolis is the site of the Final Four on April 1-3.

Longwood, IUPUI and Incarnate Word will all make their first appearance in March Madness – an expression that women are allowed to use for the first time. Incarnate Word became the first under-.500 team to play in the tournament since 2015.

The Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference led the way with eight teams each on the field.

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Follow Doug Feinberg on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DougFeinberg

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More AP Women’s College Basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Naomi C. Amerson