The good news for UConn is that the star sophomore guard Azzi Fudd, who has missed 22 total games this season because of knee injuries, is back in its lineup. Fudd was cleared to return just ahead of the conference tournament and scored 11 points in the title game.
“So many things have happened on and off the court this past season,” Auriemma said. “Personally and team-wise, everything, to get to this point, you want to just close that book and start a new brand-new one.”
On the other hand, Stanford is stumbling into the tournament, having lost two of its last three games. Its last loss came in the Pac-12 Conference tournament semifinals to U.C.L.A. It was the first time Stanford had not made the Pac-12 title game since 2016.
Still, Stanford, which won the national title in 2021, has the experience and talent to be one of the hardest teams to eliminate from the tournament, but late-season inconsistency makes the Cardinal seem more vulnerable than they have been in years past.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to our ceiling,” guard Haley Jones said after the conference tournament loss. “So I think that if we’re able to get things together in these next few weeks and continue to play together and make adjustments, then I think we have a lot of good stuff ahead of us through March and the beginning of April.”
And then there are the teams that could get in the way of the historical juggernauts. They start with Iowa, spearheaded by the sharpshooting guard Caitlin Clark. She has led Iowa to four straight wins, including the Big Ten Conference tournament championship, where she recorded the only triple-double in the title game’s history.
Clark and Iowa are playing their best as of late and have faced a much more difficult schedule than many other top teams, making them an easy pick to make a deep run. Virginia Tech, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion, comes into the tournament riding an 11-game winning streak and is buoyed by Georgia Amoore, a point guard who averaged just under 22 points per game and broke the A.C.C. tournament 3-point record with 14 over three games.
No. 3 seed Louisiana State is also a team to watch, led by the boisterous, trash-talking forward Angel Reese. L.S.U. was upset by Tennessee in a SEC tournament semifinal, squandering a 17-point second-half lead, but it has one of the best players in the tournament in Reese and an experienced coach in Kim Mulkey, who won three national championships at Baylor.