What to watch for in 2019 women's NCAA tournament's first round

From top seeds making their debut to where to look for upsets, we break down the top storylines to track as the 2019 women's tournament tips Friday. Matt Eisenberg/espnW

The continued pursuit of perfection has been a theme in recent years in the women's NCAA tournament, as teams like UConn, Notre Dame and Baylor all entered the Big Dance unbeaten.

But that's not the case this season; every team in the field has at least one loss. However, one of them is about to go on a six-game winning streak that will end with an NCAA title on April 7. First-round games tip off Friday and Saturday, and here's what to watch for during the opening steps on the road to Tampa and the Final Four.

Games will be shown on a regional basis on ESPN2, and every game is available on the ESPN App, DirecTV and Dish Network.

Are key players healthy for Louisville, UConn and Texas A&M?

Three prominent teams on the court Friday had key players who either didn't play at all or were limited by injury during their conference tournaments. They're expected to return for the first round. How will they look?

In the Albany Regional, No. 1 seed Louisville should have guard Arica Carter (leg), who missed the ACC tournament final, and forward Sam Fuehring (ankle), who was injured in that game and limited to 12 minutes. The Cardinals, who missed both of them in falling to Notre Dame, play in the NCAA tournament's first game against No. 16 Robert Morris (noon ET).

Also in the Albany Regional, No. 2 UConn is set to welcome back senior guard Katie Lou Samuelson (back) against No. 15 Towson (7 p.m. ET, Friday). Even with Samuelson sidelined, the Huskies won the AAC tournament.

Texas A&M, No. 4 in the Chicago Regional, was without guard Chennedy Carter (broken finger) in the SEC tournament and was upset in the semifinals. The Aggies meet No. 13 Wright State (4 p.m. ET, Friday), and Carter, the SEC's leading scorer, is expected to play. She had one of the biggest games of the tournament last year, scoring 37 points to rally Texas A&M past DePaul 80-79 in the second round.

Will the No. 1 seeds cruise?

They usually do. But a No. 16 seed won on the women's side in 1998 (Harvard), and it finally happened in the men's tournament last year (UMBC). So hope springs eternal, right?

Still, it's mostly just about seeing how sharp the No. 1s look. Along with Louisville opening Friday, Portland Regional top seed Mississippi State meets Southern (9 p.m. ET).

The other two No. 1 seeds play Saturday: Chicago Regional's Notre Dame takes on Bethune-Cookman (11 a.m. ET), while Greensboro Regional's Baylor faces Abilene Christian (5:30 p.m. ET).

Where to look for upsets?

Last year, there were nine first-round upsets, and the No. 6 vs. No. 11 game produced three of them. Two of those teams -- Buffalo and Central Michigan -- went on to the Sweet 16. Could the Bulls and Chippewas of the Mid-American Conference do it again?

No. 10 Buffalo faces No. 7 Rutgers (4:30 p.m. ET, Friday) in the Albany Regional; the Scarlet Knights are without coach C. Vivian Stringer, who is missing the postseason to rest on doctor's orders. The Bulls won the MAC tournament and feature Cierra Dillard, who's second in Division I in scoring (25.2 points per game).

No. 8 Central Michigan faces No. 9 Michigan State of the Big Ten, which should be a fun battle on Saturday (1 p.m. ET) in the Chicago Regional.

  • Check out Conference USA champion Rice. The No. 12 Owls, in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, are on a 21-game winning streak. They feature 6-foot-9 center Nancy Mulkey and the C-USA player of the year, guard Erica Ogwumike. Rice meets No. 5 Marquette -- coming off a tough loss to rival DePaul in the Big East tournament final -- on Friday (2 p.m. ET) in the Chicago Regional.

  • Keep an eye on both games at Miami on Friday. Arizona State is the No. 5 seed in the Portland Regional but might feel at a disadvantage traveling across three time zones to face No. 12 UCF (7 p.m. ET), which only had to travel about 240 miles south from Orlando, Florida. Host Miami, the No. 4 seed, then faces No. 13 Florida Gulf Coast (9 p.m. ET).

    UCF has six losses this season, but three of them were to UConn. FGCU won the Atlantic Sun tournament for the sixth time, and the Eagles are on a 19-game winning streak.

  • Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champ Drake didn't play well in the MVC tournament title game, losing to Missouri State. It was just the Bulldogs' second loss to a league team in three years. Can they bounce back to win the program's first NCAA tournament game since 2002, when Drake made the Sweet 16? The No. 10 Bulldogs face No. 7 Missouri in the Greensboro Regional on Friday (4 p.m. ET) at Iowa.

  • It seems weird to say that eight-time national champion Tennessee needs an upset to advance out of the first round. But that's the case for the No. 11 Lady Vols, who take on No. 6 UCLA on Saturday (1 p.m. ET) at Maryland in the Albany Regional.

    At 19-12, Tennessee has had some head-scratching losses but also has played well at times. If the Lady Vols could beat UCLA and then likely Maryland, their Sweet 16 foe would be UConn (barring the Huskies being upset in the early rounds). UConn and Tennessee will resume their regular-season series next season after not playing since 2007. But maybe they'll meet in Albany first. Wouldn't that be something?

Superstar watch

The first couple of hours of the NCAA tournament on Friday will feature two of the top players in the country: Louisville guard Asia Durr and Iowa center Megan Gustafson, both espnW first-team All-Americans. Gustafson also was the espnW national player of the year and leads Division I in scoring at 28.0 PPG. Iowa, No. 2 in the Greensboro Regional, meets No. 15 Mercer (2 p.m. ET). Gustafson is coming off a 45-point performance in the Big Ten tournament final won by the Hawkeyes.

Friday's night games will showcase UConn's Napheesa Collier and Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan, also espnW first-teamers.

The fifth player so honored, Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, leads the No. 2 Ducks versus No. 15 Portland State in the Portland Regional on Friday (9 p.m. ET). Ionescu has an NCAA-record (for men and women) 17 triple-doubles, including one in last year's NCAA tournament first-round victory over Seattle University. Her coach, Kelly Graves, got some good news Wednesday; Oregon extended his contract through the 2025-26 season.

Welcome back to the Dance

Three teams -- Abilene Christian, Bethune-Cookman and Towson -- are making their NCAA tournament debuts.

And several teams, including Rice, which returns for the first time since 2005, are back in the NCAA tournament after an extended absence. Radford last made the field in 1996; the No. 14 Highlanders meet No. 3 Maryland on Saturday (11 a.m. ET). Clemson's last appearance was in 2002; the No. 9 Tigers face No. 8 South Dakota on Friday (7 p.m. ET).

There are also some notable absences. Oklahoma is not in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. LSU missed the field for just the third time in 21 years, Ohio State for the third time in 17 years and Green Bay for the fourth time in 18 years.