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March Madness: Why this Final Four field is a surprise, despite the iconic brands and superstars

A team that lost all of its starters, one that’s been chronically injured, one that graduated key role players, and another that seemingly came out of nowhere. That’s the lineup of competitors for the Final Four. And while there are big-name teams and star players, if you look back at the start of the season, this group is somewhat of a surprise.

South Carolina, Iowa, UConn and NC State all took their own uncharted paths to Cleveland.

South Carolina Gamecocks

After losing their entire starting five, and first player off the bench — Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Victaria Saxton, Brea Beal, Kierra Fletcher and Laeticia Amihere — the Gamecocks were supposed to be rebuilding.

But with Dawn Staley, that term doesn’t exist.

The 2024 Naismith Coach of the Year always has talent waiting in the wings. Kamilla Cardoso played significant minutes and was a key contributor on last year’s team. Raven Johnson, Sania Feagin and Bree Hall were all top-20 recruits in the class of 2021, and so were Ashlyn Watkins in 2022 and Chloe Kitts, who enrolled early in the class of 2023.

Staley then brought in one of the country’s most talented freshmen in MiLaysia Fulwiley, and Tessa Johnson, who has shown maturity throughout the season.

One of the biggest weaknesses on last year’s team was a lack of 3-point shooting, so Staley brought in Te-Hina Paopao, an Oregon transfer who is second in the country in 3-point percentage (46.3%).

All of that adds up to the top overall seed and an undefeated team heading to the Final Four.

There have been moments this season where South Carolina looked vulnerable — but not many. Tennessee nearly topped them in the SEC tournament, but Cardoso saved the perfect season by knocking down a buzzer-beater, which also happened to be her first career 3-pointer.

There was also a close call against Indiana in the Sweet 16 in which the Hoosiers cut a 22-point lead down to just two points. The Gamecocks were able to close it out behind key free throws and a late-game 3-pointer from Raven Johnson. She credited the clutch performance to the coach that is responsible for four straight Final Fours.

“If coach Staley isn’t sweating it, why should I,” she said following the win.

Iowa Hawkeyes

With Caitlin Clark leading the way, this team is perhaps the least surprising of the Final Four squads. Still, the Hawkeyes did lose two key players from last year’s team in Monika Czinano (17.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game) and McKenna Warnock (10.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 38.4% shooting from long range). They also endured early season questions about whether their current role players had enough talent to help Clark reach the ultimate goal.

There was their first loss of the season, a 65-58 upset by Kansas State in which Clark scored 24 points but went 2 for 16 from 3-point range. Molly Davis was the second-leading scorer with 10 points, and overall the Hawkeyes had a dismal offensive showing, shooting 36.1% overall and 9.5% from beyond the arc. A Jan. 21 overtime loss to Ohio State was similar, as Clark put up 45 points but didn’t get much offensive support, and the Hawkeyes allowed Cotie McMahon to score 33, and Jacy Sheldon to put up 24.

But the Hawkeyes seem to find a different gear in March. They did the same thing last year, when there were similar concerns surrounding scoring outside of Clark and Czinano. Kate Martin, Gabbie Marshall and Hannah Stuelke have all made key contributions for the Hawkeyes. For example, in the Sweet 16 against Colorado, Clark finished with an eye-popping 15 assists. But she doesn’t get those numbers and the Hawkeyes don’t record a 21-point victory if her supporting cast isn’t making shots. Martin and Marshall each had 14 points — with six 3-pointers between them — and Stuelke finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

But perhaps the most important piece to Iowa’s run this postseason is Sydney Affolter, who stepped into a starting role when Molly Davis was injured on March 3. The junior is averaging 13.3 points, 6 rebounds and 1.8 assists in the NCAA tournament while shooting 64.3% from the field.

Clark will always put up impressive numbers, but Iowa’s balance, and her ability to set up teammates to score is what has led to this run.

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark celebrates with teammates after defeating LSU on April 1. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark celebrates with teammates after defeating LSU on April 1. (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

UConn Huskies

It’s never a surprise to see the Huskies in a Final Four. Last year broke a 14-year streak when they lost in the Sweet 16, but this year, the powerhouse program is back where it belongs.

But if you take away the name “Connecticut,” then this team becomes a total surprise.

The Huskies have Paige Bueckers, who won Player of the Year as a freshman, but her status wasn’t certain heading into the season. The junior missed last season with a torn ACL, and though she was back, her level of play and overall health was still in question. That’s no longer the case. Bueckers is performing at the highest level of her career, averaging 22 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. She’s played all but four minutes so far in the NCAA tournament, and had 28 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks to lead the 3-seed Huskies past 1-seed USC and into the Final Four.

Outside of Bueckers, the lineup has been rocky this season, as the Huskies continue to be plagued with injuries. Starters Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme both endured season-ending injuries early in the season, with Fudd playing just two games and Ducharme playing four.

Along with Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl have been constants for the Huskies. Edwards is the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, with 17.6 points and 9.3 boards per game. Muhl leads the team in assists with 6.5. Both players have already announced that they won’t come back for their COVID years, so this is their last shot at an NCAA championship.

With Bueckers, Edwards and Mühl, this is a veteran-led squad, but a large part of UConn’s success has been because of the development of freshmen Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold, who are both playing 30 minutes a game, while averaging 11.2 and 8.8 points, respectively.

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Paige Bueckers
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NC State Wolfpack

There are elements of surprise in every Final Four team’s journey, but NC State is truly the team that no one expected to be here. The Wolfpack started the season unranked, but quickly garnered attention when they topped No. 2 UConn 92-81 in their second game of the season. They followed that up with a 78-60 blowout win over a third-ranked Colorado team that had just beaten LSU, and started ACC play with an overtime win over No. 22 Florida State. But after that, inconsistency was an issue for NC State.

The Wolfpack were upset by Miami, North Carolina and Duke during the regular season, and had several games with cold stretches. But one thing remained throughout those difficult spots: Talent. This NC State team has the makeup of a national champion.

It starts with Saniya Rivers, who has already won a championship with South Carolina, where she played her freshman season. The guard put the Wolfpack on her back when they played UConn, finishing with 33 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. On the season, she’s averaging 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. NC State runs a lot of its offense and defense through Rivers, who can control games with her speed and length.

But the star of the show for NC State is Aziaha James. The Wolfpack have had an unexpected season, and in a lot of ways, so has James. She’s leading NC State in scoring with 16.7 points per game, after only putting up 6.8 last season. The junior’s numbers are up across the board now that she’s in a starting role. Last season she averaged 18.8 minutes, which is up to 31.7. James also contributes 4.6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal per game. And in March Madness, she’s been at her best, leading NC State in every game, and averaging 24.3 points on 50.8% shooting during the tournament.

The Wolfpack also have balance to go with James’ big numbers. Five players score in double digits, with freshman Zoe Brooks coming off the bench to contribute 8.9 points and 3.5 assists per game.

Another key to the Wolfpack’s success has been the development of River Baldwin, who in her fifth season. The 6-foot-5 center is playing her best basketball and has become a viable option on offense and defense for the Wolfpack. She’s averaging 10.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.

This team is a testament to Wes Moore’s coaching, as every starter has developed from last year and is putting up bigger numbers.