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Will last year's women's Final Four teams make it back to NCAA tournament's last weekend?

It was an upset loss in the SEC tournament semifinals that LSU players credited for their run to the 2023 national championship. Sophomore guard Flau'jae Johnson told Yahoo Sports last week the team experienced that same feeling after two major regular season losses this year.

“After the Mississippi State loss and the Auburn loss — games we weren’t supposed to lose at all — I think it really just shook us,” Johnson said. “We can be unbeatable, but we’re not. And we just had to get into that moment, like ‘Wow, we have to play at our best because everybody wants to beat us. We’re LSU.’ I think that really opened our eyes and showed us how good we can be. But we can’t play with little teams.”

The loss to Auburn on Jan. 14 was the Tigers’ second of the season in addition to their season-opening shock against Colorado. They haven’t dropped games since their back-to-back losses against South Carolina, who won the 2023 SEC championship, and Mississippi State at the end of January.

The Tigers’ most formidable competition in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments is South Carolina, which is closing in on its second consecutive undefeated regular season. The two could have lined up in an all-SEC championship game last year if it weren’t for Iowa and Caitlin Clark, who upset the Gamecocks in the semifinals. Virginia Tech rounded out the 2023 Final Four.

All are in position to return to the final weekend. Ahead of the NCAA women’s basketball committee’s second and last top-16 reveal on Thursday, Yahoo Sports checked in to assess the squads’ chances at repeat appearances.

South Carolina, head coach Dawn Staley and guard Raven Johnson (25) are trying to finish a second straight undefeated regular season. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)
South Carolina, head coach Dawn Staley and guard Raven Johnson (25) are trying to finish a second straight undefeated regular season. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)

South Carolina (27-0): Near lock for Final Four

South Carolina ran out a completely new starting five in its regular season debut in Paris. Any questions about the Gamecocks' ability to stay atop the pack was squashed quickly and they’ve held the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll since Week 2. They are the only undefeated squad on both the men’s and women’s side.

They are more dangerous offensively, averaging 87 ppg (seven more than last year) as the highest-scoring team of head coach Dawn Staley’s tenure, per Her Hoop Stats. Their pain point of 3-point shooting last season is now a strength (40.5% ranks second) behind transfer Te-Hina Paopao, who is hitting 48.9% (fifth) of her five average attempts per game. Their defense remains top five, allowing 54.1 ppg, and their defensive rating (72.5) is tops in Division I. The 32.9-point margin of victory is seven more than LSU in second place (25.7). Only three games have been within single digits (LSU, North Carolina, Utah).

The daunting task for opponents is the Gamecocks’ depth and ability to wear teams down. Seven players are averaging at least 19 minutes per game and all average between 8.5 (guard Raven Johnson) and 14.1 points per game (6-foot-7 post Kamilla Cardoso). Staley can tinker with which reserves she puts into the game on off nights or for better matchups.

Bracket projection: No. 1 overall seed

South Carolina locked up a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and would have to implode to lose the No. 1 overall seed. The Gamecocks rank first in NET ranking through Sunday’s games and won all five contests against teams ranked in the NET top 25.

It should give them the easiest road to the Final Four and the championship game. If opponents can hold them quiet on the perimeter, or maybe hope for a poor shooting day while limiting Cardoso in the paint, an upset could be on the horizon.

Virginia Tech (23-4): Hottest team in February

Virginia Tech went undefeated in February again to move into position for a top seed. The Hokies were a questionable pick for the final No. 1 seed last season, but proved they were worthy by reaching their first Final Four. They faced high expectations this season that they couldn’t live up to early, but as transfers and freshmen settled into roles, they have thrived.

It’s centered on All-ACC point guard Georgia Amoore and two-time ACC Player of the Year and 2023 Naismith finalist Elizabeth Kitley. Amoore is averaging a career-high 17.9 ppg while shooting 50.5% from 3 and averaging 55% more assists (4.9 to 7.6). Kitley is averaging a career-high 23.3 ppg and 11.6 rpg in a more aggressive approach.

“She’s Eliza-beth, that’s her name, her given name,” Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said on Sunday after the Hokies clinched a share of their first ACC regular season title. “NIL opportunities have turned her sometimes into Eliza-business. But then she gets mad on the court now, then she’s Eliza—. And that mentality has pushed her over the edge in how good she is and how good she can be.”

Virginia Tech is 14-1 when Kitley and Amoore each score 20, and one of them has led the team in scoring in all but one game. Matilda Ekh and Olivia Summiel provide strong supporting roles. The Hokies' offensive rating (112.0, 10th), defensive rating (87.8, 92nd) and net rating (24.2, 12th) are the highest since at least 2009-10, according to Her Hoop Stats.

Bracket projection: No. 2 seed

The final No. 1 seeds have been a revolving door for weeks, so the Hokies could theoretically slip into one of those spots. For now, they’re solidly a No. 2 seed with their 10-game winning streak and quality wins over NC State (twice), Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville. They still have Notre Dame coming up on Thursday in their first and only meeting of the regular season.

Tech is also 4-3 against teams in the NET top 25 and 5-1 against teams 26-50. Two of those losses are against Iowa and LSU while they were tinkering with new pieces.

Caitlin Clark (22) has gotten all the attention at Iowa this season, but she also takes on a big burden while carrying the team. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
Caitlin Clark (22) has gotten all the attention at Iowa this season, but she also takes on a big burden while carrying the team. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Iowa (24-4): Riding Caitlin Clark as far as she can take them

Iowa has Caitlin Clark, the NCAA Division I women’s all-time leading scorer, and that immediately puts them in title contention. She can take over a game quickly — sometimes in stealth mode — and bring the momentum of an entire arena with her. Between her 32.1 ppg and 8.5 apg, both of which rank first in DI, she’s most of Iowa’s nation-leading offense (92.1 ppg). She also leads the team at 7.3 rpg.

But the Hawkeyes’ losses have little to do with her performance. They are almost always when players around her aren’t hitting shots, and that’s a real danger for Iowa’s chances at another deep run. The Hawkeyes don’t have a strong defense on which to fall back. Their 71.8 ppg allowed ranks in the 14th percentile and their 92.6 defensive rating is middle of the pack.

Iowa’s run to the 2023 title game was magical and built on their experience as a group of five who started nearly 100 games together. It’s a different looking team now without the steady, efficient and experienced Monika Czinano paired in the pick-and-roll with Clark. Hannah Stuelke (14.4 ppg, 63.7 FG%) and Kate Martin (13.4 ppg, 52.7 FG%) are the most consistent contributors.

Bracket projection: No. 2 seed

Iowa ranked No. 6 in NET through Sunday’s games with the strongest NET strength of schedule (20) of the four teams and best average opponent NET ranking (10). South Carolina was the closest at 22 and 23, respectively. The Hawkeyes are 4-3 against NET Top 25 teams and 5-1 against teams 26-50.

Unless Iowa draws a tough matchup as it did two years ago against Creighton, the Hawkeyes shouldn’t have too much trouble getting through the first weekend and even the second. But they rely on outscoring opponents, a feat that becomes difficult on a nightly basis through the tournament, and advancing out of the region could be tricky.

LSU (24-4): Another potentially tough bracket draw awaits

The Tigers didn’t rest on their laurels after winning the title in April. Angel Reese, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, helped recruit Aneesah Morrow from DePaul and Hailey Van Lith from Louisville. The offense’s 88.5 ppg average is second only to Iowa and its defense has come along over the past few weeks.

Reese (19.1 ppg, 12.9 rpg) and Morrow (16.8 ppg, 10 rpg) are averaging double-doubles as one of the best frontcourt pairs in the country, while freshman Mikaylah Williams (15 ppg, 48.5 FG%) and Johnson (13.4 ppg, 48.6 FG%) hold down the backcourt. The Tigers are first in free throw makes, attempts and trips per game, and don’t rely heavily on perimeter shooting. Turnovers have doomed them at times, and if opponents can stick with LSU on the boards, they have a good chance at a win.

Bracket projection: No. 4 seed

It was another ho-hum non-conference slate for the Tigers. LSU’s average opponent NET was 128 compared to 108 for Virginia Tech, 89 for South Carolina and 79 for Iowa. They played only three top-25 NET teams and went 1-2, a stat that should keep them out of the top two seed lines.

They have the toughest path of any of the ’23 Final Four teams for their seed alone. But they won it all as a No. 3 seed last year and have the talent to return to the Final Four if things break the right way. They’ll need the focus of last year’s tournament team and not the one that lets the “little teams” stick around.