Women's college basketball primer: LSU looking to repeat, other top teams and goodbye to the Pac-12

LSU's Flau'jae Johnson and Angel Reese celebrate after winning a Final Four game last season. Can LSU become back-to-back champions this season after another summer of high-profile transfers? (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
LSU's Flau'jae Johnson and Angel Reese celebrate after winning a Final Four game last season. Can LSU become back-to-back champions this season after another summer of high-profile transfers? (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) (Tom Pennington via Getty Images)

The 2022-23 women’s basketball season tips off Monday with a bang as some of the nation’s best begin their seasons against each other. LSU is starting the season at the top, but can Angel Reese and the roster’s additional transfers keep them there by season’s end?

The Tigers are the top storyline of the first week of the season, followed closely by how South Carolina and Connecticut will fare given departures and health. Caitlin Clark, the reigning National Player of the Year, will look for more trophies, including the most important of all, and the Pac-12 will play its final season as we know it despite being one of the most competitive conferences in the country.

LSU looking to repeat with even more transfer power

The most looming question facing LSU last November was if Reese, the top transfer in the class, could do enough to lead the Tigers on a national championship run. Now, it’s if they can win it all again.

Reese, a 6-foot-3 junior forward who averaged 23 ppg and 15.4 rpg, led a team made up primarily of transfers to the program’s first title in April and they lead the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll. She’s joined this year by additional transfers Hailey Van Lith, a 5-7 guard from Louisville, and Aneesah Morrow, a 6-1 guard from DePaul. Flau’jae Johnson returns as a sophomore guard and is joined by top recruit Mikaylah Williams, a former Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year.

The Tigers’ nonconference schedule ranked as one of the worst (320th according to NET), hence a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s only slightly better this season. LSU plays Colorado, ranked No. 20 in the AP poll, in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame series on Nov. 6. The only other major noncon competition is No. 8 Virginia Tech in the SEC/ACC Challenge held in Baton Rouge. It’s a rematch of the Final Four meeting that LSU won, 79-72. Otherwise, Virginia is the only other close competition in NET rating. Six opponents rank worse than 300.

The last back-to-back champion was Connecticut when Breanna Stewart led the Huskies to four consecutive titles from 2013-17. Tennessee and USC are the only other programs to win two consecutive titles. South Carolina was two wins from joining them last season. The Gamecocks were undefeated until a loss to Iowa in the Final Four.

Will South Carolina still be a power?

South Carolina is in a new era after their “Freshies,” led by 2022 Naismith Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, went 129-9 in their four-year careers. LSU’s spot atop the AP poll snapped the Gamecocks’ streak of 38 weeks at No. 1, the second-longest streak behind UConn’s 51-week streak (2008-10).

But they remain in the top 10 of the preseason poll where they’ve been every year since 2014. It’s a testament to head coach Dawn Staley and the talent she has returning for No. 6-ranked South Carolina.

Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-7 center, will be the starting big in the program footsteps of Boston (2019-23) and A’ja Wilson (2014-18). Cardoso, a Brazilian native who played high school ball in Tennessee, was named ACC Rookie of the Year while with Syracuse in 2020-21. She transferred to South Carolina, where she backed up Boston and averaged 9.8 points in 18.8 minutes per game as a junior (20.8 ppg, 40 mpg). Over the summer, she earned MVP at the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup (10.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg) for leading Brazil to the championship game, where it defeated the U.S. Much like Boston before her, she will have to be dominant — and at times selfish to take her own shot — to lead South Carolina to a fourth consecutive Final Four.

Kamilla Cardoso steps into the South Carolina spotlight in the footsteps of program post players Aliyah Boston and A'ja Wilson. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kamilla Cardoso steps into the South Carolina spotlight in the footsteps of program post players Aliyah Boston and A'ja Wilson. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) (Maddie Meyer via Getty Images)

The more glaring hole for the Gamecocks has been perimeter shooting. Reserve guards Bree Hall (40.5% FG/35.9% 3s) and Raven Johnson (36.8%/24.1%) return and will be joined by transfer Te-Hina Paopao (44%/42.4% at Oregon).

The starting roster isn’t a highly experienced one but will be forged by strong competition in the nonconference slate Staley is known for building. The Gamecocks open with No. 10 Notre Dame on opening day in a game held in Paris, France, and return home to host No. 14 Maryland on Sunday. They play South Dakota State, No. 16 North Carolina, Duke and No. 5 Utah before SEC play. Their annual meeting against No. 2 UConn is in Columbia in February.

UConn appears to finally be healthy

Connecticut, on paper, might be the most talented and experienced group in the nation. It is health that has held the Huskies back and brought on the longest national title skid in head coach Geno Auriemma’s tenure. It’s been a whopping seven years since they lifted the trophy in 2016.

Paige Bueckers, the 2021 Naismith winner, is back from a torn ACL that kept her out all of last season. Ice Brady, a five-star recruit, will make her collegiate debut after redshirting with a dislocated patella. And Azzi Fudd, Caroline Ducharme and Ayanna Patterson are all ready to go after missing time last year. Freshman guard KK Arnold joins the group, though the Huskies will be without Jana El Alfy. El Alfy, a 6-5 forward from Egypt, enrolled early in January and sustained a ruptured Achilles tendon while playing in the FIBA U19 World Cup in Spain over the summer.

The injuries gave players who typically would have been reserves much of their collegiate careers valuable playing experience. Nika Mühl set school assist records as point guard, bolstering the Huskies’ depth in the backcourt. After a loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 snapped the streak of 14 consecutive Final Fours, a little of the pressure is off this group.

But barely. This is still UConn and Bueckers began her collegiate career expected, or anticipated, to win four à la Stewart. Auriemma doesn’t want players to forget the feeling of walking off that court after the loss. Fudd said it is fueling them. And Andrea Hudy, UConn’s director of sports performance, told The Athletic that Bueckers is a better and more confident athlete than before her injury. If they stay healthy, it could be another April with the Huskies on top.

How far can Caitlin Clark take Iowa?

When Clark was recruited, she opted to stay close to her West Des Moines roots at Iowa with dreams of bringing the program its first national championship. The Hawkeyes came close last spring, reaching their first Final Four since 1993, upsetting then-undefeated South Carolina in the semis and losing to LSU in the title game. It will be more difficult to do it again.

Clark, a 6-0 senior, led one of the most experienced starting fives last year. Their success was built around the connection between Clark (27.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 8.6 apg) and fifth-year senior center Monika Czinano (17.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Czinano and longtime starting forward McKenna Warnock both graduated, leaving holes to fill and chemistry to create.

Caitlin Clark and Iowa will compete against a stacked Big Ten this season. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Caitlin Clark and Iowa will compete against a stacked Big Ten this season. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) (Maddie Meyer via Getty Images)

Stepping up will be Hannah Stuelke, a 6-2 sophomore who showed flashes of dominance, and Addison O’Grady, a 6-3 junior. The low post has been a strength of Iowa’s under assistant coach Jan Jensen’s direction; Megan Gustafson won the Naismith at Iowa in 2019. Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall both return on the perimeter and while they have stepped up in certain crucial times, they need to be more consistent performers around Clark to bring Iowa back to the top in a highly competitive landscape.

The Big Ten is stocked with talented teams, including five ranked in the AP poll. Three, including Iowa, are in the top 10. Iowa will play fellow 2023 Final Four competitor Virginia Tech in the Ally Tipoff in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Thursday. Kansas State is the only other strong team on the nonconference schedule.

Even if Iowa can’t replicate the magic of 2022-23, fans will pack opposing arenas for the shooting sorcery of Clark. The school announced in August the season was completely sold out to season-ticket holders.

Clark enters her senior season with 2,717 career points. It is 810 points shy of Kelsey Plum’s career record of 3,527 set at Washington in 2017. She would need to average at least 27 points per game over a 30-game regular-season schedule to eclipse the mark. Clark hit that mark the last two seasons and is averaging 27.2 ppg over three years. Her 347 3-pointers trail the record of 497 set by Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell. Clark hit a career-high 140 3s as a junior after a career-low 91 as a sophomore.

A final hurrah for the Pac-12

It will be the final season of Pac-12 play as we know it after a seismic realignment dictated by football and TV revenue. The Pac-12 is a historically rich conference with women’s basketball origins dating back to 1986-87.

UCLA was the first of today’s Pac-12 women’s hoops programs to win a title when most programs were in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association (WCAA). The Bruins won in 1978 when they defeated Maryland in the AIAW, which ran until 1982 when the NCAA added its women’s tournament.

USC won NCAA titles in 1983 and ’84 while still in the WCAA. Stanford took the torch in 1990 when head coach Tara VanDerveer led the Cardinal to the first of their three championships. They won in 1992 and 2021, when it was an all-Pac-12 final with Arizona at a peak for the conference.

The Cardinal are the Pac-12 success story with 15 Final Four berths, 26 regular-season titles and 15 conference tournament titles dating back to 2002. The tides within the Pac-12 are shifting, though, right as the group breaks apart.

The Pac-12 sent a league record-tying seven teams to the NCAA tournament last season. It has the most ranked teams (six) in the preseason AP poll led by No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 Utah. No. 15 Stanford, No. 20 Colorado, No. 21 USC and No. 24 Washington State round out the group. Washington, Oregon and Arizona also received votes. Oregon State, California and Arizona State were the only teams to not be recognized in the AP poll at all.

Utah and Colorado will be in the Big 12 next year. UCLA, Stanford and USC will head to the Big Ten, which will become the most talented and deepest women’s basketball conference in the country. The Big Ten, SEC and ACC each have five teams in the preseason poll. The Big East and Big 12 have two each.