Women's college basketball storylines: Can South Carolina repeat? Will UConn's Elite Eight run end?
The NCAA women’s basketball season tipped off on Monday and featured a Top 25 tilt with No. 21 Creighton beating No. 23 South Dakota State, 78-69. Mid-majors created early problems for teams in the NCAA Tournament last March and are one of the storylines to watch in 2022-23. Yahoo Sports looks at a few more to get you ready for the season.
Will South Carolina repeat and join dynasty status?
There aren’t many programs that have repeated as NCAA champions and all of them are considered powerhouse ones with dynastic eras. South Carolina is looking to become one of them.
The Gamecocks return nearly their entire roster, led by unanimous Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, and remain the No. 1-ranked team in the country after cutting down the nets in April.
"Winning is in our DNA. It's an acronym for Dreams, Nets and Assets. Our players, when they come here, their dreams come true."@dawnstaley on this year's theme for @GamecockWBB: pic.twitter.com/BX1JYc7QCk
— Julia Westerman (@JuliaWesterman) November 1, 2022
Their main focus will be filling the point guard spot left by Destanni Henderson and they have the talent to do it. One option is turning to senior guard Zia Cooke, who knows the system and has experience on the court with everyone.
“She wants to embrace the role of playing a little bit more point guard,” head coach Dawn Staley, entering her 15th year with the Gamecocks, told The State. “She’s a senior. I don’t really have to tell her to go play point guard. Go get the ball. Do what you do.”
Power forward Laeticia Amihere ran the point while Henderson was out a few games with an injury last season and also has the team experience.
Raven Johnson, the No. 2 recruit in the 2021 class, would seem to be the leading contender as the only point guard on the roster. She’s coming off a torn ACL that ended her freshman season eight minutes into the campaign. Staley said at SEC media day last month Johnson is “coming back fairly nicely,” but they want to “lighten her load before we’re able to play her full time.”
And then there’s Kierra Fletcher, a graduate transfer from Georgia Tech who started all four years. Fletcher intended to return for a fifth year with the Yellowjackets, but was unable due to a foot injury. Staley said she hasn’t really been practicing consistently with a “couple of nagging injuries.”
South Carolina will have an early test against Maryland on Friday when potential WNBA lottery picks Boston and shooting guard Diamond Miller are scheduled to face off. Miller left Monday's opener with a knee injury, but it is not believed to be serious.
Can Iowa carry the hunger of the Creighton loss to the Final Four?
Iowa experienced one of the more crushing exits from the NCAA tournament when No. 10 Creighton upset the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes, 64-62, in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the second round. It may be what propels the nation’s second-best offense to only its second Final Four in school history, joining the 1993 squad.
“From your greatest failures can come your greatest successes,” All-American Caitlin Clark told the Des Moines Register. “… Last year, we thought we were going to get to the Final Four. But we never really had that sour taste in our mouths. We didn’t have that fire to fuel every single day. And I think that’s the difference this year.
“We’re reminded of that Creighton game, that early exit, every single day.”
Iowa, which averaged a second-best 84.2 points per game last season, returns all five starters and is ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll. Clark, whose 27 ppg and eight apg led the nation, leads the charge with dynamic duo-mate Monika Czinano (21.2 ppg), who led Division I in field-goal percentage the past two years.
Seniors McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall round out the experienced group and they add transfer Molly Davis (Central Michigan) to take some of the ballhandling responsibilities off of Clark.
They’ll first have to make it through a tough Big Ten. Six of the conference's teams are in the Top 25 poll and nonconference opponents include No. 10 N.C. State and either No. 6 UConn or Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy College Basketball Tournament.
Will UConn’s Elite Eight run come to an end?
It’s the common question to which Connecticut keeps answering the call despite graduations, injuries and the rise of other programs. UConn’s current run of consecutive Final Four appearances is at 14 after finishing runner-up to South Carolina in April. The Elite Eight run dates back two more years to the 2006 tournament. And not since the 1993 tournament have the Huskies exited prior to the Sweet 16.
They’ll be without former player of the year Paige Bueckers, who sustained a torn ACL in her left knee while playing pickup basketball in August. The 5-foot-11 guard missed much of her sophomore year with a non-contact leg injury, but returned to lead the Huskies to the title game in her home state of Minnesota. She also had ankle surgery at the end of her freshman year. Bueckers, who led the team at 14.6 points per game, said she will stay at UConn for her senior season, even though she’s eligible for the WNBA draft.
They’ll also be without 6-3 freshman forward Ice Brady, the No. 5-ranked recruit in the class who underwent surgery last month for a dislocated patella in her right knee. A handful of returners are coming off of injuries themselves and the Huskies’ nonconference schedule isn’t kind.
UConn will face five AP Top 25 teams before New Year’s and has No. 5 Tennessee and No. 1 South Carolina on the schedule in 2023. Their six losses last year was the most since eight in 2004-05. Not since an 18-11 campaign in ’92-93 have they lost double-digit games.
What can we expect out of the 2022 tournament upset teams?
The Final Four was nearly all chalk, but the ride to get there wasn’t so easy. Can those teams that pulled upsets keep up the success and who else might join the wave of contending mid-majors?
Creighton, the No. 2 seed that ruined Iowa’s tournament, is ranked No. 21 in the AP preseason poll and picked to finish second in the Big East. They play a five-out system without a true big and relied on an average 10.1 made field goals per game. They led the Division I teams with 20.2 assists per game and return 84% of their scoring offense. That includes Lauren Jensen, who hit the game-winning 3 against Iowa.
South Dakota, the No. 10 seed that ended Baylor’s year, took down Ole Miss first in its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament before dominating Baylor and came within three points of upending Michigan in the Sweet 16. Their squad will look different with first-year coach Kayla Karius at the helm after Dawn Plitzuweit left for West Virginia. And guard Chloe Lamb, guard Liv Korngable and center Hannah Sjerven have all graduated. The trio accounted for 63% of their scoring output, and the only ones to average double-digits.
The Summit League has largely been a race between the Coyotes and South Dakota State Jackrabbits, ranked No. 24 in the AP poll. The Jackrabbits return four of their five starters and six of the seven top scorers from their WNIT championship squad.
Princeton also enters the season ranked at No. 25 following its third consecutive Ivy League tournament championship. The Tigers upset SEC champion Kentucky and lost to Indiana by one point in the second round. Belmont, after upsetting Oregon and losing to Tennessee by three in the tournament, received votes in the poll. They return seven of their top nine scorers, including Destinee Wells.
Final Four picks and awards
Final Four: There are always favorites, but it’s no longer a game of the few powerhouses and everyone else. There are a plethora of teams that could make it to the last weekend.
Pick: South Carolina, Iowa, Stanford, Notre Dame
South Carolina is a favorite to win it all again with so much talent back. UConn is always a favorite, but is facing one of its tougher tests in extending its Final Four streak. Stanford still has strong Final Four-level talent with players who won it in 2021. And both Iowa and Notre Dame have built upon strong offensive cores with a chip on their shoulders.
Title pick: South Carolina
Upset title pick: Iowa
Player of the Year: It’s the same race as last season between Iowa’s Clark and South Carolina’s Boston for the ultimate award. Clark became the first player to lead the Division I in both scoring and assists. Boston was dominant in the post and highly efficient en route to a national championship.
Pick: Caitlin Clark
There’s little doubt Boston, the likely No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, will continue to be all of those things. Clark will now have that hunger to go deep in the tournament that Boston had after the 2021 Final Four loss and has the benefit of an entire starting five returning, plus additions.
Coach of the Year: Title-winners are always in consideration, so South Carolina’s Staley deserves a mention here. There are other coaches who might not take their teams to the final weekend, but who are building a foundation to do it in the future. Kim Mulkey made LSU into a 26-6 team following a 9-13 campaign before she took over. And she added key transfers that include Angel Reese, largely considered the top player in the portal. Tennessee’s Kellie Harper and Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey have their powerhouses back toward the top tier. And Vic Schaefer led Texas to back-to-back Elite Eight showings his first two years.
Pick: Dawn Staley
Historically, this award goes to the coach of a team en route to a national championship. But if UConn makes it back to the Final Four, Geno Auriemma has made a case for it given the obstacles they’ve already faced. *ducks*