Women's Final Four looms -- who could be heading to Cleveland? | Analysis

Feb. 26—Hard as it is to believe, the spotlight of a transcendent moment in women's college basketball will shine on Cleveland in a matter of weeks, as the Women's Final Four returns to Northeast Ohio in April.

The argument could be made the spotlight is wider and different than it was in 2007, the last time the Women's Final Four was in town and Candace Parker led Tennessee to the national championship.

Parker is still going strong, entering her 17th WNBA season with the Aces. So is the women's college game, with a constellation of talent and interest driving the game further on its ascent.

Here is an early primer on teams and players to watch that could be converging on the North Coast for the Women's Final Four, set for April 5 and 7 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse:

Teams to watch

The following are listed in the order in which they appeared in this week's Associated Press national poll:

South Carolina — The undisputed No. 1 team in the country at 27-0, Coach Dawn Staley has her program rolling yet again in search of a third national championship. While some of the more familiar names of recent memory such as longtime star Aliyah Boston are no longer on campus, the Gamecocks, with Kamilla Cardoso in the paint and guards Te-Hina Paopao and Bree Hall, have been dominant to the extent of having three games decided by 10 points or fewer.

Ohio State — It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the 24-3 Buckeyes. After losing their opener to star freshman JuJu Watkins and USC, then December losses to UCLA and Michigan, they've rattled off 14 straight wins and are up to No. 2 in the country behind South Carolina. OSU is paced by guard Jacy Sheldon, forward Cotie McMahon, Duke transfer Celeste Taylor and Cleveland native Taylor Thierry.

Texas — The Longhorns (26-3), winners of seven straight, are up to No. 3 in this week's AP poll after four of the top seven last week lost. They have a balanced, skilled starting five paced by promising freshman forward Madison Booker despite losing All-American point guard Rori Harmon to an ACL injury in December.

Stanford — The Cardinal are 24-4 but have lost twice in February to USC and Arizona. Program staple Cameron Brink is the linchpin, but sophomore Kiki Iriafen has had a breakout campaign to form one of the country's best frontcourt duos.

Virginia Tech — The dynamic duo of Georgia Amoore and Elizabeth Kitley lead the charge for the 23-4 Hokies, who have put together 10 straight wins including an impressive result over then-No. 3 NC State.

IowaCaitlin Clark is, of course, the star of the show. But the Hawkeyes have some complement to go with her under longtime coach Lisa Bluder, up to 24-4 on the campaign. With losses to Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State and Kansas State, Iowa has shown some susceptibility. The question is how much help will Clark get in crunchtime from Hannah Stuelke, Kate Martin and more?

USC — The Trojans (21-5) have enjoyed a rapid turnaround under the stewardship of former Cavaliers assistant and Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. A big reason for that this year is Watkins, whose diverse skill has immediately translated into college ball. Watkins' supporting cast is solid with guard McKenzie Forbes and center Rayah Marshall.

UCLA — The Bruins (21-5) are consistently one of the premier programs under Coach Cori Close. Bringing in transfer Lauren Betts from Stanford has paid quick dividends with the 6-7 center averaging 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds. Adding in a nucleus of seasoned performers with Charisma Osborne and sophomores Kiki Rice and Londynn Jones at guard makes UCLA a tough matchup.

LSU — The Tigers, coming off their national title run a year ago, seemed to be a no-doubt favorite coming into the year, with transfers Aneesah Morrow and Hailey Van Lith and a strong freshman class added to a core led by Angel Reese. Then Reese missed four games, LSU (24-4) lost its opener to Colorado and also fell to unranked Auburn and Mississippi State in January. Kim Mulkey has her squad playing better in February, but more will be required to get back to the Final Four.

ConnecticutPaige Bueckers is finally healthy in Storrs, but Coach Geno Auriemma has had massive injury misfortune losing five players for the season, including star guard Azzi Fudd. The 1-2 punch of Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards, though, is enough to keep the Huskies (24-5) deep in the conversation for a run.

Players to watch

(in alphabetical order)

Georgia Amoore, Virginia Tech — The 5-foot-6 senior guard from Australia makes the Hokies tick with her 3-point shooting and distribution. She's averaging 17.9 points and 7.6 assists, the latter second in the country to Caitlin Clark.

Cameron Brink, Stanford — A sure-fire top pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, the 6-foot-4 senior forward is a two-time All-American and averages 17.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and a national-best 3.7 blocks. Her wingspan and defense have been on display throughout a decorated career.

Paige Bueckers, Connecticut — A prolific 6-0 guard from Minnesota, Bueckers has overcome well-documented long-term injuries to put together an outstanding campaign for the Huskies with 20.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.2 steals. Few guards in the country can impact the game with the versatility with which she does.

Kamilla Cardoso, South Carolina — The 6-foot-7 center is easily one of the premier frontcourt players in the country. To show how her skill already translates beyond college, Cardoso left the Gamecocks for a stint earlier this season to play with the Brazil women's national team. She averages 14.1 points and 10.1 rebounds a game.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa — Obviously, there isn't much that hasn't already been said or will be said about the most prolific scorer in women's college basketball lore and 6-foot senior guard. Forget about getting to her "spot" — with her range, the court IS her "spot." Her season stat line is remarkable: 32.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.7 steals — even 0.6 blocks per game. Whether in the WNBA after this campaign or returning to Iowa for one more year, Clark will help drive the conversation in the women's game for years to come.

Mackenzie Holmes, Indiana — The 6-foot-3 grad student has been one of the most consistent performers in the country in her Hoosiers' career. The returning first-team All-American and Big Ten defensive player of the year has 20.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season.

Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech — A returning All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, this 6-foot-6 center is a walking double-double, at 23.3 points and 11.6 rebounds in her grad season in Blacksburg.

Ayoka Lee, Kansas State — There are few resumes in the country fuller than the one of this 6-foot-6 senior center. Lee holds the NCAA Division I women's single-game scoring record with 61 points. She had to take a redshirt due to knee surgery following a 2022 All-American campaign and has been dealing with an ankle injury suffered in January. Lee averages 20.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.

Cotie McMahon, Ohio State — The sophomore forward from Centerville is one of the budding stars of the women's college game, coming off being named 2023 Big Ten freshman of the year. She is a stat sheet stuffer with 14.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks per game.

Aneesah Morrow, LSU — The DePaul transfer and 6-1 junior guard is a key cog in one of the best starting fives in the country for the reigning national champion Tigers with 16.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.7 steals on average.

Angel Reese, LSU — After missing four games earlier this season, the 6-3 junior forward from Baltimore has continued to be one of the nation's best all-around players with 19.1 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game. The 12.9 rebounds ranks second in the country.

Jacy Sheldon, Ohio State — After missing most of last season due to injury, the 5-10 guard and Dublin Coffman graduate is back and helping spearhead an outstanding campaign for the Buckeyes with a team-high 17.9 points to go with 3.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.0 steals.

JuJu Watkins, USC — Whether this year or next is when Clark exits the women's college game, the "scoring machine" mantle will eventually fall to this dynamic 6-2 true freshman guard. Last year's Gatorade national high school player of the year averages 28.2 points, second in the nation to Clark, 7.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.6 blocks.

Final four dates, times

The semifinals will be held at 7 and 9:30 p.m. April 5, with the national championship game set for 3 p.m. April 7. Fan events will be staged throughout the weekend in conjunction with the Women's Final Four at the Convention Center and in Gateway Plaza starting April 4.

Bottom line

There were seasons not that long ago during which it was easy to project a national champion, the national title game — even all the way through the Final Four, Elite Eight and Sweet 16 — in women's college basketball. The bracket could go chalk in a hurry. However, much of that chalk trend has disappeared. It's not to say this Women's Final Four won't have some of the usual powerhouses, of course. But who will comprise the field in Cleveland could take some surprising turns in the weeks to come.