South Carolina, Stanford, LSU, Indiana, UConn, Iowa, Utah, Maryland, Notre Dame, and Ohio State are atop the AP early season rankings. How are these teams performing so far, and what can we expect to see in March when they battle it out for the crown? Could Indiana’s veteran team finally lead to a National Championship? Will South Carolina be the first team since 2016 to win back-to-back championships? Can coach Geno Auriemma bring UCONN to its 13th National Championship, despite losing star players Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd?
The South Carolina Gamecocks are familiar with their place on the AP rankings. The Gamecocks are the only team to start and finish a whole season number one in the polls since the UCONN Huskies did it in 2017. Even after graduating their seniors, including 2022 NCAA All-Tournament MVP Destanni Henderson, the Gamecocks are looking stronger than ever. The Gamecocks are 21-0 after their 65-52 win over the Alabama Crimson Tide. Sophomore guard Bree Hall had a career-high 18 points to lead the Gamecocks to their ninth conference win. There is no question why the South Carolina Gamecocks are the heavy favorites to win the title again this year. It is going to be extremely hard to take down the defending champions as they are exceeding in every category. The Gamecocks are doing an excellent job balancing their inside game and their outside game. By utilizing their star senior forward, Aliyah Boston, and senior Victoria Saxton, they force teams to protect the paint, which allows their guards, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, to take easier outside shots. South Carolina is rebounding extremely well, especially on the defensive glass. Boston has 206 rebounds on the year, contributing to the Gamecocks season total of 1,068, which is the most of any team this season. The Gamecocks have been doing a better job at limiting their fouls this season, not getting into serious foul trouble like they did last year. Playing on the road does not seem to be a problem for the Gamecocks this far, as they have played nine of their games on the road and won them all. It will be interesting to see if anyone will be able to take down this experienced and talented South Carolina Gamecock team or if they will win their second consecutive and only third National Championship in program history. A real test for the Gamecocks will be when they take on the N0#3 LSU Tigers in a conference matchup on February 12, who is also 21-0 and looking to keep their undefeated season intact.
The Iowa Hawkeyes are looking to capture their first-ever program national title this year. After losing in a first-round upset 67-63 to Richmond, the Hawkeyes are back and ready to do whatever it takes. The Hawkeyes returned all five starters this year, including Big Ten Player of the Year, Caitlin Clark. It is no secret that the Hawkeyes’ biggest threat is their outside shooting. Not only can Clark make threes from anywhere on the court, but she has an incredible eye for finding her teammates. Wither is senior guards Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin on the perimeter or fifth-year forward Monika Czinano down low. The Hawkeyes are 17-4 this season. A 33-point performance from Clark led the Hawkeyes to an 80-74 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Iowa is a strong contender for the crown entering the second half of the season, but they have struggled against a team who have been able to shut down Clark. If Iowa wants to be successful, they are going to have to rely on more than just Caitlin Clark. Czinano, a 6’ 3 forward, has one of the best field goal made percentages in the Big Ten (66.4%). Using Czinano more will release some of the pressure from Clark, allowing her to get better looks at the hoop. Although Clark and Czinano are a major part of the offense, the Hawkeyes find more success when they have three or four players in double digits. For them to compete with the best teams in the league, the Hawkeyes are going to have to figure out a way to control their fouling. It was a problem last year, and if it continues to be a problem this year, then they are going to make a lot more games closer than they should be. The Hawkeyes have a tough stretch of games coming up as they prepare to take on the No#8. Maryland Terrapins on February 2 and NO#4. Indiana Hoosiers on February 9. Even though they are ranked sixth in the AP polls, Iowa has what it takes to win a national championship; they just need to put all the pieces together.
UCONN is once again in the National Championship conversation, but with star point guard Paige Bueckers tearing her ACL before the season started questioning UCONN’s postseason chances. The Huskies lost to the South Carolina Gamecocks, 64-49, in last year’s National Championship game. Seniors Christian Williams, Evina Westbrook, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa led the Huskies to their 12th National Championship appearance after adjusting to their new roles when Bueckers missed some time last season due to a different knee injury. The Huskies showed early that losing Bueckers was not going to stop them from returning to the Final Four, where this year they hoped to win it all. Unfortunately, if losing Bueckers was not enough, On December 4, sophomore guard Azzi Fudd collided with teammate Aayliah Ewards resulting in a knee injury that would sideline her for the unforeseeable future. Despite being out two starters, UConn had continued to be successful because their bench really stepped up when they needed to. Four Huskies ended in double digits to lead them to a 64-54 win over the Providence College Friars despite only playing with eight players because of injuries and illness. This is a UConn team that is so dangerous because not only have they overcome adversity, but their veteran leadership and experience show. For the first time in a few years, UConn finally has some players who have played in the NCAA Tournament. Due to COVID-19 and a large incoming freshman class, most of their players have never played in the tournament before. This became apparent in last year’s Championship game when they were shaken by a veteran South Carolina team. Now that a lot of UConn’s returning players are juniors and have experienced a championship game, they know not only what it takes, but they learned from last year and what to do in those types of situations. UConn has been forced to shift to a more inside game using Dorka Juhasz and Aubrey Griffin, as well as Edward’s down low due to the injuries of Bueckers, Fudd, and Ducharme. The Huskies do such an excellent job moving the ball and getting open shots from Nika Müal, who is currently the only guard in UConn’s starting lineup. It is going to take a lot for UConn to get back to the National Championship this year, but UCONN, especially under head coach Geno Auriemma, is a force to be reckoned with and will not go down without a fight.
With so much basketball left to play, it will be interesting to see how these teams and many more seasons unfold. Whose will be the biggest bust? Who will be the most surprising? Who will have what it takes to win a National Championship? Only time can tell. Get ready to enjoy another spectacular year of women’s college basketball.