Just five teams meet those criteria entering this year’s tournament. Reigning national champion and top-seeded South Carolina ranks first in both metrics, while Indiana, Connecticut, Stanford and LSU rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense.
Not surprisingly, all five of those teams received high seeds in the NCAA tournament. No. 1 seed Stanford will face a play-in winner in first-round action later this week, while No. 1 seed South Carolina will square off against Norfolk State. No. 1 seed Indiana also faces a play-in winner, while No. 2 seed U-Conn. takes on Vermont. LSU, a No. 3 seed in Indiana’s region, will start with Gardner-Webb.
While it meets the above criteria, though, LSU hasn’t prepared itself to win a national championship. The Tigers’ nonconference strength of schedule, based on NET rankings, was just 320th in the country. The Tigers have played only three games against teams in the AP top 25 — facing No. 1 South Carolina and No. 23 Tennessee (twice) — and they are 1-2 in those games, including a 24-point loss to the Gamecocks. LSU did not look ready for the moment in its road trip to Columbia or in the SEC tournament, and it doesn’t seem like a title threat.
South Carolina, however, is prepared, having played and beaten two of the other top contenders on the road. It almost feels as if it’s South Carolina vs. the field in this year’s tournament; oddsmakers actually have the Gamecocks favored over the field to cut down the nets. South Carolina stayed perfect through the regular season and SEC tournament and won all but five games by double digits. However, a four-point win at U-Conn. and overtime games against Stanford and Mississippi showed the Gamecocks are not invincible.
The Gamecocks separate themselves in their experience and depth. Four of their five starters are members of the same senior class. They have been playing together for four seasons and won a national championship last year after appearing in the Final Four the year before. That group includes reigning national player of the year Aliyah Boston, whose dominance in the paint is a major reason South Carolina leads the nation in total rebounding rate, block rate and opponent two-point percentage.
That interior dominance is magnified by SEC sixth woman of the year Kamilla Cardoso. At 6-foot-7, Cardoso is the Gamecocks’ tallest player and an undeniable presence in the lane. She leads the nation in rebounds per 40 minutes, allows South Carolina to give Boston a break and draws defensive attention away when they share the floor. In particular, Cardoso’s mastery of the offensive glass could be the edge that lets the Gamecocks complete their perfect season.
Despite staying close to South Carolina in their February matchup, U-Conn. seemed like an unlikely candidate to win a national championship two weeks ago. The Huskies struggled down the stretch of the regular season — their last eight games before the Big East tournament were decided by single digits and included losses to Marquette and St. John’s. While their defense has thrived all season — the Huskies rank second in Her Hoop Stats’ defensive rating — the offense looked anemic.
Enter Azzi Fudd. Twice sidelined with knee injuries this season, the top-ranked recruit in the 2021 class out of St. John’s High made her return in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Before she suffered the first injury at Notre Dame on Dec. 4, all signs pointed to the Huskies’ sharpshooter having a player-of-the-year-caliber season. She was averaging 24 points per game and had led U-Conn. to victories over Iowa and Texas.
Fudd’s return transformed the Huskies’ offense, instantly improving their spacing and ability to operate in the lane. And once Fudd shook off the rust, the three-pointers started falling as well. U-Conn. cruised to the Big East title, posting an average margin of victory of more than 23 points in the tournament.
Indiana also struggled with a key injury this season, but it has had fifth-year guard Grace Berger back in the fold since early January. Berger, freshman perimeter threat Yarden Garzon and Oregon transfer Sydney Parrish have given Indiana a balanced backcourt trio. All three average double figures in scoring and shoot better than 45 percent from the field. Berger and Garzon are also excellent three-point shooters, making 40 and 45 percent from beyond the arc, respectively.
What puts this year’s Indiana team ahead of last year’s squad, which got bounced by U-Conn. in the Sweet 16, is the growth of Mackenzie Holmes’s game. The senior forward has shown improvement in every element of her play, landing herself in the national player of the year conversation.
Holmes is averaging 22.3 points per game and is the only player in the country scoring 20 or more points on over 60 percent shooting from the field (her field goal percentage of 68.8 ranks second in the nation). The Big Ten defensive player of the year also adds a team-high 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. If Holmes can dominate in the lane as she did in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers could be on their way to a program-first Final Four and even a national championship.
Stanford has a national championship ceiling but needs to right the ship after a lackluster finish to the regular season and an early exit from the Pac-12 tournament. The Cardinal’s last two losses came against AP top-20 teams in Utah and UCLA. While that’s not necessarily concerning given the quality of those opponents, Stanford hasn’t lately looked like the team that took South Carolina to overtime or dominated Arizona on the road.
That said, Stanford still boasts the best duo in the country in Haley Jones and Cameron Brink. The pair combine for 28.3 points and 18.6 rebounds per game, and Jones adds 4.1 assists while Brink contributes 3.4 blocks (third most in the nation). Jones and Brink helped lead the Cardinal to a national championship in 2021 and are capable of carrying this group to another title.
What could make or break Stanford’s championship hopes is the team’s three-point shooting. Neither Jones nor Brink makes her contributions from the perimeter, but senior Hannah Jump does. Jump is shooting a career-high 43.5 percent from deep this season on more than six attempts per game. However, she needs help on the outside to better space the floor so Jones and Brink can go to work. Freshman point guard Talana Lepolo is the most likely candidate to assist. If she can force defenses to respect her on the perimeter, it will open up opportunities inside.