March Madness: 5 top storylines heading into the NCAA women's tournament

Selection Sunday is nearing and with it a new basketball season dawns. The NCAA women’s basketball tournament will feature the biggest names in either the men’s or women’s game led by Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers, Cameron Brink, Juju Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo and Kamilla Cardoso.

There is one team attempting a repeat title, another going for an undefeated championship again and even more shooting for history as their programs’ first title winners. Or, in the case of the Pac-12, one final championship for the conference’s lore.

The First Four tips things off March 20 ahead of first- and second-round action from March 22-25 at the home courts of the top 16 teams seeded in the bracket. The super-regionals the following weekend will be held in Portland, Oregon, and Albany, New York. The Final Four is April 5 in Cleveland and the championship game will air on ABC for a second consecutive year on April 7 at 3 p.m. ET.

Here are the main storylines from this season to be ready for the bracket reveal Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Caitlin Clark’s record-breaking season continues

This one was hard for anyone to miss, but no tournament piece is complete without it. Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark passed record after record over the last month, dazzling an entire nation and drawing even casual fans into March Madness. After passing Pete Maravich’s hallowed mark, the NCAA all-time scoring leader will enter the NCAA tournament with 3,771 career points and averaging a career-high 31.9 ppg.

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Her career 28.353 ppg average is hundredths of a point from the DI women’s record set by Patricia Hoskins. She averaged 28.382 at Mississippi Valley State in the late 1980s, boosted by a record 33.6 ppg as a senior. In the Big Ten title game, Clark moved past Sabrina Ionescu into fourth on the DI women’s all-time assists leaderboard with 1,092. She is within easy reach of Courtney Vandersloot (1,118) and could even pass Andrea Nagy (1,165) if Iowa plays long enough. But record-holder Suzie McConnell (1,307) is out of reach.

Clark, the leading candidate for a second consecutive player of the year award, led the country in scoring and assists (career-high 8.9) again this year. Iowa (29-4) has never won an NCAA women's basketball championship and played in its first title game last year. The Hawkeyes should be a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, paving an easier road to the Final Four. They rank first in offensive rating (119.2) and scoring (92.8), as well as in a majority of offensive shooting and team categories.

How far can Caitlin Clark carry Iowa in the NCAA tournament? (Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports)
How far can Caitlin Clark carry Iowa in the NCAA tournament? (Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

South Carolina’s undefeated season, take 2

South Carolina is undefeated through the regular season and SEC tournament once again, following in the footsteps of their 2022-23 season that Iowa ended in the Final Four. The Gamecocks (32-0) are looking to become the 10th national champion to go undefeated in NCAA DI women’s history.

The entire starting five is new after four starters, including former Naismith winner Aliyah Boston, and a top reserve were selected in the 2023 WNBA Draft. Head coach Dawn Staley added transfer Te-Hina Paopao, whose 49.1% clip from 3 leads the team and rights a sore spot from last season, while promoting players up from the bench. One of the Gamecocks’ strengths last year was depth, and it is again this season with Staley able to plug-and-play by the hot hand and matchup.

They rank third offensively (86.1 ppg) and first defensively (56.3) for a nation-best winning margin (29.8 ppg) that is five points more than LSU and UConn in second. The Gamecocks won all six games against teams ranked top 25 in NET (LSU twice, Notre Dame, Utah, UConn, Duke), but the SEC schedule isn’t as strong.

“Yes, we won a lot of basketball games, but there are a lot of things we need to work on, a lot of deficiencies that we need to work on,” Staley said during the SEC tournament before a buzzer-beater over Tennessee and a close win over LSU. “This team has responded time in and time out, and they're going to have to respond now that's it's a win-or-go-home situation.”

UConn is no longer a favorite

Though UConn’s 14-year Final Four streak is no longer, the Huskies entered the 2023-24 campaign as solid favorites to win their first national championship since the four helmed by Breanna Stewart from 2013-16. That quickly vanished with additional season-ending injury news that has clouded the program the last few seasons. And with recent injuries, a spot in the final weekend is unlikely.

With Bueckers’ return from her own season-ending knee injury, the Huskies hoped to charge back into a title game behind their two heralded No. 1 recruits. Instead, they pieced together another short roster when Azzi Fudd, one of the game’s cleanest shooters, tore the ACL and meniscus in her right knee two games into the season.

The Huskies (28-5) are also without freshman center Jana El Alfy (Achilles), fifth-year key reserve Aubrey Griffin (ACL), sophomore forward Ayanna Patterson (knee) and junior guard Caroline Ducharme (head/neck). Amari DeBerry missed the Big East tournament with a concussion.

Bueckers, who is back at a Naismith-winning level, and forward Aaliyah Edwards, a projected WNBA lottery pick, carried the load for UConn. Buckers is averaging 21.5 points (14th in DI) while shooting 54.1% with 4.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Edwards is averaging 17.5 points (59 FG%) and 9.3 rebounds per game. Edwards missed the rest of the Big East tournament after sustaining a broken nose in the quarterfinals. Head coach Geno Auriemma said she should be ready for the NCAA tournament.

UConn relied heavily on its freshmen (Ashlynn Shade, KK Arnold, Qadence Samuels) and a team-high 6.3 assists from point guard Nika Mühl, who announced she will not take her extra year of eligibility. The Huskies rolled through another Big East schedule, but lost to all five of the high-NET non-conference foes on their schedule: South Carolina, Texas, UCLA, Notre Dame and NC State.

Paige Bueckers said she'll be back at UConn for another season next year. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Paige Bueckers said she'll be back at UConn for another season next year. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Closing time for the Pac-12

The final Pac-12 tournament is in the rearview as a closer to one of the most competitive and fun seasons in conference history. It’s also the last as realignment broke apart the “conference of champions.” There’s a high probability the story ends with two teams in the Final Four.

Regular-season champion Stanford (28-5) and tournament champion USC (26-5) are potential No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament with sights set on Cleveland. UCLA (25-6), which lost to USC in two overtimes in the SEC semifinals, is also a quality contender to make a run.

Cameron Brink (17.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg) and Kiki Iriafen (18.6 ppg, 11.0) are one of the best frontcourt duos in the nation powering Stanford’s second-best rebounding rate (58.5%) and top-10 offensive rating (112.3). USC runs through star freshman Juju Watkins, whose 27 ppg are second to Clark and on pace to break the women’s all-time scoring record if she stays all four years.

The Bruins were solidly the second-best team all season until Lauren Betts, a transfer from Stanford, missed four games due to undisclosed medical reasons. UCLA is averaging 10 more points than last year and ranks first in rebound rate. UCLA and USC have the most wins against teams in the NET top 25 (eight), but the Trojans have four losses, one fewer than UCLA.

Oregon State (24-7), Colorado (22-9) and Utah (22-10) are locks to make the field. Arizona (17-15) surged onto the bubble late with a signature win over Stanford.

Major injuries impacted top teams

UConn wasn’t the only program to work through major injury concerns, and more injuries have impacted top teams' outlook over the past couple of weeks.

Virginia Tech (24-7) rose into position for a potential No. 1 seed over the last month of the regular season until three-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley injured her knee in the final game. The 2023 Naismith finalist was ruled out of the ACC tournament, but has not been ruled out of the NCAA one, yet. Kitley (22.8 ppg, 11.4 rpg) and senior point guard Georgia Amoore (19.2 ppg, 6.9 apg) are the only double-digit scorers on the Hokies roster and one of three returners from the 2023 Final Four squad. They are both top-15 finalists for the Wooden Award. Losing Kitley’s production this late in the season, without proper time to tinker and adjust, would drop Virginia Tech’s ceiling from Final Four to Sweet 16.

LSU (28-5) is riding a short bench into Selection Sunday. The reigning champions were already without sophomore starting forward Sa’Myah Smith, who injured her knee in November, and senior Kateri Poole, who is no longer with the team. Last-Tear Poa, their sixth player, sustained a concussion in the SEC semifinals. The Tigers are seeking to become the first back-to-back champions since UConn in 2016 and the fourth program to do it all time. They won the title as a No. 3 seed last season.

Texas point guard Rori Harmon, an Associated Press and WBCA All-America honorable mention, logged career-high numbers and was a player of the year contender before tearing her ACL in practice in December. Standout freshman Madison Booker took over at point guard and has Texas (28-4) in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Booker (16.6 ppg, 5.0 apg ranks third in Big 12) is the first freshman to win a share of Big 12 Player of the Year, was named the conference’s top freshman, and is one of five finalists for the Cheryl Miller Small Forward of the Year.

Notre Dame (26-6) also overcame a plethora of injuries to win the ACC tournament title and hosting rights in the NCAA tournament. The Fighting Irish played the full season without point guard Olivia Miles (knee), a finalist for major 2023 awards and 2023 ACC Player of the Year runner-up, as well as a handful more guards on their roster.

Sonia Citron (16.6 ppg, 1.8 spg) missed nine games and forward Kylee Watson injured her knee in the ACC finale, putting her status for the NCAA tournament in flux. Hannah Hidalgo, a top contender for national freshman of the year, is a menace on both sides of the ball, averaging 23.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.5 apg and 4.6 spg.

Utah’s hopes in the packed Pac-12 plummeted after the loss of junior guard Gianna Kneepkens in early December. She was the team’s second-leading scorer behind forward Alissa Pili for a second consecutive year, but without her shooting threat from 3, the Utes (22-10) weren’t as lethal offensively.

More players have missed pockets of time, but nothing paints the picture of injuries this season as clearly as TCU (20-11) and Davidson (18-8).

TCU fell from undefeated and ranked in the AP Top 25 to holding open tryouts in January when a rash of injuries dropped their roster below the necessary player threshold. Davidson canceled the remainder of its season this month because of the “physical, mental and emotional toll of this unfortunate and injury-riddled season,” athletic director Chris Clunie said in a statement. The Wildcats started the year a program-best 12-1 with wins over Duke and a close loss to North Carolina that resulted in consideration for the AP poll.