3 questions I have for South Carolina women's basketball before March Madness bracket release
COLUMBIA — South Carolina women's basketball is just days away from beginning its journey to a second consecutive NCAA championship, the goal the team has been locked in on since the season began.
The No. 1 Gamecocks (32-0) will almost certainly secure the top overall seed in March Madness when the bracket is released Sunday after sweeping the SEC regular season and tournament titles. South Carolina could become the first team since 2016 to repeat as national champion, and it would be just the fifth program in NCAA history to complete an undefeated season.
Ahead of Selection Sunday, here are the biggest questions for the Gamecocks:
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Which opponent does South Carolina least want to see again?
A week ago, No. 4 Stanford was the obvious answer, but the return of Azzi Fudd for No. 9 UConn changes everything. When South Carolina faced the Huskies on Feb. 5, they had just eight active players and six who saw the court. Fudd averaged 20.6 points for UConn before suffering a knee injury on Dec. 4, then reaggravating the injury Jan. 15 after appearing in two games.
Fudd made her second return to the court March 4 for the start of the Big East tournament and helped the Huskies win a third consecutive conference title. She logged 11 points, going 3-for-8 on 3-pointers in the championship vs. Villanova.
Despite leading for the majority of the game, South Carolina only beat UConn by four points in their regular season meeting. The addition of another elite shooter, particularly one who can hit from the perimeter, is dangerous for the Gamecocks' paint-dominant defense. However, South Carolina's offense was also not at its best in Hartford: Leading scorer Zia Cooke shot 2-for-15 from the field and the team went 3-for-15 at the 3-point line.
Which potential matchups are the most exciting?
The game every women's basketball fan should want to see is South Carolina vs. Iowa, and more specifically Aliyah Boston vs. Caitlin Clark. Though national player of the year votes will have already been cast if the two teams run into each other, it's always satisfying to watch the sport's two best players go head-to-head in a win-or-go-home scenario. The matchup would be particularly revealing because the two athletes are so hard to compare on paper: Clark, a 6-foot guard, is having one of the most spectacular statistical seasons in NCAA history, averaging 27 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game. But Boston, a 6-5 forward, is the only player in the country with an offensive win share of 35% per 40 minutes plus a defensive win share of 20%. She also ranks sixth in double-doubles.
Southern California — the other USC — is also intriguing if the Trojans end up in the Greenville regional. USC is unranked but has pulled off major upsets and hung with teams beyond its depth. The Trojans beat No. 4 Stanford in their first meeting and lost by three in the second, took No. 22 Arizona to double overtime and forced overtime in both meetings with Pac-12 champion Washington State.
Southern Cal has the No. 17-ranked scoring defense in the nation, and that trait alone tends to give teams a leg up against the Gamecocks. The Trojans are notorious for creating chaotic, low-scoring games, and that's a recipe for disaster for South Carolina, which struggled against teams like Ole Miss and Mississippi State with a similar approach.
How will Kierra Fletcher's injury impact the tournament?
South Carolina has managed to stay remarkably healthy largely thanks to its depth, but in the SEC tournament, graduate transfer Kierra Fletcher became the first starter to miss a game after she sustained a left ankle injury in the semifinal against Ole Miss. She did not dress for the championship against Tennessee the next day and wore a walking boot on the bench.
Coach Dawn Staley did not give a definitive update on Fletcher after the title game. She said Fletcher was likely capable of pushing herself to play the final game of the tournament, but the coaching staff chose to hold her out to preserve her for the NCAA tournament. Staley said the point guard would remain in Columbia during spring break to continue rehabbing.
"I don't think we win a national championship without her being able to play as healthy as she can be," Staley said.
The Gamecocks have another strong point guard option in redshirt freshman Raven Johnson, but Johnson isn't used to playing nearly 40 minutes a game — she has only played more than 30 minutes twice this season. Zia Cooke and Laeticia Amihere also have some experience at the position, but neither is a true point guard in way Staley would like to run her offense.
Still, Fletcher's injury doesn't seem serious enough to miss more than a couple of weeks, and South Carolina should breeze through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. She should be good to go by the time the Gamecocks really need her.