Women’s Final Four predictions: Indiana’s rise, UConn’s vulnerability and the Boston-Clark debate
The first games of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament will take place on March 15. The landscape may look very different by then, and a lot has already changed since our mid-season check-in in January.
Yes, South Carolina remains dominant and undefeated, with two wins over UConn and LSU in the last 10 days, marking the first real test for the previously undefeated Kim Malkey Tigers.
But with the return of a healthy Grace Berger, Indiana looked even more powerful, climbing to No. 2 in the AP Top 25 and earning the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Basketball Committee’s top 16 seed rankings. Stanford has shown that he is vulnerable to USC and Washington. UConn, the fourth No. 1 seed in the reveal, gave the Gamecocks a tough game, but questions remain about whether the Huskies’ lack of depth due to injuries is sustainable.
And things are heating up in league racing as teams close the regular season and prepare for the conference tournaments, which open February 28, with the first automatic entry announced on March 4.
A month before March Madness officially began, Sportzshala.com correspondents Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou, and M.A. Vopel are updating their predictions and looking at which teams are ready for the Final Four, who has the best chance of being named player of the year, and others.
What surprised you – good or bad – and what has changed your mind the most in the last month since our mid-season registration?
Cream: A month ago in Indiana it was good. But the second best team in the country? Final Four favorite?
Hoosiers is all that and more. Of course, Indiana still had to beat Maryland, Iowa, Ohio (twice) and Michigan by 12.4 points average a month ago. The Hoosiers have not only taken the lead in the Big Ten, they are dominating it.
The return of Grace Berger (she missed eight games with a knee injury) lifted Indiana to new heights, but the Hoosiers were good without a team leader. Coach Teri Moren has turned a team from returning and young players plus two transfers into an NCAA Tournament-ready finished product that ranks ninth in the nation in scoring (81.6 points per game). It helps that the older Mackenzie Holmes has taken her game to the next level. Her 22.5 PPG is seven more than a year ago and she is making almost 70% of her shots. Holmes won’t even win Player of the Year because of Caitlin Clark, but she’s in the top five in the country.
Wowple: The Pac-12 race was a pleasant surprise. At the start of the season, it was thought it might be the Stanford runaway, and it was probably still the case on the morning of January 15th. in the battle of the top 15, and unranked Washington State took first place then. 21 Oregon in overtime. It was a signal that no one was going to run smoothly, including the Cardinal, who has since also lost to the Washington Huskies.
Now Stanford and Utah are top of the league, Colorado has joined them in the top 16 in bracketing, and six Pac-12 teams are ranked. The regular season title could be decided on Feb. 25 when Stanford and Utah face off in Salt Lake City, but before that, the Cardinal will face ranked USC, UCLA and Colorado. The Utah face only one ranked opponent (Arizona) in their three games before hosting Stanford.
Philip: I’m with Charlie at the front in Indiana. Otherwise, many of my predictions for the off-season have not come true, although some of them are injury-related. Notre Dame doesn’t look that intimidating in the ACC, especially after Dara Mabry pulled out with a knee injury at the end of the season. Ohio State is back on the ground having lost five of the last seven games since starting the year 19-0, Jaycee Sheldon is still injured and Rebeka Mikulasikova is currently sprained in her ankle. Our off-season predictions were released on the day that Azzie Fudd of the University of Connecticut returned from a knee injury but made it worse a few days later and was out of the game for the entire last month.
There was a moment this season when all three teams could be considered Final Four contenders, but a lot can change in a month, especially when it comes to injuries.
Alia Boston or Caitlin Clark for Player of the Year?
Cream: Clark… and at the moment it’s really not close. Boston has been amazing lately in South Carolina’s biggest games against UConn and LSU. It must mean something. But, to steal a phrase from my bracketing world, Clark has an excellent overall body of work.
Clark worst Playing against a ranked opponent this season is 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists against Iowa State in early December. She recently scored 42 and 35 against Maryland and Indiana, teams just below and ahead of the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten race. Clark again leads the nation in assists (tied with UConn’s Nika Mule at 8.3 per game) and, were it not for the greatness of Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, he would be in a position to lead the country again in both categories.
Clarke hasn’t had a day off or a bad game yet. As outstanding as she was a year ago, her consistency this season has taken her game to new heights.
Philip: If we’re estimating this season’s workload, which is appropriate for determining Player of the Year, it’s probably Clark, but for slightly different reasons than Charlie indicated. South Carolina has become less dependent on Boston compared to last year, with success from Zia Cook, Camilla Cardoso, Brea Beal and a host of other contestants. This is a true testament to how much more dominant they have become since winning the national championship in April.
But without Clarke, Iowa would be a long way from the Final Four, and this year in particular, her numbers are staggering to ignore. However, if Boston won it, it would still be incredibly well deserved.
Wowple: Clarke in the close race. When you have the top two players in their respective positions, and those positions are completely different, it all comes down to what other criteria voters use. If they lean towards the best team player as the deciding factor and/or the current player as the winner, then it’s Boston. But if this is a player who constantly delivers huge results and must do everything possible for the success of his team, then this is Clark.
In women’s college basketball and the WNBA, postal players tended to win NPOY/MVP more often than defensemen. It is worth noting that, despite being considered by many to be the best player in WNBA history, Diana Taurasi has only won the MVP award once. Clarke has been everything you could expect, and more, to be an offensive linebacker all three seasons in Iowa, and she’s improved her defensive skills as well. And she is one of the most exciting players in all college sports.
They are both worthy. Both Indiana and its fans will insist that Holmes should get more support in this race, and rightfully so. But Clark is my choice.
UConn lost two matches in a row, looked tired and will be in the minority in the near future. Isn’t it time to worry about the health and ability of the husky to survive?
Philip: Considering how well the Huskies played in the most important moments – in a hostile road game against historic rivals Tennessee, as well as against the defending champion Gamecocks in Hartford – I can’t discount them at this point. And yet, watching their conference performance lately (not just because of Marquette’s defeat), and considering how busy the schedule has become from now on, it’s clear they need Caroline Ducharme and Fudd – not only in order to make the Huskies harder to beat by simply giving them more bodies.
But it’s the middle of February, and the time for either of these two to return is ticking away. Geno Auriemma acknowledged that the Huskies are limited in what they can work on in practice due to health issues and that the team is not in the best mental state due to being very exhausted. It’s hard to know what changes unless reinforcements arrive, but if anyone can make it work, given the circumstances, it’s Auriemma and Chris Daly.
Cream: I see that the team is barely holding on at this stage. It’s such a testament to how disciplined, well trained and determined these Huskies are that the calendar shows mid-February and they are still the #1 seed. But they seem to have run out of gas. With all the injuries and the resulting tough minutes for healthy players, the success of the season does not seem sustainable so far.
A great performance and a close result against South Carolina disguised what was already in place – a team playing on fire. Huskies got on Gamecocks and played surprisingly well. But shortly before that, UConn was lucky to beat Villanova at home and fight Providence. The subsequent loss to Marquette and the close game, uncharacteristic of Georgetown, only underline the fact that without reinforcements we have seen the best Huskies this year.
Wowple: In over three decades of watching what UConn does, my default opinion is that no matter how bad things look, Huskies almost always find a way out. However, when it comes to this amount of injury and fatigue, this is one of their biggest concerns.
Which team will win the ACC? And will the conference have a Final Four team?
Cream: The ACC lived up to its title as the nation’s most competitive league with seven teams in the top seven seed lines in the latest addition to Bracketology. However, none stand out and I don’t think any of the teams in the league will make it to the Final Four.
As far as which team can win the conference, I’ll pick Duke and his defense, which allows him to score the second-lowest points per game in the country.
For now, the Blue Devils have the luxury of a one-game lead, making it easier for them to advance. Among the top three teams – Duke, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech – the Irish have the easiest schedule left, but they…