Can South Carolina repeat? Will UConn’s Elite Eight race end?

The NCAA women’s basketball season kicked off Monday and featured a Top 25 tilt with No. 21 Creighton beating No. 23 South Dakota State, 78-69. The mid-majors created early problems for teams in the NCAA Tournament last March and are one of the scenarios to watch in 2022-23. Yahoo Sports is looking at a few more to get you ready for the season.

Will South Carolina repeat and rejoin dynasty status?

There aren’t many programs that have repeated as NCAA champions and all are considered powerhouses with dynastic eras. South Carolina is looking to become one of them.

The Gamecocks turn over nearly their entire roster, led by unanimous Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, and remain the No. 1 ranked team in the nation after cutting the nets in April.

Their main objective will be to fill the point guard position left by Destanni Henderson and they have the talent to do so. One option is to turn to senior guard Zia Cooke, who knows the system and has experience on the field with everyone.

“She wants to embrace the role of playing the point guard a bit more, head coach Dawn Staley, who is entering her 15th year with the Gamecocks, told The State. “He’s an old person. I don’t really need to tell him to go play point guard. Go get the ball. Do what you do.”

Power forward Laeticia Amihere scored the point while Henderson sat out a few games with injury last season and also has team experience.

Raven Johnson, the No. 2 rookie in the 2021 class, appears to be the main contender as the only point guard on the roster. She is emerging from a torn ACL that ended her first season eight minutes into the campaign. Staley said at SEC media day last month that Johnson is “coming back pretty well,” but they want to “lighten her load before we can play her full time.”

And then there’s Kierra Fletcher, a transfer grad from Georgia Tech who started all four years. Fletcher intended to return for a fifth year with the Yellowjackets, but was unable to due to a foot injury. Staley said she didn’t really train consistently with “a few nagging injuries”.

South Carolina will have an early test against Maryland on Friday when the potential WNBA lottery picks Boston and shooter Diamond Miller are set to face off. Miller left Monday’s opener with a knee injury, but it’s not believed to be serious.

Can Iowa carry the hunger of Creighton’s Final Four loss?

Iowa had one of the most crushing exits of the NCAA Tournament when No. 10 Creighton upset the No. 2 seed Hawkeyes, 64-62, in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the second round. That may be what propels the nation’s second-best offense to just its second Final Four in school history, joining the team in 1993.

“From your greatest failures can come your greatest successes,” All-American Caitlin Clark told the Des Moines Register. “…Last year, we thought we were going to make it to the Final Four. But we never really had that bitter taste in our mouths. We didn’t have that fire to feed every day. And I think that’s the difference this year.

“We remember that Creighton game, that early exit, every day.”

Iowa, which averaged 84.2 points per game last season, fires all five starters and is ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll. Clark, whose 27 ppg and eight ppg led the nation, leads the charge with dynamic teammate Monika Czinano (21.2 ppg), who led Division I in field goal percentage during the of the past two years.

Seniors McKenna Warnock, Kate Martin and Gabbie Marshall round out the experienced squad and they add transfer Molly Davis (Central Michigan) to take some of the ball-handling responsibilities away from Clark.

They will first have to cross a difficult Big Ten. Six of the conference’s teams are in the Top 25 in the polls and non-conference opponents include No. 10 NC State and No. 6 UConn or Duke in the Phil Knight Legacy College Basketball Tournament.

Will UConn’s Elite Eight race come to an end?

It’s the common question that Connecticut continues to answer the call despite degrees, injuries and the rise of other programs. UConn’s current streak of consecutive Final Four appearances is at 14 after finishing second in South Carolina in April. The Elite Eight run dates back two more years to the 2006 tournament. And it’s not since the 1993 tournament that the Huskies went out before the Sweet 16.

They will be without former Player of the Year Paige Bueckers, who tore an ACL in her left knee while playing basketball in August. The 5-foot-11 guard missed much of his second year with a non-contact leg injury but returned to lead the Huskies to the title game in his home state of Minnesota. She also underwent ankle surgery at the end of her freshman year. Bueckers, who led the team with 14.6 points per game, said she will stay at UConn for her senior season, even though she is eligible for the WNBA draft.

Connecticut women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma and the Huskies have appeared in the Elite Eight every season since 2006. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

They will also be without 6-3 freshman forward Ice Brady, the No. 5-ranked rookie in the class who underwent surgery last month for a dislocated patella in his right knee. A handful of returning players are coming out of injury themselves, and the Huskies’ non-conference schedule isn’t kind.

UConn will face five AP Top 25 teams before the New Year and has No. 5 Tennessee and No. 1 South Carolina on the schedule in 2023. Their six losses last year were the most since eight in 2004-05. Since an 18-11 campaign in 92-93, they haven’t lost a double-digit game.

What can we expect from the upset squads of the 2022 tournament?

The Final Four was almost all chalked up, but the journey to get there wasn’t that easy. Can these upset teams sustain success and who else could join the wave of contending mid-majors?

Creighton, the No. 2 seed who ruined the tournament from Iowa, is ranked No. 21 in the AP preseason poll and chosen to finish second in the Big East. They play a five-out system with no real bigs and rely on an average of 10.1 field goals per game. They led Division I teams with 20.2 assists per game and returned 84% of their scoring offense. That includes Lauren Jensen, who hit the game-winning 3 against Iowa.

South Dakota, the No. 10 seed that ended Baylor’s year, beat Ole Miss first in its fourth straight NCAA tournament before dominating Baylor and came within three points of toppling Michigan in The Sweet 16. Their team will be different with freshman coach Kayla Karius at the helm after Dawn Plitzuweit leaves for West Virginia. And guard Chloe Lamb, guard Liv Korngable and center Hannah Sjerven all graduated. The trio accounted for 63% of their rating output, and the only ones to average in double digits.

The Summit League was largely a race between the Coyotes and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, ranked No. 24 in the AP Poll. The Jackrabbits fire four of their five starters and six of the top seven scorers from their WNIT Championship team.

Princeton also enters the season ranked 25th after its third straight Ivy League tournament championship. The Tigers upset SEC champion Kentucky and lost to Indiana by one run in the second round. Belmont, after upsetting Oregon and losing to Tennessee by three in the tournament, received votes in the poll. They fire seven of their top nine scorers, including Destinee Wells.

Final Four picks and rewards

Final square: There are still favorites, but it’s no longer a game of a few powers and everyone else. There are a plethora of teams that could make it to the last weekend.

Pick: South Carolina, Iowa, Stanford, Notre Dame

South Carolina is a favorite to win it all again with such skill. UConn is still a favorite, but faces one of its toughest tests as it extends its Final Four streak. Stanford still has strong Final Four-level talent with players winning it in 2021. And both Iowa and Notre Dame have built on strong offensive cores with a chip on their shoulders.

Title pick: South Carolina

Title pick upset: Iowa

Player of the Year: It’s the same race as last season between Clark of Iowa and Boston of South Carolina for the ultimate prize. Clark became the first player to lead Division I in both scoring and assists. Boston has been dominant at the post and very effective en route to a national championship.

Pick: Caitlin Clark

Iowa's Caitlin Clark during an NCAA basketball game Wednesday, January 13, 2021 in Iowa City, Iowa.  (AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)

Caitlin Clark of Iowa is one of the top contenders for National Player of the Year. (AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)

There’s no doubt Boston, the likely No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft, will continue to be all of those things. Clark will now have that hunger to go further in the tournament that Boston had after the 2021 Final Four loss and will benefit from a full top-five return, plus additions.

Coach of the Year: Title winners are always considered, so Staley of South Carolina deserves a mention here. There are other coaches who might not take their teams to the final weekend, but are building a base to do so in the future. Kim Mulkey made LSU a 26-6 team after a 9-13 campaign before taking over. And she added key transfers that include Angel Reese, widely regarded as the best player at the Portal. Kellie Harper of Tennessee and Niele Ivey of Notre Dame have regained their strength towards the top end. And Vic Schaefer led Texas to back-to-back Elite Eight showings his first two years.

Pick: Dawn Staley

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley watches her team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game against Benedict in Columbia, SC on Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. ( AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley will try to lead the Gamecocks to back-to-back national championships. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Historically, this award is given to the coach of a team en route to a national championship. But if UConn returns to the Final Four, Geno Auriemma has made the case for it given the hurdles they’ve already faced. *ducks*

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