Women's Final Four expert picks: South Carolina is big favorite — but not unanimous


With the First Four completed and the first round of the 2024 women’s NCAA tournament about to begin, the overall question is obvious: Can anyone stop undefeated South Carolina?

It was the same question last year, and it turned out someone did: Iowa. This year, the Hawkeyes are a No. 1 seed along with South Carolina, and both teams are on the Albany side of the bracket. The Gamecocks appear to be comfortable favorites in the Albany 1 Regional, although ACC tournament champion Notre Dame lurks as a potential Elite Eight opponent.

Iowa has the projected toughest road in the Albany 2 Regional, which also includes defending national champion LSU. The two No. 1 seeds in the Portland regionals, Texas and USC, have long absences from the Final Four both are trying remedy. UConn is looking to return to the Final Four after Ohio State upset the Huskies in the Sweet 16 last season, ending their NCAA-record streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.

ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel examine the bracket and, along with over 20 ESPN broadcasters and other digital reporters, predict which teams will advance to Cleveland for the Final Four — and which team wins the 2024 title. South Carolina is the overwhelming favorite among our experts.

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0:21

UCLA Bruins’ NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for UCLA’s NCAA tournament prospects.

If the Gamecocks don’t win the NCAA title, which team can?

Creme: Perhaps I’m living in the past too much with this one, but UCLA was clearly the second-best team in the country after beating UConn, Florida State, Ohio State, Princeton, USC and Oregon State in the first 2½ months of the season. With two weeks off since losing a double-overtime thriller to USC in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, UCLA will have had enough time to regroup. Lauren Betts is the key. She hasn’t been as consistent since missing four games with a medical issue in late January/early February, but her 17 points and 18 rebounds against the Trojans in Las Vegas was a good sign.

Voepel: Let’s make the case for a couple of teams. Texas is the No. 1 seed that has received the least attention nationally all season. Why? The Longhorns lost their best player, point guard Rori Harmon, in late December for the season and had to figure out how to play without her. They’ve done that, led by freshman Madison Booker, but they didn’t win the Big 12 regular-season title and kind of stayed under the radar. However, by the Big 12 title game, Texas looked like a postseason force. Defensively, the Longhorns can cause a lot of havoc for opponents. If they make the national semifinals vs. South Carolina, they at least have a chance at an upset.

Then there is No. 1 Iowa, which everyone seems to agree is in the toughest region. If the Hawkeyes get through it, they can draw on last year’s experience at the Final Four. Never underestimate the value of experienced guard play in the NCAA tournament, and Iowa has a lot of it.

Philippou: It would be fitting for a Pac-12 team to take home the trophy in the conference’s final year as we know it. Aside from UCLA as Charlie detailed above, USC and Stanford could contend. The Trojans have a transcendent player in JuJu Watkins, although they are inexperienced when it comes to March. They are a No. 1 seed, but will they feel pressure to win with the target on their backs? Even if it doesn’t pan out to be USC’s year, the experience they get this March can only help moving forward as Watkins & Co. look to make the program’s first Final Four since 1986 and win its first national championship since 1984.

No. 2 seed Stanford still has several players from its 2021 NCAA title team, mainly Cameron Brink, a WNBA lottery pick come April. But for the Cardinal to go far, their guard play will have to show up much more than it did in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, when aside from Elena Bosgana (9 points), no other guard had more than four points.

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The best of Iowa’s Caitlin Clark this season

Relive the top plays from Iowa’s very own Caitlin Clark before the women’s NCAA tournament.

We agree No. 1 seed Iowa has the toughest path to the Final Four. Will the Hawkeyes be the first 1-seed to lose?

Voepel: Iowa’s entire path is difficult. Round 1 is against a team that will have already won a game, Holy Cross. Round 2 is against Ivy League champion Princeton Tigers or West Virginia, which finished in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big 12. If seeds hold, the Hawkeyes then face a team they split with during the regular season: Kansas State, which challenged No. 1 seed Texas in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. All this is before having to potentially face the defending national champion, LSU, or a team that was No. 2 in the rankings for a good portion of the season, UCLA.

The bracket is almost screaming at us that Iowa will be the first 1-seed to lose. But instead, the Hawkeyes might be the team that runs the toughest gauntlet to get to the Final Four. We saw Iowa at its best in the NCAA tournament last year, and could see the same again this year.

Creme: It can’t be emphasized enough: Should Iowa advance, it will have to beat only one of the other two best teams in its region if chalk holds to reach the Final Four. The Bruins and Tigers will have to go through each other and Iowa to get to Cleveland. Advantage, Hawkeyes. Caitlin Clark won’t have to be as spectacular as she was last March for Iowa to reach that presumptive game in the Elite Eight, but she will have to be even more spectacular than she was a year ago for Iowa to win that and a Final Four game to reach the title game again. At minimum, I see Iowa making it to the regional finals, but all the other No. 1 seeds should advance that far as well.

Philippou: I also think the Portland 4 Regional is fairly open. Texas’ potential Sweet 16 matchup (vs. Gonzaga, Utah Utes or South Dakota State most likely) would pit the Longhorns against one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation — and we’ve seen Texas lose previously this season when it has allowed teams to get going from the 3-point arc. (In three of their four losses, Longhorns opponents have hit at least nine shots from deep.)

In Portland 3, some of the fallout from Elizabeth Kitley’s season-ending ACL injury for Virginia Tech is that the path gets a bit easier for 1-seed USC to make it deep into the bracket.

Outside of the 1-seeds, which team has the best shot to win the national championship?

Philippou: Let’s turn our focus to 3-seeds LSU and UConn. The defending champions got stuck in the toughest region, but they’ve been playing really great basketball toward the end of the SEC slate. The concern is whether they are too short-handed to make a deep run, especially with Last-Tear Poa coming back from a concussion (Kim Mulkey said Thursday that Poa is expected to play) and Mikaylah Williams (foot) potentially limited or not fully healthy.

UConn is also working with a limited rotation, but the Huskies have three starters (Paige Bueckers, Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Muhl) who have made two Final Four trips and appeared in a national championship game. How far can that experience take them, especially since they still rely so heavily on freshmen?

Voepel: It seems like NC State will make it back to the Final Four one of these years. It almost happened in 2022, but UConn beat the Wolfpack in double overtime at the Elite Eight. This year, the No. 3 seed Wolfpack have had their moments, so if their Portland No. 4 Regional bracket breaks the right way, let’s not rule them out of Final Four contention.

Among the No. 4 seeds, Kansas State Wildcats (Albany 2 Regional) is the only one that seems to have a realistic shot at even the Elite Eight. Because if the Wildcats face Iowa in the Sweet 16, they have an early-season victory over the Hawkeyes to inspire them. Virginia Tech losing Kitley puts the Hokise — who made the Final Four last year — in more peril of even getting to the Sweet 16.

Creme: I’ll stick with the Bruins. Guard play is vital for a deep NCAA tournament run, and UCLA has one of the best backcourt duos in the field in Charisma Osborne and Kiki Rice. Defensively, the Bruins can lock down opposing guards and would be an interesting pairing to take turns harassing Clark in an Elite Eight matchup. They would also be better than the LSU guards in a possible Sweet 16 encounter. Osborne came back for her fifth year for moments like these and should be ready to take full advantage.

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The numbers behind Iowa State vs. Maryland

Check out the key numbers in the matchup between Iowa State and Maryland in the women’s NCAA tournament.

Which double-digit seed might we see in the Sweet 16?

Creme: Creighton and South Dakota both reached the Sweet 16 as No. 10 seeds in 2022. Missouri State also went to the regionals as a No. 11 in 2019. Those are the most recent examples of a double-digit seed getting that far, but it isn’t a common occurrence.

If it happens again this year, keep an eye on 10th-seeded Maryland, with breakout performances from Shyanne Sellers. This has been a tougher than usual season for the Terps, but Brenda Frese knows March success. Sellers was asked to do a lot this season and quietly became one of the Big Ten’s most complete players. With Sellers compiling 25 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists in the conference tournament quarterfinals, Maryland dominated Ohio State. If she can put together two more games like that, Maryland could ride into its fourth straight Sweet 16.

Philippou: Vanderbilt has already won a game in the tournament, taking down Columbia for a First Four victory Wednesday. Maybe the Commodores will use that momentum to keep things rolling and get past Baylor Bears and then the winner of a Virginia Tech-Marshall. While this is Vanderbilt’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014, coach Shea Ralph has been there plenty of times before during her time coaching (and playing) at UConn. Vanderbilt only fell to NC State by eight earlier this year in nonconference play, so perhaps behind tough defense and a big weekend from Iyana Moore, the Commodores can continue to turn some heads.

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Vanderbilt’s Iyana Moore drains dagger 3 to send Columbia packing

Iyana Moore drains a deep 3-pointer for Vanderbilt late in the fourth quarter to advance and play No. 5-seed Baylor.

Voepel: Not sure we’re going to see it this year. But a couple of other intriguing possibilities: In the Albany 1 Regional, No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast (which faces No. 5 Oklahoma) and No. 13 Fairfield Stags (faces No. 4 Indiana) have just five losses between them this season. Those teams will play at Indiana. After a heartbreaking upset at home in the second round as a No. 1 seed last year, the Hoosiers will be all the more vigilant about not being upset this year. But that can also add pressure.

Also worth noting: Albany No. 2 Regional No. 12 seed Drake is ninth in scoring offense (81.5 PGG) in Division I, which could pose a potential challenge to No. 5 seed Colorado and No. 4 Kansas State.

If no double-digit seeds get through the early rounds, what might be the highest seed in the Sweet 16? Perhaps two No. 6 seeds: Nebraska in Albany 1 and Tennessee in Portland 4.

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A conversation with USC’s Cheryl Miller and JuJu Watkins

Ahead of the 2024 women’s NCAA tournament, USC basketball legend Cheryl Miller and Trojans freshman superstar JuJu Watkins sat down for an exclusive interview with Andscape writer Sean Hurd.

Final Four and national championship picks

Which teams will reach the Final Four?

Andrea Adelson: South Carolina, UCLA, USC, Texas

Debbie Antonelli: South Carolina, Iowa, Ohio State, Stanford

Katie Barnes: South Carolina, LSU, USC, Stanford

Charlie Creme: South Carolina, UCLA, UConn, Stanford

Elle Duncan: South Carolina, LSU, USC, NC State

Eric Frede: South Carolina, LSU, USC, Stanford

Sam Gore: South Carolina, LSU, UConn, Texas

Angel Gray: South Carolina, LSU, USC, Texas

Kelly Gramlich: South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, Stanford

Tiffany Greene: South Carolina, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Texas

Sean Hurd: South Carolina, UCLA, USC, Stanford

Andrea Lloyd: South Carolina, Iowa, USC, Texas

Meghan McKeown: South Carolina, UCLA, USC, Texas

Carolyn Peck: South Carolina, UCLA, USC, Stanford

Kevin Pelton: South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, Texas

Alexa Philippou: South Carolina, UCLA, UConn, Stanford

Roy Philpott: South Carolina, UCLA, Ohio State, Texas

Christy Thomaskutty: South Carolina, LSU, USC, Texas

Jake Trotter: South Carolina, Iowa, Ohio State, Texas

Brenda VanLengen: South Carolina, Iowa, Ohio State, Texas

Michael Voepel: South Carolina, Iowa, UConn, Stanford

Brooke Weisbrod: South Carolina, Iowa, USC, Stanford

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Staley says self-belief will drive Gamecocks’ postseason run

With the NCAA tournament on the horizon, Dawn Staley explains how South Carolina maintains its successful standard through accountability and commitment to buying into the strategy.

Which team will win the 2024 NCAA title?

Andrea Adelson: South Carolina over USC

Debbie Antonelli: South Carolina over Iowa

Katie Barnes: USC over South Carolina

Charlie Creme: South Carolina over UCLA

Eric Frede: South Carolina over USC

Sam Gore: South Carolina over LSU

Angel Gray: South Carolina over USC

Kelly Gramlich: Iowa over South Carolina

Tiffany Greene: South Carolina over UCLA

Sean Hurd: South Carolina over USC

Andrea Lloyd: South Carolina over Iowa

Meghan McKeown: South Carolina over UCLA

Kevin Pelton: South Carolina over UConn

Alexa Philippou: South Carolina over UCLA

Roy Philpott: South Carolina over UCLA

Christy Thomaskutty: South Carolina over LSU

Jake Trotter: South Carolina over Iowa

Brenda VanLengen: South Carolina over Iowa

Michael Voepel: South Carolina over Iowa

Brooke Weisbrod: South Carolina



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