Women’s basketball Bracket Watch: USC looks like a No. 1 seed – The Athletic

By Mark SchindlerFeb 27, 2024Supported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

Coming into this season, I was excited to watch a multitude of storylines play out, but none more so than wondering what USC’s season would look like. Last year, the plucky Trojans made their first NCAA Tournament in nearly a decade and put together a stifling defensive squad in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s second season. But after top-ranked recruit JuJu Watkins committed in November 2022, all I could think about while watching USC was what it meant for 2024 when she’d be playing for them.

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For anyone aware of Watkins’ game and potential, it was clear she would have a significant impact right away — and the proof is on display this season in Los Angeles.

Watkins has rightfully commanded the majority of storylines coming out of Galen Center, but it’s time to change the tune with respect to the Trojans. This isn’t just a program on the rise. USC has shown it has what it takes to make a Final Four run and is even one of a handful of teams that have what it takes to win the national championship.

Watkins leads the way, one of the brightest stars in the sport, a likely All-American and a candidate for national player of the year as a freshman. But the intentionality of how Gottlieb built the Trojans around her has elevated them. Secondary star McKenzie Forbes has come on strong in Pac-12 competition as a pick-and-roll playmaker and scorer, and she’s one of three Ivy League transfers making a significant impact.

Kayla Padilla has found her groove as the de facto point guard when Watkins doesn’t bring the ball up the court, chipping in with timely 3s and drives to the rim. Kaitlyn Davis is one of the most versatile players in the league, her impact superseding the box score as an elite screen setter and collective playmaker. Her ability to guard every kind of player in every area of the court at 6 foot 2 is rare. Taylor Bigby has played a big role as a versatile defender and shooter as the first player off the bench most nights. Clarice Akunwafo has produced in major matchups when called upon, particularly in USC’s win over Stanford at Maples Pavillion. The Trojans’ trio of deep bench guards — Kayla Williams, Malia Samuels and Dominique Darius — has brought energy at the point of attack and in pressing situations.

Every player has a purpose while pouring into the team philosophy built around USC’s star.

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Defense is where the Trojans make a living. They’re active and aggressive, constantly changing and tinkering with principles to best muck up an offense. They have a combined 26.3 percent block and steal rate, the 12th highest in the country, per CBB Analytics.

Their positioning is strong, communication consistent and activity relentless.

Starting center Rayah Marshall is vital to that defense — and to the Trojans with her presence. Though her box score numbers are smaller this season, she’s made tremendous strides across the board. Her ability as a rim protector was unquestionable last season, but she’s become a more tactical defender, staying down more and using her positioning and refined strength to do work for her instead of rejecting every shot. She’s imposing in passing lanes, proves stalwart hedging out on ball screens and is capable of containing on switches against smaller players.

Marshall excels in every facet of defense, while also becoming increasingly efficient in her more condensed offensive role. The Trojans can’t appreciate her play enough.

Is the margin for error thinner for a team that relies so heavily on its star? Absolutely, but as the Trojans have shown through a gantlet of a schedule, punctuated with wins over two other projected No. 1 seeds, their “it” factor and verve make a difference. The Trojans have got next, but they’ve also proved they have a shot now at earning a No. 1 seed for the first time in Bracket Watch.

First Four Columbia 16 Sacred Heart 16 Tennessee Tech Corvallis 11 Auburn 11 Columbia Columbus 16 Holy Cross 16 High Point Spokane 11 Vanderbilt 11 Washington State Albany 1 Columbia 1 South Carolina 16 Sacred Heart Tennessee Tech Columbia 8 Nebraska 9 Marquette Bloomington 4 Indiana 13 Fairfield Bloomington 5 Syracuse 12 Florida Gulf Coast Corvallis 3 Oregon State 14 Temple Corvallis 6 Louisville 11 Auburn Columbia Austin 2 Texas 15 Chattanooga Austin 7 Florida State 10 Maryland Portland 2 Columbus 1 Ohio State 16 Holy Cross High Point Columbus 8 Alabama 9 Iowa State Boulder 4 Colorado 13 South Dakota State Boulder 5 Oklahoma 12 Toledo Spokane 3 Gonzaga 14 Grand Canyon Spokane 6 Duke 11 Vanderbilt Washington State Los Angeles 2 UCLA 15 Stony Brook Los Angeles 7 West Virginia 10 Mississippi State Albany 2 Palo Alto 1 Stanford 16 Norfolk State Palo Alto 8 North Carolina 9 Ole Miss Manhattan 4 Kansas State 13 Eastern Washington Manhattan 5 Notre Dame 12 Drake Blacksburg 3 Virginia Tech 14 Cleveland State Blacksburg 6 Creighton 11 Middle Tennessee Baton Rouge 2 LSU 15 Albany Baton Rouge 7 Michigan State 10 Arizona Portland 1 Los Angeles 1 USC 16 Hawaii Los Angeles 8 Tennessee 9 UNLV Storrs 4 UConn 13 Marshall Storrs 5 Baylor 12 Richmond Raleigh 3 North Carolina State 14 Jackson State Raleigh 6 Utah 11 Green Bay Iowa City 2 Iowa 15 Lamar Iowa City 7 Princeton 10 Kansas

Last four in First four out Next four out Last four byes
Vanderbilt Texas A&M Villanova Arizona
Auburn Michigan George Mason Kansas
Washington State Miami Penn State Maryland
Columbia Saint Joseph’s Washington Green Bay

Multi-bid conferences

Conference Bids
ACC 8
Pac-12 8
SEC 8
Big 12 7
Big Ten 6
Big East 3
Horizon 2
Ivy 2

Why is Stanford still a No. 1 seed?

Despite a tough loss at home to Arizona (more on it later), Stanford still sports a No.1 seed, dropping from the second overall team to fourth. What keeps the Cardinal in that upper echelon?

Stanford’s resume is bolstered by a plethora of wins: Indiana, Duke and Florida State stand out in nonconference competition. The Cardinal are one of only four teams in Division I with 10 or more Quad 1 wins, highlighting how fantastic they’ve been. Though the selection committee doesn’t use quads, it’s a significant benchmark, as 10 of 16 teams that made it to the second weekend of the tournament had won 10 or more of these games, including each Final Four team.

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Especially considering that the Pac-12 has been the strongest conference in the country all season, along with the added element of Cameron Brink missing time, the committee will potentially provide some leeway for the Cardinal’s losses.

Though nothing is guaranteed, beating Oregon State this weekend would go a long way in keeping the door open for two Pac-12 teams earning top seeds.

Is Oklahoma peaking at the right time?

The Sooners ended nonconference play at 6-5, experiencing a roller coaster of highs and lows by winning at Ole Miss to start the year, then losing to Southern in Norman days before Christmas.

The Oklahoma team we’re watching today is wildly different from the one we saw before it embarked on its 14-2 Big 12-leading run. The Sooners’ win at Texas is one of the best wins in the conference, part of their 12-1 stretch since they lost to Kansas State on Jan. 10.

Point guard Nevaeh Tot has sliced and diced every manor and scheme of defense, averaging 5.7 assists per game over that stretch and touching the paint at will. She’s vital to shifting the defense and opening up the Sooners’ secondary offense and flow game to help them lead the country in assist rate over the last 10 games (72.8 percent of all baskets assisted).

Leading scorer Skylar Vann has scored at least 20 points six times, averaging nearly 18 per game on remarkable efficiency. Payton Verhulst is putting up roughly 14 points, six boards and five assists per game while shooting 38 percent from deep on high volume. Freshman Sahara Williams just had arguably her best game of the season, setting a career high with 20 points in the Bedlam rivalry game with Oklahoma State.

The Sooners play fast, make smart offensive decisions, rebound at a high level and have improved greatly on defense over the course of the season. Oklahoma has climbed up to a No. 5 seed in this week’s Bracket Watch, a far cry from where it sat in December. Hosting Texas on Wednesday, the Sooners have a significant opportunity to make hosting in March a possibility.

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Can Ole Miss move up the seed list?

Ole Miss has quietly rounded into form over the last few weeks, rising out of the bubble and into the field with consistent wins over the middle of the conference to rank third in the SEC standings behind South Carolina and LSU. The Rebels are enjoying an 8-2 span, including a win that avenged an earlier loss to rival Mississippi State.

Though Ole Miss’ defense has long been its backbone — and this season is no different — finding its offensive form has been key to rising up the seed list. Losing transfer point guard KK Deans to a season-ending injury was a major sting, which immediately set back its offensive execution. After a grueling SEC schedule, Ole Miss really found something with a point-guard-by-committee approach.

Madison Scott has been a bright spot at point forward, averaging over three assists over the last 10 games. Kennedy Todd-Williams has returned to form while showcasing her playmaking ability at an even higher level, leading Ole Miss in assists per game while also maintaining a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and scoring efficiently.

Marquesha Davis is one of the most improved players in the SEC. Davis is an incredibly talented slasher. She’s taken on an even bigger scoring load in the SEC, leading the Rebels in scoring (14.2 ppg) with her physical yet acrobatic drives to the rim.

Ole Miss is adept at getting to the line, securing its own misses and winning the possession battle with its length and tenacity.

It secured marquee wins over Arizona and Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and added to its body of work in SEC play. Making a significant run in the conference tourney could go a long way in raising the Rebels’ status and getting off the No. 8 or No. 9 line, but winning out the regular season makes them close to a lock for an at-large bid.

This week’s toughest decisions …

Multiple decisions were difficult after a turbulent week of games. The ACC not having a No. 2 seed sits atop the rest as most difficult.

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Virginia Tech has risen steadily as it keeps winning, and winning well. NC State has done the inverse. The tricky part is the head-to-head wins from Iowa and LSU over Virginia Tech in nonconference play. While that isn’t everything, with how close I view that trio, it was challenging to put Virginia Tech ahead of either as I considered all three teams’ total resumes and how close they are. If Tech keeps winning, it can certainly overtake, and there’s real room for the upper seeds to falter. The Hokies are the hottest team among them, but again, this is about the entirety of the season and building a strong entire resume, which coach Kenny Brooks’ squad keeps doing each week of ACC play.

The Atlantic-10 has largely been the best mid-major conference as multiple programs recorded historic seasons. However, late losses at the top severely hinder the A-10’s potential to send an at-large team alongside the automatic qualifier.

Saint Joseph’s is 25-3, tied for first in the conference but relegated to second due to Richmond holding the head-to-head edge. The Hawks’ loss to VCU took away their biggest strength on their resume — a lack of losses. A nonconference win over another bubble team in Villanova holds weight, as do wins over Temple and UAB, two of the American Athletics’ best. But missing a power conference win makes it tough considering Saint Joseph’s relatively poor strength of schedule.

The Hawks can still find their way into the NCAA Tournament, but they’ll need some luck.

Seed Team Automatic qualifier
1 South Carolina AQ
2 Ohio State AQ
3 USC
4 Stanford AQ
5 UCLA
6 Texas
7 Iowa
8 LSU
9 Virginia Tech AQ
10 NC State
11 Gonzaga AQ
12 Oregon State
13 Kansas State
14 Indiana
15 Colorado
16 UConn AQ
17 Oklahoma AQ
18 Syracuse
19 Notre Dame
20 Baylor
21 Utah
22 Creighton
23 Louisville
24 Duke
25 West Virginia
26 Florida State
27 Michigan State
28 Princeton AQ
29 North Carolina
30 Alabama
31 Tennessee
32 Nebraska
33 Ole Miss
34 Iowa State
35 Marquette
36 UNLV AQ
37 Mississippi State
38 Arizona
39 Kansas
40 Maryland
41 Green Bay
42 Vanderbilt
43 Auburn
44 Washington State
45 Columbia
46 Middle Tennessee AQ
47 Drake AQ
48 Richmond AQ
49 Toledo AQ
50 FGCU AQ
51 Fairfield AQ
52 South Dakota State AQ
53 Marshall AQ
54 Eastern Washington AQ
55 Cleveland State AQ
56 Jackson State AQ
57 Grand Canyon AQ
58 Temple AQ
59 Chattanooga AQ
60 Stony Brook AQ
61 Lamar AQ
62 Norfolk State AQ
63 Albany AQ
64 Hawaii AQ
65 Holy Cross AQ
66 High Point AQ
67 Tennessee Tech AQ
68 Sacred Heart AQ

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.
The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Photo of McKenzie Forbes, left, and Rayah Marshall: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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Mark Schindler is a 2021 graduate of the University of Toledo and has been working in basketball in a scouting and writing capacity since 2019. Alongside his current Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch series at The Athletic, you can find his work with Seven Star Digital covering all things basketball.

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