Women’s college basketball power rankings: Undefeated South Carolina’s historic reliability – The Athletic

Sabreena MerchantMar 4, 2024

We’ve reached the end of the regular season for all major conferences, and if you — like me — thought that was going to bring more clarity about the hierarchy within college basketball, those hopes have not come to fruition. The seeding jumble is as chaotic as ever, and on a night-to-night basis, only South Carolina can reliably be counted upon to emerge with a victory.

How about those Gamecocks? They completed a second consecutive undefeated regular season, and the year before that featured only one regular-season defeat. They have cycled through multiple starting lineups over the past few weeks, experimenting with different combinations of their nine-player rotation, and have still been as dominant as ever. They have a target on their back every night as opponents try to be the first to slay the giant, and they continue to excel, time and time again.

Oh, and they managed to facilitate a reunion between Kamilla Cardoso and her mom and sister, as she was able to play in front of them for the first time in the U.S. since immigrating as a teenager.

Even though South Carolina didn’t win the national title in 2024, it’s hard to look back at the previous season and think the Gamecocks weren’t the best team in the country overall. No matter what happens over the next month, I feel confident that we’ll have a similar sentiment about this iteration considering South Carolina’s consistency and dominance over the first four months.

But who still has a chance to play spoiler? Let’s take a look.

Rank Team Previous rank
1 South Carolina 1
2 Stanford 5
3 Iowa 6
4 Ohio State 2
5 UCLA 7
6 USC 8
7 Texas 4
8 Virginia Tech 3
9 Oregon State 9
10 LSU 10
11 Indiana 11
12 Notre Dame 17
13 NC State 13
14 Gonzaga 15
15 UConn 16
16 Kansas State 12
17 Baylor 20
18 Colorado 14
19 Oklahoma 22
20 Louisville 18
21 Syracuse 19
22 Creighton 23
23 UNLV 25
24 Utah 21
25 Ole Miss NR

Dropped out: Duke (24)
Almost famous: Duke, Fairfield, Princeton

What 3 seniors’ injuries mean to their teams

On senior day in Iowa, minutes before Caitlin Clark set the all-time Division I scoring record, the Hawkeyes suffered a huge loss when their starting point guard Molly Davis went down with an apparent injury. Davis had to be helped off the court and returned to watch the remainder of the game (and for the postgame senior festivities) in a wheelchair. Davis’ averages of 6.3 points and 3.2 assists belie what a stabilizing presence she is for Iowa. In the two games when she was limited by an illness — she played six minutes combined against Penn State and Nebraska — the Hawkeyes had uncharacteristic stretches of undisciplined and stagnant play. Think of how Iowa faltered down the stretch against the Cornhuskers. The Hawkeyes genuinely need Davis for the ebbs and flows of a deep tournament run.

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After Davis’ injury, two preseason All-Americans went down in the third quarters of their respective games and were unable to return. For Mackenzie Holmes, it was eerily reminiscent of this time last year when she got hurt during the Big Ten tournament, was unable to go in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, then was clearly limited during the Hoosiers’ shocking second-round upset. Not to undersell the abilities of the rest of Indiana’s roster, but without Holmes, the Hoosiers don’t have a shot to do anything in March. She’s their leading scorer and rebounder and one of the most reliable finishers in the country.

Similarly, in Virginia, the Hokies played the final 16 minutes of their rivalry game against the Cavaliers without Elizabeth Kitley. A career-high 39 points from Georgia Amoore — 23 of which came after her partner in crime exited the floor — weren’t enough to propel Virginia Tech past Virginia. Like the Hoosiers, the Hokies are wholly reliant on Kitley to return to the Final Four.

Neither coach had a postgame update on their centers, but the injury statuses are of utmost consequence to their conference tournaments and their seeding on Selection Sunday. After the spate of injuries high-profile teams have already suffered this season, it would be a huge downer for any or all of these three to miss out on the final games of their college careers.

Cameron Brink adds to her game

Brink became the first player this century to score 25 points and grab 24 rebounds on the road against a ranked team when she posted that stat line against Oregon State, in a win that gave the Cardinal the outright Pac-12 title. Although her command of the paint — albeit against a Beavers team without Raegan Beers — was truly remarkable, it’s her passing that has stood out recently.

In her last five games (all wins, as Stanford hasn’t lost with Brink in the lineup since JuJu Watkins came in and dropped 51 in Palo Alto), Brink’s assist percentage has climbed to 32.8 percent. Her season-long mark of 22.2 percent is already the highest of any big in the Pac-12, and she’s creating 50 percent more shots during this recent stretch. Brink has the second-most assists this season for the Cardinal despite being a center. Whereas Stanford’s perimeter ballhandlers don’t have the scoring gravity to draw multiple defenders, Brink is always collapsing a defense, giving her opportunities to hit Kiki Iriafen with interior passes or pinpoint shooters out of a double in the post.

Brink is one of the few players in the country who is legitimately the hub of her team’s offensive and defensive game plans. A two-time conference defensive player of the year, she seems certain to add a third such trophy to her mantle and is in the running for her second player of the year honor in the Pac-12. Whether she ends her college career this season or next, she is certain to go down as one of the very best in Cardinal history.

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The ‘nerds’ keep making winning plays

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb lovingly refers to the players she brought into USC this season – the No. 1 recruit in the country and three Ivy League transfers – as “JuJu and the nerds.” Against Arizona on Thursday, with the Trojans’ hopes for a No. 1 seed hanging by a thread as they trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter and Watkins fouled out, it was the nerds who once again came through for USC. McKenzie Forbes morphed into the lead playmaker, Kayla Padilla bent the defense with her shooting ability, and Kaitlyn Davis controlled the glass to keep possessions alive.

As Watkins has dominated the national discourse with her jaw-dropping box scores and endless reel of highlights, it’s easy to overlook the subtle contributors around her. But Padilla and Forbes make Watkins’ job easier by allowing her to play off the ball instead of facing full-court pressure, and Forbes is the only other pull-up shooting threat on the roster. Padilla guards the point of attack so Watkins can stay closer to the basket, where the freshman is a dominant shot blocker. Davis is a mobile defender who helps the Trojans switch, and she’s dynamic on the offensive glass. That skill was most prominent at the end of regulation against the Wildcats. USC trailed by 4 with Davis at the line. She made the first, missed the second, and then rebounded her own miss to feed Padilla on the wing. When Padilla’s shot missed, Davis corralled the board yet again to find Padilla in the same spot, and the Penn transfer ultimately tied the score on the second effort.

 

Watkins alone can achieve brilliance; look no further than her 50-piece against the conference champs. But it’s unrealistic to expect her to do so for multiple games in a row against top competition, especially in her first trip to the postseason. The collective experience of Forbes, Padilla and Davis, and their ability to think and execute the game at a high level — nerds, after all — gives Watkins some grace.

The Sonia Citron of 2022-23 has returned

Citron suffered a knee injury in Notre Dame’s third game of the season and missed the next nine contests spanning nearly eight weeks. When she came back, she was wearing a bulky brace and sleeve on her right leg, and it was fair to wonder if she expedited her return because the Irish were also without Olivia Miles, Cassandre Prosper and Emma Risch.

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Citron has always been a great shooter, but the difficulty in containing her results from her ability to score inside the paint; she takes strong drives and cuts to the basket and is efficient when she gets there. Citron also loves the midrange pull-up. However, in the seven games she played in January, less than 30 percent of her points came in the paint and she was making only 42 percent of her 2-pointers. It seemed like she wasn’t confident in her ability to explode off her leg in traffic.

The brace has downsized in recent weeks, and starting against Clemson on Feb. 22, Citron has played with just a sleeve on her right leg. Unsurprisingly, during this stretch, Citron’s true shooting percentage has taken a leap. Over the last five games, Citron has scored 53.8 percent of her points in the paint, more in line with a big than a wing, and she’s making 64.2 percent of her 2-pointers while running the floor harder in transition. Against Virginia Tech and Louisville, Citron scored 38 points, made 12 of 18 2-pointers and added five blocks and two steals.

 

For much of the season, Citron has taken an understandable back seat to Hannah Hidalgo, but lately she looks like the guard who was first-team All-ACC a year ago for the conference champs. That’s the version of Citron that Notre Dame needs for a deep run in March.

How far can the Beavers go?

Oregon State was arguably in position for a No. 1 seed when Beers broke her nose against UCLA on Feb. 16 and missed the rest of the game. The Beavers held on in arguably the most dramatic finish of the year against the Bruins but lost three of their next four without their starting center. They had particular difficulty on the glass against bigger opponents, getting outrebounded by 14 and 17 by Stanford and USC.

But Beers made her triumphant return in the regular-season finale against California. For a half, she looked out of sorts — a little sluggish and not clean finishing around the rim. However, after the break, she returned to form, acting as the post passing hub of the Oregon State offense and punishing defenders on the block. The Beavers shot above 50 percent from the field for the first time since her injury.

 

With Beers in tow, Oregon State has a real shot to make noise in the tournament. The Beavers are the kind of team that doesn’t get sped up and succeeds in games with little flow. They’ll probably get to host the first two rounds and might even get to play in Portland (about 90 minutes away from Corvallis) for the next two. After weathering the storm of their best player’s injury, things are once again looking up for them.

(Photo of Dawn Staley and Raven Johnson: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

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Sabreena Merchant is a women’s basketball Staff Writer for The Athletic. She previously covered the WNBA and NBA for SB Nation. Sabreena is an alum of Duke University, where she wrote for the independent student newspaper, The Chronicle. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow Sabreena on Twitter @sabreenajm

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