South Carolina has been the wire-to-wire No. 1 team this season and will start the 2022 NCAA women's tournament as the betting favorite and the team with the best chance to win the title according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index. But are the Gamecocks the consensus favorite among our panel of ESPN experts?
With a strong group of challengers and coming off a loss in the SEC tournament final, South Carolina -- the top seed in the Greensboro Regional that has a 29% chance to win it all, according to the BPI -- knows the path to the program's second NCAA championship is not going to be an easy one. Still, the Gamecocks are motivated by last season's near-miss in the national semifinals to eventual champion Stanford, and they have a superstar post player in Aliyah Boston, just as they did with A'ja Wilson when they won the 2017 title.
Meanwhile, fellow No. 1 seed Stanford (Spokane Regional) hasn't lost since Dec. 21, when the Cardinal fell at South Carolina. After ending a 29-year title drought last year, Stanford seeks to become the fourth program (Tennessee, UConn, USC) to win at least two in a row.
The Huskies, who are looking for their first title since 2016, have made every Final Four since 2008, and after an injury-plagued season, they seem to be the healthiest they've been at just the right time. They are the No. 2 seed, but would have the advantage of being the "home" team if they advance to the nearby Bridgeport Regional. NC State is the top seed there and is trying to make the program's first Final Four since 1998.
The other No. 1 seed is Louisville, which most recently made the Final Four in 2018 and still seeks the program's first national title. Three-time champion Baylor is the No. 2 seed in Wichita; both the Cardinals and the Bears lost in the Elite Eight last season.
So which teams will end up in Minneapolis? Who will cut down the nets? Here is how ESPN's Mechelle Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Charlie Creme see it playing out when the first round tips off Friday (11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2).
The Gamecocks split votes in our predictions. Why did or didn't you tab South Carolina to win the 2022 title?
Voepel: The two deepest teams in the field appear to be South Carolina and Stanford, and if both play to their capability, they will meet in the NCAA final. At that point, I give a slight edge to the Cardinal, despite their Dec. 21 loss in Columbia, South Carolina. Turnovers plagued Stanford in that game, and they can still be problematic for the Cardinal. But Stanford has been the most consistent team coming into the tournament.
If they meet in the national championship game, Stanford's 3-point shooting could be the difference. The Cardinal have made 224 treys, while the Gamecocks have made 148. If South Carolina can make that title match a defensive battle, the Gamecocks are a little better on that end of the court. But offensively, Stanford can really spread teams out and exhaust defenses.
That's my reasoning for going with the Cardinal to repeat, as I think they might be the only team that can keep South Carolina from winning it all.
Philippou: I'll admit that I'm totally prepared to eat crow on this pick. South Carolina is one of 13 teams in the AP poll era that spent the entire season ranked No. 1 in the country, and 11 of the previous 12 went on to win the national championship. I'd imagine the Gamecocks have a chip on their shoulder entering the Big Dance following their collapse in the SEC tournament final, and are eager to show the country they are capable of winning it all.
What gives me pause, though, is that if the national title game ends up a rematch of South Carolina-Stanford, I'm not sure the Gamecocks would sweep the season series.
Voepel took the words pretty much out of my mouth in terms of how Stanford could edge South Carolina. It bears reminding, too, that the Cardinal led by as many as 18 that game, in Columbia, and ultimately by 14 at the half. Turnovers plagued them down the stretch, in part a product of South Carolina rediscovering its defensive identity, but also at the time Stanford was still searching for consistency at the point following the departure of Kiana Williams to the WNBA. Over two months later, Tara VanDerveer's squad seems to have mostly settled in on that front, with Anna Wilson, Lacie and Lexie Hull and Haley Jones all chipping in handling the ball and improving from when the season started.
Stanford turned over the ball 20 times in December and still lost by just four points. In an April rematch, I'd expect them to take better care of the ball, come away with the victory, and become the fourth program in the history of the women's tournament to repeat as champions.
Creme: Following a loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament final, the Gamecocks have provided a couple of reasons to be slightly skeptical. Their free throw shooting and offensive execution in the fourth quarter weren't national championship caliber that day.
But I'm still picking South Carolina, which is the deepest and most talented team in the country. The recent issues in the fourth quarter can be fixed; they weren't a season-long problem but rather crept up in their two most recent games against Ole Miss and Kentucky.
Despite the loss to the Wildcats, South Carolina dominated the best conference in the country all season long. The Gamecocks do have the lowest points per game average among the No. 1 seeds, but their defense is so good, ranking second nationally in opponents' points per 100 possessions, according to Her Hoops Stats. They can shut down any offense; Stanford scored only 61 points against South Carolina on Dec. 21.
As Voepel mentioned, Stanford's turnovers were an issue in that game. The Cardinal struggle with quick, athletic guards and committed 20 turnovers against the Gamecocks. They also had 20 turnovers in another loss to Texas, a game in which Stanford could not contain Rori Harmon, the Longhorns' talented freshman guard.
South Carolina guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke are just the kind of backcourt Stanford doesn't like to play against. Those two are the key for South Carolina the entire tournament, and will be if these two ultra-talented teams meet again.
What are the keys to Louisville or NC State winning its first NCAA title?
Voepel: South Carolina and Stanford have great depth, but NC State spreads out its offensive attack well, too. The Wolfpack average 74.6 PPG with two players -- center Elissa Cunane (13.8) and guard Diamond Johnson (10.9) -- averaging in double figures. NC State has made 237 3-pointers, with five players having made 30 or more. Cunane is their centerpiece, but she doesn't need to have a spectacular tournament for NC State to win. She just needs to be her steady self, much as the Wolfpack need to do as a team.
Turnovers, getting outrebounded and not getting to the foul line enough are what cost NC State in its 73-70 loss to Indiana in last season's Sweet 16. Those are things the Wolfpack generally avoid. This team isn't substantially different from last season's, with the exception of the addition of Johnson, a transfer. In short, NC State does have a chance to win this title, but has a smaller margin for error than South Carolina or Stanford.
As for Louisville, the Cardinals are the second-best defensive team statistically behind South Carolina among the top four seeds, and that would need to be the way they get to an NCAA title. It seems like Louisville has overachieved even to get a No. 1 seed, so kudos to the Cardinals for that. A championship for Louisville would be pretty surprising.
Philippou: Louisville's identity revolves around its defense, but to make a deep run the Cardinals will need a breakout tournament from Kianna Smith and/or Hailey Van Lith. A common thread in Louisville's losses is that its offense goes cold (they are 1-4 when their offensive rating is 89.0 points per 100 possessions or worse), and that duo gives the Cardinals their best shot of getting going offensively. And most chiefly for Louisville following recent letdowns against NC State and Miami: Don't relinquish late fourth-quarter leads.
Outside of the No. 1 seeds, what other team has the best shot of winning it all?
Creme: I picked UConn, not Stanford, as my national runner-up, so the 2-seeded Huskies must be my choice here. That we have seen this healthy version of UConn for only a few games at the end of the season makes this more of a guess than anything else in this tournament. But my memory isn't so short that I can't remember back to October, when most of us assumed the Huskies would reach a 14th consecutive Final Four. Of course, that was before Paige Bueckers injured a knee in early December and missed 19 games. That was before star recruit Azzi Fudd sat out 11 games with a foot injury. That was also before eight different Huskies missed at least two games because of injury or illness.
All that is in the rearview mirror now, but the lack of time that UConn's star-studded rotation has had together leaves some question marks. Bueckers hasn't played substantial minutes since her return against St. John's on Feb 25. Senior Christyn Williams has played really well of late but has been inconsistent this season. The same could be said of Dorka Juhasz.
UConn getting to Minneapolis is not the forgone conclusion that it appeared to be at the start of the season, but talent and a coach in Geno Auriemma who knows how to cultivate it wins out. So might the Huskies, at least until the championship game.
Voepel: UConn's Final Four streak is ridiculous. The last time the Huskies didn't make it to the season's final weekend, they lost in the Elite Eight to LSU when Sylvia Fowles was still a junior. Now, she is getting ready to play her 15th and final season in the WNBA.
Throw in the Huskies' 11 NCAA titles, and they are an expected choice to contend, even if they aren't a No. 1 seed. But let's look at another No. 2 seed: Baylor.
If you just watched the Bears' Big 12 tournament quarterfinal and semifinal wins, you were left saying, "Look out. They could be real trouble in Minneapolis." If you just watched their loss to Texas in the Big 12 final, you would doubt they are going to make the trip to Minnesota. Which one is the real Baylor?
Much closer to the first version. It was Texas' third matchup with Baylor this season, and the Longhorns were mega-motivated to end the program's 13-game losing streak to the Bears. But Baylor has one of the best players in the country in NaLyssa Smith, another force inside in Queen Egbo, and very strong guard play.
And how about Texas, which is also a No. 2 seed? The Longhorns' last Final Four was 2003, which was also the only other time they won the Big 12 tournament. Harmon was elevated to the national spotlight with her performance last weekend in Kansas City, where she was great on offense as well as the tireless nuisance she always is defensively on the ball.
Can Texas ride its Big 12 tournament wave all the way to the program's second national championship? That is a stretch, but few expected the Longhorns to get to the Elite Eight last season, and they did.
Final Four picks
Andrea Adelson: South Carolina (champion), LSU, Baylor, NC State
Debbie Antonelli: South Carolina, Stanford, Louisville, NC State (winner)
Katie Barnes: South Carolina (champion), Stanford, Baylor, UConn
Jay Bilas: Iowa, Stanford (champion), Louisville, UConn
Charlie Creme: South Carolina (champion), Stanford, Baylor, UConn
Kevin Pelton: South Carolina (champion), Stanford, Baylor, UConn
Alexa Philippou: South Carolina, Stanford (champion), Baylor, UConn
Brenda VanLengen: South Carolina (champion), Texas, Baylor, NC State
Mechelle Voepel: South Carolina, Stanford (champion), Baylor, NC State
Brooke Weisbrod: South Carolina (champion), Stanford, Louisville, UConn