Midway through the 2022-23 women's college basketball season, some things are exactly as we expected. The only time either South Carolina or Stanford has lost is when they played each other, with the Gamecocks winning 76-71 on the road in overtime Nov. 20. The past two national champions are as deep, skilled, experienced and well-coached as everyone anticipated.
Things get a little wild after that. UConn is still a top-five team and in the national championship hunt despite a mind-boggling string of injuries and illnesses, which has even kept coach Geno Auriemma away from the sideline in recent weeks.
LSU got derision for its nonconference schedule, but so far the Tigers are plowing through the SEC, too. Despite more preseason eyes on Iowa and Indiana, Ohio State has been the Big Ten's best and joins South Carolina and LSU as the only unbeaten Division I women's teams.
Louisville was the ACC's Final Four representative last season, but it's a toss-up which team might win the league title this season, as the ACC's depth is taking center stage.
Will Baylor win the Big 12 again? Can the SEC's Tennessee and Big 12's Texas rebound from subpar nonconference results? Will Stanford run the table in the Pac-12? Can LSU, or anyone else, stop South Carolina from doing it in the SEC? Will we have a new national player of the year?
ESPN's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel take a look at where things stand now at this point of the season and update their preseason predictions and project how it might end in Dallas on April 2.
South Carolina and Stanford are our unanimous picks to reach the Final Four. Which other teams will reach Dallas?
Voepel: The biggest Final Four shock will be if both South Carolina and Stanford aren't there. Considering UConn has been in the Final Four every season since 2008, it's really hard to pick against the Huskies -- even if they get down to barely enough players to take the court. Although my "bold" prediction in the preseason was the Huskies' streak would at last end, I'll believe another Final Four without UConn when I actually see it.
Philippou: My preseason Tennessee Final Four pick isn't looking too great these days, though the Lady Vols have had a really strong start to SEC play and haven't wavered in their confidence. Meanwhile, UConn's health issues have made their prospects of playing in Dallas much murkier. I don't feel confident picking LSU as a Final Four team until I see it play better competition. So Ohio State earns the nod in place of Tennessee. I get into more of why below, but the Buckeyes' resilience -- both given the players they've won without as well as in-game when facing sizable deficits -- is a quality that can help tremendously down the line.
No. 1 South Carolina's Aliyah Boston claims the program record for career rebounds in SEC regular-season play after grabbing 15 in a 58-51 win vs. the Bulldogs.
Creme: I don't think I've ever had a harder time coming up with a definitive Final Four prediction this late in the season. I'm still all-in on the Gamecocks and Cardinal, but after that, it's like throwing darts. If UConn can get healthy, I lean toward the Huskies to get to Dallas. Even depleted, both on the court and on the bench, they have maintained a level of play worthy of the Final Four if just another piece or two can return to full form.
I worry that LSU will have been tested less than half a dozen times by the time the NCAA tournament rolls around, but a great player in Reese and a coach with a championship pedigree in Mulkey is a good foundation on which to build a Final Four team.
Is the ACC or Big Ten the most compelling conference race right now?
Duke avoids the upset and picks up the double-digit win over NC State.
Creme: The ACC, but not because of the teams that received most of the preseason attention. It's because Boston College is capable of beating NC State, and Clemson can knock off Virginia Tech. It's because Florida State has become a legitimate Sweet 16 threat. It's because Duke is now a top-10 team in Bracketology and Power Rankings. It's because Virginia has found new life as a program. It's because Miami has proved it can compete with, and now beat, nearly any team in the country.
The Big Ten race will be a fun watch when the favorites like Ohio State, Michigan, Maryland, Indiana and Iowa play each other. However, there isn't much mystery when those teams play the lower half of the league. The ACC has no nights off. It's as deep as any conference we have seen in years.
Philippou: I second everything Charlie said about the ACC, which in his latest Bracketology had nine (nine!) teams playing in March Madness. And expect the conference tournament (March 1-5, not that I'm already counting down the days or anything) to be all sorts of wild if this is how the regular season has unfolded so far.
Given its performance in November and December, I thought Notre Dame might be the clear and relatively unchallenged favorite. Maybe the Irish are still expected to win the ACC crown, but it won't be easy given the competition at the top of the league and threats from midtier teams as well.
Voepel: In terms of high-quality depth, the ACC provides the most intriguing game-by-game competition. As Charlie and Alexa detailed, it's the one Power 5 this season where almost no outcome shocks you, and that's really entertaining.
The Big Ten still has the player you just do not want to miss in Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, who can make even a blowout interesting. The league has perhaps the best turnaround story in the country in Illinois, which last went to the NCAA tournament in 2003. Right now, the Illini are a No. 7 seed in Bracketology, and it's great to see for a program, in a talent-rich state, that has been irrelevant for too long.
It's also been 30 years -- wow -- since Ohio State made its only Final Four appearance. The Buckeyes have been really good many times since, but have had some big postseason disappointments. This might be the year they go back. Or maybe it will be a first trip for Indiana, which got a huge lift Sunday with the return of injured guard Grace Berger and has had consistent efficiency all season (again) by Mackenzie Holmes.
What has been the biggest surprise (good or bad) in women's college basketball this season?
The Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes trade 3s down the stretch in a tightly contested fourth quarter.
Creme: Not only is Illinois shockingly good, the Illini are really fun to watch. Neither has been the case for a long time. Illinois just moved into the AP Top 25 for the first time in 23 years and, at 81.3 points per game, is one of the country's highest-scoring offenses.
The program pulled off the year's best daily double by hiring Shauna Green as the new head coach and then getting guard Makira Cook to follow Green from Dayton. The immediate turnaround -- the Illini were 7-20 and last in the Big Ten in 2021-22 -- should put Green on a short list of national coach of the year candidates. Cook, who's averaging 18.3 PPG this season (with a much higher shooting percentage) vs. 14.8 a year ago, is a better player in the Big Ten than she was in the Atlantic 10.
Philippou: It will be further tested in Big Ten play, but Ohio State's program-best 17-0 start -- largely without Jacy Sheldon and in recent weeks Madison Greene -- has been impressive. Unlike some other programs, Ohio State -- our staff had the Buckeyes outside the top 15 in our preseason Way-Too-Early rankings -- put together a respectable nonconference slate, defeating Tennessee, Louisville, South Florida and Oregon, while also taking care of Michigan State, Michigan and Illinois so far in league play. How they fare in a two-game stretch versus Iowa at home (Jan. 23) and at Indiana (Jan. 26) will showcase just how much for real they are.
Elsewhere in the Big Ten: As Charlie alludes below, I expected Iowa to be better with all its key pieces returning, but the Hawkeyes could still make a run like they did to end Big Ten play last year.
Voepel: Remember when Texas was No. 3 in the preseason poll? Frankly, that seemed too high, and that's proven to be the case. Injuries have taken a toll, and some players just haven't performed up to expectations yet. It's still very early in the Big 12 season, and the Longhorns are 3-1 in the Big 12 after Tuesday's 72-59 victory over Kansas. There is still time for Texas -- which won the Big 12 tournament and reached the Elite Eight last season -- to climb back into the national rankings. But so far, it's been more of a struggle than most anticipated.
What are you most closely watching over the next two months?
Shaylee Gonzales makes a great defensive play for the steal
Philippou: UConn's health, particularly that of Azzi Fudd. If the Huskies stay healthy the remainder of the season -- which feels like a big if, considering their history over the past year-plus -- they'll be in Dallas and play in a 15th consecutive Final Four. And dare I say they'd have as good a chance as anyone (again, if healthy) to cut down the nets. While Geno Auriemma's status moving forward remains unclear, the Huskies will undoubtedly want him back if possible to guide them through their most important stretch of the season.
Creme: Like Alexa, I'm keeping a close eye on how injuries affect teams and what kind of impact those players returning to the court might have. The injury question is always a big one around NCAA tournament selections. This season it will be bigger than ever.
More tangibly, what happens in the SEC is something to watch. The jockeying for wins and positioning lower in the standings will have major NCAA tournament implications. The SEC has the potential to be loaded with bubble teams. Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi State have all been among Bracketology's Last Four In or First Four Out at some point this season. The bubble could be awaiting Tennessee if the Lady Vols falter any further. Florida is also in position to get into the mix if the Gators can put a winning steak together.
The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are the better conferences this season, but the SEC might have the most influence on the shape of the NCAA tournament.
Voepel: Injuries stink. Adding to the list was the loss of Iowa State center Stephanie Soares to a torn ACL suffered Sunday. In her lone Division I season, the former NAIA standout proved more than ready for this level. It's a shame we won't see her in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. But even without her, the Cyclones have the same squad that got them to the Sweet 16 last season. Ashley Joens, Emily Ryan and Lexi Donarski haven't sat much in their Iowa State careers, and they sure won't for the rest of this season.
The Big 12 might not have a strong Final Four contender like the other Power 5 leagues, but could have an Elite Eight team again. Texas might still put things together. Iowa State and Oklahoma still have the ability to hit 3s like crazy. Kansas should be headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row after a nine-year absence. Then there's Baylor, longtime Big 12 Goliath (in its second season under coach Nicki Collen) picked to finish fourth this season, but off to a 3-0 Big 12 start. The Bears' guards are superb, even though their post game hasn't gotten the infusion they were expecting from transfers, due to injury and eligibility issues.
Give us one bold prediction for the rest of the season.
Cameron Brink gets the lay-in to fall vs. California Golden Bears
Philippou: If UConn is healthy, the Huskies will return to the national title game, and it'll be a lot closer than last year's matchup. If I'm really pushing for boldness, UConn will finally end up on the right side of the luck spectrum and somehow win it all.
Creme: South Carolina and Stanford won't lose again until meeting for the national championship. This feels even bolder given the close calls they each had on the road this weekend, but it'll be a clean sweep for both. The Cardinal, with six total games remaining against Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Utah Utes in the regular season, unquestionably have the heavier lift to get to the final day without another loss, but Sunday's tussle with Cal should be the eye-opener to the players what can happen when they take the foot off the gas. That won't happen again. The Cardinal also happen to have two of the country's five best players in Haley Jones and Cameron Brink.
The Gamecocks get LSU in Columbia and the SEC tournament and NCAA tournament in Greenville. With the exception of going to UConn and playing Tennessee in Knoxville, South Carolina won't have to leave the state for a big game until the Final Four.
Voepel: As a decidedly not-bold picker, I'll cheat: This year will be just the second time in the last 14 Big 12 tournaments that a non-Texas team wins the title. West Virginia did it in 2017, but the last before that was Oklahoma in 2007. In that stretch, Baylor won the tournament championship 10 times, Texas A&M (now in the SEC) won twice, and Texas won once (last year). COVID-19 canceled the 2020 Big 12 tournament. Iowa State's two Big 12 tournament titles came at Municipal in 2000 and 2001, and no team's fans have filled that building like Cyclone fans over the years. Maybe it's their year again.
Who's your pick for player of the year right now?
Angel Reese posts an impressive 26-point, 28-rebound stat line as LSU beats Texas A&M 74-34.
Voepel: I nearly did this in our most recent top-25 player voting, now it happens: Caitlin Clark is the pick. Charlie details her numbers, which have been consistently eye-popping her entire career. Folks will say Iowa isn't this or that, but the Hawkeyes are still 12-4 with no bad losses: on the road at Kansas State and Illinois by a combined five points, at home to NC State (a double-digit loss, but the Wolfpack have been a top-10 team much of the season) and at a neutral site to UConn by seven. Clark handles the ball, passes, scores and rebounds at an elite level, and she has improved on defense. Throw in some of those "launching them from West Des Moines" 3-pointers and Clark has done everything she can to be player of the year at this point.
Creme: Clark. The numbers -- 27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 6.7 APG -- are still staggering, but it's more than that. On so many nights, Clark is carrying Iowa. The Hawkeyes haven't been quite as good as most expected, but they remain a top-20 team with Final Four potential, and so much of that is due to Clark. She has the responsibility of primary ball handler, playmaker, scorer and shooter against defenses that are constructed specifically to slow her down. Monika Czinano is a highly productive post player and McKenna Warnock is a talented complementary player, but they aren't nearly as good without Clark, who has also been more efficient than she was a year ago.
Philippou: I'm not sure if any singular player has separated herself. Aliyah Boston has been a critical presence for the undefeated Gamecocks, and her value on the floor can't be overlooked, but she hasn't been relied upon as much offensively (which could be a good thing for South Carolina in the long run!), attempting a career-low 7.7 field goals per game. Clark continues to carry Iowa, and there are some subtle improvements in her game, but I'm not fully on board with her, either. I want to see how LSU's Reese does against better competition, and Fudd could've been my top choice prior to her injury.
It wouldn't be surprising -- or entirely undeserved -- if Boston repeats as player of the year when all is said and done, especially if she and South Carolina shine against the likes of UConn, LSU and some other tough SEC teams. Here's to hoping the second half of the season will be more clarifying for awards voters.
Updated midseason predictions
Which teams will reach the Final Four?
Creme: South Carolina, Stanford, UConn, LSU
Philippou: South Carolina, Stanford, UConn, Ohio State
Voepel: South Carolina, Stanford, UConn, LSU
Which team wins the NCAA title?
Creme: Stanford over South Carolina
Philippou: Stanford over South Carolina
Voepel: South Carolina over Stanford
Who will be the national player of the year?
Creme: Caitlin Clark, Iowa
Philippou: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
Voepel: Caitlin Clark, Iowa
Who will be coach of the year?
Creme: Kevin McGuff, Ohio State
Philippou: Kevin McGuff, Ohio State
Voepel: Kevin McGuff, Ohio State
Who will be freshman of the year?
Creme: Ta'Niya Latson, Florida State
Philippou: Ta'Niya Latson, Florida State
Voepel: Ta'Niya Latson, Florida State
Which players -- two forwards, one center, two guards -- will make the All-America first team?
Creme: Haley Jones, Stanford; Cameron Brink, Stanford; Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Caitlin Clark, Iowa; Olivia Miles, Notre Dame
Philippou: Cameron Brink, Stanford; Angel Reese, LSU; Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Caitlin Clark, Iowa; Olivia Miles, Notre Dame
Voepel: Angel Reese, LSU; Cameron Brink, Stanford; Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Caitlin Clark, Iowa; Haley Jones, Stanford.