Women's college basketball 2023: Player of the year, Final Four picks

Mackenzie Holmes with the and-1 bucket (0:23)

Mackenzie Holmes with the and-1 bucket (0:23)

The opening games of the 2023 women's NCAA basketball tournament will be played March 15. The landscape might look a lot different by then, and a lot already has changed since our midseason check-in in January.

Yes, South Carolina remains dominant and undefeated with two statement victories over UConn and LSU in the past 10 days, the latter the first real test for Kim Mulkey's previously undefeated Tigers.

But with a healthy Grace Berger back, Indiana has looked even more potent, rising to No. 2 in the AP top 25 and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball committee's reveal of its top 16 seeds. Stanford showed it is vulnerable in losses to USC and Washington. UConn, the fourth No. 1 seed in the reveal, gave the Gamecocks a tough game, but questions linger over whether the Huskies' lack of depth due to injuries is sustainable.

And things are only heating up in the league races as teams close out the regular season and prepare for conference tournaments, which open as early as Feb. 28, with the first automatic bid up for grabs on March 4.

With one month remaining before March Madness officially begins, ESPN.com's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel update their predictions and examine which teams are looking Final-Four ready, who has the best case for player of the year and more.

What has surprised you -- good or bad -- and most changed your opinion over the past month since our midseason check-in?

Caitlin Clark's big 35-point night not enough for Hawkeyes

Caitlin Clark puts on a stellar performance from the field for Iowa with 35 points in a 87-78 loss to the Indiana Hoosiers.

Creme: A month ago, Indiana was good. But the second best team in the country? An odds-on Final Four favorite?

The Hoosiers are every bit those things and more. Of course, a month ago Indiana had yet to beat Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State (twice) and Michigan by an average of 12.4 points. The Hoosiers have not only surged ahead in the Big Ten, they are dominating it.

Getting Grace Berger back (she missed eight games with a knee injury) has taken Indiana to new heights, but the Hoosiers were good without their team leader, too. Coach Teri Moren has turned a mix of returners and young players, plus two transfers, into an NCAA tournament-ready, finished product that is ninth in the country in scoring (81.6 PPG). It helps that senior Mackenzie Holmes has taken her game to another level. Her 22.5 PPG is seven more than a year ago, and she's making nearly 70% of her shots. Holmes won't even win Big Ten Player of the Year because of Caitlin Clark, but she's one of the five best players in the country.

Voepel: The Pac-12 race has been pleasantly surprising. Coming into the season, the thought was it could be a Stanford runaway, and that was probably still the case the morning of Jan. 15. But later that day, the then-unranked USC Trojans upset No. 2 Stanford, Utah Utes beat Arizona in a top-15 battle and unranked Washington State topped then-No. 21 Oregon in overtime. It was a signal: Things weren't just going to be smooth sailing for anyone, including the Cardinal, who've since also lost to the Washington Huskies.

Now, Stanford and Utah are tied atop the league, they're joined by Colorado in the top 16 of Bracketology and six Pac-12 teams are ranked. The regular-season title might be decided Feb. 25 when Stanford and Utah meet in Salt Lake City, but the Cardinal have to face ranked USC, UCLA and Colorado before then. The Utes face just one ranked opponent (Arizona) in their three games before hosting Stanford.

Philippou: I'm with Charlie on the Indiana front. Otherwise, quite a few of my midseason predictions haven't aged well, although several stem from injuries. Notre Dame doesn't look as scary in the ACC, especially after Dara Mabrey was sidelined by a season-ending knee injury. Ohio State has come back down to earth, losing five of its past seven games after beginning the year 19-0, with Jacy Sheldon still hurt and Rebeka Mikulasikova currently out with an ankle sprain. Our midseason predictions published the day UConn's Azzi Fudd returned from her knee injury, only to reaggravate it a few days later and be sidelined for the past month.

There was a point during this season when all three of those teams could have been considered Final Four contenders, but a lot can change in a month, especially when it comes to injuries.

Aliyah Boston or Caitlin Clark for player of the year?

Creme: Clark -- and at this point it really isn't close. Boston has been terrific recently in South Carolina's biggest games against UConn and LSU. That should mean something. But to steal a phrase from my world of Bracketology, Clark has the superior overall body of work.

Clark's worst game against a ranked opponent this season is a 19-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist performance against Iowa State in early December. She recently scored 42 and 35 points against Maryland and Indiana, the teams just below and ahead of the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten race. Clark once again leads the country in assists (tied with UConn's Nika Muhl at 8.3 per game) and, if not for the scoring majesty of Villanova's Maddy Siegrist, would be in position to again lead the nation in both categories.

Clark has yet to have an off night or a bad game. As outstanding as she was a year ago, her consistency this season has elevated her game to new heights.

Celeste Taylor makes a great defensive play for the steal

Celeste Taylor makes a great defensive play for the steal

Philippou: If we're assessing the body of work from this season, which is appropriate for a player of the year determination, it's probably Clark, but for slightly different reasons than Charlie pointed out. South Carolina has become less reliant on Boston compared to last year, finding success from Zia Cooke, Kamilla Cardoso, Brea Beal and its plethora of contributors. That's a true testament to how much more dominant they've become since winning a national title in April.

But without Clark, Iowa would be nowhere near the Final Four conversation, and this year in particular, her numbers are simply too staggering to ignore. That said, if Boston were to win it, it would still be incredibly well-deserved.

Voepel: Clark in a close race. When you have the two best players at their positions, and those positions are completely different, it comes down to what other criteria voters use. If they lean toward the player on the best team as a deciding factor and/or toward the incumbent as winner, it's Boston. But if it's the player who has consistently produced huge numbers and has to do the most for her team to be successful, that's Clark.

In women's college basketball and the WNBA, post players have tended to win NPOY/MVP more than guards. It's worth mentioning that even though many consider her the best player in WNBA history, Diana Taurasi has won the MVP award just once. Clark has been everything you could ask -- and more -- from a guard offensively all three of her seasons at Iowa, and she also has improved as a defensive player. And she's one of the most exciting players to watch in all of college sports.

They both are deserving. And Indiana and its fans will make the case that Holmes should be getting more traction in this race now, too, and that's a fair point. But Clark is my choice.

UConn lost two in a row, looked fatigued and will remain short-handed for the immediate future. Is it time to worry about the Huskies' health and ability to hold up?

Philippou: Given how well the Huskies played when it has mattered most -- in a hostile road game versus historic rival Tennessee, as well as against the defending champion Gamecocks in Hartford -- I can't count them out at this point. And yet in watching their conference play as of late (not just the Marquette loss), as well as taking into account how congested the schedule gets from here on, it's undoubtedly clear they need Caroline Ducharme and Fudd back -- not just in making the Huskies tougher to beat, but by simply giving them more bodies.

But it's mid-February and time is ticking for either of those two to return. Geno Auriemma has acknowledged the Huskies are limited in what they can work on in practice because of their health issues, and that the team isn't in a great place mentally due to being so worn down. It's tough to see that changing if reinforcements don't arrive, but if anyone could make it work given the circumstances, it's Auriemma and Chris Dailey.

No.1 South Carolina turns back No. 3 LSU in showdown

The Gamecocks run out to an 18-2 lead and then hold off the Tigers' furious and repeated comeback attempts, winning the battle of unbeatens, 88-64.

Creme: I see a team just barely hanging on at this point. It's such a testament to how disciplined, well-coached and resolute these Huskies are, that the calendar reads mid-February and they are still a No. 1 seed. But they seem to be running out of gas. With all the injuries and resulting heavy minutes for the players who are healthy, the success of the season so far doesn't seem sustainable.

The great performance and close result against South Carolina masked what was already taking place -- a team playing on fumes. The Huskies got up for the Gamecocks and played remarkably well. But just before that, UConn was fortunate to beat Villanova at home and struggled with Providence. The subsequent loss to Marquette and uncharacteristic close game against Georgetown only accentuate the fact that without reinforcements, we have seen the best of the Huskies this year.

Voepel: Over three decades of watching UConn do what UConn does, I default to this: No matter how bad things might look, the Huskies almost always find a way. That said, when it comes to this many injuries and fatigue, this is one of their bigger challenges.

Which team will win the ACC? And will the conference have a team in the Final Four?

Creme: The ACC has lived up to its billing as the country's most competitive league, stuffing seven teams within the first seven seed lines in the latest addition of Bracketology. Yet there isn't one standout and I don't think any of the league's teams will reach the Final Four.

As for which team can win the conference, I'll go with Duke and its defense, which allows the second-fewest points per game in the country.

The Blue Devils have the luxury of a one-game lead at the moment, which makes it easier to lean their way. Among the top three teams -- Duke, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech -- the Irish have the easiest remaining schedule, but they haven't looked the same since Mabrey went out with her knee injury and don't look primed to make a run. Virginia Tech's schedule is the most difficult, but the Hokies might also be playing their best basketball right now. If they can beat Duke at home on Thursday, the conversation about who's the best in the ACC will shift yet again.

Philippou: Yes, Duke's one-game lead makes the Blue Devils easy to pick, but when it comes to the ACC this year we've learned to expect the unexpected. The Mabrey injury definitely hurts the Irish but we can't count out Notre Dame, at least to close the regular season, given how forgiving the remainder of its schedule is. Over the next few weeks, Duke and Virginia Tech both play NC State and UNC, and they play each other Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ACC Network), a matchup that carries significant weight in the race for the regular-season crown. And when it comes to the conference tournament, it might be anyone's to win.

Voepel: I give the edge to Duke for the regular-season title, but the Blue Devils' offense doesn't make a Final Four trip seem very likely, to be frank. The ACC probably won't be represented in Dallas, but it has still been a fun conference to watch, even with the lower-tier teams. The same has been true for other leagues, including the Big 12, which also will have its conference race go down to the wire. Texas and Oklahoma both have three conference losses but are tied atop the Big 12. They meet in Norman, Oklahoma, on Feb. 25.

Which team will win the NCAA title this season?

Voepel: South Carolina seems very poised, very focused and very business-like. The depth, experience, talent and coaching are all at a high level. The Gamecocks are the clear choice to repeat as champion.

Creme: Picking against South Carolina would just seem silly at this point. This really has been a season of parity with one exception -- the Gamecocks. Winning games by an average of 33.5 points has a tendency to make them a favorite.

This isn't to say South Carolina doesn't have vulnerabilities -- for example, the Gamecocks' 30.7 3-point percentage ranks 181st nationally -- but there are fewer than last year when they took home the title. In recent weeks, that offense has begun to play at a higher level. Since scoring just 58 against Mississippi State in its closest SEC game of the season on Jan. 8, South Carolina has averaged 85.3 points per game. With their ability to defend and rebound, no one is beating a Gamecocks team that scores 85 points.

Philippou: It has become abundantly clear it's the Gamecocks, especially across the past 10 days. If Cardoso can dominate like she has in their past two statement wins against UConn and LSU, and a player like Raven Johnson can continue to bring that punch off the bench, I don't see anyone stopping such an experienced, deep group that has shown it knows how to close out big games.


Which teams will reach the Final Four?

Creme: South Carolina, Indiana, Stanford, Iowa
Philippou: South Carolina, Indiana, Stanford, UConn
Voepel: South Carolina, Indiana, Stanford, UConn

Which team wins the NCAA title?

Creme: South Carolina over Indiana
Philippou: South Carolina over Stanford
Voepel: South Carolina over Stanford

Who will be the national player of the year?

Creme: Caitlin Clark, Iowa
Philippou: Caitlin Clark, Iowa
Voepel: Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Who will be coach of the year?

Creme: Teri Moren, Indiana
Philippou: Teri Moren, Indiana
Voepel: Teri Moren, Indiana

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 -- three post players and two guards -- will make the All-America first team?

Creme: Cameron Brink, Stanford; Angel Reese, LSU; Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Caitlin Clark, Iowa; Diamond Miller, Maryland

Philippou: Cameron Brink, Stanford; Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Caitlin Clark, Iowa; Maddy Siegrist, Villanova; Diamond Miller, Maryland

Voepel: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina; Caitlin Clark, Iowa; Mackenzie Holmes, Indiana; Cameron Brink, Stanford; Maddy Siegrist, Villanova