Women's NCAA basketball's biggest questions, stars, shockers

Staley highlights South Carolina's 'sisterhood' in win (2:59)

Dawn Staley explains how the No. 1 Gamecocks' chemistry paid dividends in the tough win over Duke while also taking time to recognize the V Foundation. (2:59)

We're one month into the 2023-24 women's college basketball season, and there's already so much to digest.

Defending national champion LSU lost its opener and was then subject to many, many opinions foretelling doom during star Angel Reese's four-game absence. Now, the Tigers seem to have bonded again with Reese back.

UConn started the season in what appeared to be juggernaut mode, but it has since been hit hard by injuries again. South Carolina, spending zero time lamenting the heartbreak of last season's Final Four loss and huge personnel departures, almost immediately jumped back to No. 1.

The Pac-12, which saw its future as a conference collapse earlier this year, looks like it might go out on a very high note. Will UCLA make it to a long-awaited Final Four? The Bruins, No. 2 in the rankings and a No. 1 seed in Bracketology, are off on the right foot. USC, long ago a power in women's basketball, has regained luster behind JuJu Watkins, who is part of what appears to be a marvelous freshman class. Of course, Stanford is still Stanford.

And Iowa's Caitlin Clark is still Caitlin Clark. Last season's national player of the year is putting up logo 3-pointers and finding new targets for her assists. How do her prospects look for repeating as the top player in women's college basketball?

ESPN's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel break down what we've seen so far and what it indicates for the rest of the season as well as reflect on how some preseason predictions have (or haven't) held up.

What has been the biggest surprise -- good or bad -- from the first month?

Philippou: How much LSU and UConn have struggled. They were pegged as preseason national title contenders, but November wasn't the best month for either program.

The Tigers were stunned by Colorado, dealt with off-court noise when Reese was absent for four games and lost Sa'Myah Smith to a season-ending knee injury. LSU ended November on a high note -- beating Virginia Tech with Reese back -- but it still has much to prove and is far from a polished product.

And a season with so much hope in Storrs has already turned into one defined by injuries: The Huskies -- who are without Azzi Fudd for the rest of the season and Caroline Ducharme indefinitely -- fell to 4-3 on Sunday, the earliest the program has reached three losses since 1982-83. Granted, those defeats came against current top-five teams, and it's too early to write off any team, especially one coached by Geno Auriemma.

Voepel: After losing four players who started at least 20 games last season, NC State was picked to finish eighth in the ACC and wasn't a preseason Top 25 team. Now, the Wolfpack are ranked No. 3 at 9-0. NC State has been consistently competitive over the past decade under coach Wes Moore, so the idea of the Wolfpack outpacing low expectations isn't surprising. But how quickly they climbed and how much better they are than predicted stands out. They are averaging 80.3 points per game as compared to 70.8 last season. The Wolfpack really struggled offensively and seemed out of sync at times a season ago, but we haven't seen that from them so far.

Creme: If someone told me that by early December I would be projecting NC State as a No. 1 seed in Bracketology, I would have assumed that person was from Raleigh. The wins over UConn and Colorado were as dominating as they were shocking. Considerable individual improvement has helped drive the offense. Junior Aziaha James has gone from a spot player averaging 6.8 points per game in 2022-23 to the team's top scorer at 16.2 PPG and shooting 3-pointers at a 43.5% clip. And Saniya Rivers, perhaps the country's most physically skilled player who caught the nation's attention with 33 points against the Huskies, has gone from 8.6 PPG to 13.7 in roughly the same number of minutes.

Zoe Brooks won't get mentioned among the top freshmen in the country because players like JuJu Watkins, LSU's Mikaylah Williams, South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley and Texas' Madison Booker have been so outstanding. But Brooks has been a productive (9.4 PPG) and consistent addition for NC State.

What preseason prediction would you like to do over?

Reese, Morrow talk No. 7 LSU's atmosphere, cohesion

Following a victory over No. 9 Virginia Tech, Angel Reese highlights the Tigers' energetic crowd while Aneesah Morrow discusses remaining consistent.

Creme: My Final Four prediction -- LSU, UConn, UCLA, Virginia Tech -- will need some help to ultimately hit the mark. Only UCLA looks plausible at this point. While I did call Texas a potential surprise team to reach Cleveland in April, I didn't even pick the Longhorns to win the Big 12. I already regret that one. Not that Baylor, my pick, is off to a bad start. The Bears also have exceeded expectations and are still unbeaten, but Texas looks so sharp. The Longhorns-Bears game on Dec. 30 is the perfect way to end 2023 and open Big 12 play.

Philippou: None of my preseason Final Four picks -- LSU, UConn, Ohio State, Utah -- are looking too stellar. LSU has a lot of on-court and off-court variables. UConn has an uphill battle to climb given its injury situation. Utah suffered a big blow with Gianna Kneepkens lost for the year due to a foot injury. And Ohio State hasn't been the juggernaut I'd envisioned after a pretty disappointing season-opening loss to USC.

And while I did write in early November that I could see South Carolina reaching Cleveland, I didn't anticipate that prospect being so clear so early in the season given the Gamecocks' roster turnover. But South Carolina established itself from the get-go with a resounding win over Notre Dame, and it hasn't looked back, with recent road victories over North Carolina and Duke adding to an impressive résumé.

Voepel: Switching coach of the year from Virginia Tech's Kenny Brooks to another ACC coach: NC State's Wes Moore. The Hokies have lost twice, to Iowa and LSU, which aren't bad losses. But at this point, the Wolfpack are off to a much more impressive season.

Which teams are you comfortable penciling in now for the Final Four?

Voepel: I'm sticking with three of my preseason picks: LSU, South Carolina and UCLA. It's hard to stay with UConn because of injuries and how the Huskies have played against top teams. So the fourth spot right now goes to Texas. NC State deserves a mention too, and no one will be surprised if Stanford manages a 16th trip to the Final Four.

Philippou: South Carolina and UCLA are the front-runners. Then LSU. The fourth team is a wild card, but I'll go with Texas.

Creme: Let's stick with the Bruins. Picking against South Carolina again seems foolish, so I'll go with the Gamecocks. In the preseason, I mentioned the Longhorns as a team that could make a move, and they already have. Iowa will hit some speed bumps along the way, but let's go with the Hawkeyes as the fourth team.

Who has been the best player in the country? Is Caitlin Clark the clear favorite for player of the year?

JuJu Watkins notches 5th 30-point game of the season

USC star JuJu Watkins drops 30 points to lead the Trojans to an 89-58 victory over San Diego.

Philippou: It's still an open race. Stanford's Cameron Brink and USC's Watkins deserve to be in the conversation alongside Clark. For the Trojans' freshman phenom to firmly stake her claim, she'll need to continue her current dominance in Pac-12 play. Watkins' talent and pro ceiling are undeniable, but I'm eager to see how she does against more difficult competition. (The Trojans have played just two Power 5 schools.) Other top teams -- South Carolina, UCLA, LSU -- are more balanced, making it difficult to isolate a single individual with a clear claim to player of the year at this point.

Voepel: Clark is still the clear favorite. She is leading Division I in scoring (29.0 PPG) and is third in assists (7.9). She also is averaging one less turnover than a season ago. Iowa's only loss (to Kansas State) was in a rare game in which Clark wasn't able to connect on enough shots. But the Hawkeyes already have avenged that defeat and are back in the top five of the rankings.

Brink seems like the top challenger; her value was evident in how Stanford lost at Gonzaga, as she was limited due to illness. Watkins is off to a tremendous start but has played only seven college games. Texas' Rori Harmon got an endorsement from Geno Auriemma as the best player UConn has faced this season after her 27-point, 13-assist game against the Huskies.

Creme: Clark is just so offensively diverse and dominant that she is still the favorite. And one day we will all be watching USC games to witness Watkins with the same anticipation and excitement Iowa games receive now.

But the best two-way players in the game right now are Brink and Harmon. Brink is averaging a double-double and ranks fourth in the country with 3.3 blocked shots per game. Harmon tops the nation in assists with 8.1 per game (Clark is second) and gets averages nearly three steals. The performance Harmon had against UConn on Sunday should go in a time capsule. Getting wherever she wanted on offense, scoring and setting up teammates, Harmon also neutralized Paige Bueckers into a 4-for-11 shooting performance. Auriemma is not big into hyperbole, so the kind of praise he heaped on Harmon illustrates just how good she has been.

UCLA catches fire with a dozen 3-pointers to top UConn

Charisma Osborne hits six 3-pointers in No. 2 UCLA's 78-67 win over No. 6 UConn.

What's the biggest question you want to see answered between now and the end of the regular season?

Creme: What becomes of UConn? We knew losing Azzi Fudd for the season was a big blow, but it appears even bigger than anyone thought. Her shooting is badly missed. Veterans Nika Muhl and Aubrey Griffin don't look as comfortable as they did a season ago, and Auriemma doesn't seem to completely trust his young players yet.

All of that has meant a bigger burden on Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards to carry the Huskies every night; and to this point, it has been too much to ask. Neither is playing her best. The result is three double-digit losses, albeit to three of the best teams in the country in the first month. Where will the answers come from with a schedule that still includes nonconference matchups with North Carolina, Louisville, Notre Dame and South Carolina? And two of UConn's first three Big East games are against Marquette and Creighton, both of which are now ranked.

Voepel: Will the Pac-12, in its final season, stay as good as it has been thus far? The conference has six ranked teams, with four of them among the top 10 in UCLA, Colorado, USC and Stanford. Gianna Kneepkens' injury is a heartbreaking blow, but the Utes and Washington State are still solid squads. We'll wait to see how good Washington and Oregon State, both still unbeaten, prove to be. The Pac-12 getting at least one (maybe more?) team into the Final Four team again won't take away the despair over the league's demise. But it would at least provide one last great memory for the conference.

Philippou: Where does LSU goes from here? Everything seemed peachy when the Tigers beat Virginia Tech last week for Kim Mulkey's 700th career win. Not only was Reese back on the court, but they looked much better than the early-season version that fell to Colorado and struggled against an opponent like Kent State. The Tigers unfortunately have no more Power 5 nonconference matchups remaining. And aside from top-ranked South Carolina, the SEC isn't looking all too potent this season, with Tennessee, Ole Miss and Mississippi State falling out of the rankings this week.

Will the Virginia Tech win be the turning point LSU needed to launch its repeat title bid? Or will there still be some bumps and bruises in how all the Tigers' players, new and old, coalesce on the court? Their Jan. 25 showdown against the Gamecocks in Baton Rouge should be a great litmus test, although that matchup last season (a South Carolina rout) didn't ultimately foreshadow much for April.