For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to women’s college basketball, this year’s NCAA Tournament has been a wake-up call. UConn isn’t a lock to win it all (in fact, they haven’t won the title since 2016, and just got knocked out in the Sweet 16), the tournament isn’t totally chalk, and the level of play is nothing like what the sexists would have you believe.
In place of all of those tired tropes, there are a slew of new characters and stories to highlight as the women’s Final Four kicks off in Dallas this weekend. Instead of UConn, this Final Four’s powerhouse is South Carolina. The defending national champions are looking to win a second-straight title (and third since 2017) and cement their position as the sport’s latest, greatest dynasty. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and her splashy play have drawn new fans to the women’s game, while LSU and Virginia Tech both enter with something to prove (namely, that they’ve got just as much star power as the more hyped South Carolina–Iowa matchup).
Here are eight storylines to follow as Friday’s action tips off:
Caitlin Clark vs. Aliyah Boston
It would be almost impossible to miss what’s been one of the most highly touted Final Four matchups in recent history, but just to hammer home why these two players take up so much of the spotlight: Clark, Iowa’s six-foot junior guard, just won the 2023 Associated Press women’s basketball Player of the Year award after being the only player in the country to average more than twenty points, five assists, and five rebounds. Out of 28 AP voters, 20 favored her for the award.
The other eight selected Boston, last year’s AP player of the year and star of the reigning national champions, the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks (36–0). Boston, the projected number one overall pick in this year’s WNBA Draft, is nearly unbeatable around the rim, with enough footwork and power to score on almost any defender. Though they won’t be playing much head-to-head (unless Clark tries to get Boston in foul trouble by driving to the basket), whoever comes out on top Friday night will be deemed the winner of this individual battle as well as the player to watch in Sunday’s championship game.
No Blue Bloods
It’s the same story that’s gotten so much attention in the men’s tournament. For the first time since 2006, there are no women’s basketball “blue bloods” in the Final Four. Stanford, Connecticut, and Tennessee all got knocked off early, with Ohio State snapping Connecticut’s streak of sixteen consecutive Elite Eight appearances—the longest in men’s or women’s tourney history—last weekend.
The presence of these new faces—this is Virginia Tech’s first Final Four, while Iowa and LSU haven’t reached the semifinals since 1993 and 2008, respectively— has only strengthened expectations of a South Carolina triumph. But this year’s tournament has already seen plenty of chaos, including two number one seeds going down early (Stanford and Indiana, both in the second round). Who says the surprises have to stop there?
Kim Mulkey vs. The State of Texas
Whatever your feelings about LSU head coach Mulkey (and her critics have plenty of justifiable ones), her two-decade run at Baylor cemented her status as one of the game’s dominant coaches. Then she left, returning to her home state in 2021 to take over at LSU and secure an even bigger bag of cash than she had in Waco. Baylor, which won its third national championship under Mulkey in 2019, hasn’t made the Sweet Sixteen since her departure.
Now, Mulkey returns to the Lone Star State, and she hasn’t arrived quietly—LSU put up a billboard in Waco with her face on it, ostensibly to celebrate the team’s first Final Four berth under Mulkey. The American Airlines Center crowd on Friday night could include some angry Baylor Bears (of which there are plenty in Dallas) getting even louder than Mulkey’s famously flamboyant courtside outfits.
Oddsmakers consider the LSU–Virginia Tech matchup a near toss-up, with the Tigers getting the slight edge (in spite of their number three seed). South Carolina, however, is favored by 11.5 points over Iowa, with the sportsbooks predicting another blowout that reflects the gaudy margins of victory the Gamecocks have earned all season long, winning games by an average of thirty points thanks to their stifling, league-best defense.
The Hawkeyes, though, enter the Final Four with Division I’s best offense, and four shooters who average at least one three-point bucket per game (South Carolina has two). They’ve scored more than 100 points five times this season, including the Big Ten title game, and they rank at the top of just about every offensive statistical category. If Iowa gets hot—a feat that would likely begin with Caitlin Clark, but would also require Gabbie Marshall and McKenna Warnock to hit shots—that margin seems unlikely to hold.
South Carolina’s Not-So-Secret Weapon
It’s their size, but you knew that from looking at them. Boston, the team’s best player, is a remarkably agile six foot five; if she can’t get enough space to operate in the paint, the Gamecocks can bring in bouncy, towering forwards like Laeticia Amihere or Ashlyn Watkins—both of whom went viral for dunking in high school games—to put more direct pressure on the rim.
But South Carolina’s depth doesn’t stop there: the Gamecocks have a six-foot-seven center coming off the bench in Kamilla Cardoso, who has only shot less than 50 percent from the field once in the past month. Unsurprisingly, the Gamecocks lead the nation in blocks and rebounds. Iowa truly has no answer for South Carolina’s post options—the Hawkeyes’ six-foot-three center Monika Czinano often creates space where there seems to be none, but whether Clark will even be able to get the ball in to her is an open question.
Caitlin Clark’s Assists
You’ve seen the circus shots—the ones that have LeBron James and Steph Curry singing her praises. “No shot is a bad shot when you can shoot it as well as she can,” Curry told ESPN this week.
But Clark’s ability to pass the ball—beyond even the forty-point triple-double (the first in women’s or men’s NCAA Tournament history) she earned on Sunday—is superlative. That triple-double helped her become the first Division I player to record more than nine hundred points and three hundred assists in a single season (again, among both men and women). Whether she’s dishing it inside to Czinano, setting up her teammates on the perimeter after drawing double teams, or lobbing the ball down the floor in transition, Clark either scores or assists on the vast majority of Iowa’s points. For fans, that translates into one of the most varied fireworks displays on hardwood, and must-see TV—Iowa’s last game drew a bigger audience than any NBA game on ESPN so far this season.
LSU’s (Other) Texas Roots
The Tigers’ cheering section will likely be bolstered by its density of Texas-raised talent. Freshman Sa’Myah Smith led DeSoto High School to a state title before heading to Baton Rouge; redshirt-senior guard Alexis Morris, who hails from Beaumont, transferred to LSU from Texas A&M. Freshman Alisa Williams is from Denton, and sophomore Amani Bartlett hails from Cleveland, Texas.
Morris, who averages almost fifteen points per game, is most likely to have a star turn in her home state. She’s the Tigers’ second-best scoring option after Angel Reese, who has been putting up wild numbers so far in the tournament but will face stiff competition in the post from Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley. Morris will pull up to shoot from anywhere, and her competitive nature appears irrepressible— in an ugly loss to South Carolina earlier this year, it was Morris who kept LSU’s offense moving, and she finished the game with 23 points.
The Most Under-the-Radar Player Who Could Go Off
Aliyah Boston, Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, and Elizabeth Kitley—each team in the Final Four has its clear star. But Virginia Tech has another flashy player in its starting five, one who made some jaw-dropping shots in the Elite Eight: Georgia Amoore, the pride of Australia (I’m assuming), who at just five foot six has averaged 24 points per game so far in the tournament.
Amoore, with her willingness to take (and ability to make) gutsy shots in pressure-filled moments, should be especially fun to watch in the Final Four. She has attempted more three-pointers than any player in Division I this season—yes, more than Caitlin Clark. That aggressiveness could, of course, backfire against her and the Hokies, but if her hot streak continues Friday, expect to see her name on the hypothetical marquee heading into the championship game.