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March Madness storylines: UConn’s injury woes; South Carolina aims for repeat; Angel Reese’s POY uncertainty

It’s been a wild year in women’s college basketball. The Big Ten is stacked, the ACC is unpredictable, Pac-12 after dark never disappoints and the Big East is a battle.

South Carolina rolled through the season undefeated and held the Associated Press No. 1 ranking from start to the likely finish next week. But below the Gamecocks was chaos. A total of 14 programs were ranked in the top five, tying the record with the 2008-09 season. Three different Big Ten programs held onto the No. 2 ranking at some point, from Ohio State to Indiana and now Iowa. And 43 programs were ranked in the Top 25 poll at least once, trailing only the totals for 2009-10 (47) and both 1991-92 and 2014-15 (45), according to Across the Timeline.

Connecticut, South Carolina and Iowa are still the largest storylines as the NCAA tournament tips off next Wednesday, with the most pressing questions facing the selection committee ahead of Selection Sunday on March 12 (8 p.m. ET on ESPN).

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UConn guard Azzi Fudd is back, and the Huskies won the Big East tournament title and are in good shape heading into the NCAA tournament. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

UConn guard Azzi Fudd is back, and the Huskies won the Big East tournament title and are in good shape heading into the NCAA tournament. (David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

UConn went through an unprecedented injury stretch

It has been a long, difficult season for the 11-time champion UConn Huskies and they appeared to be collapsing at the worst time. The Huskies (29-5) whimpered through February and fell from Final Four favorite status, putting their record 14-consecutive-appearance streak in jeopardy. That is, until Azzi Fudd returned to practice and played in the Big East tournament after missing 22 games. Her presence propelled the Huskies past Villanova in the tournament title game, 67-56.

Injuries are the story of UConn’s 2022-23 season and even with Fudd in the mix, it is not another March of “UConn and everyone else.” The Huskies entered the season without former National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers (ACL) and star recruit Ice Brady (patella), leaving 10 players rostered after the late addition of freshman Inês Bettencourt. Fudd carried the Huskies offensively and became an early candidate for Player of the Year awards until injuring her right knee in the December loss to Notre Dame. She missed eight games over about six weeks of action, the full estimate for her recovery.

While she was out, UConn (NET 2) was forced to postpone its game against St. John’s on Jan. 8 since it did not have the conference minimum of eight available players. Junior forward Aaliyah Edwards (foot), freshman Ayanna Patterson (concussion) and sophomore Caroline Ducharme (concussion) were also out with injury. Head coach Geno Auriemma also missed time to focus on his health after his mother died in December.

In Fudd’s second game back on Jan. 15, she re-injured her knee and did not play until March 4. The team said it would not release a timeline for her return and there was optimism around the program that she would return. She did warm up with the team ahead of the season finale, but was ruled out.

Injuries left UConn with between seven and eight available players, and Auriemma hesitated to lean on the bench much at all. Their starter-to-bench scoring ratio was startling and fatigue, both mental and physical, began to set in. Auriemma declined to point to just that, saying after a near-loss to Xavier (0-20 Big East) that issues on his team had to do with selfishness as players would “pick and choose when they want to listen to how they’re being coached.”

In February, UConn took an impressive four-point loss to South Carolina at home, but also two bad Big East losses to Marquette (NET 42) and St. John’s (NET 55) en route to a 6-3 record during the month. The Huskies had their first back-to-back losses since 1993 and the first season of at least two conference losses since 2013. Their average winning margin is 6.8 points, down from 23 points over the 22 games (going 20-2) heading into the month.

There is renewed optimism that UConn could again run the table and make a Final Four. Fudd’s return was the first time since Nov. 14 that the program had 10 healthy players. And Fudd completely changes the way opponents game plan for the Huskies.

Aliyah Boston and the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate their win in the SEC tournament championship game on March 5, 2023, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Aliyah Boston and the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrate their win in the SEC tournament championship game on March 5, 2023, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

It’s South Carolina … and everybody else

South Carolina (32-0, 16-0 SEC) came into the regular season as favorites and ended it the same way. The reigning champions finished out their first undefeated regular season in program history with seven wins against teams in the NET top 25. In the November non-conference schedule, the Gamecocks (NET 1) defeated Maryland (NET 13) by 25 points, Stanford (NET 4) by five in overtime and UCLA (NET 22) by nine. Last month, South Carolina secured its first road win against Connecticut (NET 2) with an 81-77 margin that cemented its status as the head of the pack. And it brought the SEC championship back home to Columbia on Sunday with a second win over Tennessee (NET 15).

The Gamecocks feature reigning National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, who won her fourth SEC Defensive Player of the Year honor and second consecutive POY one. She is in line for a second national POY award, though her averages (13.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg) are down because of the constant junk defenses she’s faced and her team’s ability to step up around her. The program’s strength is its size, defense (rated first by Her Hoop Stats and allowing 50.3 ppg) and rebounding (ranked first at a 63.4% rank).

But the real advantage is its incredible depth — so much so that head coach Dawn Staley has basically a Power Five starting five on the bench. No player is averaging more than 26 minutes per game.

Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 junior center, was named the conference’s Sixth Player of the Year, averaging 9.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 1.9 bpg in 18.2 mpg. She was also named to the All-SEC second team. Redshirt freshman guard Raven Johnson has taken over in big games — including the SEC championship win with starting point guard Kierra Fletcher out — and has a team-leading 3.2 apg off the bench. And Laeticia Amihere was so crucial in the SEC tournament run that Boston gave the 6-4 senior forward her all-tournament team trophy.

The senior group has lost eight games total in their collegiate careers with a No. 1 ranking as freshmen when the NCAA tournament was canceled, two Final Four berths and a title. South Carolina would be the first repeat winners since UConn rattled off four straight from 2013-16. Tennessee and USC are the only other back-to-back champions in the history of the NCAA Division I championship. A different team has won the last four championships dating back to the Gamecocks’ 2017 title.

Yes, Caitlin Clark is as dangerous from the logo as ever

Iowa (26-6, 15-3 Big Ten) standout Caitlin Clark keeps being Caitlin Clark. Be ready to ask, “Are you serious, Clark?” more times than cousin Eddie did something dumb at Christmas.

Clark is routinely pulling up and hitting 3s from the logo (still), even if said logo is relatively small. She is still finding teammates the length of the court in transition and threading passes through a congested paint. The junior point guard is averaging 27 points per game, the exact same as her nation-leading number as a sophomore, and trails only Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist (29.2 ppg). Her 3.4 made 3s ranks third (and 8.9 attempts ranks second), and she’s able to get to the free-throw line at a top-five rate in the nation. For a second consecutive season, she ranks first with 8.3 assists per game. And her 7.5 rebounds per game are top-third in the nation. Clark is a nightly triple-double threat and, as hard as it is to fathom, heats up to a roar in big matchups.

“I think early on it was about scoring, but she sees the floor and makes the right decisions as well as anybody I’ve seen, maybe ever, in college basketball,” Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff said after Clark dropped 30 points, 17 assists and 10 rebounds on his squad in the Big Ten championship game.

Clark is the first player in women’s Division I history to have three career 30-point triple-doubles and moved into second all-time behind Sabrina Ionescu (26). She had a 28-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound mark earlier in the season against the Buckeyes (NET 16) that snapped their undefeated streak. She scored 34 against Indiana (NET 5) in the regular season finale, adding nine assists and nine rebounds. Earlier in the season, she dropped 35 points on Indiana and 42 on Maryland (NET 13).

Angel Reese and the National Player of the Year race

The National Player of the Year conversation quickly turned into a three-player race between South Carolina’s Boston, Iowa’s Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese. Heading into the tournament, Boston (13.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 1.8 apg) and Clark again appear to be in a battle for the award with Clark’s importance to Iowa overshadowing that of Boston’s to South Carolina. Villanova’s Siegrist and Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes are also fair additions and arguments can be made that their visibility has hurt their inclusion in that discussion.

Reese’s candidacy has long been overshadowed by the non-conference schedule LSU faced. Its NET non-conference strength of schedule is ranked 319th, the worst of the all but one NET top 50 team by a significant margin. In comparison, South Carolina is ranked 15th in the category and Iowa is ranked 19th.

It took another hit over the weekend when she was left off of the John R. Wooden Award’s 15-player finalist list. Reese is averaging 23.4 points (fifth) and 15.5 rebounds (second) and is ranked second in win shares by Her Hoop Stats.

LSU told ESPN that Reese is not eligible for the award because she did not meet all the criteria. Head coach Kim Mulkey was asked about it after the team’s loss to Tennessee that evening in the SEC tournament semifinals.

“I think it has to do with — you have to ask them, but I think it has to do with, there are credentials or criteria that are involved other than on-the-floor stuff. Maybe her GPA, stuff like that,” Mulkey said.

LSU forward Angel Reese was left off the Wooden Award finalist list, and it's unclear what criteria she may have failed to meet. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

LSU forward Angel Reese was left off the Wooden Award finalist list, and it’s unclear what criteria she may have failed to meet. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

The criteria for the Wooden Award: candidates must exhibit strength of character, both on and off the court; candidates must be full-time students in an accredited NCAA college or university; candidates must be making progress toward graduation and have a cumulative 2.00 grade point average since enrolling in their school; candidates must contribute to team effort; candidates must excel in both offense and defense; and candidates should be considered on their performance over the course of the entire season.

Mulkey cut off a question on if her star forward, who transferred from Maryland over the summer, was in good academic standing for the tournament.

“Oh, absolutely,” Mulkey said. “She’s in good academic standing, period. It’s just there’s a criteria on some of these awards. Like a lot of them will have community service stuff. Some of them will have GPAs. Yeah. She’s academically fine.”

LSU lists eligibility requirements on its athletic website that include maintaining a full-time schedule, passing at least six credit hours per semester and 18 credit hours per year, and keeping a certain GPA upon the third semester of enrollment. Prior to the third semester, the minimum GPA is 1.8, and prior to the fifth semester is a 1.9 overall GPA plus meeting 40% of his or her degree requirements.

The Naismith is largely deemed the most prestigious Player of the Year award and outlets, led by the Associated Press, award their own players of the year. The 10 Naismith semifinalists will be released on Wednesday and four finalists will be named on March 21. The winner is announced on March 29.

The Basketball Hall of Fame in partnership with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) awards a starting five.

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