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NCAAW: Are South Carolina and UConn prohibitive favorites this year?

The South Carolina Gamecocks and UConn Huskies are loaded with talent. Can the Stanford Cardinal, Maryland Terrapins, NC State Wolfpack and the rest of the country prove that they’re being disrespected or will the Gamecocks and Huskies live up to the hype?

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Raven Johnson (with ball), shown playing for Westlake High School in Georgia, joins Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke at South Carolina.
Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News/USA TODAY - FLORIDA NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

All offseason we heard about No. 1 South Carolina’s amazing incoming freshman class and No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit Azzi Fudd teaming up with Paige Bueckers at No. 2 UConn.

The Gamecocks bring in No. 2 Hoop Gurlz recruit Raven Johnson, No. 3 Saniya Rivers, No. 4 Sania Feagin and No. 14 Bree Hall. They also return First Team AP All-American Aliyah Boston, leading scorer Zia Cooke and top distributor Destanni Henderson and bring in Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso, who was the No. 5 Hoop Gurlz recruit last year and won ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year for 2021.

Boston averaged 13.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks last year. Cooke was good for 15.9 points per game, Henderson posted 12.2 points, 5.1 assists and 4.7 assists and Cardoso had 13.6 points, eight rebounds and 2.7 blocks. Teaming up 6-foot-7 Cardoso and 6-foot-5 Boston in the frontcourt is just silly and so is a backcourt that features Cooke, Henderson, Johnson and Rivers.

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Georgia
Aliyah Boston (with ball)
Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

UConn returns its top seven scorers and its entire rotation except for eighth-leading scorer Anna Makurat, a sharpshooter who decided to move back to Poland to play professionally. Bueckers, the reigning AP national Player of the Year, will lead the way, but ESPN has called Fudd “basketball’s best prospect in decades,” so the latter may actually challenge Bueckers for that award this year.

The upperclassman trio of Christyn Williams, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Evina Westbrook add to the Huskies’ star core backing up Bueckers. Graduate transfer from Ohio State Dorka Juhász, who averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds for the Buckeyes last year, also adds to the experience and talent of the team. Both Juhász and Nelson-Ododa are 6-foot-5 and Juhász can stretch the floor. Then there's Bueckers’ classmate Aaliyah Edwards, who also had a great freshman year, finishing fourth on the team in scoring and averaging 18 points over the course of UConn’s first three NCAA Tournament games.

In addition to Fudd, the Huskies’ incoming freshman class features No. 5 Hoop Gurlz recruit Caroline Ducharme, No. 15 Amari DeBerry and No. 30 Saylor Poffenbarger, the last of whom finished high school early and joined the team last year.

Women’s college basketball is no stranger to prohibitive favorites, though it has mostly been one school, UConn, which has been that favorite. The Huskies during the Breanna Stewart years serve as the most recent example. Could this season have two prohibitive favorites in South Carolina and UConn? Are those two teams really on a collision course to meet in the national championship game?

No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 Maryland and No. 5 NC State would like to think not.

The Cardinal are the defending champs and probably feel disrespected considering they’ve been there, done that in terms of winning the national title and return Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones and their entire team except for Kiana Williams, who, admittedly, was the team’s leading scorer. Third-leading scorer Lexie Hull, now a senior, will look to make a major impact, as will 2020’s No. 3 Hoop Gurlz recruit Cameron Brink, who was fourth on the team in scoring. Stanford also brings in No. 11 Hoop Gurlz recruit Brooke Demetre, No. 19 Kiki Iriafen and No. 78 Jzaniya Harriel.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four Championship-Arizona vs Stanford
Haley Jones
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Terrapins are loaded in their own right, though maybe not as loaded as South Carolina and UConn. Juniors Ashley Owusu (17.9 points per game in 2020-21) and Diamond Miller (17.3) are the main reasons for optimism in College Park, but national championship hopes likely wouldn’t be reasonable without the returns of 2020-21 seniors Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby. Benzan was a Harvard graduate transfer last year and both she and Bibby, a Mississippi State transfer, are back with the Terps because of the COVID rule allowing everyone from 2020-21 an extra year of eligibility. While Owusu, who also averaged 5.9 assists, made the AP All-American Third Team, Benzan was an honorable mention who led the nation with a ridiculous 3-point percentage of 50 percent and was tied for seventh with 3.21 made threes per game.

Maryland returns its entire team except for Alaysia Styles, who contributed some (4.9 points per game in 15.6 minutes). 2020’s No. 2 Hoop Gurlz recruit Angel Reese is back for her sophomore campaign after playing well during an injury-shortened freshman season. The Terps also bring in 2021’s No. 22 Hoop Gurlz recruit Shyanne Sellers.

The Wolfpack are similar to Maryland in terms of how much they bring back. They return their top eight scorers, including Second Team All-American Elissa Cunane and honorable mention Jakia Brown-Turner. Other key players Kayla Jones, Raina Perez, Kai Crutchfield and Jada Boyd also return with Jones, Perez and Crutchfield all taking advantage of the COVID rule like Benzan and Bibby. Perez was a graduate transfer from Cal State Fullerton last year.

NC State also welcomes 2020’s No. 6 Hoop Gurlz recruit Diamond Johnson, who has transferred after averaging 17.6 points and 2.3 steals as a freshman at Rutgers. This year’s No. 36 and No. 64 recruits, Aziaha James and Sophia Hart, respectively, have also been added to the roster.

After Stanford, Maryland and NC State, there is a drop-off in terms of returning talent when you get to No. 6 Louisville, which lost Dana Evans to graduation and No. 7 Baylor, which lost DiJonai Carrington and DiDi Richards to graduation. So if there are to be challengers to South Carolina and UConn, it will most likely be teams three through five, though Baylor does have a single great player in NaLyssa Smith.

Last year the field was wide open to all 1 and 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and a 3-seed, Arizona, made the national championship game. We’ll see if the parity can find a way to continue in spite of South Carolina and UConn’s apparent advantages.