The 2022 NCAA Tournament begins on Friday, March 18, and each day this week, Swish Appeal will be diving into one region at a time to prepare you for the madness that is to come. We continue today with Greensboro.
How the No. 1 seed got here
The South Carolina Gamecocks were the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in the nation this season and boast wins over the current No. 2, 3, 5, 9, 13 and 18 teams in the country and two wins over No. 15 Kentucky. Their only losses have been to the second team out of the tournament (Missouri on Dec. 30) and the aforementioned Wildcats (in the SEC Tournament championship game on March 6).
South Carolina won the national championship in 2017 — A’ja Wilson’s junior year. Since then, the Gamecocks have continued to be a perennial power with exits coming in the Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen and Final Four. In 2020, when the tournament was canceled, South Carolina was No. 1 in the AP poll at season’s end and was robbed of the chance to pursue a title. Needless to say, the Gamecocks are hungry for a second championship.
Throughout 2021-22, South Carolina has been dominant on the boards, at times drastically outrebounding even other elite teams. It comfortably sits at No. 1 in the nation in rebound margin (17.2). The Gamecocks have also been known for keeping games low-scoring this year and have the fourth-best scoring defense in the country (51.7 points allowed per game).
South Carolina center Aliyah Boston is currently on a 24-game double-double streak and is a leading candidate for national player of the year. The 24-game streak is an SEC record. Boston’s fellow junior Zia Cooke was supposed to be the team’s second-best player this year and she has done well with 11.2 points per game. However, senior Destanni Henderson has been the second-best player. She leads South Carolina with 30.8 minutes, 4.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per game and a 3-point percentage of 40.6 (at least 10 attempts),
The Gamecocks’ supporting cast is made up of players who do the little things like Victaria Saxton, Brea Beal and Laeticia Amihere. It will be interesting to see if Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso, who was the 2021 ACC Rookie of the Year, and highly-touted freshmen Saniya Rivers, Bree Hall and Sania Feagin play bigger roles in the tournament when the season is on the line. South Carolina also brought in the No. 2 recruit in Raven Johnson, but she suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season.
Who are the challengers to South Carolina?
The No. 2 seed Iowa Hawkeyes feature the other main national Player of the Year candidate in sophomore guard Caitlin Clark, who headlined Swish Appeal’s Around the NCAAW Weekly three times.
Iowa also features a big who can take attention away from Clark in Monika Czinano. Concerning for the Hawkeyes is the fact that within their first 17 games they lost to No. 13 seed IUPUI and teams that ended up missing the tourney in Duke and Northwestern. However, since their loss to the Wildcats, they haven't had any bad losses and of course finished the season on fire with a convincing win over No. 12 Michigan in their regular-season finale — when the Big Ten regular-season title was on the line — and a clean sweep in the Big Ten Tournament.
Caitlin Clark is a BALLER— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 29, 2022
She is the first Division I player with 250 points, 50 rebounds and 50 assists in a month since Kemba Walker in March 2011.
No D-I women's player has put up a 250-50-50 month over the last 20 seasons. pic.twitter.com/MCcQjMi6eN
The No. 3 seed Iowa State Cyclones were much better at living up to expectations this year than they were last year. In 2021 they began the season ranked No. 15 and weren’t even receiving votes by the end of the season. They made the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed and nearly made up for a disappointing season with a Sweet Sixteen trip, but lost a second-round heartbreaker to No. 2 seed Texas A&M on a Jordan Nixon buzzer-beating layup in overtime.
This year, Iowa State improved from No. 12 to No. 10 over the course of the season. It is led by WNBA prospect Ashley Joens, the all-time scoring leader in its program’s history. Watch out for sophomore point guard Emily Ryan as well — she’s fourth in the nation with 7.1 assists per game.
The No. 4 seed Arizona Wildcats may be facing a cold stretch, but nobody was talking about them entering last year’s tournament and they made it all the way to the national championship game. Plus, they are getting leading scorer Cate Reese back from a dislocated shoulder. Sam Thomas will also be key — the super senior is shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc with 45 makes.
Any lower-seeded teams to keep an eye on?
The No. 5 seed UNC Tar Heels lost six games this year and five were to currently ranked teams. The other was to Georgia Tech, which was ranked as high as No. 11 this year and is now a No. 9 seed. So no bad losses. Deja Kelly (15.9 points per game) is a great all-around scoring guard for UNC and Alyssa Ustby is an undersized but scrappy forward who averages 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
The No. 6 seed Georgia Lady Bulldogs still feature the stars (Jenna Staiti and Que Morrison) that led the team to the SEC Tournament title game and a No. 3 seed last year, so they could be dangerous. The No. 8 seed Miami Hurricanes just went on a thrilling underdog run to the ACC Tournament title game. If the No. 11 seed DePaul Blue Demons can win their play-in game against Dayton, watch out for freshman Aneesah Morrow in the first round against Georgia.
Players to watch
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina: A terror inside on both ends of the court
Destanni Henderson, South Carolina: Speedy point guard who is an elite defender and distributor
Caitlin Clark, Iowa: Triple-double threat whose range nearly extends to the logo
Ashley Joens, Iowa State: Pure scorer who can rack up rebounds as well
Mya Hollingshed, Colorado: WNBA prospect who averages 14.1 points and 7.5 rebounds for Colorado
Aneesah Morrow, DePaul: Double-double getter who has brought excitement to the DePaul program