The 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament bracket is officially set, with the exception of the First Four matchups that will be played Wednesday and Thursday. The tournament itself will begin in earnest on Friday with all games being broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.
As in any other season, the seeding of the teams in the tournament has been debated heavily by fans since the bracket was revealed last Sunday, which, of course, can only be good for visibility of the tournament itself. While some teams, such as the reigning national champion South Carolina Gamecocks, had their respective spots in the bracket more or less locked up, other teams’ positions were determined at the last minute, with teams like the Virginia Tech Hokies and Iowa State Cyclones making great final impressions by winning their respective conference tournaments.
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Speaking of seeding, the four No. 1 overall seeds represent the best college basketball has to offer, and this year it’s a mix of programs that have been there before and up-and-coming programs that may consider the 2022-23 NCAA season their most successful to date. South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia Tech and Stanford are this year’s top-seeded teams, and each has its own case to make as a potential 2023 NCAA champion. Here’s our analysis of each of the four No. 1 seeds, starting with the defending champs.
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina enters the 2023 NCAA Tournament as the reigning national champion, and there’s plenty of reason to believe the Gamecocks will soon make it back-to-back titles. At 32-0, South Carolina is the only team in Division I to finish the 2022-23 season with an undefeated record, and it’s no fluke, either; the Gamecocks lead the country in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), and their resume includes victories over some of the best programs in the country, such as UConn, Stanford and LSU.
The rest of South Carolina’s statistical resume is, simply put, jaw-dropping. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Gamecocks lead Division I in offensive efficiency (115.1 points scored per 100 possessions) and rank No. 2 in defensive efficiency (73 points allowed per 100 possessions, and their average margin of victory exceeds 30 points. They’ve been tested on several occasions, but found ways to win each time, usually convincingly.
South Carolina’s roster is deep and talented, which comes as no surprise with Dawn Staley at the helm. There’s one area of the Gamecocks’ roster that stands out, though, and it’s in the frontcourt: South Carolina fields incomparable size up front, with Aliyah Boston (6-foot-5), Victaria Saxton (6-foot-2), Kamilla Cardoso (6-foot-7) and Laeticia Amihere (6-foot-4) forming the most physically imposing rotation of bigs in the nation. So confident is Staley in her team’s frontcourt depth that she’s played Boston — 2022’s National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year and a future No. 1 overall WNBA Draft pick — just under 26 minutes per game, keeping her star center fresh for closing time while the rest of the team’s bigs grind opponents down in the paint and on the glass.
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The amount of size and physicality the Gamecocks bring to the table can be summarized with two statistics: their blocked shot rate (20.4 percent) and offensive rebounding rate (48.6 percent), both tops in Division I. The latter figure is particularly absurd and highlights just how little margin for error opponents have against South Carolina; only a handful of teams attempt fewer 3-pointers than the Gamecocks (18.4 percent 3-point rate), but it doesn’t matter because they’re so good at manufacturing efficient offense in the paint, whether it be from post-ups or offensive rebounds.
That’s not to say the Gamecocks are one-dimensional. Shooting guard Zia Cooke is one of the more impressive shot-makers in the country, while lockdown perimeter defender Brea Beal excels at turning defense into South Carolina transition possessions. The team’s bread and butter, though, will remain its amount of sheer size in the frontcourt; it’s a formula that has produced one of the most dominant NCAA regular seasons of any team in the past decade, and it’s going to make South Carolina a popular choice to win its second consecutive NCAA Tournament.
The growth of the Hoosiers program under Teri Moren has been a sight to behold. Indiana’s eighth-straight season of 20 wins or more extends what has been easily the most successful stretch in program history, and the Hoosiers’ 27 wins in the 2022-23 regular season are a school record and were good enough to win them their first Big Ten regular-season championship since 1983.
Efficiency has been the name of the game for the Hoosiers, who rank No. 5 in Division I in offensive rating at 111.8 points scored per 100 possessions. Their offense is well-balanced and has few weaknesses, scoring efficiently from both 2-point (56 percent) and 3-point (37.1 percent) range and averaging 1.18 points per scoring attempt (No. 4 in Division I).
Granted, with a fulcrum like Mackenzie Holmes, it would be difficult for the Hoosiers’ overall numbers to be anything less than impressive. Holmes has established herself as one of the best offensive players in the country during her senior season at Indiana, averaging 22.3 points per game on blistering 68.8 percent shooting from the field. Among Division I players who average 20 or more points per game, Holmes’ field goal percentage is by far the highest; according to Her Hoop Stats, only four other such players in Division I have even cracked 50 percent shooting from the field, let alone 60 percent.
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Indiana surrounds Holmes with a deep, steady-handed group of guards that takes care of the basketball and can score in a variety of ways. Grace Berger (12.5 points and a team-high 5.8 assists per game) is the head of the snake for Indiana, and she’s flanked by Sydney Parrish, Sara Scalia and Yarden Garzon, all of whom average at least 1.8 threes per game. As a unit, they do a good job at maximizing the talents of their teammates while keeping their own mistakes at a minimum; Indiana ranks No. 7 in Division I in both assists per game (18.3) and assist/turnover ratio (1.42).
Can Indiana use this approach to carry its regular-season success into the NCAA Tournament? There’s one more factor to consider, and it’s the Hoosiers’ experience; Holmes and Scalia are seniors, and Berger, a graduate student, is in her fifth season at Indiana. The Hoosiers reached the Elite Eight in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but they seem better equipped to make an even deeper run this time around, thanks to their balanced scoring and the overall maturity of their roster.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Among the 2023 NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 seeds, Virginia Tech is likely the biggest surprise. The Hokies used a late-season run in an uber-competitive ACC to make the best possible impression at a crucial time, riding an 11-game winning streak and an ACC Tournament championship into Selection Sunday.
Virginia Tech’s success starts and ends with two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, whose collegiate career has been one of consistent high-level play. The 6-foot-6 center has averaged better than 18 points per game on over 53 percent shooting in three-straight seasons, and she averaged a double-double in two of those seasons, barely missing another as a junior (9.8 rebounds per game in 2021-22). The Hokies are comfortable playing through Kitley, and thus take a more methodical, slow-paced approach in their offense, but it’s hard to deny the results: Virginia Tech scores 105.6 points per 100 possessions and 1.10 points per scoring attempt, both figures among the best in the nation.
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The Hokies are far from a one-player show, though, with the guard play of Georgia Amoore and Kayana Traylor factoring heavily into their current winning streak. Amoore, in particular, has one of the sweetest outside shots in the country, with range extending well beyond the perimeter; she’s knocked down three 3-pointers per game at a 34.6 percent clip while also leading the Hokies in distributing at 5.3 assists per game.
It’s hard to overstate how strength of schedule and momentum factor into the Hokies’ current position. The ACC may be the toughest conference in the country, and 11 straight wins there is no joke. That being said, Virginia Tech has as solid of a formula for winning as anyone, cleaning the glass with a defensive rebounding rate of 75.5 percent (No. 10 in Division I) and keeping opponents out of their offensive flow with a 42.4 percent opposing assisted shot rate (No. 6). So while it may be easy to say that the 2022-23 Hokies are opportunists, it’s also easy to say that they’ve created this opportunity themselves.
Stanford is a program that needs no introduction. Under legendary head coach Tara VanDerveer, it has been to 14 Final Fours and won three NCAA Championships — the most recent of those titles coming in 2021. It is once again a No. 1 seed entering the 2023 NCAA Tournament after ranking near the top of the standings in NET (No. 4).
Throughout the years, Stanford has changed up its play style to best suit its talent (VanDerveer famously scrapped the team’s triangle offense in favor of a Princeton-esque system in the mid-2010s) but the concepts that have made the Cardinal a national powerhouse remain largely the same. Year after year, there are few teams in the country that screen, pass and cut as well as Stanford, and the Cardinal are typically one of Division I’s best teams at manufacturing efficient offense through patience and making smart plays.
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The Cardinal also have the high-end talent to win games without relying too heavily on “system buckets.” Haley Jones is one of the country’s most unique players, a wizard-like passer with the physical frame of an American football player, while center Cameron Brink has become one of the most offensively skilled bigs in the world while remaining an elite rim protector (3.4 blocks per game; No. 3 in Division I). Sprinkle in the deadly 3-point shooting of Hannah Jump (43.5 percent clip on 6.5 attempts per game) and a rotation chock-full of players whose box score numbers sell their actual on-court impact short and you have a team that is classic VanDerveer: capable of beating its opponents in so many different ways that it’s almost impossible to find a team that it matches up poorly against.
That being said, as well as this egalitarian approach has worked for Stanford in the past, the NCAA Tournament is usually when games are won or lost on the backs of star players. Jones and Brink make an unlikely yet effective duo, and they already have championship experience from 2021. The Cardinal will go as far as these immensely talented players take them, with another championship being a very real possibility.