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Final Four preview: Exciting storylines and exciting basketball are both on the docket

And then there were four! The 2023 NCAA Tournament Final Four pits the upstart Virginia Tech Hokies against an LSU Tigers program seeking to restore its former glory. Later on, the red-hot Iowa Hawkeyes will try to dethrone the defending champion South Carolina Gamecocks, who still have not lost this season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: South Carolina Press Conference
All eyes will be on Aliyah Boston (left), Zia Cooke and the South Carolina Gamecocks as they play in their third consecutive NCAA Tournament Final Four.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The stage is set for the 2023 NCAA Tournament Final Four! The LSU Tigers will take on the Virginia Tech Hokies at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, followed by a matchup between the Iowa Hawkeyes and South Carolina Gamecocks at 9 p.m. ET. Both games will be televised nationally on ESPN, with a dedicated Final Four Special beginning an hour prior to the action at 4 p.m. ET.

The Final Four will, as always, be chock-full not only of some of Division I’s top collegiate talent, but also of enticing storylines involving the teams, players and coaches who have made it to this point. Let’s meet 2023’s Final Four contenders and assess their strengths in tonight’s games.

No. 3 LSU Tigers vs. No. 1 Virginia Tech Hokies

Ohio State v Virginia Tech
It’s already been a wildly successful season for Virginia Tech, which is playing in its first-ever Final Four.
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Virginia Tech’s banner season continues. In his seventh season at the helm, Hokies head coach Kenny Brooks has led the program to never-before-seen success, with Virginia Tech earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and riding it all the way to its first Final Four in school history.

The Hokies have rarely been the tournament’s most-heralded team, but in a way, it’s the same kind of quiet effectiveness that has defined their season. Just as Virginia Tech went on an 11-game winning streak to end conference play and win an ACC Tournament championship, Brooks’ crew rolled through its first few NCAA Tournament opponents, never trailing at any point of a game until its Elite Eight matchup against Ohio State, which Virginia Tech went on to win handily.

That’s not to say Virginia Tech lacks hardware. Two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley is an imposing presence in the paint, standing at 6-foot-6, and the Hokies also have one of the most devastating outside shooters in the country in Georgia Amoore, whose ability to rise and fire off the dribble is shared by few other players in the country. Factor in a versatile guard rotation including Kayana Traylor and Cayla King and the athleticism of Taylor Soule and D’asia Gregg on the perimeter, and you get a Hokies team that doesn’t need to lean on any one style of play to have success.

LSU, on the other hand, seems tailor-made for the bright lights. In just her second season as the Tigers’ head coach, Kim Mulkey has LSU playing its best basketball since the mid-2000s, when the program reached five consecutive NCAA Tournament Final Fours. Mulkey coaches a team full of dynamic players and personalities, led by ex-Maryland forward Angel Reese, who averaged an incredible 23.2 points and 15.7 rebounds per game in her first season in Baton Rouge — the only player in Division I to put up such numbers.

Though the rest of LSU’s rotation is filled out with more transfers and first-year players — guards Flau’jae Johnson, Jasmine Carson, Kateri Poole and Last-Tear Poa and forwards LaDazhia Williams and Sa’Myah Smith are all in their first season playing for LSU — the Tigers have made things work, to say the least. According to Her Hoop Stats, LSU has outscored opponents by an average of 34.2 points per 100 possessions, which is the second-largest efficiency differential in the nation. During their NCAA Tournament run, the Tigers have put concerns about a soft early-season schedule to rest, defeating worthy opponents in Utah and Michigan before ending Miami’s Cinderella story in the Elite Eight.

As LSU’s competition stiffens, will the Tigers once again be able to rise to the challenge? Continuity concerns may not be as relevant at this point in the season, but in this matchup of teams that are now in unfamiliar territory, Virginia Tech still has the more veteran group. The individual battle in the paint between Kitley and Reese will be one to watch, with Kitley’s finesse around the basket a contrast to Reese’s full-steam-ahead physicality, but there will be plenty to watch elsewhere on the court, too, with Amoore and Morris in particular both carrying big-shot potential.

No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Seattle Regional
Caitlin Clark’s (No. 22) performance in the Elite Eight was one for the history books. She’ll now face a South Carolina defense that is the most physically imposing in the country.
Photo by Tyler Schank/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Just how far can Caitlin Clark lead the Hawkeyes?

Ever since the star guard burst onto the NCAA scene in 2020, Clark’s unlimited shooting range and virtuosic passing have electrified fans, and she’s been better than ever in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Clark recorded a monster triple-double of 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists against Louisville in the Elite Eight, powering a Hawkeyes offense that scored 97 points and hit 16 threes and making things look easy against an aggressive but ineffective Louisville defense.

The newly-christened Naismith Player of the Year is no stranger to that kind of defensive attention, but she has yet to face a team like South Carolina. The Gamecocks won the 2022 NCAA Championship thanks largely to their size, physicality and athleticism, and they’ve been even more dominant this time around; per Her Hoop Stats, South Carolina’s defense is allowing the second-fewest points per 100 possessions (73.3) in Division I, and the Gamecocks are blocking shots (20.3 percent block rate) and rebounding the basketball (62.9 percent) at a higher rate than anyone in the country. The most impressive statistic of all: South Carolina is still undefeated at 36-0, its last loss coming in the 2022 SEC Tournament.

South Carolina’s anchor remains center Aliyah Boston, who was recently named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. Widely regarded as the future No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Boston embodies what makes the Gamecocks so successful: punishing opponents in the paint and on the glass, controlling the foul game and blocking shots — lots of them.

It’s not just Boston who makes the Gamecocks who they are, though. She’s part of a deep, experienced frontcourt rotation also featuring Victaria Saxton, Kamilla Cardoso and Laeticia Amihere that wears down opponents with a full 40 minutes of overwhelming size and physicality. While South Carolina has been challenged several times throughout the 2022-23 NCAA season, the Gamecocks have almost always responded to close first and second quarters with lopsided second halves as their depth becomes too much to handle.

As is the case with any other team trying to defeat South Carolina, paint attempts that Iowa is used to getting against most other opponents will probably not be there against the Gamecocks, and the Hawkeyes will thus need to rely more than usual on their perimeter shooting. Iowa has its fair share of shooters — McKenna Warnock, Gabbie Marshall and Kate Martin all shooting 37 percent or better from deep, while Clark herself knocks down 39.2 percent of her nine 3-point attempts per game — so despite Clark’s usual dribble penetration being a riskier proposition than usual, her team still has the shotmaking to give the defending champs a run for their money.

Can the Hawkeyes play enough defense themselves to pull the upset, though? South Carolina’s identity is built on the defensive side of the ball, but the Gamecocks actually rank as Division I’s best offense (114.4 points scored per 100 possessions), due to their unmatched offensive rebounding, penchant for drawing fouls and ease at which they get high-efficiency shots at the rim. Iowa center Monika Czinano will need to stay out of foul trouble and hold her own on the glass if her team is to have a chance; otherwise, the Gamecocks will have little trouble getting what they want against an otherwise lukewarm Hawkeyes defense.