March Madness: Power ranking the 16 top contenders to win the NCAA women's tournament

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South Carolina is again undefeated and the favorite entering the NCAA women’s tournament, but that doesn’t mean the Gamecocks won’t have a battle ahead of them.

The field is deep this March and potential title teams lurk all over the bracket. The Albany 2 region will be a gauntlet for any of No. 1 Iowa, No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 Kansas State to get through. That impacted their rankings on this list significantly.

(In parentheses: region and seed | record | NET rank)

1. South Carolina (Albany 1, 1 | 32-0 | 1)

The lone undefeated squad has to reign atop the power rankings. It's simply the rules. South Carolina is a better team statistically speaking on both sides of the ball after going undefeated last year, too, and has the easiest road of any No. 1 seed in the field.

The Gamecocks are third in offensive rating (114.9) and first in defensive rating (75.6). There is no standout star on this year's squad, which is arguably the deepest in the country. Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 center who is unavailable for the first game, patrols the paint and Te-Hina Paopao, a transfer from Oregon, has turned South Carolina into a dangerous team beyond the 3-point arc shooting 47.1% (11th).

The Gamecocks have had a few close calls, but always find a way to win. That's ultimately what matters most in March when the margins are tighter.

2. USC (Portland 3, 1 | 26-5 | 10)

The Trojans are the hottest team in the toughest conference in the country. USC went 13-2 since its only back-to-back losses of the season when it traveled to mountain schools Utah and Colorado in January. The wins include victories over UCLA, Colorado and Oregon State and two over Stanford — including in the Pac-12 title game.

JuJu Watkins is the star of the show already as a freshman, averaging 27 points (second), 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. But she's not the lone reason why the Trojans are second here. The team stepped around her season-low nine points to win the conference title and a No. 1 seed.

3. Texas (Portland 4, 1 | 30-4 | 3)

Three stops are a “kill” in head coach Vic Schaefer’s system and the players thrive on it. The Longhorns are Final Four favorites because of a defense that allows 58 points per game on average. Freshman Madison Booker stepped in rather seamlessly running the point for the injured Rori Harmon. The Longhorns rank fourth in offensive rating (112.6) and 11th in defensive (80.7).

Iowa would have been in this spot if not for its bracket.

4. Iowa (Albany 2, 1 | 29-4 | 5)

Iowa has Caitlin Clark and that says enough about the Hawkeyes' space near the top of the rankings. If the Hawkeyes do make it to the Final Four, they will have done it in the toughest bracket. The rest of the top four: No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 Kansas State.

Everyone has to be at the top of their game for Iowa to make another magical run, because defense still isn't its calling card. The Hawkeyes allow 71.9 points per game on average, ranking 318th. The good part is they were clicking on almost all cylinders in the Big Ten tournament. It was Clark who was the missing piece, and with two weeks off, that could be dangerous for everyone else.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts after missing a shot during the first half of a Big Ten tournament game. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) reacts after missing a shot during the first half of a Big Ten tournament game. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

5. UCLA (Albany 2, 2 | 25-6 | 6)

UCLA is one of the best all-around teams in the field. The Bruins are built around center Lauren Betts, a transfer sophomore from Stanford, and receive balanced scoring from not only their five starters, but two key reserves as well.

Two of their five losses were by a single possession and a third was the two-overtime loss to rival USC in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. UCLA has to close out those tight games when it has the chance to advance.

6. Ohio State (Portland 3, 2 | 24-5 | 9)

Ohio State is at its best when Cotie McMahon is asserting herself early and often. That hasn’t always been the case for the sophomore forward this season.

The Buckeyes were on a 15-game winning streak before the loss to Iowa and an early Big Ten tourney exit to Maryland. They’ll need to refocus with a potential match against defensive-minded Duke in the second round.

7. Stanford (Portland 4, 2 | 28-5 | 4)

Stanford won the Pac-12 regular season title without having to play some of the conference’s best too many times this year. The Cardinal feature one of the best frontcourt duos in Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen, who contribute 47% of the team’s scoring on average.

The problem is when those outside of Brink and Iriafen aren’t contributing, and the Cardinal showed vulnerability in the Pac-12 tournament. Some of that is seeing teams multiple times, whereas NCAA tournament foes have only one shot.

8. Notre Dame (Albany 1, 2 | 26-6 | 7)

Notre Dame is on an eight-game win streak in the tough ACC and won the conference tournament title as a No. 4 seed. The Irish's last five have been against Virginia Tech (twice), Louisville (twice) and NC State. But they’ll be without senior forward Kylee Watson, who said on Sunday she is out with a torn ACL, and have to take down South Carolina to reach the Final Four.

9. UConn (Portland 3, 3 | 28-5 | 2)

The tough thing about grading UConn is outside of a non-conference game against South Carolina last month — and few are leveling up to South Carolina right now — the Huskies haven’t played much top-tier competition since December.

Paige Bueckers is back at a player-of-the-year level and assuming forward Aaliyah Edwards is ready for the NCAA tournament, maybe it’s a surprising run for the squad hampered by injuries. The Huskies will have eight available with Edwards back and rely heavily on three freshmen. It’s tough to count out Bueckers.

10. LSU (Albany 2, 3 | 28-5 | 8)

It took a while for the Tigers to put all of their pieces together after another offseason digging into the transfer portal. The reigning champions are peaking since back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State to end January. Their only loss is by seven to South Carolina in the SEC championship game. They were shorthanded in that one, a true signal that LSU is near the top of the pack.

Angel Reese and Aneesah Morrow are one of the best front-court duos in the country and will need help from their guards, especially with injuries potentially impacting their roster for tourney time. Defensively, LSU hadn't allowed more than 67 points per game until the loss to South Carolina. But they’re in the toughest region of all with Iowa, UCLA and Kansas State.

LSU's Aalyah Del Rosario and Angel Reese celebrate during a game in the SEC tournament. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
LSU's Aalyah Del Rosario and Angel Reese celebrate during a game in the SEC tournament. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images) (Eakin Howard via Getty Images)

11. Oregon State (Albany 1, 3 | 24-7 | 17)

The Beavers drew South Carolina’s region, which doesn’t bode well for a trip to the Final Four. Raegan Beers (17.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg) rarely scores fewer than 12 points a game and the whole roster is one of the best shooting teams with a top-20 assist-to-turnover rate. They’ll be challenged early with a potential meeting against Nebraska in the second round.

12. NC State (Portland 4, 3 | 27-6 | 13)

This well-balanced NC State team has a fairly favorable draw up until a potential Elite Eight meeting with Texas. The Wolfpack struggled when senior forward River Baldwin missed time but are battle-tested in the ACC.

13. Gonzaga (Portland 4, 4 | 30-3 | 12)

Gonzaga kept its hosting duties in the bracket despite a bad loss to Portland in the West Coast Conference championship. The Zags defeated Portland, 90-40, less than two weeks prior and were on a 24-game winning streak. They might have trouble against No. 5 seed Utah and Alissa Pili in the second round.

14. Indiana (Albany 1, 4 | 24-5 | 14)

The only thing that has wowed about Indiana this season is last month’s 17-point win over Iowa at home in the Big Ten regular season rematch. Stanford crushed the Hoosiers in November (32-point loss), they squeaked by Princeton by nine and they took 20–plus-point losses to Iowa and Illinois, before being upset by Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.

15. Kansas State (Albany 2, 4 | 25-7 | 15)

Ayoka Lee led the Wildcats after missing last season with a knee injury, but they’re in the toughest region of them all with Iowa, UCLA and LSU. Kansas State doesn’t give itself many second-chance opportunities with one of the worst offensive rebounding rates in DI (28%) and hasn’t strung together a good winning streak since January.

16. Virginia Tech (Portland 3, 4 | 24-7 | 19)

Virginia Tech finished the final weekend of the season as one of the nation's hottest teams, just as the Hokies were last year when they went to the Final Four. Tech returned three starters led by two Wooden Award ballot members Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore.

Kitley injured her knee in the final regular season game and did not play in the ACC tournament. The team has not released any information on her status, but the injury looked bad and it seems unlikely she'll be available to play (or not at 100 percent if she is able to play). Losing a Naismith finalist center so late in the season immediately drops the Hokies out of serious national title contention.