Happy New Year and sort-of new women’s college basketball season. The vast majority of non-conference games are over and teams are shifting into their conference slate. The 2023 calendar year is days old and has already provided upsets with more to come.
Most title favorites are still at the top, but some have fallen from the pedestal. Others are barely holding on or have better competition for the crown than expected.
Here are the preseason favorites for each major conference and what teams or players to watch as programs continue the push for the Final Four in Dallas in two months.
Preseason favorite: No. 1 South Carolina (14-0, 2-0)
Still a favorite? Yes. There is no shortage of stars to step up and take over a game for this incredibly deep squad that went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country through the 2022 calendar year. In the Gamecocks’ overtime win against Stanford, it was their close-game experience that lifted them. In the comeback win against UCLA, it was 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso who took advantage of the Bruins paying extra attention to Aliyah Boston. And on Monday, when Georgia packed the paint to quiet both forwards, senior guard Zia Cooke dropped 31 points to stay undefeated. They’re allowing on average 43.6 points a game defensively.
Teams to watch: No. 7 LSU (14-0, 2-0) leads the conference in most statistical categories after cruising through a ludicrously easy nonconference schedule: 92.4 ppg (first in Division I), 50.7 FG%, 52.2 rpg, 17.9 apg.
Player spotlights: LSU’s Angel Reese is averaging 23.9 points (sixth in Division I) and 14.9 rebounds (first) per game.
Games to circle: South Carolina at UConn (Feb. 5), LSU at South Carolina (Feb. 12).
Preseason favorite: Louisville (11-5, 2-1)
Still a favorite? No. The Cardinals’ five losses are a mixed bag of not great (Gonzaga, South Dakota State, Middle Tennessee) and acceptable, but poor, showings (Ohio State, Duke). They have struggled defensively without Indiana Fever forward Emily Engstler, allowing 8 more points on average per game and dropping from a defensive rating ranked 11th to 98th, per Her Hoop Stats. Guard Hailey Van Lith is averaging career highs, but is one of only two players in double-digit scoring.
New favorite: No. 4 Notre Dame (12-1, 3-0) in a stacked ACC. The Fighting Irish came a bucket shy of defeating Maryland in their first test of the season on Dec. 1, then followed it up by trouncing UConn, 74-60. Their ACC wins include No. 9 Virginia Tech, which was voted to finish second. Point guard Olivia Miles is a nightly triple-double threat averaging 15.2 points, eight rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
Teams to watch: No. 19 Duke (13-1, 3-0), after going 7-11 in ACC play last season, has already defeated favorites in then-No. 6 NC State, 72-58, and Louisville, 63-56, over the weekend. The Blue Devils’ lone loss is UConn.
No. 22 North Carolina (9-4, 0-2) lost by a combined 10 points to Florida State and Virginia Tech to open ACC play. The Seminoles (14-2, 3-0) have moved into one of the nation’s best offenses and fell 8 points short of UConn in December.
Player spotlight: Florida State freshman Ta’Niya Latson has earned ACC Player of the Week honors three of eight weeks and swept the Rookie of the Week honors. She is one short of tying the conference rookie record. In wins over No. 13 North Carolina and Georgia Tech, the 5-foot-8 guard averaged 26.5 points, eight rebounds, five assists and 2.5 steals.
Games to circle: After Syracuse nearly upended NC State, it’s wise to keep eyes all over the ACC schedule. Duke at North Carolina (Jan. 19), NC State at Louisville (Jan. 22), Florida State at Notre Dame (Jan. 26).
Preseason favorite: No. 2 Stanford (15-1, 3-0)
Still a favorite? Yes. Much like South Carolina — the team that gave them their lone loss of the season — the Cardinal have an experienced starting five and depth to fill in when needed. Six players remain on the roster from the 2021 national championship team. Their offensive rating (117.9) ranks second in Division I behind LSU and their three top scorers of Haley Jones, Cameron Brink and Hannah Jump are averaging within two-tenths of a point of each other. Stanford was 19-0 in conference play in 2021-22 with an average margin of 18.5.
Teams to watch: Shoutout to the one Pac-12 coach who voted No. 8 Utah (14-0, 3-0) to win the conference, though the Utes placed fifth overall in the Pac-12 preseason poll. They are one of five remaining undefeated teams, entered the Associated Press top 10 for the first time in program history and average 88.7 ppg (third). Utah, led by Alissa Pili’s 19.7 ppg, notched its biggest win against then-No. 16 Oklahoma, 124-78, in November and against Ole Miss days later.
Player spotlight: Freshman point guard Kiki Rice (13.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.3 apg) and senior guard Charisma Osborne (18 ppg, 6.1 rpg) are providing most of the offense for No 12 UCLA (13-2, 2-1) while Phillipina Kyei (11.9 rpg, 10th) has stepped in to clear the glass for No. 18 Oregon (11-3, 2-1).
Games to circle: Utah at Stanford (Jan. 20), USC at UCLA (Jan. 8), Stanford at Utah (Feb. 25, season finale).
Preseason favorites: No. 5 UConn (12-2, 5-0)
Still a favorite? Yes. No one would blame a video crew for using the chorus to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” set to highlights of the Huskies’ season. They have weathered every injury and setback, even playing with seven available players at one point in December. They dropped only two games in a difficult schedule that included five ranked nonconference opponents. And they could have early National Player of the Year contender Azzi Fudd (20.6 ppg, 53.3FG%, 42.6 3FG%) back soon after the sophomore resumed basketball activities.
Teams to watch: No. 24 St. John’s (13-0, 4-0) has been a surprise as one of the remaining undefeated squads behind a top defense, but has a strength of schedule of 180 by Massey Ratings. One of its conference wins is against No. 25 Creighton (9-4, 3-2).
Player spotlight: Aaliyah Edwards has stepped up for UConn and been the consistent post presence it needs to reach a 15th consecutive Final Four. Aneesah Morrow continues to set record marks for DePaul. Her 26.3 ppg rank fourth, her 11.9 rpg rank seventh and her 11 double-doubles are third-most in Division I.
Games to circle: DePaul at UConn (Jan. 8), Villanova at Creighton (Jan. 20), UConn at Tennessee (Jan. 26), Villanova at UConn (Jan. 29).
Preseason favorite: Iowa (11-4, 3-1)
Still a favorite? No. The Big Ten is going to be a tough conference to get through unscathed and it’s likely multiple teams end up tied atop the group. But Iowa has been too unreliable to be a favorite. The Hawkeyes rank 10th in the conference defensively (69.7 ppg) and can’t rely on their offense (86.1 ppg, second) to overcome it every game. More players need to step up around Caitlin Clark (27.1 ppg, third in DI) and Monika Czinano.
New favorite: No. 3 Ohio State (15-0, 4-0). Subject to change. The Buckeyes lead the conference offensively (87.3 ppg) with wins over Tennessee and Louisville (both of which fell out of the AP poll, South Florida, No. 18 Oregon and No. 14 Michigan. They’ve done it largely without senior guard Jacy Sheldon, an AP All-American honorable mention who remains day-to-day with a lower leg injury. They are also now without junior guard Madison Greene, who is out for the season with a knee injury sustained Dec. 20.
Teams to watch: No. 6 Indiana (13-1, 3-1), No. 14 Michigan (13-2, 3-1) and No. 13 Maryland (12-3, 3-1) will all compete for the regular season title as expected. Unexpected was Illinois (13-2, 3-1) under first-year head coach Shauna Green. They finished last season at the bottom of the standings with one Big Ten win (7-20, 1-13). Their wins include Iowa and Missouri, and they were 4 points short of upsetting Indiana on Dec. 4.
Player spotlight: Makira Cook averages 18.5 ppg (third in Big Ten) and Kendall Bostic averages 9.7 rpg (first) and 1.8 bpg (second) for Illinois. The Fighting Illini also have the nation’s second- and third-best 3-point shooters in Genesis Bryant (35-of-67, 52.2%) and Jada Peebles (31-of-60, 51.7%). They shoot 41.9% from three as a team.
Games to circle: Again, maybe just always keep an eye on Big Ten action since Nebraska (10-5, 2-2) took Indiana to overtime to start the 2023 calendar year. More in January: Illinois at Ohio State (Jan. 8), Maryland at Indiana (Jan. 12), Indiana at Illinois (Jan. 18), Iowa at Ohio State (Jan. 23), Indiana at Michigan (Jan. 23).
Still a favorite? Sure! The Cyclones, who collect 34.5% of their points from beyond the arc, struggled from three against Texas Tech over the weekend, but still won by 23 points. Yet, when they shot poorly against better teams in North Carolina and Iowa, they weren’t as fortunate by the time the buzzer sounded.
Texas is the conference’s best by game margin (26.9) with an offense (60.7 ppg) and defense (53.9 ppg) each ranked second. Sophomore point guard Rori Harmon’s return has bolstered the team on both ends and puts them back into co-favorite status.
Teams to watch: No. 17 Oklahoma (11-2, 1-1) and No. 23 Baylor (11-3, 2-0) are right where pollsters predicted. Two more teams could create noise. Kansas State upset Iowa in November, but a 46-point blowout at the hands of Texas isn’t promising. The Wildcats could be without Gabby Gregory, their top scorer and rebounder, who is out with a lower leg injury.
No. 21 Kansas (11-1, 1-0) has also been better than expected early with wins against Texas A&M and Arizona and a three-overtime loss to the also better-than-anticipated Nebraska team.
Player spotlight: Gregory leads the Big 12 averaging 21 ppg for Kansas State after transferring from Oklahoma. She’s been crucial with center Ayoka Lee out for the season. Stephanie Soares is playing 24.2 minutes per game for Iowa State, but still ranks fifth in points (15.6), second in rebounds (9.9) and first in blocks (3.2).
Games to circle: Iowa State at Oklahoma (Jan. 8), Kansas State at Iowa State (Jan. 11), Iowa State at Texas (Jan. 15), Texas at Baylor (Jan. 22).