This article is part of our Final Four Preview series.
After an NCAA Tournament with more upsets than usual, the Final Four has arrived and features two 1-seeds in South Carolina and Virginia Tech facing off against offensive powerhouses in Iowa and LSU. The undefeated Gamecocks have been the heavy favorites to win a national title all season and are the most well-rounded team remaining in the tournament.
South Carolina Gamecocks, Greenville 1 Region No. 1 Seed
Key Contributors: South Carolina's "freshies" are now seniors, and the tandem of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Olivia Thompson have gone 129-8 over their four years with the program and won the national title in 2022. The team does most of its work inside the arc, but Cooke and Beal offer contributions from three-point range. Both players shoot over 35 percent from long distance, and Cooke leads the team with 15.1 points per game. Although Kamilla Cardoso has played exclusively off the bench this season, she ranks third on the team with 9.7 points per game and second with 8.4 rebounds per game.
X-Factor: Although South Carolina has one of the best lineups in the nation, Aliyah Boston is the team's clear X-factor. Boston is the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft if she chooses to go pro this year, and she was named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year this week. She's averaging 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds in 26.2 minutes per game during the 2022-23 campaign, and she holds the South Carolina record for most double-doubles in program history. Boston was named the Greenville 1 Regional's Most Outstanding Player after posting two double-doubles to begin the tournament, highlighted by a 22-point, 10-rebound double-double against Maryland in the Elite Eight.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
Norfolk State, 72-40
South Florida, 76-45
They'll win IF: They limit Iowa's efficiency from beyond the arc. South Carolina has the best interior defense in the nation but ranks 15th in three-point defense. However, the Gamecocks are facing a potent offense that finished seventh nationally in three-point percentage while posting a nation-best 87.6 points per game. South Carolina's offense is strong enough to keep pace if the Final Four matchup is a high-scoring affair, but the team will be under significantly less pressure if the Hawkeyes face some resistance from long range.
Iowa Hawkeyes, Seattle 4 Region No. 2 Seed
Key Contributors: The Hawkeyes have been one of the most exciting teams this season since their combination of stellar offense and lackluster defense often leads to close, high-scoring matchups. Caitlin Clark has drawn plenty of headlines for Iowa this season, but Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock have offered contributions on the inside. Czinano shot 67.9 percent from the floor and averaged 17.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this season, while Warnock chipped in with 11.1 points and 6.0 rebounds. They'll have their hands full against South Carolina's elite interior defense Friday, but if any offense in the nation has the firepower to roll past the Gamecocks, it's Iowa.
X-Factor: Caitlin Clark was named the Naismith Player of the Year ahead of the Final Four and is coming off a performance against Louisville in the Elite Eight in which she posted 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds, marking the first 40-point triple-double in NCAA Tournament history, women's or men's. Clark has been the catalyst for the team throughout the season, averaging 27.3 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 34.2 minutes per game while providing numerous highlights via her logo three-pointers. While she'll need help from the Hawkeyes' supporting cast if they hope to overcome South Carolina, they'll likely need another stellar performance from Clark.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
SE Louisiana, 95-43
They'll win IF: South Carolina's offense has an inefficient night. Iowa's defense has been a question mark this year, but the team's offense has overpowered opponents in most games. The Gamecocks are a different threat, as they have the defense to slow Iowa down while possessing an offense capable of running up the score. Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock aren't productive enough on defense to shut down the Gamecocks' post players. However, if some of South Carolina's stars struggle to find their shooting stroke, the Hawkeyes could have an opening to outlast the defending champs.
The matchup between South Carolina and Iowa has the potential to be one of the most exciting of the tournament, but I think the road ends in the Final Four for the Hawkeyes. Iowa has overpowered opponents all season through its high-octane offense. However, the Gamecocks have a solid offense to contend with the Hawkeyes, while South Carolina is a much better defensive team. South Carolina has the talent to match up against any remaining opponent and the experience on the Final Four stage after winning it all last year.
Virginia Tech Hokies, Seattle 3 Region No. 1 Seed
Key Contributors: Virginia Tech faced a tough road to the Final Four, including matchups against tough opponents in South Dakota State, Tennessee and Ohio State, but the Hokies cruised to relatively comfortable wins in each game, led by Georgia Amoore and Elizabeth Kitley. Kitley has been the Hokies' most well-rounded contributor all season, averaging 18.2 points and 10.7 rebounds in 34.6 minutes per game while shooting 55.7 percent from the floor. The 6-6 center wasn't flashy on the scoreboard to begin the tournament, but she dropped 25 points against Ohio State in the Elite Eight and has posted three double-doubles in the team's four tournament games.
X-Factor: While Elizabeth Kitley has been one of the team's star contributors throughout the season, Georgia Amoore has given the team a crucial spark during the tournament to help lead the Hokies past some strong opponents. LSU is productive on the defensive end of the floor, but Amoore has attempted at least 14 three-pointers in each of the Hokies' last three games and has topped 20 points in each NCAA Tournament matchup. The Tigers' opponents have averaged 49.25 points per game to begin the tournament, but Amoore's three-point prowess should help provide an offensive spark against LSU's defense.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
South Dakota State, 72-60
Ohio State, 84-74
They'll win IF: They attack the post. Elizabeth Kitley averaged 12.7 points per game over the Hokies' first three tournament games, but her efforts on the boards were crucial to lead the team to the Final Four. Although none of LSU's players are as tall as Kitley, the Tigers have relied on their rebounding ability for most of the season. Taylor Soule and D'asia Gregg also contribute on the boards for Virginia Tech, and all of their rebounders will need to step up to prevent LSU from getting too many second chances. Kitley will also attempt to remain effective on the scoreboard following her 25-point performance against Ohio State and could have plenty of looks on the interior.
Louisiana State Tigers, Seattle 3 Region No. 3 Seed
Key Contributors: The Tigers were questioned all season due to their strength of schedule and didn't help their case with a 24-point loss to South Carolina in mid-February. However, the team has been a well-rounded machine during the NCAA Tournament, led by Angel Reese, Alexis Morris, LaDazhia Williams and Flau'jae Johnson. Several Tigers underwhelmed on the scoreboard in the team's Elite Eight matchup against Miami, but Morris stepped up with 21 points after Williams carried the torch against Tennessee with 24 points. While Reese has rightfully taken on a starring role for LSU for most of the season, the Tigers got plenty of help from their other contributors to prove they belong among the top competition in the NCAA Tournament.
X-Factor: The Final Four will feature plenty of Naismith Award finalists. However, one contributor surprisingly left out of the Player of the Year finalist group was Angel Reese, who averaged 23.2 points and 15.7 rebounds in 33.6 minutes per game this season. The forward has been pivotal for the Tigers this season and will be featured again during the team's matchup against Virginia Tech. The Maryland transfer will have her hands full against Elizabeth Kitley. However, Reese has posted four consecutive double-doubles to begin the tournament and will attempt to bounce back after shooting just 20 percent from the floor in the Elite Eight. While the Tigers' other contributors have proved they can step up when needed, Reese's production will be crucial if the team hopes to reach the national title game.
Who They Beat to Get Here:
Miami (FL), 54-42
They'll win IF: They can stay out of foul trouble. The Tigers' closest matchup in the tournament came in the Sweet Sixteen with a three-point win over Utah, and Angel Reese, Flau'jae Johnson and Kateri Poole fouled out during that matchup. While LSU held the Utes in check just enough to advance, the team will have a more difficult time against Virginia Tech if any of the Tigers' key contributors sit for extended periods due to foul trouble. LSU is also used to creating second chances with the second-best offensive rebound rate in the nation, but Virginia Tech has the fifth-best defensive rebound rate nationwide. The Tigers already lack the size to match up against Elizabeth Kitley, and foul trouble from any of their forwards would likely lead to struggles in the post.
LSU has defied my expectations over the first four rounds of the tournament. Even though the team didn't have to face a 1-seed in the Seattle 3 Region, several of the team's contributors have stepped up for impressive victories. However, Virginia Tech should be able to attack the Tigers with size. LSU has lost twice this season, and Angel Reese averaged just 7.5 rebounds per game during those matchups. Reese was one of the best rebounders in the nation this year, but 6-6 center Elizabeth Kitley will have an opportunity to reduce Reese's impact. I think the tandem of Kitley on the interior and Georgia Amoore from three-point range will be enough to lead the Hokies to the national title game.
National Champion Pick
South Carolina Gamecocks
It's not a flashy or surprising pick to choose South Carolina as the national champion, but the team has been the most well-rounded program in the country this season. The Gamecocks rolled past several solid opponents in the regional rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Although Iowa's offense stands between the team and a second consecutive national title game, South Carolina has the defensive ability to compete with any of its remaining opponents while possessing an efficient offense that has been one of the best in the nation. Coach Dawn Staley has done a tremendous job with the team's current senior class, and the team is positioned to be the first undefeated national champion since 2016.