April 14, 2024

The largest audience ever — 9.95 million viewers on ABC — tuned in to watch the women’s national championship game last year, and the sport looks to keep building on it this season.

That happened without traditional ratings-drivers UConn or South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed and defending champion from 2022, playing in the final.

Instead, Iowa, with national player of the year Caitlin Clark, and LSU, in coach Kim Mulkey’s second season in Baton Rouge, made for a compelling championship matchup in Dallas.

What do we expect for the 2023-2024 women’s college basketball season? LSU will try to carry the favorite tag to the finish line. UConn, which fell short of the Final Four last season for the first time since 2007, will attempt to get back there.

Teams like first-time Final Four participant Virginia Tech will have to follow up a breakthrough season. The Pac-12 teams will try to focus on the fleeting present, and not the soon-to-be future that will break up their league.

Here are the biggest questions we’re pondering as we get started on the road to Cleveland, where the 2024 champion will be crowned April 7.

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Johnson: No. 1 LSU’s depth creates healthy competition

Star guard Flau’jae Johnson says she’s turning the page to 2023 after a successful year while noting the Tigers’ current roster is “loaded.”

Can LSU repeat?

Mulkey, who has four NCAA titles as a head coach, has always said a team needs to be good but also have some good fortune to win a championship. Last season, No. 3 seed LSU saw two No. 1s knocked out before the Tigers potentially could have faced them: Indiana was upset in the second round and South Carolina in the semifinals.

But all credit to LSU: Even in a game like the 54-42 Elite Eight victory over Miami, when neither team played well, the Tigers did what they needed to win.

Now, the defending champions add heralded transfers Aneesah Morrow and Hailey Van Lith, and a top recruiting class, plus bring back Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese. With the graduation of Alexis Morris, who primarily handled point guard duties last season, the Tigers must excel a little more by committee at the position.

So LSU faces adjusting to new personnel and playing with super-high expectations this season. But who wouldn’t want to be in the Tigers’ shoes?

The Las Vegas Aces recently became the first WNBA team since 2002 to win two championships in a row. LSU could become the fourth women’s college program to win consecutive titles — joining USC, Tennessee and UConn — and first to do so since the Huskies won four in a row from 2013 to ’16.

The Tigers will be favored in the SEC, but expect South Carolina and Tennessee to be potential Final Four teams, too. Even though the Gamecocks lost a superstar like Aliyah Boston from last season, they still have plenty of talent to reload. And this year, they will have less pressure because the target isn’t on them from the tip.

How will the Pac-12 do in its swan-song season?

There was a poignant aspect to Pac-12 women’s basketball media day last month in Las Vegas. A genuine sense of excitement about the teams and players this season, along with feelings of camaraderie among longtime conference mates, stood in contrast to a harsh reality.

After this school year, the Pac-12 as we know it is finished, with teams headed to the Big Ten (Oregon, UCLA, USC, Washington), the Big 12 (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah), the ACC (Stanford and Cal) and an undetermined league (Washington State and Oregon State).

Pac-12 players and coaches understandably don’t want to let the future overshadow the present; they hope to make the most of the last season of the league. Having at least one Final Four participant would be a great way to do that.

Of the top five in both the coaches’ and media preseason polls, Utah, UCLA, Colorado and Washington State have never been to the women’s Final Four in the NCAA era. (UCLA won the 1978 AIAW championship.) Stanford, of course, has been the league’s standard-bearer with three national championships.

The Cardinal aren’t favored in the preseason, but no one is going to count out coach Tara VanDerveer. Stanford senior Cameron Brink is among the candidates for national player of the year, although last season’s Pac-12 player of the year honor went to Utah’s Alissa Pili.

It could be a great Pac-12 race, but it won’t lessen the sting of losing the league.

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Why the future remains bright for UConn women

Nikki Fargas says that despite their loss in the Elite Eight, the Huskies will be a force to be reckoned with next year with the return of star guard Paige Bueckers.

Will UConn start a new Final Four streak?

The Huskies’ unreal streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State last season. The Huskies have former national player of the year Paige Bueckers (knee injury) back this season, and hope for good health from everyone else, including Azzi Fudd (limited to 15 games last season because of knee injuries). Those two dynamic guards haven’t yet had the amount of time on court together that UConn hoped for.

Forward Aaliyah Edwards is the only returning player who played all 37 games last season; she led UConn in scoring (16.6 PPG) and was second in rebounding (9.0 RPG).

The Huskies have dealt with what seems like more than their share of injuries over the past two years particularly. That’s the part of any sport that can defy all predictions. But if UConn can stay healthy, it’s likely we’ll see a hungry group of Huskies in March.

What will the encores look like for the Big Ten and ACC?

The Big Ten had one of its best seasons ever in 2022-2023. Indiana won the regular-season title — for just the second time in program history — Ohio State got the big upset over UConn in the NCAA tournament, Iowa reached the national championship game for the first time, and Hawkeye point guard Clark swept national player of the year honors.

It was the Big Ten’s first Final Four appearance as a conference since Maryland went in 2015, the Terrapins’ first year in the league. This season, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland should be battling for the league title again. Illinois, which last year made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, is also poised to potentially build on its breakthrough season.

Meanwhile in the ACC, Virginia Tech also won the league tournament for the first time en route to its first Final Four. An ACC team also had one of the biggest upsets of the 2023 tournament, as No. 9 seed Miami beat No. 1 Indiana on the Hoosiers’ home court.

With All-American center Elizabeth Kitley back, the Hokies are again the ACC favorites this season. Notre Dame and Louisville, perpetual contenders since both joined the ACC, are never far out of the championship mix. And don’t overlook North Carolina or Florida State.

How will the second season of the two-regional system go?

For the most part, coaches seemed willing to give the new setup a chance last season, and the attendance in Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle, was encouraging.

A combined 82,275 fans attended eight Sweet 16 and four Elite Eight games, setting an NCAA record. The previous women’s NCAA tournament attendance mark for the regional round was 73,954 in 2003, and the last time attendance had topped 70,000 was in 2014. The 2022 regionals (in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Greensboro, North Carolina; Spokane, Washington; and Wichita, Kansas) drew 62,127 fans.

The 2023 Seattle regional, played at Climate Pledge Arena, set the pace last season with 43,556 fans for its sessions. Greensville had 38,719 fans at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

However, the issue of not having any regional games in the Central or Mountain time zones stood out, and will be same scenario this year, with the regionals in Albany, New York, and Portland.

The idea behind the two-regional system was to create stronger environments for all the regional games. We will see if 2024 attendance follows last year’s upward trend.

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