Questions that will define South Carolina, Stanford and UConn's seasons
Welcome to View from the Top, a NCAA women’s basketball newsletter focused on the title contenders and championship picture. View from the Top covers the top teams in the country with an eye towards March all season long.
Throughout the season, I’ll be posting weekly(ish) newsletters highlighting the most important aspects of the race for the 2022 NCAA championship. This will include in-depth looks at the contending teams, breakdowns of the biggest regular season games, highlighting players that will be crucial to who wins it all, bracketology on the top few seed lines, hot takes (of course) and more. Subscribe to follow along all season here.
South Carolina, Stanford or UConn will win the 2022 national championship. I am committed to that take until another program proves me wrong and shows that they have what it takes to be discussed as part of this year’s top tier. That will be a tough task to accomplish with the amount of talent and depth on the rosters of the current top three.
We can talk at length about what makes each of these teams so good, and I certainly will throughout the season. But to start things off, here is the critical question each team needs to answer to raise the trophy on April 3rd:
South Carolina: Can the Gamecocks unlock Aliyah Boston’s full potential and use her like a true super star?
Aliyah Boston is one of the best players in the country. She’s the best center in women’s college basketball (I don’t think it’s particularly close) and should be a National Player of the Year finalist. In a one-on-one matchup, and in most situations even a two-on-one matchup, with the rest of the country’s frontcourts, I’m picking Boston.
All of this was true last year as well, and Boston is clearly the centerpiece on this South Carolina roster - but the Gamecocks don’t always use her as such. In fact, her usage rate last season (the percentage of a team’s plays a player finishes while on the court) wasn’t a team high. She checked in at 21 percent, just barely exceeding what would be an equal share for each player on the floor.
I don’t actually think Boston needs to lead the team in usage. Her presence in the paint can alter the game in just the way the defense has to change if she even touches the ball in the paint. However, when South Carolina struggled last season, Boston often wasn’t getting touches. The Gamecocks’ February 18th loss to Tennessee stands out in my mind as a key example of this last season. Despite Boston’s impressive 17 point and 16 rebound performance in that game, she didn’t have the ball nearly as often as she should have down the stretch in the critical game moments (something that was even more puzzling when Tamari Key fouled out of the game for the Vols).
If South Carolina plays through Boston, or I’ll even extend that to through the paint with the addition of Cardoso, on most possessions (especially those where the game is on the line) they will be very difficult to beat this season. This team just needs to play to their strength - having the best frontcourt in the country.
Stanford: How does the Cardinal adapt to the loss of Kiana Williams and replace her at the point?
Replacing a team’s leading scorer is hard. Replacing a point guard is arguably the toughest change to make on the floor. In the case of Kiana Williams, Stanford has to do both. As the Cardinal’s senior leader last season, Williams knew the ins and outs of the Stanford system and their offense so well.
It will be interesting to see how Stanford handles the point guard position, and how that evolves throughout the season as well. While the roster boasts plenty of backcourt depth, there is not a natural successor to Williams’ role.
Anna Wilson feels like the most natural fit for the spot on the Cardinal’s roster. Traditionally more of a defensive minded player, Wilson only averaged around three field goal attempts per game last season. It would be similar to the move Baylor made with Didi Richards at the point last season, which was successful. The approach eliminates the worry that you limit one of your better off-ball scorers by forcing them to have the ball in their hands more frequently.
The Cardinal could also take a point guard by committee approach. Lexie Hull and Anna Wilson are both capable ball handers who could share that role. Haley Jones could also figure into that equation, despite playing at the three more often given her size. Jones tallied the second most assists for Stanford last season. Graduate transfer Jordan Hamilton, who averaged 3.2 assists at Northwestern last season, could also help share in some of the point guard duties.
Regardless of what approach Stanford takes, finding an effective answer to replacing Williams will be critical to the teams’ success this season.
UConn: Can the Huskies’ frontcourt elevate to hold its own against the nation’s best bigs?
You could also phrase this question as do the Huskies actually have an answer for a player like Aliyah Boston, NaLyssa Smith, Elissa Cunane or some of the country’s other elite bigs they’ll encounter on the road to a national title game. While Olivia Nelson-Ododa dominated most of the Huskies’ conference opponents last season, she struggled in tougher matchups with teams that boasted more size and talent in the frontcourt. A look down Nelson-Ododa’s stat lines for UConn’s final three games of last season is very indicative of that.
Losing the battle in the post is not a new problem for the Huskies, and the addition of Aaliyah Edwards last year was a big stride forward from the 2019-20 squads’ inside presence. Edwards’ size and physicality under the rim changed the look of UConn’s frontcourt.
That picture changes even more this season with the addition of Dorka Juhász, a two-time First Team All Big Ten honoree in her tenure at Ohio State. Juhász finishes well under the basket, but also is not afraid to step out and take a deep shot. She also adds a layer of depth to UConn’s frontcourt that didn’t exist before.
How the combination of Nelson-Ododa, Edwards and Juhász fair as the Huskies face up with tougher opponents this season will be important to keep an eye on, and ultimately a big piece in determining how far their March run goes.