NCAA tournament power rankings: South Carolina easy No. 1; Duke, LSU and UCLA trend downward

Tournament time is about gaining speed at the right moment and using it to overtake competition that isn’t on pace. There are quite a few teams this year riding recent upsets since many of the Power Six conference’s top seeds didn’t make it to their conference tournament title game. Other teams have limped to the finish and are hoping a week off will help get winning ways back on track.

Everyone is chasing South Carolina, the reigning champions, in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament that begins Friday. They lead Yahoo Sports’ tournament power rankings that include two 2-seeds in the top four.

(Region | seed | record | NET rank)

No. 1 South Carolina (Greenville 1 | 1 | 32-0 | NET 1)

South Carolina enters the tournament as heavy favorites to win it all again. Defensively, the Gamecocks remain one of the toughest in the nation, ranking second in defensive rating (74.1) and fourth in points allowed (51.1). They’ve won by single digits in only five games and three of those were to top-four-seeded teams (Stanford, UConn, UCLA). The Gamecocks are led by reigning National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston in the paint and improved offensively to average 10 more points (70.9 to 81.4) largely behind improved production from guard Zia Cooke. South Carolina’s greatest strength compared to other teams is its quality depth off the bench.

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No. 2 Iowa (Seattle 4 | 2 | 26-6 | NET 6)

Momentum matters in March, and Iowa has it all. The Hawkeyes defeated Indiana on a Caitlin Clark buzzer-beater in the regular-season finale featured on ESPN’s “College GameDay.” And a week later, they crushed Ohio State by 30 in a Big Ten championship game that was out of hand by the second quarter. Their offense is hot (nation-best 87.5 ppg) and Stanford, the 1-seed in the region, can do only so much defensively. If the rest of the Hawkeyes can hit shots around her, and the defense does enough in key moments, there’s little doubt Iowa can make it through its region.

No. 3 Indiana (Greenville 2 | 1 | 27-3 | NET 5)

Indiana has looked like the second-best team in the nation for the back half of the season, but it comes into the tournament with two losses in its past three games. The Hoosiers are still ranked so high because those losses were Iowa and a 4-point loss to Ohio State with guard Jacy Sheldon back. Indiana has a good draw with No. 3 LSU, a team boosted by its record and not résumé, and No. 4 Utah on the other side of Greenville 1.

No. 4 UConn (Seattle 3 | 2 | 29-5 | NET 2)

Much like Iowa, the Huskies feel the power of having their mojo back as well as their leading scorer in Azzi Fudd. UConn’s greatest advantage is it knows how to win in March, and it showed it in the Big East tournament. Its record isn’t what it has been in recent years, and the Huskies have been in unnecessarily close games, but they’re on a high at least for now. Next week might be a different story.

No. 5 Virginia Tech (Seattle 3 | 1 | 27-4 | NET 9)

Virginia Tech is peaking at the right time. The Hokies have one of the longer winning streaks in the nation at 11 and haven’t lost since Jan. 26 at Duke. Georgia Amoore and Elizabeth Kitley combine to average 34 points per game, a little less than half the 72.5 the team averages, so getting more production around them will be key for the Hokies to advance. They have stiff competition in No. 2 seed UConn, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Tennessee.

No. 6 Stanford (Seattle 4 | 1 | 28-5 | NET 4)

Stanford has Final Four and championship experience, led by stars Haley Jones and Cameron Brink. The Cardinal are at the bottom of the 1-seed pack because they lost two of their past three (at Utah, vs. UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament) and have sputtered offensively in stretches. Having hot-shooting Iowa in their bracket pushes them down the list of contenders.

No. 7 Ohio State (Seattle 3 | 3 | 25-7 | NET 16)

Ohio State has had time to forget about the 33-point dismantling it took at the hands of Iowa in the Big Ten title game. What it should remember is its come-from-behind victory over Indiana to get there, and what it can do with Jacy Sheldon back on the floor and healthy. The Buckeyes rank eighth at 80.8 ppg.

No. 8 Utah (Greenville 2 | 2 | 25-4 | NET 7)

Utah, playing with No. 1 Indiana, is in a less favorable region than Ohio State, dropping it down the power rankings. The Utes upset Stanford in February, though they lost to eventual Pac-12 champions Washington State in their first conference tournament game. They are one of the best-shooting teams at 48.5% (fourth) and top in assists (18.3, sixth).

No. 9 Maryland (Greenville 1 | 2 | 25-6 | NET 14)

It’s cloudy with a chance of heartbreak for the Terrapins, who landed a No. 2 seed, but did it in South Carolina’s bracket. The two played in November and South Carolina won by 25. Maryland is a far improved and cohesive unit since then and it should be a tighter contest. South Carolina’s defense and depth will cause problems.

No. 10 Texas (Seattle 4 | 4 | 25-9 | NET 11)

Texas’ offense is incredibly well-balanced between four of the starters and it is one of the best-shooting (45.5 FG%, 23rd) and offensive-rebounding (15.3 orpg, 41.5% O-rebounding rate ranks third) teams in the nation. It’s all led by sophomore point guard Rori Harmon, who ranks fourth with 7.3 apg. Texas and Stanford have played incredible tournament games in the past and could meet in the Sweet 16.

No. 11 Villanova (Greenville 2 | 4 | 28-6 | NET 12)

Maddy Siegrist and Villanova deserve the tournament lights and lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.64), a stat fueled by the efficient and precautionary Siegrist. They turn the ball over only 10 times per game, a good sign for success in March. Villanova has the downside of being in Indiana’s region and has looked shaky against teams like Baylor, Creighton and Iowa State early in the season. On the positive side, they lost all three games to UConn by a total of 25 points.

No. 12 Tennessee (Seattle 3 | 4 | 23-11 | NET 15)

Tennessee was knocked for its record and not its résumé. The Lady Vols, led by duo Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston, put it all together in an upset win over LSU that counts as a signature, but maybe won’t look the same come April. They’ve played one of the nation’s toughest schedules and that will help them in a region more wide open than South Carolina’s or Indiana’s. So don’t count out Tennessee, but don’t lean on it for a deep run, either.

No. 13 Duke (Seattle 4 | 3 | 25-6 | NET 10)

Duke is faded in these rankings because while defense wins championships, offense is still necessary. The Blue Devils were hard to watch in the ACC tournament and are going into March Madness having put up their three lowest outputs of the season. They averaged 41 points over the past three games and that isn’t going to get the job done even with the nation’s best defense. Going up against Iowa in the Sweet 16 doesn’t help their case.

Duke guard Shayeann Day-Wilson drives against Virginia Tech guard Kayana Traylor during the ACC tournament on March 4, 2023. (William Howard/USA TODAY Sports)
Duke guard Shayeann Day-Wilson drives against Virginia Tech guard Kayana Traylor during the ACC tournament on March 4, 2023. (William Howard/USA TODAY Sports)

No. 14 LSU (Greenville 2 | 3 | 28-2 | NET 3)

LSU’s seed is boosted by its record, not its résumé, and that lack of experience against the top-third teams in the nation could sink it early. UNLV feels underseeded at 11 and the Tigers could be on early upset watch. They certainly wouldn’t get by Indiana.

No. 15 Notre Dame (Greenville 1 | 3 | 25-5 | NET 8)

Given what we’ve seen of Olivia Miles since she injured her knee in the regular-season finale, it seems unlikely the star point guard returns to play in the NCAA tournament. Miles looked stiff and unable to walk properly on the leg, and Notre Dame can’t keep up its high-octane offense without her or guard Dara Mabrey, who tore her ACL in January. The Fighting Irish are also in South Carolina’s region.

No. 16 UCLA (Greenville 1 | 4 | 25-9 | NET 22)

This is a better UCLA team than November. It’s also a better South Carolina team than November and there’s the rub for the Bruins. UCLA comes in as the last team in the power rankings because the Bruins are stuck going against the reigning champion Gamecocks in the Sweet 16.