The 2023-24 women’s college basketball season isn’t even a week old, but between standout individual performances, major nonconference matchups and some all-around stellar play, the past four days have been the perfect teaser for what’s to come on the road to Cleveland in April.
The most thrilling day featured a pair of ranked matchups on Thursday: No. 18 Florida State upset No. 11 Tennessee in a 92-91 win in Tallahassee. Then, in a battle of two 2023 Final Four teams, No. 3 Iowa took down No. 8 Virginia Tech 80-76 in the Ally Tipoff, which featured a neutral-site crowd of nearly 16,000 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The point guard duel between Caitlin Clark and the Hokies’ Georgia Amoore was exceptional, with Clark putting together a 44-point, eight-rebound and six-assist outing, while the Amoore finished with a team-high 31 points on 7-for-14 shooting from the 3-point arc.
So what have we learned this season and what are we looking forward to Sunday in the women’s tripleheader on ABC and ESPN?
Clark’s complementary cast continues to get it done
After advancing to its first national title game, Iowa lost two starters from last season, most critically the Robin to Clark’s Batman in Monika Czinano. But in their win over Virginia Tech, the Hawkeyes largely picked up where they left off: Clark leading the way as teammates stepped up.
The reigning national player of the year accounted for 56 of Iowa’s 80 points, while Hannah Stuelke filled in nicely with 12 points, Kate Martin chipped in 10 and Sydney Affolter was a force on the glass with 14 rebounds. The Hawkeyes also fairly contained two-time ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley, limiting her to 16 points, 10 of which were in the fourth quarter.
Will Iowa be able to win every game, or return to the Final Four relying so heavily on Clark? Not necessarily. But Thursday showed that as long as Clark is on the floor, her complementary cast can continue to shine in its roles.
Pac-12 just got a whole lot more interesting
Oh, the irony that the Pac-12 is the only Division I conference without a loss four days into the season at 19-0 with the league’s impending demise hanging as a dark cloud over the 2023-24 campaign. Colorado’s huge win Monday over No. 1 LSU established the Buffaloes not only as a Pac-12 contender but perhaps as something greater — Candace Parker, who was on the call for the top-20 matchup, visited the Buffaloes’ locker room postgame and said she hoped to see them at the Final Four.
And as we saw in Monday’s USC-Ohio State matchup where she scored 32 points, 2023 No. 1 recruit JuJu Watkins could be the player the Trojans needed to make some major noise within the Pac-12 and nationally.
The conference already had a lot of intrigue entering the season with the rise of Utah, the promise of UCLA and question marks surrounding Stanford, not to mention Washington State’s Cinderella Pac-12 tournament run that the Cougars are hoping to build off of. Interest in how the Pac-12 As We Know It’s last ride will pan out has only been ratcheted up after these compelling Week 1 results — and it’s sure to have even more twists and turns than initially envisioned.
LSU might not be the SEC favorite
LSU’s season-opening loss to Colorado might just be a result of so many new Tigers looking to establish their roles and chemistry with each other while going up against a tough, experienced opponent. But it also sparked the question of whether the Tigers should still be considered favorites to win the SEC, especially after South Carolina trounced Notre Dame so handily Monday. There’s a ton of time between now and their sole regular-season meeting Jan. 25, but from the standpoint of an NCAA tournament résumé, that matchup holds even greater importance now for the Tigers, given their relatively weak nonconference schedule.
Tennessee garnered preseason interest as a contender after bringing in big-name transfers Jewel Spear and Destinee Wells, but the Lady Vols got their first loss of the season Thursday to Florida State in a 92-91 thriller. Although they got a huge game from Rickea Jackson (31 points, 17 rebounds, 4 assists) and erased a 15-point deficit to retake a late lead, they were undisciplined in a few areas, specifically 3-point defense and free throw shooting.
The Lady Vols have several tough nonconference opponents remaining, including Indiana and Notre Dame before the end of the month, to shore things up before SEC play begins in early January.
Florida State hangs on at the buzzer to beat Tennessee
Alexis Tucker hits a clutch free throw to put Florida State ahead, then the Seminoles’ defense holds strong to deny Tennessee in the final seconds.
UConn’s not-so-secret weapons
Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd combined for only 21 points on 7-for-21 shooting in their season opener against Dayton, but No. 2 UConn didn’t need its star guards to do much more. The Huskies scored 102 points and had six players in double figures. It was a testament to the depth coach Geno Auriemma might finally be able to enjoy — he played 10 players at least 10 minutes, including all four freshmen — after years of short rotations due to injury or otherwise.
But don’t overlook the big season that could be ahead for Aaliyah Edwards, a third-team Associated Press All-American last season who was the best player on the floor for the Huskies on Wednesday, shooting 10-for-12 (23 points) from the field and coming away with nine rebounds. How Auriemma continues to use what he considers his deepest bench since 2016, and how Edwards embraces the next step into stardom, will be worth watching as the Huskies’ nonconference slate ramps up.
No. 6 Gamecocks conquer No. 10 Notre Dame in Paris
Kamilla Cardoso and MiLaysia Fulwiley combine for 37 points as South Carolina uses a relentless pace to defeat the Fighting Irish in its season opener, 100-71.
What to watch this weekend
1 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC
After looking like they could be a Final Four team after their 100-71 takedown of No. 10 Notre Dame on Monday, the Gamecocks arrive back stateside from Paris for their home opener. In this matchup last year, South Carolina came away with a 25-point win, but seven players from those rosters have since been drafted into the WNBA, headlined by the top two picks in the Gamecocks’ Aliyah Boston and Terps’ Diamond Miller.
In this matchup, Dawn Staley will get another look at her retooled team, headlined by Kamilla Cardoso and Raven Johnson, against a quality opponent. Maryland will get a chance to see how its burgeoning star, Shyanne Sellers, fares against a tough, disciplined defensive team. Keep an eye, too, on newcomer Jakia Brown-Turner, a four-year starter from NC State, as she looks to become the latest transfer success story in College Park.
Paige Bueckers scores 1st basket in return from injury for UConn
Paige Bueckers scores her first basket in return from injury for UConn.
3 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC
If the Huskies take care of business against NC State, they’re expected to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll Monday after defending champion LSU’s season-opening loss to Colorado — although the Huskies reiterated this week that rankings don’t matter much in Storrs.
This game will be the first opportunity fans nationwide will have to see Bueckers back on the floor since her August 2022 ACL tear. Last time she faced NC State — their instant classic in the 2022 Elite Eight — she put on a show, but expect Bueckers to still be finding her footing Sunday. She played 21 minutes against Dayton on Wednesday, going 3-for-9 from the floor and adding seven rebounds and four assists.
Last year’s meeting between NC State and UConn was a 22-point Huskies win. The Wolfpack have a new look this season after Diamond Johnson’s transfer to Norfolk State. Picked to finish eighth in the ACC preseason poll, Wes Moore’s squad has several new players in new roles — including Aziaha James, who led the Wolfpack in scoring with 26 points in their season opener — but Reynolds Coliseum is always a tough place for opposing teams to play.
5 p.m. ET Sunday, ESPN
Indiana and Stanford have more similarities than meet the eye. Both said goodbye to program stalwarts this offseason — Grace Berger for the Hoosiers, Haley Jones for the Cardinal — but return the majority of their starters, including stars Mackenzie Holmes and Cameron Brink. After winning their respective conference regular-season championships, both teams went home early as No. 1 seeds this past March. Yet Tara VanDerveer’s and Teri Moren’s squads remain ranked in the top 15 to start the 2023-24 campaign, so this early-season matchup should be a fascinating litmus test.
Can Brink and Holmes assert their names into the Player of the Year conversation? Regardless, these stars need the players around them to step up for either team to be a true contender. For the Cardinal, that could be Kiki Iriafen — who had a 23-point, 13-rebound double-double in 24 minutes in Stanford’s opener versus Hawaii — as well as 3-point ace Hannah Jump. Indiana could pick back up where it left off thanks to the proven players the Hoosiers have coming back, surrounding Holmes with shooters in Sara Scalia, Yarden Garzon and Sydney Parrish.