NCAA tournament: Is there a team that can keep South Carolina from a repeat championship?

They call themselves the “freshies” even though little is new to the South Carolina seniors anymore. They’ve been ranked No. 1 in the country for two-thirds of their collegiate careers. They’ve been to each Final Four available to them. They won a national championship. They’ve gone undefeated in the regular season.

Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal and Olivia Thompson have lost a mere eight games in their four-year Gamecock careers and they don’t plan to lose another. The quintet came as the first No. 1 recruiting class in program history and will leave as the most decorated. A second trophy would cement their powerhouse status further and put them in the company of Connecticut, Tennessee and USC as the only programs to repeat.

When their defense is the best, it leads to the most success. They rank fourth in scoring defense (51.1 ppg) and second in defensive rating (73.0) for the second consecutive season. That’s already nasty, in the words of head coach Dawn Staley amid their NCAA championship run last March.

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What would make South Carolina even nastier? An offense so potent it’s never been seen in Columbia during Staley’s tenure. A bench bigger than the starting five at other programs scoring nearly as many points as its starters. A focus to be even better.

“I think South Carolina has a whole other level to us,” Cooke, named an Associated Press All-American on Wednesday, said this week. “And it’s gonna show.”

Few teams can match up with the Gamecocks in a tournament that’s theirs to lose. As the No. 1 overall seed, they have the easiest bracket in Greenville 1. Yet, nothing is guaranteed in March and there are contenders to end the freshies’ careers early, if they don’t choose to return for a fifth year allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yahoo Sports analyzed the teams with the best chances of advancing through their own early games and taking down South Carolina’s typical defense and improved offense.

The rise of South Carolina’s offense

South Carolina won its opening two games handily last postseason, but it didn’t come without concern for its title chances given the stagnant offense. Adding in their SEC championship game loss to Kentucky, the Gamecocks had three of their six worst games in field-goal percentage. In the second-round win against Miami, they were 29.5% against a defense that packed the paint and lured guards into hitting shots that they didn’t make.

Staley wasn’t concerned, even though her team’s scoring average (70.9 ppg) and offensive rating (103.5) were the worst since 2012-13.

“As long as we’re defending, as long as we’re rebounding the basketball, those two areas really give us a good chance of winning basketball games,” she said. “And at this point, the offense is a cherry on top.”

The offense is just as much a part of the sundae now as their stingy defense.

Their 115.1 offensive rating leads the nation for the first time in program history and is the best of the 14 years available at Her Hoop Stats, eclipsing the 112 in 2019-20. Same for the 16.8 average assists, joining ’19-20 and ’14-15 as the only seasons above 16 apg. They’re hitting 47% of their shots, back in line with teams in the late 2010s. And their 81.4 ppg scoring average ranks seventh in Division I, trailing only the 82 ppg the ’19-20 team put up. No other Gamecock roster has scored more than 76 ppg.

South Carolina guard Zia Cooke is a big reason why the Gamecocks look poised to win a second straight NCAA title. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
South Carolina guard Zia Cooke is a big reason why the Gamecocks look poised to win a second straight NCAA title. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images) (Eakin Howard via Getty Images)

That ’19-20 roster when the freshies were actually freshmen was the one on pace to win South Carolina what would have then been a second national championship before the tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, they brought home trophy No. 2 last season in a redemption to their 2021 Final Four loss to eventual champion Stanford. The offense caught more of its groove after struggles against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, shooting 33.3% to tie the third-worst game of their season, but hitting seven 3s to tie its second most of the season.

It was 50.9% against Creighton, 47.4% against Louisville and 36.7% against UConn, which South Carolina took an early lead against to earn the title. Destanni Henderson, now with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, scored a season-high 26 points to lift the trophy in a performance that doubled her average of 11.5 points a game.

Bench production buoys Gamecocks

The current offensive success has not fallen on shooting hands of one player. It is a team effort that has split nearly evenly between the starters and the bench, creating South Carolina’s biggest asset.

Returning starter Cooke, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, is the most influential catalyst for South Carolina’s offensive starts. She’s averaging 15.3 points per game, in the 95th percentile of D-I players and missing her career-high by .6 points. It’s a 50% increase from her average last season and she’s hitting a career-best 40.8% overall (up from 34.2%, ranking in the bottom quarter of D-I) and is hitting 3s at a better clip than last season (36.1% to 28.7%).

It has helped make up for the loss of Henderson and the opponents’ more precise focus in the paint on Boston, the reigning National Player of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player. The five standard starters are averaging a negligible 5 fewer points per game as last season (44.6 down from 49.9).

After the starters get them going, the bench production is South Carolina’s most significant improvement. The reserves are averaging a combined 42.7 points per game, an increase of 52% from the 28 averaged by reserves last season.

The Gamecocks are so deep, they bring 6-7 junior center and former ACC Freshman of the Year Kamilla Cardoso off the bench. The former Syracuse star is averaging 10 points per game — third on the roster and double her year-over-year output — in 18 minutes per game, leading the Gamecocks in player efficiency rating (PER).

They are able to almost seamlessly split time at point guard between Kierra Fletcher, a 5-9 fifth-year transfer from Georgia Tech, and Raven Johnson, a 5-8 redshirt freshman ranked No. 2 in her class. Johnson leads the team in assists with 3.4 a game and steals at 1.1.

Cooke, Boston and Beal, all returning starters, are the only ones averaging above 25 minutes a game. No one else is above 20. Cooke (15.3 ppg), Boston (13.3 ppg) and Cardoso (10 ppg) are the only players in double-digit averages with 12 of 15 rostered players averaging at least 4 ppg. Two of the three left are freshmen.

The path to Greenville

South Carolina, headlining the Greenville 1 regional, begins its tournament schedule at home in Columbia against Norfolk State on Friday (2 p.m. ET on ESPN). Unlike last year, it will not face a winner of the First Four play-in game.

“It’s real helpful that you don’t have to prepare for two teams,” Staley said on Selection Sunday, via The State. “We know who we’re playing and we can get going on it.”

Given that and its higher-caliber offense, the margin of victory could be record-breaking. The Spartans (26-6, 11-3 MEAC) defeated Howard to win their first tournament title in 21 years and earn the auto-bid. They average 60.3 points per game (bottom third in D-I), allow a third-best 51 points per game and give up a national-best 71.8 points per 100 possessions, which is great on a stat sheet.

But, their only Power Six competitions were losses to Penn State, 67-61, and Alabama, 92-30. South Carolina defeated the Tide, 65-52, in SEC play.

Awaiting in the second round will be either No. 8 South Florida (26-6), an at-large team out of the AAC, or No. 9 Marquette (21-10), an at-large bid out of the Big East.

South Florida and South Carolina are each top in the nation on the boards, both ranking top four in total rebounding rate. The Bulls’ steals average and rate, both ranked 344th, stand out in the red. They are 1-3 against top-25 NET teams.

A South Carolina-Marquette matchup would be played largely inside the arc with 3-pointers and free throws a decider if it ends up being close (narrator: it probably won’t). Those teams line up nicely on paper, with Marquette holding an edge in steal rate. They are 2-8 against top-25 NET teams, taking one against UConn.

Once they get through the first weekend, the Gamecocks only have to drive 90 minutes northwest to Greenville for the second weekend.

Sweet 16: How UCLA, Oklahoma stack up

South Carolina will have time to game plan for its Sweet 16 opponent of either No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 13 Sacramento State or No. 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 Portland. UCLA is largely favored to win its opening-round game, while many are looking to Portland as a potential upset maker.

For the sake of our sanity, we’ll keep potential matchups to UCLA (25-9) and Oklahoma (25-6), at-large bids out of the Pac-12 and Big 12, respectively.

The Bruins followed the Miami playbook from last year’s tournament and stuffed the paint against South Carolina in Columbia in November, leading to an early 10-point lead and 31-27 margin at the half. Boston missed the second half with an ankle injury (she still finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds), and Fletcher and Cardoso stepped up amid a much better Gamecock shooting performance to win, 73-64. It was tied at 47 entering the fourth.

The UCLA win marks the worst 3-point outing of South Carolina’s season (1-of-14, 7.1%), an area the Gamecocks can take advantage of, even though they rarely shoot it, as the Bruins are among the worst in guarding it. UCLA also puts teams on the free-throw line a lot; South Carolina is 69.7% from the stripe.

UCLA averages 11 fewer points than South Carolina and allows 10 points more.

Oklahoma’s offense, which averages a second-best 84.5 points per game, would be the most productive one the South Carolina defense has seen this season. The Sooners outscore teams to win, seeing as their scoring defense of 75.6 points per game ranks in the third percentile in D-I.

The other top-25 offenses South Carolina has played, with how much below the team’s average the Gamecocks kept it: LSU (third, -20.1), South Dakota State (10th, -35.4), Maryland (12th, -23), Stanford (23rd, -5.5 in OT) and Tennessee (24th, -16.4 and -18.4).

Statistically, they keep up with South Carolina on the boards (30.9 drpg ranks fifth, one rebound behind South Carolina), but with the Gamecocks’ depth providing more offense than last season, a top-level defense is the likely path to defeating South Carolina.

Elite Eight: Maryland, Notre Dame

The Gamecocks could meet any of the following in the regional final, with teams listed as their first-round games: No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 11 Mississippi State, No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 14 Southern Iowa, No. 7 Arizona vs. No. 10 West Virginia, or No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 15 Holy Cross.

Maryland (25-6), an at-large out of the Big Ten, could provide the most compelling challenge in Greenville if Olivia Miles is not 100% for Notre Dame (25-5), the ACC regular season champions.

If Miles is ready to go — and that’s the great secret of the NCAA tournament — the Fighting Irish have a solid offense averaging 74.8 points per game (31st) and a far better defense than Maryland allowing 58.8 points per game (42nd). It kept Florida State’s ninth-ranked offense 33 points below its average and in a loss to Maryland, kept them five below. Last season, Notre Dame shocked the top-ranked Oklahoma offense, keeping the Sooners 20 below their average to reach the Sweet 16.

The Terps were favorites for a non-No. 1 seeded Final Four run until they were bracketed with South Carolina on Selection Sunday (hence why Yahoo Sports dropped them to No. 9 in the power rankings).

It would be a rematch of their early-season November meeting when Maryland was still putting together its pieces after being active in the transfer portal. The Terps were also without Diamond Miller, who missed only that game with a knee injury. Miller is averaging a team-best 19.7 points, ranking top-25 in D-I, with 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks, also team highs.

Shyanne Sellers (13.8 ppg, 48.2 FG%) and Princeton transfer Abby Meyers (14.5 ppg, 45.3%) are the other double-digit scorers for a team that pulls 3-point threats Brinae Alexander (7.1 ppg, 43.6 3FG%) and Lavender Briggs (7.1 ppg, 34.9 3FG%) off the bench. Maryland’s only losses since a bad 23-point fall to Nebraska on Dec. 4 are to Indiana, 68-61, and Iowa, by scores of 96-82 and 89-84.

The Big Ten is a conference of offensive shootouts — no team ranks better defensively than Indiana, whose 62.8 ppg allowed ranks 120th — and if Maryland can successfully turn it into that, bucking South Carolina’s defensive trend, the Terps have a chance at making it to Dallas.

Final Four

The Gamecocks are ranked first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating, so the team able to defeat South Carolina will, barring Gamecock injuries or serious mental mistakes, likely have a nice balance of offense and defense.

Indiana, the No. 1 seed in Greenville 2, has the offense, but would have to hope for an off night by the South Carolina offense. Utah’s defense allows a middling 65.9 ppg in that regional.

Iowa, the No. 2 seed in Seattle 4, is a prolific scoring team, but also would need to have the defensive day of their lives — and maybe a few more magical inches to battle Boston and Cardoso in the paint.

The No. 1 seed in that region, Stanford, could have had South Carolina’s “L” in November if not for late mental mistakes. The Cardinal, who ousted the Gamecocks in a heartbreaking 2021 semifinal, have one of the better chances to defeat South Carolina, but have gone through offensive droughts. A well-put-together game — and Cameron Brink staying miles away from foul trouble — could lead to the win

Only two teams other than South Carolina rank in the top 30 of both offensive and defensive categories. LSU, which ranks second and eighth, respectively, lost to South Carolina by 24 a month ago. The Gamecock defense got the better of forward Angel Reese, leaving guard Alexis Morris to carry the Tigers.

That they are both in the top of the categories could be because they are both in the SEC, a conference not as competitive top to bottom. South Carolina has played a far superior non-conference schedule that makes its numbers hold true.

The other is UConn, which ranks 28th offensively and 22nd defensively. South Carolina won by four in a tight game last month in which Azzi Fudd was not available and UConn scored a bucket over its average. The Huskies are a hot pick to come out of the Seattle 3 regional over Virginia Tech, a team that ranks 18th and 35th in the ratings.

No one else — not even South Carolina — has the advantage of adding a player talented enough for National Player of the Year consideration to the roster this late. In South Carolina’s case, it would be just another star to its untouchable depth.

A No. 1 seed has won the last decade of NCAA women’s tournaments. South Carolina itself might be the only true team standing in the Gamecocks’ way to go wire-to-wire No. 1 with a trophy sending its decorated seniors into a fresh new world of experiences.