Why South Carolina women's basketball will — and won't — repeat as NCAA champion in March Madness

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COLUMBIA — South Carolina women's basketball enters the 2023 NCAA Tournament with a perfect record, but picking up its only loss during March Madness would make the season a disappointment.

The No. 1 Gamecocks (32-0) are the clear favorite to win the national championship for the second consecutive season after beating UConn 64-49 in the 2022 title game. They cruised through the SEC tournament last week and will look to become just the 10th team in NCAA basketball history and first since the Huskies in 2016 to complete an undefeated season.

However, it's called "Madness" for a reason, and South Carolina has felt the sting of defeat before: In 2021, it was knocked out by Stanford in the Final Four and suffered an upset as a 1-seed in the 2016 Sweet 16 by 4-seed Syracuse. Here's why the Gamecocks can — and can't — put together another national title run in 2023.

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Why South Carolina will win the NCAA championship

South Carolina is a team perfectly built to succeed in the grueling, pressure-cooker environment of the NCAA Tournament.

The team's biggest strength all season has been its depth, and that becomes even more important in the postseason. The Gamecocks have weapons that they can cater to each opponent: They had a different leading scorer in every matchup of the SEC tournament and saw seven different players score in double-digits over the three games. Depth also gives them an advantage in rest. Aliyah Boston averages just 25 minutes per game, while UConn's Aaliyah Edwards averages 33.5, and LSU's Angel Reese averages 33.

South Carolina is also highly experienced. Of 10 players averaging 10 minutes or more per game, only freshman Ashlyn Watkins and redshirt freshman Raven Johnson have never played an NCAA Tournament game. Four of the five starters started every game of the 2022 national championship run, and transfer point guard Kierra Fletcher reached the Sweet 16 with Georgia Tech in 2021.

Then there's the Gamecocks' strength of schedule. Despite a weaker slate than they faced in 2022, South Carolina owns regular season wins over four top-10 teams: T-No. 4 Stanford, T-No. 4 LSU, No. 7 Maryland and No. 9 UConn. The team has not lost to a ranked opponent since falling to Stanford in the 2021 Final Four and beat both Maryland and LSU by double digits this season.

Why South Carolina won't win the NCAA championship

There is a reason repeat national championships are an incredibly rare feat. Only three programs — Southern California, Tennessee and UConn — have ever won consecutive titles. Even Dawn Staley has come up short in the past: South Carolina failed to repeat in 2018 after winning the NCAA championship in 2017, even with Gamecocks legend A'ja Wilson on the roster.

There is no team in the country with a bigger target on its back than South Carolina, and several of its biggest regular-season opponents will be looking for revenge. No. 17 UCLA, a projected 4-seed, gave the Gamecocks a battle at Colonial Life Arena in December and led by four points at halftime despite ultimately losing 73-64. UConn and Stanford, both considered Final Four contenders, fell to South Carolina by four and five points respectively, with Stanford taking the Gamecocks overtime.

South Carolina has also faced just one opponent in the Big Ten, undeniably the strongest conference in women's basketball this season. The Gamecocks handled Maryland in November, but the Terps were without star Diamond Miller. With battle-tested teams like Caitlin Clark's Iowa, three-loss Indiana and a full-strength Maryland in the field, an upset is far from impossible.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: March Madness predictions: Why South Carolina can repeat championship