March 31, 2022 

2022 Women’s Final Four: The Next staff on winners, players to watch and more

Four teams enter. Only one will survive.

Happy Thursday — the workweek’s almost passed! And that means that the 2022 Women’s Final Four is almost here. We’ve waited months for Minneapolis, for the the chance to crown a true champion. And we want to be fully prepared for everything such an occasion brings. Which is why we’ve once again convened a roundtable of The Next’s beat writers, to preview the biggest weekend of the year — in a way perfect for your commute or lunch break.

Now let’s address the burning questions on everyone’s mind, such as…

Who’s taking home the championship?

There’s a couple ways to take stock of the teams heading into the weekend. One way is a straw poll, where our writers ranked the teams based on their likelihood to win it all. Here’s how each team’s vote share ended up (where 100% = a unanimous pick):

South Carolina at 85%, Stanford at 84%, UConn at 48%, Louisville at 28%

And looking at only votes to win it all:

South Carolina and Stanford at 6, UConn at 1

Suffice it to say that this couldn’t be tighter.

Who are the top players to watch?

I’m glad you asked, because we have a neat list!

Aliyah Boston at 13 votes, Hailey Van Lith at 12, Cameron Brink at 10, Haley Jones at 9, Paige Bueckers at 9, Emily Engstler at 8, Azzi Fudd at 7, Destanni Henderson at 4, Zia Cooke at 4. Also receiving votes: Aaliyah Edwards, Brea Beal, and Christyn Williams

Aliyah Boston was the consensus National Player of the Year for a reason — of course she remains a must-watch. Hailey Van Lith has broken out in this tournament to the tune of 21.5 points, 2.3 assists, and 2.0 stocks* on 56.7% true-shooting and a crazy 30.4% usage rate, per CBB Analytics. Cameron Brink was third on our Em Adler’s Player of the Year ballot, and split the Pac-12 Player of the Year awards with Haley Jones. Meanwhile, Paige Bueckers is suddenly looking like Paige Bueckers, with a 97th-percentile true-shooting in the tournament so far (per CBB Analytics), while Emily Engstler is one of the most exciting and unique players in the country. There’s a lot of talent to watch, every game.

But that’s enough about that. We didn’t pull together more than a dozen dedicated writers just to make some lists. Let’s get to the real analysis.

South Carolina

What are South Carolina’s keys to a title run?

Quality guard play at 6 votes, shoot well at 5, play through Aliyah Boston at 4, play to their potential at 3, limit opponent shooting at 2

Someone in South Carolina’s backcourt needs to step up. Teams are going to have an opportunity to game plan to make life as hard as possible for Aliyah Boston.

They need to play up to their potential – that’s it.

Who is South Carolina’s X-factor?

Destanni Henderson at 4 votes, Brea Beal at 3, Zia Cooke at 2, Victaria Saxton at 2, Kamilla Cardoso at 1

Henderson (does she qualify as a non-star?). How she handles Fudd, Van Lith, and Hull on the perimeter is going to dictate SC’s destiny from here on in.

That pun was pretty painful.

What is South Carolina’s biggest concern?

Shooting/defenses packing the paint at 6, offensive creation at 5, nothing at 2, "Stanford's depth" at 1, "Hailey Van Lith at 1"

Spacing spacing spacing. Gabe Ibrahim at HerHoopStats nailed it when he looked at the fact that in the tournament, South Carolina’s opponents are not even pretending to guard the Gamecocks’ shooters. He also noted that this isn’t just the shooters’ fault, but rather where the shooters are getting the ball. South Carolina has struggled creating looks outside the paint and better teams and longer teams are bound to exploit that.

Defenses packing the paint and daring Brea Beal and Destanni Henderson and bench players to beat them.

Stanford

What are Stanford’s keys to a title run?

Cameron Brink stays out of foul trouble at 7 votes, shoot well at 4, limit turnovers at 3, Brink plays well at 3, good team defense at 2

Brink needs to stay out of foul trouble — if she doesn’t foul, no one beats them.

Lexie Hull and Anna Wilson and Hannah Jump shoot well and Cameron Brink’s minutes aren’t limited.

Who is Stanford’s X-factor?

Lexie Hull at 3 votes, Lacie Hull at 3, Anna Wilson at 3, Fran Belibi at 2, Hannah Jump at 1

Do we consider Lexie Hull a star? I don’t know. But I do think she’s more than a role player. She’s been a solid starter for the Cardinal and the way she’s beat her opponents via her gritty and smart play has made the difference in multiple games during the tournament for Stanford.

What is Stanford’s biggest concern?

Turnovers at 6 votes, Cameron Brink's fouls at 3, "shooting slumps" at 1, "Paige Bueckers" at 1, "making free-throws" at 1

Stanford’s biggest concern is probably if Cameron Brink is in foul trouble. Fran Belibi has been impressive coming off the bench, but Ashten Prechtel has been a bit of a non-factor this whole season and tournament.

Turnovers. They can’t turn the ball over 20 times again. UConn is too hot right now.

Louisville

What are Louisville’s keys to a title run?

Hailey Van Lith continues her breakout at 5 votes, overall defense at 4, Emily Engstler stars at 4, defensive playmaking at 4, good interior play at 2

South Carolina’s guard play continues to struggle, Hailey Van Lith continues her tournament tear and Emily Engstler shows up on both ends of the floor. Although this could all happen and Louisville still might lose.

Emily Engstler stays out of foul trouble, Olivia Cochran breaks out, and Van Lith continues her breakout.

Who is Louisville’s X-factor?

Olivia Cochran at 6 votes, Chelsie Hall at 3, Liz Dixon at 1

Olivia Cochran. If she can limit opposing frontcourts from getting as many offensive rebounds as Louisville has given up this season, that would be dope for them.

Chelsie Hall, who really stepped up against Michigan. If she can score, that will take some pressure off Hailey Van Lith, who will be the main target of opposing backcourts.

What is Louisville’s biggest concern?

Post defense with 5 votes, halfcourt offense with 4, Aliyah Boston with 3, offensive rebounding with 2, maintaining an underdog persona at 2

Containing size – Boston could (should) wreck them.

Their focus issues and probably less of a proven offense compared to the other three teams in this semi-final, although… if the Cardinals can force South Carolina to play at their own pace, could the No. 1 seed that’s been playing as an underdog without Jimmy Fallon’s bracket seal of approval pull off a monumental upset? Let’s not rule it out!.

UConn

What are UConn’s keys to a title run?

Paige Bueckers continues going on a tear at 6, the bigs play their best bakk at 5, the bigs stay out of foul trouble in specific at 4, role players need to score at 2

Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Aaliyah Edwards have to play the best ball of their life, and the bench has to give something.

Cameron Brink needs to be in foul trouble, UConn’s defense needs to interrupt Stanford’s offensive flow more than Texas was able to, and Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd need to continue to be un-guardable. I know that sounds like a tall task, but I truly believe it will be because of how well Stanford has played during this tournament.

Who is UConn’s X-factor?

Aaliyah Edwards at 5 votes, Olivia Nelson-Ododa at 4, Nika Mühl at 2, Evina Westbrook at 2

Aaliyah Edwards did not play well on the defensive end against N.C. State. If she can stay collected and not bail out the other team by fouling them, I think UConn has a real shot here.

Mühl is an offensive disrupter, and for sure took N.C. State out of their flow in her limited minutes on Monday night but, she’ll have to make sure she stays away from ticky-tacky fouls.

What is UConn’s biggest concern?

Depth at 8 votes, inconsistency at 3, frontcourt depth in specific at 3, size at 2, elite opposing bigs at 2

Lack of production outside Bueckers, Williams, and Fudd.

Size inside — the two opponents they’d face could eat them alive.

* steals + blocks

Written by The Next

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