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The Final Four has great storylines and even greater basketball in store

The stage is set for the 2023 NCAA Tournament Final Four! The LSU Tigers will take on the Virginia Tech Hokies on Friday at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the Iowa Hawkeyes and South Carolina Gamecocks at 9 p.m. ET. Both games will be broadcast nationally on ESPN, with a dedicated Final Four special starting an hour earlier at 4 p.m. ET.

The Final Four, as always, will be filled with not only some of Division I’s top collegiate talent, but also fascinating stories involving the teams, players and coaches who have made it this far. Let’s meet the final four contenders for 2023 and assess their strengths in tonight’s games.

No. 3 LSU Tigers vs. No. 1 Virginia Tech hokies

It’s already been a wildly successful season for Virginia Tech, which is playing in its first Final Four.
Photo by Alika Jenner / Getty Images

Virginia Tech’s banner season continues. In his seventh season at the helm, Hokies head coach Kenny Brooks led the program to unprecedented success, earning Virginia Tech the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and making it to its first-ever Final Four. School History.

The Hokies have rarely been the most dominant team of the tournament, but in a way, it’s that kind of quiet effectiveness that has defined their season. Just as Virginia Tech went on an 11-game winning streak to eliminate conference play and win the ACC Tournament Championship, Brooks’ crew rolled through their first few NCAA Tournament opponents, heading into their Elite Eight matchup against Ohio Till did not retreat at any point in the game. state, which Virginia Tech won handily.

This isn’t to say that Virginia Tech lacks hardware. Two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley is an impressive presence in the paint, standing at 6-foot-6, and the Hokies have one of the nation’s most destructive outside shooters in Georgia Amur who has the potential to rise and grow. There is potential. The fire off the dribble is shared by few other players in the country. Factor in a versatile guard rotation including Kayna Traylor and Kela King and the athleticism of Taylor Sole and D’Esia Gregg on the perimeter, and you get a hockey team that doesn’t need to rely on any one style of play for success.

LSU, on the other hand, seems tailor-made for the bright lights. In his second season as head coach of the Tigers, Kim Mulkey saw LSU play its best basketball since the mid-2000s, when the program reached five consecutive NCAA Tournament Final Four appearances. Mulkey coached a team full of dynamic players and personalities, led by former Maryland forward Angel Reese, who averaged an incredible 23.2 points and 15.7 rebounds per game in his first season in Baton Rouge – putting up numbers like The only player in Division I to.

However, the rest of LSU’s rotation is filled with more transfers and first-year players – guards Flouje Johnson, Jasmine Carson, Katery Poole and last-tier Poa and forwards Ladaziah Williams and Sa’Maiah Smith are all playing in their first seasons. The Tigers have worked for LSU – to say the least. According to his hoop stats, LSU has outscored opponents by an average of 34.2 points per 100 possessions, the second largest efficiency differential in the nation. During their NCAA tournament run, the Tigers put concerns about a soft early season schedule to rest by defeating qualified opponents in Utah and Michigan before ending Miami’s Cinderella story in the Elite Eight.

As LSU’s competition gets tougher, will the Tigers be able to rise to the challenge once again? Continuity concerns may not be as relevant at this point in the season, but in this matchup of teams that are now in unfamiliar territory, Virginia Tech still has the more experienced group. The individual battle in the paint between Kitley and Reese will be worth watching, Kitley’s finesse around the basket a stark contrast to Reese’s full-steam-ahead physicality, but there will be plenty to watch elsewhere on the court, Amur and Morris in particular. Both have big shot ability.

No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament - Seattle Regional

Caitlin Clarke’s (No. 22) performance in the Elite Eight was one for the history books. She will now face a South Carolina defense that is one of the most physically dominant in the country.
Photo by Tyler Shank/NCAA Photo via Getty Images

How far can Kaitlin Clark lead the Hawkeyes?

Ever since the star guard arrived on the NCAA scene in 2020, Clarke’s limitless shooting range and excellent passing have excited fans, and he’s been better than ever in the 2023 NCAA tournament. Clark recorded a monster triple-double of 41 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists against Louisville in the Elite Eight, a Hawkeye offense that scored 97 points and hit 16 threes and took things easy against an aggressive but ineffective Louisville defense. Seen

newly enrolled Naismith Player of the Year No stranger to that kind of defensive attention, but he has yet to face a team like South Carolina. The Gamecocks won the 2022 NCAA Championship thanks in large part to their size, physicality and athleticism, and they’ve been even more dominant this time around; According to his hoop stats, South Carolina’s defense is allowing the second-fewest points per 100 possessions (73.3) in Division I, and the Gamecocks are blocking shots (20.3 percent block rate) and the basketball (62.9 percent). rebounding at a higher rate than anyone in the country. Most impressive statistic of all: South Carolina is still undefeated at 36-0, with its last loss coming in the 2022 SEC Tournament.

South Carolina’s anchor center remains Aliyah Boston, which was recently named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. Widely regarded as the future No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, what makes the Boston Gamecocks so successful: punishing opponents in the paint and glass, controlling foul play and stopping shots — among them Many.

It’s not just Boston that makes the Gamecocks who they are, though. She’s part of a deep, experienced frontcourt rotation that also includes Victoria Saxton, Kamila Cardoso and Leticia Emihere that wears down opponents with sheer size and physicality throughout 40 minutes. While South Carolina has been challenged several times during the 2022-23 NCAA season, the Gamecocks have almost always responded with a second half to shut out first and second quarters as their depth becomes too much to handle. .

As is the case with any other team trying to beat South Carolina, the paint attempts that Iowa is used to against most other opponents probably won’t hold up against the Gamecocks, and the Hawkeyes should Type will need to rely on his perimeter shooting more than usual. , Iowa has its fair share of shooters — McKenna Warnock, Gabby Marshall and Kate Martin all shot 37 percent or better from deep, while Clarke knocked down 39.2 percent of his nine 3-point attempts per game — so Clarke’s A riskier proposition than usual despite having decent dribble penetration, his team still has the shotmaking to give the defending champions a run for their money.

However, can the Hawkeyes play enough defense themselves to be upset? South Carolina’s identity has been built on the defensive side of the ball, but the Gamecocks actually rank as Division I’s best offense (114.4 points scored per 100 possessions), due to their unmatched offensive return to fouls. With interest and ease they get high. Efficiency shots at the rim. Iowa center Monica Cizzinano will need to stay out of fouls and hold her own on the glass if her team is to have a chance; Otherwise, the Gamecocks will have little trouble getting what they want against the Hawkeyes’ otherwise lukewarm defense.

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