What to know about USC women's basketball ahead of the NCAA tournament
8th-seeded Trojans to face South Dakota State on Friday in Blacksburg, Va.
BROOKINGS — South Dakota State drew a big-name opponent in the NCAA tournament, as the 9th-seeded Jackrabbits will face 8th-seeded Southern Cal — USC — on Friday at 7 p.m. in Blacksburg, Va., in first round action.
The Trojans are a household name, one of the most famous programs in American college athletics. The Los Angeles-based school has won 131 Division I team sports national championships, enjoys an enrollment of nearly 50,000 students and an annual athletic budget well north of $100 million.
Still, when it comes to women's basketball, the Jackrabbits have been the better program ever since jumping to Division I. In fact, women's basketball has been a recent struggle for the Trojans, as this is just their fourth NCAA tournament berth in the 21st century. It's their first at-large bid since 2006.
USC was a powerhouse in the early days of NCAA women's basketball, going to seven NCAA tournaments in the 80s under coach Linda Sharp and winning back to back national championships in 1983-84 behind women's basketball superstars Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper. They remained a strong program into the mid-90s, but they've experienced little national success since then. They missed the NCAA tournament for seven straight seasons between 1998-2004, then after making it in '05 and '06, went on another seven-year drought. They qualified in 2014, lost in the first round, and haven't been back since.
Until now. The Trojans are now coached by Lindsay Gottlieb, an Ivy Leaguer who previously coached at Cal, taking the Bears to seven NCAA tournaments in eight years, including a Final Four. She went 12-16 in her first season but this year guided USC to a 21-9 mark, including 11-7 in the Pac-12. They have a strong nucleus of experienced veterans, as three of their four top scorers are graduates, but there's momentum for the future, too, as all-conference forward Rayah Marshall is just a sophomore, and the Trojans will bring the No. 1 recruit in the nation, JuJu Watkins, to the team next year.
How might the Jacks match up with the Trojans? Size is often a major factor in how well the Summit League champs can hold up against power conference foes, and USC has a lot of it. But this is going to be a battle of two of the nation's top defensive teams. USC is not an especially good offensive team — they average 64.5 points and shoot 38 percent as a team.
Marshall is 6-foot-4 and a dominant defensive presence who doesn't limit her play on either side of the floor to the paint. She averages 11.6 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots per game while scoring 12.6 points (on .383 shooting). Point guard Destiny Littleton, a first-team All-Pac 12 pick, spent the last two seasons at South Carolina, winning a national title in 2022.
The leading scorer for the Women of Troy (that's their official secondary nickname) is 6-2 forward Kadi Sissoko, who averages 15.6 points per game, and with a .460 shooting percentage is the only member of the rotation who isn't shooting below the 40 percent mark. Speaking of the rotation, the Trojans don't go deep into their lineup. Outside of their starting five, only freshman guard Taylor Bigby and 6-6 sophomore reserve center Clarice Akunwafo have played in every game.
The Trojans will use their size and athleticism to get out and contest shots. They average just shy of six blocked shots per game as a team, and opponents have shot just .273 from 3-point range against them this season, averaging barely over four makes per game.
As for SDSU, it'll be interesting to see how they compete against a team with some serious weapons. The Jacks dominated the Summit League to the tune of 21 straight wins, but the conference was down this year — SDSU faced almost no challenges after Christmas. Against their non-conference schedule the Jacks were competitive but inconsistent, but they were also playing without point guard Paige Meyer at that time, as the sophomore was still recovering from last year's season-ending knee injury. Even without her the Jacks beat times like Louisville, Mississippi State, Rutgers and Kansas State, and they've been a markedly better team at both ends down the stretch as Meyer and fellow point guard Dru Gylten have learned how best to coexist.
For much of the last month, most mock-brackets for the women's NCAA tournament had SDSU as a double-digit seed, ranging from 10 to 12. In some ways, that would've been a better path for the Jacks. Yes, they theoretically have a better shot of winning in the first round as a 9-seed — the 8/9 game is essentially considered a toss-up, but first round upsets in the 7/10, 6/11 or 5/12 games are common, and then the second-round matchup is potentially easier.
If SDSU wins Friday against USC, they will (barring a monumental upset) face No.1 seed and host Virginia Tech in the second round. If the Jacks were, say, an 11-seed, and they managed to win their first round game, they'd be taking on the winner of a 3/14 game in the second game.
But in the end, a 9-seed is probably closer to what SDSU earned/deserves. It indicates the selection committee took a close look at the Jacks' resume and gave it more respect than some of the prognosticators did.
Their reward? A first-round game against one of the top defenses in the sport, with the potential to face a national championship contender in the second.