Save for another big victory from No. 1 South Carolina, it was a quiet week in women’s college basketball, which is standard for this time of year. The Gamecocks are entrenched in the top spot, nationally and in the SEC, with Aliyah Boston the favorite for national player of the year. And coach Dawn Staley’s dog, Champ, might be up for some name, image and likeness deals after his starring role in a postgame video conference following the Gamecocks’ win over Stanford.
While some things look pretty clear heading into 2022, others are definitely still sorting themselves out. Many teams have played one or two conference games, but we’re about to get into the full swing of league play. Longtime rivalries will be renewed, and we will find out whose nonconference records are legitimate and whose aren’t.
There are still some critical nonconference games remaining, but league play is the big thing on everyone’s mind now. We take a look at one key question for each of the Power 5 conferences.
The Tar Heels are the league’s only unbeaten team at 11-0, and the Blue Devils are 9-1. Both are ranked. But we need more results to see how strong they’ll be as ACC contenders.
Right now, we know more about Duke because the Blue Devils have played a tougher schedule, beating then-No. 9 Iowa 79-64 on Dec. 2 and falling 55-46 to No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 15.
North Carolina has not yet faced a ranked opponent and is 141st in strength of schedule. The Tar Heels face their first ranked foe on Jan. 6 when they travel to NC State.
From 1994 to 2014, either North Carolina, Duke or both were in the ACC tournament final all but one season. But over the past seven tournaments, the schools have had only one ACC final appearance: Duke’s championship game loss to Notre Dame in 2017.
Shayeann Day-Wilson, a freshman guard from Canada, is off to a great start in her Duke career, averaging a team-best 12.9 points per game. Sophomore guard Deja Kelly (16.8 PPG) is leading four Tar Heels who are averaging double figures in scoring. At 83.6 PPG, North Carolina is leading the ACC in scoring.
By the time Duke and North Carolina have the first of their two regular-season meetings — Jan. 27 at Duke — we’ll have a better idea of where these two stand and whether one of college sports’ most storied rivalries is truly on the upswing again in women’s basketball.
Big Ten: Can Iowa get its mojo back?
The Hawkeyes made the Big Ten tournament final and advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, and they were ranked No. 9 to start this season. But they lost three times in December: at Duke, at Iowa State and at home to IUPUI.
Part of the problem is that Iowa is struggling from behind the arc, hitting 30% from distance. Sophomore Caitlin Clark is averaging 22.0 PPG but is shooting just 25% from long range. Last season, Iowa shot 40.8% from 3-point range, with Clark at 40.6%.
In the loss to IUPUI, Iowa was of 4-of-22 from past the 3-point line. The Hawkeyes know life will be easier if they can recapture last season’s touch from outside.
Big 12: Is Baylor vulnerable?
The Bears have either won or tied for the regular-season Big 12 title the past 11 years in a row. They were outright champions in 10 of those seasons, and they shared with West Virginia in the other (2014). The last team other than Baylor to win the league’s regular-season title outright isn’t even in the Big 12 anymore; that was Nebraska in 2010.
Baylor also has won nine of the past 10 Big 12 tournaments; the exception was West Virginia in 2017.
Of course, Baylor (9-2) is under new leadership with coach Nicki Collen this season, and the Bears’ style of play is different, with more emphasis on the 3-pointer. Baylor’s two losses were to Maryland and Michigan.
In four of the Bears’ first five Big 12 games, they’ll face foes who all had very good nonconference results in Kansas State (10-2), Texas (9-1), Oklahoma (10-1) and Kansas (9-1). So in the first two weeks of Big 12 season, we should get an indication if it’s still just business as usual for Baylor.
The Beavers are 7-3, and the Ducks are 6-4. In his latest Bracketology, Charlie Creme has Oregon among the last four byes, as a No. 10 seed, and Oregon State as the last team in the field, as a No. 11 seed. But are both teams going to get stronger during Pac-12 play? Probably.
Injuries have been a big factor for Oregon, with forward Nyara Sabally limited to three games so far and guards Te-Hina Paopao and Endyia Rogers seeing one each. The good news is that both Sabally and Rogers played in the Ducks’ most recent contest, a 68-56 loss at Kansas State on Dec. 18. Rogers, a transfer from USC, had 14 points, five rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes, while Sabally had six points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
Meanwhile, Oregon State is a team with a ton of size that is still finding its chemistry. The Beavers lead the Pac-12 in rebounding margin (plus-13.9) and are second in blocked shots (7.0 per game). But they are struggling with turnovers and have the second-worst turnover margin (minus-5.9) in the league.
Ole Miss has won 12 games in a row, and LSU has won 10 straight. The SEC has done well in nonconference play, with nine of its 14 teams having double-digit win totals so far and two others registering nine victories. But things always get brutal once conference play begins.
The Tigers are under new management in coach Kim Mulkey, and with her track record, no one is surprised to see them at 11-1 and ranked. One of their wins has come against a ranked team: then-No. 14 Iowa State on Dec. 2. But LSU will start SEC play facing three ranked teams in a row: at Georgia and at home versus Texas A&M and South Carolina. So the Tigers will get taste of the best of the league right off the bat.
The Rebels’ best win was over No. 18 South Florida, and they face two ranked teams among their first four SEC foes: South Carolina and Tennessee. Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin is in her fourth season and looking to lead Ole Miss into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
Getting into the league’s top four would be quite a feat for LSU or Ole Miss this season, but based on how they’ve played, maybe not out of reach.
Take a look at some of the highlights from Nia Clouden’s 50-point performance vs. FGCU, which set a Michigan State women’s basketball record for most points in a game.
The Spartans lost both of their games at the West Palm Beach Invitational in Florida, but Clouden was a force. She had a school-record 50 points (along with six rebounds) in an 85-84 double-overtime loss to Florida Gulf Coast on Monday, followed by 22 points in a 74-54 defeat against West Virginia on Tuesday.
The 50 points matched the record for Michigan State’s men (set by Terry Furlow in 1976) and topped Tori Jankoska’s mark of 42 for the women, set in 2017. Clouden, a 5-foot-8 senior guard, made 17 of 28 shots from the field and 15 of 17 free throws against FGCU. She is averaging 21.8 PPG this season.
Also at the West Palm Beach Invitational, Ole Miss beat Texas Tech 65-50 on Monday and No. 18 South Florida 61-53 on Tuesday. After starting their season with a loss to Belmont, the Rebels have won 12 in a row. They begin their SEC slate versus Arkansas on Thursday and travel to face No. 1 South Carolina on Sunday (noon ET, ESPN2).
IUPUI got its first win over a ranked team on Tuesday and did it on the road in Iowa City. Rachel McLimore hit two free throws with three seconds left to secure the victory; she and Macee Williams each had 19 points for IUPUI. The Jaguars’ 5-4 record is deceiving: Two of their losses were forfeits due to positive COVID-19 cases in their program, one was a five-point overtime loss to Michigan and the other was a six-point loss to Ball State.
IUPUI has made the WNIT field six times, and it would have made its NCAA tournament debut in 2020, had the event not been canceled by the pandemic. The Jags won the Horizon League tournament and automatic bid that year. Last season, they lost the Horizon tournament final to Wright State, which upset Arkansas in the NCAA tournament’s first round.
In her sixth season at her alma mater, Williams took the Huskers into the holiday break at 12-0 after a 72-61 victory over Wyoming on Wednesday. Led by Australians Jaz Shelley (a transfer from Oregon) and Isabelle Bourne, Nebraska resumes play on Thursday at Michigan State. The Huskers have made just one of the past five NCAA tournaments, but they are off to a good start in that pursuit for 2022.
And as the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper in Nebraska pointed out, Williams’ sister, Emilee Thiesse, also is undefeated as coach of Division II Minnesota State (Mankato) at 11-0.
No. 1 South Carolina uses a 10-0 run in the third quarter and some clutch buckets in the fourth to keep its perfect record intact.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks (12-0)
Previous ranking: 1
This week: at Missouri (Thursday), vs. Ole Miss (Sunday)
With the 18-point comeback against Stanford on Tuesday, South Carolina beat its sixth ranked opponent this season. The Gamecocks were thrilled to have guard Destanni Henderson back from a leg injury; she had 17 points, seven assists and seven steals.
2. Louisville Cardinals (10-1)
Previous ranking: 2
This week: vs. Boston College (Thursday), at Georgia Tech (Sunday)
The Cardinals went into the holiday break off the high of defeating UConn on Dec. 19, and they take a 10-game winning streak into the start of ACC play.
3. Stanford Cardinal (8-3)
Previous ranking: 3
This week: at Washington (Friday), at Washington State (Sunday)
Even before their 65-61 loss at South Carolina, the Cardinal knew they had to cut down on turnovers. They are averaging 15.6 this campaign as compared to 12.8 last season. In their three losses thus far, Stanford has averaged 17.6 turnovers.
Keyen Green says now it’s time for Tennessee to rest up for the rigors of the upcoming SEC schedule after a 112-58 thrashing of the Buccaneers.
4. Tennessee Lady Vols (10-1)
Previous ranking: 4
This week: vs. Chattanooga (Monday), vs. Alabama (Thursday), at Arkansas (Sunday)
After falling to Stanford on Dec. 18, Tennessee beat East Tennessee State 112-58 as a pre-holiday cupcake on Dec. 20. SEC play gets started this week for the Lady Vols, who are outrebounding opponents by almost 17 per game.
5. NC State Wolfpack (11-2)
Previous ranking: 5
This week: at Clemson (Thursday)
The Wolfpack’s Dec. 16 overtime loss to Georgia showed some cracks in their defense. They then held Virginia to 55 points on Dec. 19, but the Cavaliers are only averaging 58.2. Much better tests await NC State in ACC play.
6. Texas Longhorns (9-1)
Previous ranking: 6
This week: vs. Alcorn State (Wednesday), at Oklahoma State (Sunday)
The Longhorns had a strong defensive effort in a 70-53 victory at Princeton on Wednesday, holding the Tigers to 28.8% shooting. Guards Aliyah Matharu (16.0 PPG), Rori Harmon (11.7) and Joanne Allen-Taylor (10.7) lead the way.
7. Arizona Wildcats (10-0)
Previous ranking: 7
This week: at USC (Friday)
It would have been great to see how Arizona matched up with Texas, but their Dec. 19 game was canceled due to the Wildcats being in COVID-19 protocol. Their Jan. 2 game at UCLA has been postponed because of the Bruins’ COVID-19 issues, but Arizona hopes to play USC this week.
8. Baylor Bears (9-2)
Previous ranking: 8
This week: vs. North Texas (Wednesday), at Kansas State (Sunday)
The Bears will start Big 12 play as the favorites once again, although with a few more question marks than have been the case in recent years. There are no doubts about star NaLyssa Smith, though; she is averaging 20.5 points and 13.3 rebounds.
9. UConn Huskies (6-3)
Previous ranking: 9
This week: at DePaul (Friday)
The Huskies have had time to chew on their 69-64 loss to Louisville on Dec. 19. And with Wednesday’s scheduled game versus Marquette postponed due to COVID-19 issues with the Golden Eagles, UConn now has three consecutive Big East road games coming up.
10. Michigan Wolverines (11-1)
Previous ranking: 10
This week: vs. Ohio State (Friday)
The Wolverines split with the Buckeyes last season, with Naz Hillmon scoring 50 points in the January loss and 27 in the February win. She is currently averaging 20.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.
11. Indiana Hoosiers (10-2)
Previous ranking: 11
This week: at Rutgers (Thursday), vs. Maryland (Sunday)
The Hoosiers closed their nonconference schedule with a 70-37 rout of Southern Illinois on Thursday. They are 2-0 in the Big Ten and will have a huge conference matchup at home on Sunday versus Maryland (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
12. Maryland Terrapins (10-3)
Previous ranking: 12
This week: at Illinois (Thursday), at Indiana (Sunday)
The Terps beat final nonconference foe Coppin State 98-52 on Tuesday, and now they go on the road to resume Big Ten play. In Maryland’s 84-80 decision over Indiana last season, the Hoosiers won the paint battle, but the Terps made twice as many 3-pointers. We’ll see how it plays out this time.
13. Iowa State Cyclones (11-1)
Previous ranking: 13
This week: vs. West Virginia (Sunday)
Senior Ashley Joens is the Cyclones’ leading scorer and rebounder, and she is the team’s All-American candidate. But her sister, sophomore Aubrey Joens, is leading Iowa State in 3-pointers (45) and is shooting 49.5% from behind the arc.
14. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (10-2)
Previous ranking: 14
This week: at Pitt (Thursday), vs. Louisville (Sunday)
The Yellow Jackets have two big wins this season — over Georgia on Dec. 5 and against UConn on Dec. 9 — and they’ll try for another against the Cardinals. As good as Georgia Tech’s defense is — opponents are averaging 45.3 PPG — the offense is at 62.7 PPG and will need to execute well against Louisville.
15. Georgia Lady Bulldogs (11-1)
Previous ranking: 15
This week: vs. LSU (Thursday), at Florida (Sunday)
The Bulldogs’ only nonconference loss was by one point to Georgia Tech. Their SEC opener with LSU could be an intriguing early indicator of how good Georgia’s defense is. The Bulldogs have held opponents to 51.6 PPG.
16. LSU Tigers (11-1)
Previous ranking: NR
This week: vs. Samford (Monday), at Georgia (Thursday), vs. Texas A&M (Sunday)
Guards Khayla Pointer (17.6 PPG) and Alexis Morris (13.7) have played well together for LSU. Pointer also leads the Tigers in rebounding (6.7 per game) and assists (5.0), and Morris is tops in steals (2.1).
In the waiting room
Oklahoma Sooners (10-1): The Sooners came back from a 19-point deficit to beat Utah 83-76 on Tuesday, and they are off to their best start since the 2006-07 season.