What a difference a week makes! And what I mean by that is that it's becoming more and more evident that we may be in for the best year of women's college basketball that I've ever been apart of. Just look at what we consider to be perenially top programs in Stanford, Tennessee and UConn. These three teams have a combined 7 losses before Christmas. Luckily for Lady Vol and Husky fans their teams seem to be heading in the right direction. The same cannot be said for Pac-12 teams like Cal and Stanford.
The last few years, the PAC-12 has done a fantastic job of putting quality teams at the forefront of success in women's college basketball and made a case that the West Coast has been overlooked. So far this season, the best team out West is Scott Rueck's Oregon State Beavers, off to a 10-0 start. If that hasn't been impressive enough, each of the ten wins has been by double digits. Granted, the schedule hasn't been the toughest but you can't ask for much more from your team than to win each game on the schedule by 10+ points. The Beavers will face their toughest test after a 10-day break when they face Tennessee in Knoxville on December 28th. But while OSU is cruising, the basketball nation is wondering what's going on in Palo Alto. After knocking off 2-time defending champion UConn, Tara VanDerveer's crew has dropped 4 of 8, including back-to-back losses for the first time since 2010. The lack of interior production has hurt the Cardinal but it seems like the system in place doesn't work for everyone involved. It'll be interesting to see how the Hall of Famer prepares her team heading into conference play. And let's not forget Cal. Lindsay Gottlieb is in the midst of the first three game losing streak of her tenure and the Bears just need to figure out a way to put the ball in the basket. Shooting the ball better from the three than from the floor can be a good thing, but not when you only shoot 33% from the arc to begin with. Jeff Walz's Louisville team methodically picked apart the Cal defense and shot the ball extremely well to send the Bears likely out of the Top 25.
Texas Royalty: Empress Gets The Job Done
To begin the national Coach of the Year conversation, one must begin in Austin. Karen Aston knew exactly what she was getting into when she took the job at the tradition-rich university and she's done an admirable job. Bringing in high-level recruits to fill the holes on teams that seemed to underachieve, Aston now has depth at every position and finds her team sitting at 10-0 on the year. The winning streak hasn't been without it's struggles and the prettiest of battles occurred yesterday afternoon. In-state rival Texas A&M came into the matchup undefeated and sitting directly below the Longhorns in the Top 25 rankings. The Verizon Center in Little Rock got an absolute show as both teams flexed their muscle and showed championship mettle in a game that went down to the wire. Junior guard Empress Davenport, who's had an up-and-down career since arriving in Austin, left her mark in this game when her team needed her most. Davenport has struggled by her own lofty standards so far this season, shooting career-lows in both field goal percentage and 3 point percentage but after going scoreless for the first 36 minutes, the 5'7" player from Duncanville, Texas scored the Horns last 7 points. Her layup with 4.2 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner. After hitting a huge shot late in her team's win over Stanford, Davenport is starting to grab the nation's attention with her resiliency. In the Stanford game, she finished with 6 turnovers. Against A&M's pressure defense and length on the perimeter, she only hit 2 of her 6 shots. But she's been the biggest player on the floor when her team has needed her.
Vic Shaefer: Offensive Genius?
Yes. You read that correctly. The alleged guru behind the defense that won Gary Blair and Texas A&M a National Championship in 2011 has his team undefeated and making noise from Starkville, Mississippi with the 6th-best scoring offense in the nation at 87.7 points per game. Combine that with the 8th-best scoring margin in the nation (+28.2) and you have an undefeated team that is riding high. The offense is being led by two freshmen, Victoria Vivians and Morgan William, who also happen to be tied for second on the team in total steals. What's made their run most impressive is that the Bulldogs began the season without All-SEC performer Martha Alwal and senior guard Kendra Grant, neither of whom has started a game this season. Granted, the schedule isn't going to scare off many people but as I mentioned earlier, as a coach you ask your kids to win the games you have, and these ladies have done that. Easily. Barring a major upset, the Bulldogs should begin SEC play undefeated and that's where we'll find out if this team is a contender or a pretender. They kickoff the conference slate with fellow undefeated and 15th-ranked Georgia so we'll definitely have some idea after that matchup in Starkville.
Have the Blue Devils turned a corner?
Going into yesterday's game with 8th-ranked Kentucky, Joanne P McCallie's team was desperate for a win against a quality team. The team had chances in each of the games during their recent three game skid, falling to South Carolina, Texas A&M and Nebraska by a combined 11 points. With the struggles they've had taking care of the ball -- the Blue Devils average 17 turnovers per outing-- all signs pointed towards Kentucky cruising. Well a team in blue and white cruised alright. And it was the home team. Freshman guard Azura Stevens led the Blue Devil attack, garnering 17 points in an 89-68 drubbing of Matthew Mitchell's Wildcats, who were playing their first game without guard Bria Goss. 56% shooting, including 61% in the first half, negated the fact that the Blue Devils continued to struggle with ball control as they finished with 25 giveaways for the game. Duke's length gave Kentucky trouble all afternoon as they were able to block ten shots and really force the Cats out of their comfort zone all afternoon.
Week 2 Player of the Year Rankings
1. Jewell Loyd
Junior 5'10" Guard Notre Dame
Loyd's strong play has continued and so goes Loyd, so goes Notre Dame. In yesterday's matchup with Saint Joseph's, freshman phenom Brianna Turner announced her return vociferously and Loyd finished with a quiet 16. But she's risen to the occasion time and time again for the Irish and she will need to in order for them to achieve their lofty goals.
2. Breanna Stewart
Junior 6'4" Guard UConn
Stewart's game has started to even out and she's back to leading the charge for the Huskies. She's still the most talented player in the country and when she's locked in and aggressive, she can't be guarded. Need proof? Look no further than Sunday's decimation of UCLA. 22 points, 5 boards and 5 blocks never looked so easy.
3. Kelsey Plum
Sophomore 5'8" Guard Washington
Plum could be playing at any program in the country and is doing all she can to make the University of Washington relevant on a national scale. The main focus of every team's scout on a nightly basis, Plum continues to be highly effective and highly efficient. I've tried to keep her ranking modest because of her team's weak schedule but she's averaging 26.1 points and shooting 51% from the field, 45% from three and 89% from the free throw line, barely missing the legendary 50-40-90 shooting percentages. If she continues to produce at this level, it doesn't matter who she plays. You have to give credit where it's due and she's quietly sending the nation a wake-up call.
Senior 5'11" Guard UConn
KML has been fantastic shooting the three this season and while it's really all she's done, you can't blame her. 33 of her 45 field goals this season have been from range and she continues to shoot an unreal 53% from distance and she's hitting them with players in her face. How do you guard that? When someone figures it out, I'll be sure to pass it along.
Senior 6'3" Forward Cal
Gray's Bears have dropped three straight for the first time under Gottlieb and in my opinion, there's a simple fix. GET GRAY THE BALL. In Sunday's lost to Louisville, Gray finished with yet another double-double of 17 points and 10 caroms but only took 7 shots from the floor, making 4. The rest of the Cal starting lineup? 47 shots, 15 of which came from your point guard. That's unacceptable when Gray is shooting 66% from the field. Wins are what mattermost and the solution for Cal is simple.
7. LiLi Thompson
Sophomore 5'7" Guard Stanford
Thompson's tough stretch corresponds with Stanford's struggles this season. Stanford has dropped consecutive games for the first time since 2010 and Thompson combined to score 22 points in the two contests. 2 points less than she scored in the upset of UConn. The system in place seems to be hindering this team as a whole and if Thompson is going to struggle, we may see some changes come Pac-12 play for TVD.
8. Nina Davis
Sophomore 5'11" Forward Baylor
Every year I expect Baylor to fall flat on their face and every year I end up shaking my head for doubting Kim Mulkey. Davis has been fantastic this season as an undersized post and is making a name for herself as a sophomore. 22.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per outing has been key to Baylor's 10-1 start. She'll need to remain at this level on a nightly basis if Baylor expects to contend for the Big 12 championship.
9. Bria Holmes
Junior 6'1" Guard West Virginia
A new entry altogether to the rankings, Holmes has been terrific for Mike Carey's Mountaineers this season. Her season average of 22.9 points per outing is actually lower than it should be when you consider such a talented player struggles to knock down free throws. Even with those struggles, she's been instrumental in the team's 9-1 start. WVU would be my first and second pick as the biggest threat to Texas' Big 12 championship aspirations and if they plan to be a serious threat, it begins and ends with Holmes.
10. Brittany Hrynko
Senior 5'8" Guard Depaul
Hrynko continues to be one of my favorite players to watch this season and a tough loss to UConn doesn't change that. Depaul would love to bottle that start and produce it on a regular basis but the Blue Demons showed that regardless of opponent and outcome, they're going to play their brand of basketball and that begins and ends with the senior from Philly.