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Analysis: NCAAW AP poll shows surprise ascents, striking declines

Tennessee, Indiana and Michigan have surprised while Maryland, Texas and Notre Dame have fallen significantly since the preseason rankings were released.

Indiana Hoosiers Ali Patberg (14) plays against Mt. St. Mary...
Ali Patberg (left) attempts a pass against Mt. St. Mary’s on Nov. 7. Her Hoosiers have made the biggest jump in the rankings out of any team so far this season.
Photo by Bobby Goddin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

It’s always fun to wake up on Monday and know that the new AP rankings are coming out soon. In the past couple of seasons, there hasn’t been one dominant program like Tennessee and UConn have been in years past. That means your team, no matter where they are in the top 25, could become a contender in the NCAA Tournament come March.

Here’s an analysis of the teams that have risen and, yes, fallen:

Notably on the rise

At 4-0 after two weeks, Tennessee moves to No. 23 (tied with Gonzaga) after receiving votes in the preseason but not ranking in the top 25.

The Lady Vols survived a close call in their first game with Kellie Harper as head coach but bounced back with three-straight wins, including a 74-63 victory over then-No. 15 Notre Dame on the Irish’s home court. With that win and the impressive play of senior Rennia Davis, it is starting to look like the Vols could finish significantly better than they did last year. The Irish aren’t as good this year as they’ve been in recent seasons, but it was still a great resume-boosting win for Tennessee, which will face Texas and No. 3 Stanford during their non-non-conference slate.

Davis is averaging 15.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. After scoring a career-high 33 points in the Notre Dame game, she was named SEC Player of the Week. A lot of the hype surrounding the Tennessee program prior to this season was focused on Harper and No. 2 espnW Hoop Gurlz freshman Jordan Horston. Through four games, however, it has been Davis making a statement for herself and her team.

Indiana (3-0) moves from its preseason No. 24 ranking to No. 18.

The Hoosiers have blown away all three of their competitors this season and scored 111 points against Nicholls State on Nov. 10. Their two top scorers from last year (redshirt junior Ali Patberg and junior Jaelynn Penn) are back and living up to the hype. Patberg was the best player on the team last year, with 15.8 points, five rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. She and Penn can knock down threes, as can senior Brenna Wise, whom the team will look to as a vocal leader.

Indiana was underrated coming into the season after upsetting Texas in the first round of last year’s tournament as a 10 seed. But the Hoosiers rose in the rankings from No. 24 to No. 21 after Week One and climbed another three spots this week. It should be a fun team to watch moving forward because they also have a chance to make program history if they reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time.

Four wins and zero losses moves Michigan from a preseason No. 25 ranking to No. 21 after two weeks.

Wolverine power forward Naz Hillmon was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and she is looking good again this season, with 17 points per game to lead the team. Her fellow sophomore, guard Amy Dilk, also is playing really well early on; she has even drawn comparisons to No. 1 Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, who is the favorite to go No. 1 in the 2020 WNBA Draft. Dilk was named to the Big Ten weekly honor roll after averaging 12.5 points and 10 rebounds in Week One.

Head coach Kim Barnes Arico has brought a lot of positive energy this season because she is excited about how good her team could be. Last year, Michigan defeated Kansas State by 30 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing in the second round to No. 1 seed Louisville. This season, it hasn’t blown away its competition as much as Indiana (it only beat Akron by nine over the weekend), but expect both teams to contend with the Big Ten’s other ranked teams (No. 9 Maryland and No. 15 Michigan State).

Notably in downward slide

After two weeks, Maryland (3-1) dropped from its preseason No. 4 ranking to No. 9.

Maryland has fallen short of expectations lately in its bid to get back to the Sweet Sixteen after two consecutive losses in the round of 32. Last year, the Terappins didn’t start at No. 4 like they did this year, but they were ranked as high as fourth before falling to a three seed come tournament time.

This year, the Terps lost their second game of the season in disappointing fashion, scoring only 54 points at home. Albeit it was against No. 8 (now No. 5) South Carolina and the Terps only lost by nine points. But that type of offensive showing is still concerning. The team is led by senior Kaila Charles, who was a Preseason All-American, but she didn’t live up to that billing against South Carolina — taking 18 shots and making five. Meanwhile, Maryland’s second leading scorer from last year, Taylor Mikesell, was held scoreless.

After barely defeating James Madison, which was receiving votes at the time, the Terps returned to looking like a top-10 team in their 99-55 win over Delaware. Head coach Brenda Frese shook up the starting lineup before that game and also had Charles (a 6-foot-1 guard/forward) playing in the low post at times, perhaps in an effort to get her more scoring opportunities because her true strength is finishing at the basket, not taking jumpers.

Texas (1-2) moved from preseason No. 15 to receiving votes.

Texas, like Maryland, fell short of expectations last year and that has carried over to this very young season. The preseason No. 15 Longhorns lost their first game of the season 64-57 to unranked South Florida and fell to No. 22 in the rankings. Then, on Sunday, they lost 83-58 at home to an Arizona team that, at the time, was receiving votes. Wildcat guard Aari McDonald dominated the Longhorns with an Arizona program-record 44 points.

A key loss for Texas from last year is Destiny Littleton, a 3-point specialist who transferred to South Carolina. The loss of Littleton and her 8.4 points per game hurts because the Longhorns haven’t gained much in terms of newcomers. They also lost their biggest 3-point threat in Danni Williams and starting big Jatari White to graduation. Because of all that, putting the Longhorns at No. 15 may have been ill-advised. Texas lost to Indiana in the first round of the 2018-19 tournament, as a seven seed, and with a better supporting cast surrounding senior leader Sug Sutton.

Notre Dame (2-2) falls from preseason No. 16 to receiving votes.

Notre Dame entered this season with lower expectations than last year after losing its five starters, and much of its scoring, to graduation and the WNBA. Notre Dame won the 2018 NCAA Tournament in thrilling fashion and barely lost in the title game against Baylor in 2019. The Irish entered this season at No. 16, which is 14 spots lower than their No. 2 finish in 2018-19. But maybe that fall in the polls wasn’t far enough. In the game that saw Tennessee defeat the Irish by 11, Notre Dame was down by as many as 18 points. Then, on Thursday, they Irish lost a second-straight home game (this time to No. 17 Michigan State), which knocked them out of the top 25. It will be interesting to see how Notre Dame responds to the adversity of those losses but, for now, the Irish definitely seem like a program that is rebuilding.