The top 10 teams in the nation all have a lot going for them, but, as they regroup during the holidays, here’s what they are probably hoping for in 2020.
1. UConn Huskies
What they have: name recognition and Geno Auriemma’s coaching experience.
What they want: to keep the chip on their shoulder for the rest of the season.
UConn has a chip on its shoulder because it is not considered to be a “typical” UConn team this year, as Megan Walker put it after the Huskies’ win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish earlier this season. Even during last year’s Final Four run, you could see their dynasty fizzling as the team settled for a No. 2 seed entering the tournament. And with Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson gone, this year’s Husky team started off at No. 5 in the national rankings and is still not receiving a ton of hype despite having moved up to No. 1. But Walker, a junior, has stepped up. After the Notre Dame game, Auriemma said he thinks she is “playing like she’s a first-team All-American.” While the outside world might not see UConn as a front-runner this season, the Huskies need to maintain the belief that they are within their own locker room.
2. Oregon Ducks
What they have: freshmen randomly stepping up with crazy-good stats.
What they want: more monster games from Sabrina Ionescu when the going gets rough in conference play.
Ionescu took a backseat to Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally early in the season but has notched triple-doubles in her last two games. Freshmen Holly Winterburn and Jaz Shelley both have stepped up with gaudy stat lines for the Ducks. Winterburn scored 17 points off 5-of-7 shooting from long range against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits on Dec. 8. Eight days later Shelley made 10 3-pointers to set a new program record against the UC Riverside Highlanders — the same game in which Ionescu notched her 20th career triple-double. The team’s loss to the Louisville Cardinals and the lack of a signature win both serve as imperfections for the Ducks this season but they have returned to looking like the best team in the nation. Now, they just have to look that way against Pac-12 competition. Ionescu is doing the right thing by sharing the scoring for now. But if there’s one thing that this nearly perfect Oregon team could wish for, it would be seeing her return to the dominant player she was last year because the road only gets more difficult from here.
3. Oregon State Beavers
What they have: consistency and an even-keeled head coach in Scott Rueck, who helps in that department.
What they want: to use their Pac-12 slate as preparation for a better showing in the postseason. They also want to improve on the road.
Last season, the Beavers split with eventual Final Four participant Oregon in the regular season and defeated a fellow Sweet Sixteen team (UCLA Bruins) twice. But they were upset by the Washington Huskies early in the Pac-12 tournament before losing in the Sweet Sixteen with a disappointing 44-point effort. This year, they’ve displayed consistency, defeating each team they’ve faced by at least 10 points, but they also need to be consistent in conference play and part of that means winning on the road. Oregon State is known for its great home-court advantage at Gill Coliseum but went 9-7 away from Corvallis last year, including a 3-4 mark at neutral sites.
4. South Carolina Gamecocks
What they have: one of the best defenses in the nation.
What they want: more offense from Aliyah Boston.
The Gamecocks allow 52.7 points per game, good for 13th in the nation. As of Dec. 16, they also held their opponents to 29.8 percent shooting from the field (third in the country) and led the nation in blocked shots per game, with 9.1. A big part of their success in that department comes from freshman Aliyah Boston (3.2 blocks per game) and senior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (1.8 blocks per game). Boston also has the chance to be a great scorer during her college career. She has scored at least 10 points in all but one game so far, but has only hit the 20-point mark once. South Carolina lost to the Maryland Terrapins in a key non-conference game last year, but Boston helped them beat the Terps (then No. 4) and the defending champion Baylor Bears (then No. 2) during this year’s non-conference run. Boston scored 14 points against Maryland and then dropped her season-high of 20 points against Baylor. Those kinds of offensive performances against upper-echelon teams is what the Gamecocks need from her.
5. Stanford Cardinal
What they have: talented freshmen.
What they want: poise.
Of Stanford’s top-seven scorers, four (Haley Jones, Hannah Jump, Francesca Belibi and Ashten Prechtel) are freshmen. Jones was the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming into this season, while the other three were all in the top 50, according to espnW. So far, the quartet has not disappointed but they will need to step up in pressure situations moving forward. The same goes for sophomore Lexie Hull, junior Kiana Williams and senior DiJonai Carrington, who round out the team’s top scorers. Hull leads the way with 14.5 points per game, while Williams and Carrington are key puzzle pieces as well. An upset loss on Sunday dropped the Cardinal from No. 1 to fifth in the AP poll. Composure in tough situations will help Stanford avoid losses to unranked teams.
6. Baylor Lady Bears
What they have: a talented transfer in Te’a Cooper and a recent 3-point outburst from Juicy Landrum.
What they want: a healthy Lauren Cox.
Putting aside for now Landrum’s recent NCAAW-record 14 made 3-pointers, let’s take a look at the Lauren Cox situation. Cox and Kalani Brown (now with the Los Angeles Sparks) made up the frontcourt that led Baylor to last year’s national championship. Cox has been out with a foot injury since Nov. 8 and the team lost to South Carolina during that span. But Cox has now been cleared to play and could potentially return to the court on Dec. 30 against the Morehead State Eagles. Cox averaged 13 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last year and was a preseason AP All-American entering this season. Guard Te’a Cooper transferred from South Carolina prior to the season and has been able to pick up some of the scoring load along with Landrum, NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo. But Baylor needs Cox’s presence down low as soon as possible.
7. Louisville Cardinals
What they have: a coach in Jeff Walz who is not pressuring anyone to be the next Asia Durr.
What they want: Dana Evans to be her own player.
Louisville has been to the past six Sweet Sixteens and the last two Elite Eights. Their best moments as a program have come under Walz, who took over in 2007-08 after helping lead Maryland to a national championship in 2005-06 as an assistant coach. Walz’s success with the Cardinals came quickly — the team was the NCAA Tournament runner-up in his second season at the helm. That was the Angel McCoughtry era, while 2013’s runner-up finish was the Shoni Schimmel era, and the past two Elite Eights were a part of the Asia Durr era. Those are the three best players in Louisville history but, to steal a line from former Louisville men’s coach Rick Pitino, none is walking through the locker room door. Walz has given everyone on his roster the freedom to be themselves as players and it has paid off. Leading scorer Dana Evans is shooting a scorching 46 percent from distance and she has scored at least 12 points in every game this season while averaging 19.3. The junior guard also hit 10 assists for the second time in her career in the Cardinals’ win over No. 14 Kentucky — she played a key role in their win over then-No. 1 Oregon as well. All that Louisville can ask of her is to keep it up.
8. Florida State Seminoles
What they have: balanced scoring at the top.
What they want: more scoring from role players.
The Seminoles pulled off an important upset win over then-No. 6 Texas A&M Aggies whose star player Chennedy Carter is one of the best shooters in the nation. Florida State has three players (Nausia Woolfolk, Kiah Gillespie and Nicki Ekhomu) who each average around 15 points per game. Yet, the Aggies are sixth in scoring average among the top-10 teams as of Dec. 16. To keep up with dominant offenses like Oregon and Baylor come tournament time, the Seminoles could use some extra help from the rest of their rotation.
9. NC State Wolfpack
What they have: a signature win, something they didn’t have entering conference play last year.
What they want: to avoid any upsets in conference play.
The Wolfpack, like South Carolina, defeated Maryland earlier this season. That win will help them come seeding time, but they need to have success in conference play as well. During their ACC slate last year, the Wolfpack lost to superior teams (Notre Dame, Louisville), but also lost to the North Carolina Tar Heels and Florida State — teams that finished 8-8 and 10-6, respectively, in conference play. NC State, which was 12-4 in ACC play, lost in the Sweet Sixteen and hasn’t been to the Elite Eight since its 1998 Final Four run. Things are looking up, though, considering that the Wolfpack have been to the Sweet Sixteen twice in a row for the first time since making it three times in a row from 1989 to 1991.
10. UCLA Bruins
What they have: a chance to make women’s program history at a blue-blood basketball school.
What they want: Michaela Onyenwere to play like an All-American.
The Bruins’ one championship (1978) came before the NCAA Tournament for women started in 1982. But they’ve been to the Sweet Sixteen four years in a row now, so the process of recognition for the UCLA women’s team already has begun. To keep it up, UCLA will try to make its third Elite Eight or maybe even its first Final Four. To get there, the Bruins will have to go through Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State in conference play. The good news is that the Bruins have a true star in Michaela Onyenwere. Three of the preseason AP All-Americans are on teams that have dropped out of the top 10. Onyenwere was receiving votes and, while she has a great “Robin” in Japreece Dean, she needs to be someone who steps up when shots at the Cardinal, Ducks and Beavers come.