Stanford, California - January 26, 2020: Stanford Women’s Basketball defeats Utah 82-49 at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California.

It’s been an electric, unpredictable year in college basketball, and the best is still to come. With roughly a month’s worth of conference games and tournament contests remaining before the NCAA tournament, it’s time to take a step back and review the year so far.

 

MOST SURPRISING TEAM: GONZAGA 

Even coming off a Saturday night loss at St. Mary’s, Gonzaga has still been the surprise of the year, easily surpassing pre-season expectations. Last season ended with a second-round loss to Oregon State, and this year the polls predicted a similar trajectory, with the Bulldogs slotted 23rd in the initial Coaches Poll. Respectable, but not exactly scaring anyone.

After losing three starters from last season to graduation (Zykera Rice, Chandler Smith and Laura Stockton), it seemed fair to expect a rebuilding year. Instead, until last weekend’s loss in Moraga, the Bulldogs’ only blemish had come in an overtime duel at sixth-ranked Stanford. In between the two losses, Gonzaga strung together an 18-game win streak during which they held a third of their opponents to 45 points or fewer. Their fans have jumped on the hype train, and now the McCarthey Athletic Center is regularly sold out for home games.

The Bulldogs are led by Jill Townsend, who dropped a career-high 28 points against Loyola Marymount. Townsend will need to take on even more of the scoring load now that senior guard Katie Campbell has been lost for the season to a knee injury. The Bulldogs average shooting 40.8% from deep, a number that ranks second in the country. Combine that outside threat with the nation’s fifth-ranked scoring defense, and it’s obvious why Gonzaga should still be competitive in every one of its upcoming games.

The Bulldogs also have the unique distinction of having two sets of identical twins on their roster. Juniors Jenn and LeaAnne Wirth hosted Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong during their recruiting visit and now all four have average double-digit minutes. The Wirth twins, specifically, are third and fourth on the team in scoring as regular starters.

 

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: NOTRE DAME

It’s no secret that Notre Dame has not lived up to the lofty expectations it has set for itself under Muffet McGraw. Their record (9-14, 4-7 in ACC play) says it all. There is a good chance that the Fighting Irish will become just the third team in Division I history to plummet from national runner-up one year to missing the tournament come mid-March. If so, a 24-year streak will be snapped.

Not only have the losses come to perennial powerhouses like Tennessee and UConn, but also to Clemson, which has just six other wins on the season and is one of just two teams below Notre Dame in the conference standings.

In a sign of the times, Notre Dame’s current two-game win streak matches its longest of the season. Preseason, hurting from the loss of all five starters and two key bench contributors, Notre Dame was ranked outside of the top 10 for the first time since Jan. 17, 2011. Soon after, the third-longest active run in the AP poll ended altogether after 234 consecutive weeks.

These are odd times around Purcell Pavilion, to say the least.

“I just … I gotta do better,” McGraw said recently. “I feel like I can fix it, but I didn’t. I’m going to find an answer. I’m gonna fix it.”

 

MVP: SABRINA IONESCU

And this one isn’t particularly close. The reigning player of the year, Sabrina Ionescu leads the top scoring offense in scoring. Ionescu also has the most assists and the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country despite how often she’s asked to make a play. Her six triple-doubles are the most in the country, and she is now up to 24 total in her already-historic college career.

Incredibly, with two other teammates in the top 100, Ionescu’s 17.2 points per game rank 64th in the sport. The future first pick in the WNBA draft has once again made her case as the best college player in the game. Oh, and she can do this:

BEST MOMENT: UCONN SALUTES GIANNA BRYANT

The entire basketball world has been grieving the loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who notoriously desired to play for Geno Auriemma’s Huskies. During their exhibition with Team USA, UConn left a space for Gianna’s jersey on their bench. Rest in peace, Mambacita.

LOOKING AHEAD:

Each team, even those at the top, has questions to answer. For No. 1 South Carolina, it will be whether it can keep up when its opponents get hot from behind the arc. The Gamecocks have struggled in this category when facing top competition. Against Maryland and Kentucky, South Carolina went 1-of-9 and 1-of-6 from 3-point range and eventually abandoned the shot entirely. In their lone loss of the season, to Indiana, South Carolina remained enamored with the 3-ball and suffered the consequence, to the tune of 3-for-19 from beyond the arc.

No. 2 Baylor only has one game remaining against a team receiving votes in the AP poll, against TCU on Wednesday. The Lady Bears will likely need to win out to prove they deserve a top seed in the tournament. No. 3 Oregon still has to visit No. 10 UCLA and No. 6 Stanford, but if the first contest against the Cardinal is any indication, neither Pac 12 opponent will provide much of a test.

No. 4 NC State will have to make up ground in the conference tournament after losing to No. 9 Louisville on Wednesday. If the Wolfpack can run the tables and enact revenge, they could be in line for a top seed in the tournament.

No. 5 UConn will need to prove it can win when Megan Walker and Christyn Williams are neutralized. The Huskies’ top four scorers account for almost 77% of the team’s points. For comparison, South Carolina’s top four register account for just 60% of the Gamecocks’ offense. When Walker and Williams faced Oregon, they combined to shoot 5-for-25, and their struggles led to a decisive home loss.