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College Hoops: Midseason Review

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.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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