Another year, another excellent season of college basketball, right?
Normally, we’d be fiercely debating over the rankings of the top teams, arguing over who deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Instead, everyone’s just hoping to make it to the tournament safely, so that the season will be allowed to end in fireworks and (fanless) fanfare in San Antonio, with the long-awaited return of March Madness.
It’s no secret that the NCAA very badly needs the tournament to be played, even as a growing number of teams choose to cancel their seasons. While some teams are just trying to string together multiple games at this point, the top teams are all jostling for tournament seeds.
The lack of marquee non-conference games and the on again, off again scheduling makes it difficult to evaluate even the best teams. How do you compare a narrow win against a worse opponent to not playing at all? Do we rank teams at top strength or try to identify which teams are best prepared to weather the absence of their starting point guard or even their coach?
It’s harder than ever to rank the top teams, but that only means we have to look even closer at the stats. Ignoring the headlines in order to follow the numbers, here are the six teams with a real shot at the 2021 national championship.
It would be tough to look past Louisville (14-0 ACC), who last week passed their first real test as the new No. 1 team, beating then-No. 23 Syracuse 67-54. Through the rest of the season, Louisville will want to show that it can handle playing on the road (the team has only gotten four road games in, the last one a two-point nail-biter against Wake Forest) and move up in the NET, where they are currently ranked fifth. Winning should take care of both. Add that to a team with the fourth-best field goal percentage in the entire country (49.0%) and Louisville is set up to find tournament success, regardless of their opponents.
DANA EVANS IS CLUTCHHH. (via @UofLWBB) pic.twitter.com/Q0TPDK9Eyg— WSLAM (@wslam) January 24, 2021
DANA EVANS IS CLUTCHHH. (via @UofLWBB) pic.twitter.com/Q0TPDK9Eyg
Reigning ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans has continued to play phenomenal basketball and is averaging 19.5 points and 4.6 assists per game. The other three Cardinals in double figures are Hailey Van Lith (13.2) Kianna Smith (12.8) and Olivia Cochran (12.5). Van Lith and Cochran are both freshman tied for the team high with an impressive 6.4 rebounds per game. Louisville might not have expected them to contribute so much in their first year, and we might not have expected Louisville to be the No. 1 team at this point in the season, but as we head into February, they’re every bit deserving of the top seed.
The top-ranked team in the all important NET, No. 3 UConn (10-0 Big East) is once again looking like a prohibitive favorite. In the entire nation, the Huskies are first in field goal percentage (53.5%) and scoring margin (37.3). The offense is clicking for 87 points and 22.3 assists per game, while the defense is holding opponents to below 50 points per game and 30% shooting.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa has established herself as a leader on and off the court, epitomized by her 65.3% field goal percentage and 2.1 blocks per game. And the latest headline-grabbing performance by freshman Paige Bueckers — 3-for-14 shooting but the will to hit a clutch 3 on a rolled ankle against Tennessee, and of course the eight rebounds and seven assists — is just more evidence of why the expectations for her were so high before she even played a game.
The freshman Paige Bueckers with the DAGGER! ???? @espnw pic.twitter.com/dA1fXJVRlO— ESPN (@espn) January 22, 2021
The freshman Paige Bueckers with the DAGGER! ???? @espnw pic.twitter.com/dA1fXJVRlO
Bueckers is averaging a team-high 17.1 points and 2.9 steals per game as well as the nation’s 33rd most assists per game (5.1). The average NET rating of the teams UConn has beaten is 108, better than all but three other teams in the AP top 10, and convincing evidence that the Huskies are ready for a deep tournament run.
Although they have only seen the court twice in 2021, No. 2 NC State (11-0 ACC) is still a tournament threat. Emerging from COVID quarantine, the Wolfpack looked rusty in a 89-87 win over Virginia Tech, needing to rally from 14 points down in the fourth quarter. They were without their star player, however, as Elissa Cunane is recovering from COVID. In the team’s previous game (all the way back on January 3rd against Boston College) Cunane didn’t even miss a shot en route to a perfect 9-of-9 from the field for a season-high 24 points.
Cunane has been superb all year long with a 58.2% shooting rate that is the 18th best in the entire sport, and Kayla Jones is right there at 57.3%. Between the efforts of Cunane, Jones, Jakie Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd, NC State averages a nation-high 33.8 defensive rebounds per game, with all four players averaging at least 5.7 rebounds per game. That defensive hustle and offensive efficiency should let the Wolfpack run with anyone. They’ll need both for their biggest game of the year: a February 1st showdown with No. 1 Louisville.
As Aliyah Boston finds her footing, South Carolina (12-1 SEC) is looking more and more like the team everyone had ranked No. 1 preseason. Boston scored 26 with 16 rebounds and six blocks against then-No. 15 Arkansas only to return the very next game with a triple double, 16-11-10, against then-No. 22 Georgia. The reigning National Freshman of the Year is beginning to assert herself as a dominant big on both ends of the floor.
Aliyah Boston is the first @GamecockWBB player with a triple-double in an SEC game‼️▪️ 16 Pts▪️ 10 Blk▪️ 11 Reb pic.twitter.com/0JmcIK6sgQ— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 22, 2021
Aliyah Boston is the first @GamecockWBB player with a triple-double in an SEC game‼️▪️ 16 Pts▪️ 10 Blk▪️ 11 Reb pic.twitter.com/0JmcIK6sgQ
For most of the season, Zia Cooke has carried the scoring load, averaging 15.9 points per game. Nevertheless, in three straight games facing Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Arkansas, Cooke failed to reach double digit scoring. The Gamecocks still managed to win those games by an average of 30 points, and Cooke responded with 16 in the win over Georgia as Dawn Staley’s team showed how dominant they could be with all cylinders clicking.
The NCAA’s NET metric ranks South Carolina third on the strength of their 7.6 blocks per game (1st) and 19.9 rebound margin (2nd). For a team with the highest aspirations, the plan is coming into focus: dominate in the paint and score by committee.
No team has faced a more challenging schedule than No. 6 Stanford (12-2), but the Cardinal nonetheless held on to the top spot in the AP poll for six weeks before faltering in an uncharacteristic lack of focus against Colorado, before then losing to then-No. 6 UCLA. While the team won’t make excuses, it’s worth noting that Stanford has played just one game in its home gym of Maples Pavilion while living out of hotels since early December. And when you look at their opponents, only South Carolina has more quality wins.
Head coach Tara VanDerveer, who passed the legendary Pat Summitt to become the winningest coach in the sport earlier this season, has compiled another talented squad with the hopes of winning a national championship for the first time since 1992. VanDerveer will need Haley Jones to continue to play every position 1-4, Cameron Brink to limit her fouls so that she can see more floor time as an intimidating interior presence and lethal outside shooter, and Kiana Williams to hit shots at a higher rate. No one, however, will be more important than Anna Wilson, whose defense has been the cornerstone of the team’s identity as it navigates the best conference in the country. Despite their two losses, Stanford still has the talent and the coaching to win it all this year.
All over the nation’s leaderboard despite their two losses, No. 9 Baylor (10-2 Big 12) cannot be counted out just yet. No team does a better job on the boards (+20.4), and only UConn has been outscoring its opponents by more than Baylor’s 35.1 points per game. The offense has enough ball movement to rank first with 24.7 assists per game and the defense is staunch enough to hold opponents to 29.5% from the field.
With the sixth-highest NET rating despite an uncharacteristic loss to Iowa State, Baylor has shown the signs of a team affected by the pandemic. Head coach Kim Mulkey missed time with COVID-19, as did guard DiJonai Carrington and forward Caitlin Bickle, who both did not play in the loss to Iowa State which snapped a 61-game home winning streak. Given the lack of practice time leading up to the game, Mulkey was not shocked by the result. Even less surprising was Baylor’s dominant win over Oklahoma State in response.
Nalyssa Smith has averaged a double-double with 17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds playing just under 30 minutes per game. DiDi Richards is 13th nationally with 6.1 assists per game, and Carrington is 22nd with 3.0 steals per game. They may not generate the headlines, but Baylor is simply too good to ignore, and they’re a team no one will want to face when it comes to tournament time.