College hoops upset mania: What I’ve learned about the top teams

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The last two weeks of the women’s college basketball season have been pure insanity. I’m talking upsets, and there is plenty to unpack from the team and individual performances.

In the first two weeks of the 2021-22 season, there were three upsets; since then, there have been 20. What does that mean for rankings and for the teams on either side of the dreaded u-word? Let’s discuss.

No. 23 South Florida 71, No. 9 Oregon 62 (Nov. 22)

South Florida and Oregon have both been mainstays on the upset list over the last 14 days. Let’s start with South Florida, a team that nearly topped No. 2 UConn a day prior, eventually losing by seven points. The Bulls unleashed their defensive pressure on the Ducks, forcing Oregon into 25 turnovers. Elisa Pinzan led her team with a double-double of 26 points and 10 assists. She and teammate Sydni Harvey each made four 3-pointers and were efficient at the free-throw line. Harvey had 22 points, and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeau scored 17 off the bench.

South Florida is not a bad loss for the Ducks by any means, but the way they lost is concerning. Coach Kelly Graves told the Register-Guard, “I don’t know if I’ve been in a game where my team had 25 turnovers.”

I gave the Ducks the benefit of the doubt after this one because South Florida is clearly better than its No. 23 ranking, and its defense has disrupted plenty of teams (hey there, UConn). But, sorry Oregon fans, the Ducks aren’t out of the upset woods yet.

No. 5 NC State 78, No. 2 Maryland 60 (Nov. 25)

I don’t really consider one top 10-team beating another much of an upset, but by definition, NC State’s win does count. And semantics aside, this loss exposed a Maryland flaw that always had potential to hurt the Terrapins: defense. They are without Katie Benzan and Diamond Miller, but Maryland is used to blowing past opponents with its high-powered offense. When that offense isn’t there, the Terrapins struggle.

Elissa Cunane had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Jakia Brown-Turner also had a double-double with 12 points and 11 boards. Raina Perez added 11 points, and Diamond Johnson had 17 off the bench. The Wolfpack also out-rebounded Maryland 47-34 and held the team to 34.3 percent shooting. Was it an off-night for Maryland without two key pieces? Maybe. But it could also be a precursor to what’s to come for the Terps this postseason. Meanwhile, NC State looked like a Final Four-caliber squad.

No. 7 Stanford 69, No. 4 Indiana 66 (Nov. 25)

Again, No. 7 over No. 4 isn’t crazy, but this game was big for Stanford. The Cardinal were nearly upset themselves four days earlier when they squeaked by unranked Gonzaga 66-62 on the road, and they were upset by Texas on Nov. 14. Stanford needed a win, and Cameron Brink delivered a victory and a breakout performance with 22 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks and five assists. They also did it while not at 100 percent, most notably with Haley Jones fighting an injury.

BYU 61, No. 17 Florida State 54 (Nov. 25)

BYU has been on the verge of being in the top 25 since preseason, and the undefeated Cougars played themselves up to No. 21 in the AP poll with this upset. Shaylee Gonzales was excellent for the Cougars with 24 points and a 10-for-11 performance from the free-throw line. Neither of these teams were done with upsets after this one, so more on them later.

No. 18 South Florida 57, No. 7 Stanford 54 (Nov. 26)

Told you we weren’t done with South Florida. The Oregon win moved the Bulls up to No. 18, and topping Stanford got even more eyes on them. Again, I don’t think this is a bad loss for a Stanford team that is clearly figuring some things out. At this point, I thought South Florida was a top-10 team. But, chaos continued to ensue, and well, you’ll see. Back to Stanford for now.

Haley Jones is still clearly injured, as the Cardinal star didn’t record a point in this loss. Anna Wilson was battling something, as well — she played only four minutes — and, as a result, the Stanford offense struggled to get going. There were two bright spots, though. Brink again recorded a double-double of 23 points and 11 rebounds, and freshman Brooke Demetre came off the bench to deliver 14 points.

Kent State 75, No. 19 UCLA 69 (Nov. 26)

This was a bad loss for UCLA. The Bruins took care of the ball, turning it over only five times, but their offense was still less than desirable. UCLA shot 35.7 percent from the field, while Kent State shot 50 percent, including 53 percent from beyond the arc for nine made 3s.

Missouri State 76, No. 24 Virginia Tech 68 (Nov. 26)

I had Missouri State ranked 25th to start the season, so this upset makes a lot of sense to me. The Bears had a well-balanced attack, with four players in double figures. Jasmine Franklin led the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds, but the real difference-maker came at the free-throw line. Missouri State went to the line 30 times and made 27 of their shots (90 percent). Conference play isn’t helpful for the Bears, as the Missouri Valley doesn’t have any top teams, so this win may be their best resume-builder come tournament time. And free-throw efficiency will only help them as the season progresses.

No. 7 Stanford 86, No. 2 Maryland 67 (Nov. 27)

Maryland suffered the same problems against Stanford as it did in the loss to NC State. The Terrapins shot 30 percent from the field and had little offensive production outside of Ashley Owusu’s 29 points. Meanwhile, Stanford got offense from a lot of different — and somewhat unexpected — places, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. Hannah Jump led the Cardinal with 21 points, while Fran Belibi, Lexie Hull and Haley Jones each had 15.

Stanford is playing a tough schedule this season — No. 11 Tennessee and No. 1 South Carolina still await this month — so even though there are some clear issues to work through, I think Stanford is in great shape. Wins over teams like Maryland and Indiana prove that.

Notre Dame 64, No. 16 Oregon State 62 (Nov. 27)

Oregon State was down 20 points heading into the fourth quarter before a monster comeback made this one close. If Kennedy Brown makes her one-and-one free throws at the end of regulation, this one heads to overtime; and if Oregon State wins, we chalk this game up to a close call. But, as things stand, this game was a good indicator of where both teams stand. The Beavers have one other loss, to No. 12 Michigan, and Notre Dame dropped games to a good Georgia team and a great UConn squad. The slim margin in this one leads me to believe that both Oregon State and Notre Dame are teams in the 20-25 range of the rankings.

Purdue 66, No. 17 Florida State 61 (Nov. 27)

Losing to BYU, no big deal. Losing to Purdue? A bit bigger of a deal. This is the loss that nearly booted Florida State out of the AP poll. Purdue isn’t bad, necessarily, but the Boilermakers are a squad that a No. 17 team should beat. Purdue quite literally didn’t score in the second quarter and still managed to make a comeback. Meanwhile, Florida State received no production from its starting five, with Kourtney’s Weber’s 11 points being the highlight. AP voters just bumped Florida State from the top-25 rankings, as did I. The Seminoles have ACC play coming up, though, and there is potential for them to get on the other side of an upset. If that happens, I may have to reconsider.

South Dakota State 76, No. 19 UCLA 66 (Nov. 27)

Remember when I said Kent State was a bad loss for UCLA? Well, being upset by the 3-4 Jackrabbits might be worse. Particularly because there were no massive bad spots for the Bruins, they just got outplayed. Izzy Anstey had some early foul trouble that kept her on the bench. Iimar’i Thomas came in and made up for it with 18 points, and yet, UCLA still couldn’t top the Jackrabbits. The odds were stacked against UCLA coming into the season, with Emily Bessoir’s ACL injury and the task of working in several players who were absent last year due to COVID-19. As it stand, the Bruins still seem to be figuring those things out.

BYU 58, No. 22 West Virginia 57 (Nov. 27)

BYU is a good team, and one worthy of a top-25 spot. Two upsets in two days secured that ranking for the Cougars, as they made their way to No. 16 in this week’s poll. There is a lot to like about this BYU squad, and one of the bright spots comes in two sophomores: Shaylee Gonzales and Lauren Gustin. Gonzales, a guard, is BYU’s leading scorer with 17.6 points per game, and Gustin is third with 11.2. These two make a great pair, and their youth means they will only get better with more experience this season. An upcoming battle with 6-1 Washington State — a team that has one of the best players in the country in Charlisse Leger-Walker — will serve as another test and potential benchmark for the Cougars.

UC Davis 64, No. 18 Oregon 57 (Dec. 1)

Before getting too critical of the Ducks, it’s important to know they were without point guard Te-Hina Paopao and center Nyara Sabally. But they still lost to a 4-3 UC Davis team. With the caliber of talent Oregon has, The Oregonian called it “the worst loss of the Kelly Graves era.” I remain unsure about the Ducks, especially when you consider they narrowly escaped Portland two days later (62-59). Oregon plays a good, unranked Colorado team to kick off the January calendar, followed by clashes with No. 4 Stanford, No. 7 Arizona and No. 2 UConn. That’s quite the gauntlet, but also a chance for the Ducks to get back on track with a signature win.

Syracuse 97, No. 18 Ohio State 91 (Dec. 1)

This was Ohio State’s first road game of the season. The Buckeyes were winning games by an average of 29.8 points up until this one, and their inexperience in close games showed. Syracuse kept within striking distance in the first half before outscoring the Buckeyes 29-19 in the third quarter. Defensively, Ohio State just didn’t have it, and the Buckeyes allowed Teisha Hyman to score a career-high 30 points on 4-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc. The Orange also won the battle at the line, going 23-for-26, while Ohio State was 15-for-26.

It’s not a great look for Ohio State that its first road game, and first matchup with a non-mid-major opponent, was a loss. The Buckeyes did beat Purdue in dominant fashion on the road a few days later, which isn’t much of a win but shows that maybe they learned from their defeat to Syracuse. Ohio State will need to be in top form if it wants to make an impact in the Big Ten, which I consider the best conference in the country. In other words, no more losing to teams like Syracuse.

Princeton 58, No. 22 Florida Gulf Coast 55 (Dec. 1)

This one hurts Florida Gulf Coast in the long term, simply because in the ASUN, the Eagles won’t have many tests or chances to prove their worth for a good seed come tournament time. It’s not fair to say they have to go undefeated to be taken seriously, but unfortunately, that’s often how it works in a small conference. Earlier in the season, they did beat an LSU team that we will talk about later, and they have a potentially tougher matchup with Michigan State coming up. I don’t think the Princeton loss is any reason to panic, though the poor shooting performance — 36.4 percent from the field, 27.6 percent from beyond the arc and 63.6 percent from the free-throw line — should raise some alarm bells.

Duke 79, No. 9 Iowa 64 (Dec. 2)

The Blue Devils have been in the back of my mind for a while now, and this is the kind of victory that makes them a part of the national conversation. Now 8-0, Duke hadn’t played any high-caliber teams until the matchup with Iowa. The Blue Devils delivered, with an impressive defensive performance guarding prolific scorer Caitlin Clark. She finished with 22 points but scored just four first-half points while going 9-for-27 from the field and 1-for-13 from the 3-point line. Iowa was coming off of a short pause due to COVID-19, and I don’t expect Clark to struggle like this often. Still, this is a great win for Kara Lawson and Duke. It got the previously unranked Blue Devils all the way up to No. 19 in the AP poll and should give them confidence going into a big matchup against No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 15.

UT Arlington 61, No. 13 South Florida 56 (Dec. 2)

South Florida, say it ain’t so. I didn’t expect to see the Bulls on this side of an upset, and certainly not to UT Arlington right as the team was climbing the rankings. South Florida gained a ton of respect with its wins over Oregon and Stanford, and this is the type of defeat that can have newly-acquired believers changing their minds. It was a dismal offensive performance for the Bulls, who shot 32.4 percent from the field, and 22.7 percent from the 3-point line. South Florida is 5-3, but the other two losses came to top-10 teams Tennessee and UConn. The Bulls were coming off back-to-back upset wins, so it’s fair to think they may have been gassed against UT Arlington. A bad loss, yes, but I’m not panicking for the Bulls.

LSU 69, No. 14 Iowa State 60 (Dec. 2)

Iowa State didn’t necessarily play poorly in this game, which makes the win even better for Kim Mulkey and LSU. The Cyclones were in early foul trouble but still got their usual production from Ashley Joens, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds. The big difference came at the 3-point line and with turnovers. LSU went 7-of-10 from 3, five of which came in the first half to give the Tigers a six-point lead going into the break. LSU also forced 16 turnovers and did a good job of taking care of the ball, coughing it up just seven times. LSU deserved its spot in the top 25 after this win.

As for the Cyclones, losing their first game against a tough opponent was a problem. No. 15 Iowa State bounced back Wednesday night with a statement 77-70 win over their state rivals, No. 12 Iowa, giving us a better indication of what this Cyclones team is capable of.

Georgia Tech 55, No. 20 Georgia 54 (Dec. 5)

Here’s another upset that makes a lot of sense to me, but how it happened doesn’t. If you tell me Georgia Tech had a big win, I will assume it was thanks to Lorela Cubaj and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen. But the latter only scored seven points, and Cubaj did most of her work on the glass, hauling in an impressive 15 rebounds while also scoring 11 points. The Yellow Jackets got solid production from Nerea Hermosa and Eylia Love, who had 14 points apiece. Cubaj’s rebounding came in handy, as Georgia Tech had 44 boards to Georgia’s 37. I don’t think we are done seeing Georgia Tech on the winning end of upsets, either. The Yellow Jackets have the talent to play with top teams once all the pieces come together.

If you made it through all of that, congratulations! You’re now just as confused as I am. Now, here are my rankings for the week.

JWS’ Top 25 in Week 5

1. South Carolina
2. UConn
3. NC State
4. Stanford
5. Indiana
6. Arizona
7. Baylor
8. Iowa
9. Louisville
10. Maryland
11. Tennessee
12. Texas
13. Michigan
14. Iowa State
15. South Florida
16. BYU
17. Ohio State
18. Duke
19. Georgia Tech
20. Kentucky
21. Oregon State
22. Notre Dame
23. Florida Gulf Coast
24. LSU
25. Oregon

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.