Indiana’s Grace Berger sidelined after injury at maligned Vegas tournament
Berger will miss Thursday's game vs. North Carolina.
The other day I was chatting on the phone with my editor, and she asked me if I still thought the Big Ten was the top conference this season. When your editor questions your thinking, it’s usually a good idea to reevaluate. So, that’s what we are going to do today.
While the Pac-12 currently has three teams in the top 25, there are four conferences that can make a true case for being No. 1: the SEC, the ACC, the Big 12 and the Big Ten. Let’s break it down.
Ranked teams: No. 1 South Carolina, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 15 LSU, No. 14 Georgia
Let’s start with the obvious: The No. 1 team in the country being in your conference gives you major points in this competition. I also count Tennessee as part of a small group of teams I think could win it all come March. Rae Burrell’s injury near the beginning of the season only helped the Vols become more well-rounded. When she was out, the rest of the team had to step up. Now that the senior is back, they will be a better, more experienced team than they were when she went down.
LSU gets points for beating Georgia and sticking with South Carolina in a 66-60 loss. The Tigers also have two losses to conference foes Florida and Arkansas that do nothing for them personally, but make the SEC look more well-rounded. Georgia’s resume is similar to that of LSU. The Bulldogs made some non-conference noise by defeating No. 3 NC State, the ACC’s top team, and then made the SEC look tougher by losing to a struggling Kentucky squad, 84-76 on Jan. 6.
Other teams of note: Ole Miss, Missouri
Ole Miss had a brief stint in the top 25 thanks to a win over Georgia, and Missouri is the only team in the country to defeat South Carolina. Not bad, SEC.
Ranked teams: No. 3 NC State, No. 4 Louisville, No. 12 Georgia Tech, No. 20 Notre Dame, No. 24 North Carolina
When it comes to body of work, NC State is one of the most consistent teams in the country. The Wolfpack are 10-0 in the conference and have lost only to No. 1 South Carolina and No. 14 Georgia in overtime. Losing to Georgia was an upset of sorts, but going wire-to-wire with a good, ranked opponent doesn’t scream “bad loss” to me. NC State being the ACC’s top team is a great start for the conference, while Louisville continues to trend in a positive direction. The Cardinals have also lost only two games to good teams (N.C. State and No. 8 Arizona). So at the top of the ACC, we have two teams that are performing exactly how they should be, if not a notch or two better.
Now, here’s where things get interesting to me. NC State and Louisville are the conference’s best teams, but the squad who has the best chance to make a deep run this postseason? That’s Georgia Tech. Defensively, the Yellow Jackets play a gritty, intense style that is hard to replicate in practice. That means they can upset virtually anyone, and I would hate for my team to meet them in the postseason. Notre Dame and North Carolina round out the ranked ACC teams and have yet to get upset this season.
Other teams of note: Duke, Virginia Tech
The Blue Devils and Hokies have each spent weeks in the top 25, and the rest of the season at least flirting with the rankings. But Virginia Tech has some bad losses (Liberty to name one), and Duke hasn’t been healthy enough yet to show their full potential. So, we have some pros and cons for the ACC.
Ranked teams: No. 9 Baylor, No. 11 Iowa State, No. 13 Texas, No. 18 Oklahoma, No. 25 Kansas State
To me, the Big 12 isn’t on the same level as these other three conferences, but for the sake of the argument, let’s dissect it all the same. Baylor has played some tough teams this season, but the problem for the Bears is that they haven’t beaten those teams. Maryland, Michigan, Kansas State and Oklahoma have all downed Baylor. Baylor did beat Iowa State, but to be considered among the elite, you need at least one or two more victories over top squads.
Iowa State has been more consistent than Baylor with just three losses, but their high-caliber wins (other than against Iowa) have come over conference opponents, which makes it challenging to judge the Cyclones outside of the Big 12. Texas’ win over No. 2 Stanford early in the season is something the Longhorns hung their hats on. They have suffered two conference losses since then to Texas Tech and Kansas, but other than that, they have been pretty consistent. Oklahoma has two solid wins outside of the conference, having defeated Oregon and BYU, and Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee has essentially played the Wildcats into the top 25.
Other teams of note: None
Here’s where the conference falls off for me. Outside of the top teams, I haven’t seen anything from the bottom half of the Big 12 that tells me one of those teams has a chance of going on a run or earning an upset win.
But don’t fret too much, Big 12. I’ve been wrong before.
Ranked teams: No. 5 Indiana, No. 6 Michigan, No. 17 Maryland, No. 23 Ohio State, No. 25 Iowa
Hello to my preseason darling, the Big Ten! I wanted to save the Big Ten for last because, up to this point, you’ve essentially been reading the contents of my brain. I didn’t do any prep work for this because I wanted you, the readers, to be able to follow along as I genuinely worked out my thoughts about these conferences. And now that I’m here, I must confess that I loved this conference going into the season, but three of these teams — Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa — have underperformed.
In my preseason rankings, I had Maryland at No. 4, Iowa at No. 5 and Ohio State at No. 13. I still think these are three solid teams, but they aren’t what they had the potential to be, so that is a point in the negative column for the Big Ten. Indiana and Michigan, meanwhile, have been as advertised. Both teams are consistent and mature, with a roster of players who know how to compete together. They are a great one-two punch when it comes to analyzing the strength of the conference.
NAZ HILLMON DOING NAZ HILLMON THINGS 😤— ESPN (@espn) February 1, 2022
Michigan up 48-36 over Indiana entering the 4th. pic.twitter.com/Nymm14ZF4N
Other teams of note: Nebraska
Nebraska has been a nice surprise for those of us playing attention to the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers were undefeated until the start of conference play, and they are the only conference team to defeat Michigan so far.
I think this is a two conference race. The Big 12 doesn’t hold up in my book, so it’s the first conference I’ll eliminate. And as much as it pains me to say, neither does the Big Ten, so it’s also got to go. That leaves me with the ACC and SEC. I love the overall consistency and depth of the ACC, but the SEC has two teams at the top that I think have a legitimate chance to win a national title. I think that gives the SEC a slight edge. So for now, it’s won me over. Congrats, SEC, you reign supreme.
I’m going to keep this short this week. Maybe it’s because I just humbled myself with the above process, but I don’t have too many problems with the current AP Poll. I so think it’s time for Tennessee to move into the top 5 — I’ve seen enough from the Vols to vault them over Indiana, Michigan and Louisville. Their recent upset at the hands of Auburn is what dragged them down, but the overall body of work is good enough for me to overlook it.
Other than that, I’m glad to see Oregon, Ohio State and North Carolina back in the poll, and Kansas State has definitely earned its place.
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.
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