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The Storm are playing in a new arena this season.
This week, we are talking about teams on the outskirts of the women’s college basketball rankings. These are the kinds of squads that aren’t necessarily getting recognition, but are the ones you don’t want to see as the opponent on your favorite team’s schedule.
Let’s dive into the five unranked programs worth keeping an eye on as the NCAA season ramps up.
The Cornhuskers surprised a lot of people by being one of the last undefeated teams. They started the season 11-0 before losing four of their last five games. Two of those losses came to an Iowa team that has crept back into the top 25, and one was against No. 6 Indiana. No shame in falling to either of those opponents. The one win in the five-game stretch was a double-digit victory over No. 8 Michigan, a team whose only other loss came against No. 3 Louisville. That’s an impressive resume if you ask me.
I’ve been pretty vocal about my appreciation for the Big Ten this year, and I still believe it’s the best conference in college basketball right now. Nebraska is likely to lose at least a couple of other games before the season is done. But the Huskers also have another chance to upset Indiana as well as games against Maryland and Ohio State to showcase their talent. Nebraska is eighth in the country with 81.4 team points per game and is giving up just 62.1 points per game, so the foundation for success is there.
I’ll admit this is somewhat of an obvious pick, especially since I doubt Oregon goes another week without being ranked. Regardless, I think the Ducks deserve some recognition. After opening the season ranked in the top 10, Oregon fell out of the top 25 altogether while dealing with injuries to key starters. The Ducks hit a low point on Dec. 1 when they lost to UC Davis, but after beating No. 7 Arizona and No. 9 UConn this past week, Oregon appears to be realizing its potential at last.
Sophomore guard Te-Hina Paopao — who missed nine games earlier in the season with a knee injury — was a notable bright spot during the two-game stretch, scoring 24 points against Arizona in overtime and notching 22 points and eight rebounds against UConn. Coach Kelly Graves has a knack for getting the most out of his players, and I expect Oregon to have a strong finish to the season.
The Hokies have had a relatively unremarkable 12-4 season thus far, with the high point being two wins over Duke (ranked 15th and 16th in those contests), but they have the pieces to contend in the ACC and into the postseason. With one of the best posts in the country, Elizabeth Kitley, leading the way with 18.6 points, 7.4 rebounds per game, and the skilled guard duo of Aisha Sheppard and Kayana Traylor, Virginia Tech has the potential to beat some of the ACC’s top teams. The Hokies have ranked teams NC State, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Louisville all left on their schedule, so more upsets and an ascension into the top 25 are within reach.
If Kansas State was on your radar before the season started, it was likely because of Ayoka Lee. The junior center has been as good as advertised, averaging 23.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and scoring over 30 points on six occasions. Kansas State as a team, however, has remained relatively under the radar despite having only one bad loss (Texas Tech), a major upset (Baylor) and two other solid wins (West Virginia and Oregon).
The Wildcats were probably four points away from being in a completely different national conversation, but ultimately lost to No. 9 Iowa State 73-70 on Jan. 11. If that game went the other way, Kansas State would have had a chance to vault into the top 20 even with their subsequent loss to Texas Tech on Saturday. As it stands, Kansas State is a sleeper team to keep an eye on.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking at this point, but I think South Florida is a solid team that’s capable of making noise in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls are currently 12-5 and were ranked as high as 13th this season. Losing to Tennessee by three points and to a full-strength UConn squad by seven are what I would consider “good” losses. Victories over Oregon and Stanford are both good wins. But losing to Ole Miss is bad, and losing to UT Arlington is terrible.
At this point, I think South Florida is the kind of team that can beat almost anyone, but also lose to almost anyone. That kind of inconsistency makes it hard to evaluate the Bulls, but it also means they could be a strong upset candidate in March.
As discussed in my last notebook, I’m happy with South Carolina at No. 1, but I still think Louisville should be in the No. 2 spot rather than Stanford. Indiana and Tennessee are a toss-up for the No. 5 spot, and UConn should be out of the top 10 at this point, but the top of the poll is in good shape overall.
I’ve been a Maryland believer for most of the season, but right now the Terrapins are consistently inconsistent, and it’s been tough to get a read on them. Their loss to then-No. 11 Michigan on Sunday can be forgiven, but against ranked opponents generally, Maryland has yet to really impress me. The Terrapins’ best win came against Baylor in November, but the Bears haven’t done much to win favor since then. So, for me, Maryland is out of the top 15. They need to win one of their upcoming rematches against Michigan and Indiana to regain some of the hype they had at the start of the season.
Last time, I argued that South Florida was a top-20 team. The Bulls haven’t lost since then, but my opinion has changed. As I outlined above, I think the Bulls are capable of doing damage in the postseason, but I’ve been overselling them as things stand now.
I’m happy to see both Colorado and Florida Gulf Coast in the rankings this week. The Buffs have been on the outskirts for a while now, but I think they’ve been consistent enough for a low-level ranking. As for FGCU, I thought their lower-level competition in the Atlantic Sun would keep them out of the rankings, but I’m glad to see AP voters no longer holding that against them.
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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