Indiana continues to climb the rankings behind Mackenzie Holmes and Ali Patberg. (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Happy New Year and happy conference play, folks! The 2021 half of the season gave us plenty of intriguing women’s basketball storylines, and 2022 is already shaping up to do the same. Now that we are officially into conference play, we’ll get to know just how prepared teams are for March.

In that spirit, here are five teams I’m dying to talk about in the first week of 2022.

1. Missouri

Let’s get straight to it: Missouri is at the top of the list when it comes to teams that have my attention. I’ve been talking about Missouri’s 70-69 win over No. 1 (and undefeated at the time) South Carolina to anyone who will listen. Now, readers, it’s your turn. Because how on earth did this happen?

Dawn Staley and the Gamecocks haven’t shied away from tough opponents, defeating six ranked teams before the Dec. 30 matchup with Missouri. After they overcame an 18-point deficit to beat No. 2 Stanford, I was seriously entertaining the idea of South Carolina entering the NCAA Tournament undefeated. But Missouri reminded me — and every other basketball writer, analyst, fan, etc. — that we don’t know as much as we think we do. The Tigers had home-court advantage, but virtually nothing else going for them, and yet they knocked South Carolina out of the list of unbeatens.

Missouri entered the game without six players who were in COVID-19 protocols; that included Aijha Blackwell, who’s averaging 16.6 points and 12.7 rebounds this season and is unarguably Missouri’s top player. Winning under those circumstances is impressive enough, but what’s even more eye-catching to me is how the Tigers executed during the game. Of course, Lauren Hansen’s game-winner as time ran out was dramatic, but throughout the contest, Missouri played with poise and stuck around — something no other team has been able to do against South Carolina. Missouri clogged the paint on defense, and got 21-point performances from Hansen and Hayley Frank on offense for the team’s first victory over a No. 1 opponent in program history.

The big takeaways from this game? South Carolina is beatable, and Missouri is better than we thought.

2. Louisville

The Cardinals opened the season with an overtime loss to Arizona that had plenty of people questioning the young team. Since then, they’ve won 12 games in a row, including over No. 12 Michigan, No. 14 Kentucky and No. 7 UConn. Then on Sunday, Louisville avoided a loss to a Georgia Tech team that has rocketed up the rankings thanks to killer defense and back-to-back wins over No. 20 Georgia and No. 3 UConn.

Against the Yellow Jackets, Louisville showed maturity that was lacking in its season-opener. After a dismal first quarter, in which they scored just three points, the Cardinals ended the game with a 23-16 advantage in the fourth quarter and an Emily Engster layup with two seconds remaining to come away with a 50-48 win.

Georgia Tech has one of the most disruptive defenses in the country. The Cardinals shot 36.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from 3, had just one double-digit scorer (Engster with 14) and committed 17 turnovers. And still, they found a way to win in an ugly, difficult game. That’s what top teams do, and Louisville is proving it belongs there more and more each week.

3. Georgia Tech

Before the season started, I had Georgia Tech ranked 15th because of the great scoring duo of forward Lorela Cubaj and guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen. But offense isn’t what has the Yellow Jackets in the top 25 now. Defensively, Georgia Tech is one of the top teams in the country, and they’ve made that clear over the last few weeks. After back-to-back upset wins, they nearly topped Louisville as well.

The Yellow Jackets are going to be tough in ACC play, and come NCAA Tournament time, they are the kind of team you don’t want to run into. Their ability to make opponents play ugly and keep scoring totals low is a nightmare for teams. Statistically, they allow the fewest amount of points in the country (45.3) and are third nationally in defensive field goal percentage (31.2).

4. Indiana

I’ve liked this Indiana team from the start of the season, and after its win over Maryland — the first time the Hoosiers have topped the Terrapins in school history — I like it even more. Last season’s Elite Eight run was unexpected. This year, I think Indiana can make it even further. The Hoosiers have a complete team that really understands its identity.

Ali Patberg runs the show from the guard position, and she (and the rest of the Hoosiers) are smart enough to know who really drives this team: Mackenzie Holmes. The 6-foot-3 junior gets a touch on nearly every possession. She can score, rebound and create space for others. And if Holmes doesn’t score, another Hoosier will get an opening thanks to her. Against Maryland, she had a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

But Indiana isn’t just a Mackenzie Holmes showcase, which makes the team especially dangerous. The Hoosiers showcased their arsenal of weapons against Maryland — 18 points for Patberg, 17 points and 10 rebounds for Aleksa Gulbe and nine points each for Grace Berger and Nicole Cardano-Hillary. By the time the NCAA Tournament comes around, Indiana will also have made its way through the Big Ten, which I think is the toughest conference in the country right now. The Hoosiers will have plenty of tests along the way to ensure they’re ready for the postseason.

5. Arizona

There are three undefeated teams left in the nation: Colorado, North Carolina and Arizona. That’s quite the feat for an Arizona program that started at the bottom of the AP poll this season. But since their season-opening win over Louisville and another over a solid DePaul team on Nov. 26, the Wildcats haven’t had many on-court tests. The Coast-to-Coast challenge would have been a good benchmark for Arizona, but games against No. 11 Texas, USC and UCLA were canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the program.

With conference play starting, I’m interested to see what this team can bring to the court. I do think Arizona is a top-10 (potentially top-5) team when the season is over, but Pac-12 matchups with Colorado and Stanford will go a long way toward supporting or debunking that theory.

Poll talk

As the season progresses, the AP poll becomes more important in terms of postseason implications. So, from now on in each notebook, I’ll have a section dedicated to AP poll discussion.

This week, I agree with the poll for the most part. I like the move to keep South Carolina at No. 1 despite the upset. It was a pretty bad loss, but the Gamecocks have beaten enough ranked teams this season to hold onto the top spot. Plus, if not South Carolina, the logical pick for No. 1 would be Stanford, but South Carolina beat Stanford head-to-head so that wouldn’t make sense. If any team were to unseat the Gamecocks, it would be Louisville, but I’m not ready to do that just yet. South Carolina has a better case with its body of work than Louisville does.

In terms of what I don’t like about the poll, my list of complaints is relatively small. For one, North Carolina is a touch too high for me. I want to see them get a solid ACC win before I consider putting them in the top 20. If the Tar Heels defeat No. 5 NC State on Thursday, then I will eat my words and likely put them in the 15-18 range.

Second, I think South Florida is a top-20 team. The AP poll has the Bulls at No. 24, and I get it. They’ve been inconsistent, beating teams like Stanford and then losing to UT Arlington (yikes), and Ole Miss (also yikes, albeit a smaller one). But the Bulls’ other two losses were close ones to a great Tennessee squad and a UConn team that still had Paige Bueckers on the court. I still have faith in this team, and I’m not ready to drop it from the top 25.

My third complaint is in defense of the little guy. I strongly believe that Florida Gulf Coast should be ranked. The Eagles have one loss to a Princeton team they should have beaten, but they also beat LSU, a team the AP voters think is worthy of a No. 13 ranking. Plus, last week FGCU topped Michigan State despite Nia Clouden’s 50-point performance, which is no small feat — I mean, that’s five more points from one player than Georgia Tech gives up per game. The Eagles will likely get even less love now that they can only be upset in conference play. The Atlantic Sun doesn’t offer any opponents to boost their resume, only ones that can drag them down with a loss.

My final critique is that Louisville deserves the No. 2 spot over Stanford, but it was a relatively close call, so I’ll save my argument.

With my gripes out of the way, here are my rankings for this week.

JWS’ Top 25 in Week 9

  1. South Carolina (13-1)
  2. Louisville (12-1)
  3. Stanford (9-3)
  4. NC State (13-2)
  5. Arizona (10-0)
  6. Indiana (11-2)
  7. Tennessee (13-1)
  8. Texas (10-1)
  9. Michigan (12-1)
  10. UConn (6-3)
  11. Iowa State (12-1)
  12. Maryland (10-4)
  13. Georgia (12-2)
  14. Georgia Tech (10-3)
  15. LSU (14-1)
  16. Baylor (10-3)
  17. Duke (10-2)
  18. South Florida (10-4)
  19. BYU (11-1)
  20. Iowa (7-3)
  21. Notre Dame (11-3)
  22. Kentucky (8-3)
  23. Florida Gulf Coast (11-1)
  24. North Carolina (13-0)
  25. Oklahoma (12-1)

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.