College basketball: Top five player of the year candidates
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are clear front-runners.
The women’s college basketball world was chaotic last week, which makes the second JWS top-25 ranking of the season a challenge — but a good challenge. Parity in the NCAA is at an all-time high, and that makes for great competition and thrilling games.
There’s plenty of room for debate, but at least South Carolina and Stanford have delivered each week. After the top two, the hierarchy gets messy. Here’s where things stood two weeks ago in our inaugural top-25 rankings.
The Huskies are coming off a loss to Notre Dame on Sunday, but Azzi Fudd missed most of the contest after appearing to injure her knee. They’ve beaten a lot of good teams so far this season — Texas, NC State and Iowa — and Notre Dame is a team that I can see in the Final Four. For those reasons, I’m keeping them at No. 3.
If you’re an Ohio State fan, you’re most likely wondering why I’m keeping the undefeated Buckeyes below a UConn squad that just lost. When you look at these teams head-to-head, UConn (with Fudd) is the better team. Ohio State’s best win so far came over Louisville, a team that is underperforming. But if Ohio State keeps its undefeated streak going, with wins over strong Big Ten competition, this team will find itself in the top three.
What a crazy week for the Fighting Irish. Three days after losing to Maryland on a buzzer-beater by Diamond Miller, they handed UConn their first loss of the season. Against Maryland, they lacked any sort of inside presence and couldn’t hit from long range. Miller needed a heroic 31 points to lead her team to victory. Against UConn, both Lauren Ebo and Maddy Westbeld had breakout games. The fact that the Irish could correct their errors so quickly and defeat a top team bodes well for them going forward.
The Hoosiers were dominant against North Carolina in a 87-63 win on Thursday. Led by Mackenzie Holmes in the paint (25 points) and Sydney Parrish from the outside (24 points), the Hoosiers shot 53.3 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from beyond the arc. But without Grace Berger, who was injured against Auburn, there will be ups and downs for this team as they learn to make up for the loss of their floor general. Their 65-61 win over unranked Illinois on Sunday was less convincing, but overall the Hoosiers are performing in the face of adversity.
I didn’t come away from Virginia Tech’s 59-56 win over Tennessee feeling particularly confident in the Hokies. They turned the ball over 16 times and shot just 33.3 percent from the field, while Elizabeth Kitley disappeared offensively against the defense of Tamari Key. The Hokies need her to perform better if they’re going to make a deep run this season. That being said, they managed to get a win without an injured Ashley Owusu (finger), and they got contributions from a lot of different players to make up for Kitley’s quiet game. The Hokies are undefeated, and they won’t need to wait long to prove themselves, with Notre Dame awaiting on Dec. 18.
After getting blown out by UConn on Nov. 20, the Wolfpack responded in a big way against their next ranked opponent, defeating Iowa 94-81 on Dec. 1. Caitlin Clark went off for 45 points, but NC State contained everyone else and used a balanced offensive attack to get the win. Four of five starters finished in double figures, and Saniya Rivers had a breakout game off the bench, scoring 22 points. The South Carolina transfer is a dynamic talent who can contribute in many ways. Her career-high game is a good omen for the Wolfpack moving forward.
My early concerns about the Terrapins have turned out to be true: They go where Diamond Miller takes them. Against Notre Dame, her 31 points and impressive buzzer-beating shot sealed a victory, But against Nebraska a few days later, she was held to 13 points, and despite an excellent game from sophomore Shyanne Sellers (21 points, eight rebounds), the Cornhuskers came away with a 90-67 upset. That’s the second-highest points total for Nebraska this season, raising concerns about Maryland’s defense as well.
What to do with LSU? I think the Tigers are good, but with their strength of schedule (or rather, lack thereof), it’s hard to tell. Yes, they are undefeated, but they have yet to play a ranked team or tough unranked team. Southeastern Louisiana played the Tigers close in an eight-point loss on Nov. 29, which is less than ideal for an LSU squad trying to prove itself despite the weak schedule. I won’t feel comfortable putting the Tigers in the top 15 until they win in the SEC.
Coach Jeff Walz has described this team as “Jekyll and Hyde,” but lately, it’s been a lot more Hyde. A loss to Ohio State makes sense, and losses to South Dakota State and Gonzaga aren’t season ruiners, but a 67-49 defeat to Middle Tennessee on Sunday is downright bewildering. I’ll need to see a lot more from the Cardinals going forward, and another loss to an unranked opponent will likely drop them from the rankings entirely.
Marquette has two quality wins over Texas and Gonzaga plus an overtime loss to UCLA. After they were upset by Seton Hall this week, I thought about dropping the Golden Eagles from the top 25, but their resume is good enough to keep them in. I also considered Texas for the last spot this week, and the Longhorns are out of chances after losing to South Florida with Rori Harmon in the lineup.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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