Women's college basketball power rankings: How Ohio State moved to top of Big Ten

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The Athletic

The curse of the No. 2 ranking continues. After I waxed poetic on the virtues of NC State’s season last week, the Wolfpack lost their first game at full strength, proving no match for two-time ACC player of the year, Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley. The AP’s second-ranked team didn’t fare much better, as Iowa had a bewildering fourth quarter in Lincoln and blew a 14-point lead to the Cornhuskers. Colorado didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to move up; the Buffaloes were down by 25 at home to Oregon State before mounting a futile fourth-quarter comeback.

Perhaps the second-best team in the country is the one that sits on South Carolina’s bench. The Gamecocks had a comfortable outing against UConn, winning their fourth straight against Geno Auriemma’s bunch and earning their 26th consecutive double-digit home victory. They did so despite missing starting center Kamilla Cardoso, who was competing for Brazil in the Olympic qualifying tournament. Ashlyn Watkins ably stepped into the starting role, tallying 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Watkins also helped limit the Huskies to 37 percent shooting, including 10 of 23 directly at the rim. Her second-unit partner Tessa Johnson drained two triples off the bench, outsourcing UConn’s reserves by herself so South Carolina could easily withstand an off shooting night from MiLaysia Fulwiley.

A five-player unit of Watkins, Johnson, Fulwiley and two of Sahnya Jah, Sania Feagin and Sakima Walker is the best bench lineup in the country, much like Raven Johnson, Bree Hall, Laeticia Amihere, Watkins and Cardoso as reserves last season. Four of those backups have seamlessly transitioned into starters on the nation’s best team, and it stands to reason these reserves could do the same when given the opportunity. For now, that depth is key to the Gamecocks’ success as they create an ever-growing gap between themselves and the rest of the country.

Dropped out: Mississippi State, West Virginia

Almost famous: Mississippi State, West Virginia, Middle Tennessee


What has the Buckeyes on a roll?

Michigan State’s Big Ten resume is littered with almosts. A 5-point loss to Nebraska, 3-point defeat to Iowa and another 3-point defeat at Indiana among them. The Spartans haven’t quite gotten over the hump, but it’s hard to blow them out.

Unless, of course, you’re Ohio State, because everything is turning up Buckeyes. The Cornhuskers’ win earlier Sunday gave Ohio State a chance to claim sole possession of first place in the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes seized the opportunity. They wrecked Michigan State in East Lansing, building a 33-point lead before easing up in the final period despite Cotie McMahon’s scoring only 5 points. Instead, Celeste Taylor led the way with 20, followed closely by Rebeka Mikulášiková’s 19 and another 18 from Jacy Sheldon.

But offense has never been a problem for Ohio State. Where the Buckeyes can struggle is defensively, especially in the half court when opposing teams break through their pressure. The Spartans, who boast the nation’s 11th-best offensive rating, per Her Hoop Stats, should have given Ohio State some difficulty. At home, they average 89 points and 23 assists while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Through three quarters against the Buckeyes (given that the fourth was essentially extended garbage time), they had 47 points and 10 assists while making 43 percent of their field goals. Michigan State had also exceeded its average turnover allotment of 11 by giving away the ball 16 times with 10 minutes to play.

Ohio State is best when it is disruptive, and that has been the case during its 11-game winning streak. The Buckeyes are forcing turnovers on a quarter of opposing possessions and blocking 11 percent of field goals. Even if opponents shoot well from the field, they’re not getting many opportunities.

Can Oregon State keep winning on the road?

The Beavers have been dominating in Corvallis but had been unable to collect any marquee road victories — until this weekend. After falling short against USC, UCLA and Stanford without Cameron Brink, Oregon State finally figured out how to win in hostile environments and became the first Pac-12 team to sweep the mountain trip this season. First, the Beavers held Utah, which owns a top-10 offense scoring 80 points per game, to nearly half that total (44). Then they earned their first top-five road win in program history in Boulder by making half their field goals through three quarters against a top-20 defense. (We’ll forgive that fourth quarter at altitude after a travel day.)

It’s becoming increasingly challenging for opponents to get Oregon State out of rhythm. The Beavers don’t get sped up and they don’t turn over the ball. They’re content to keep the pace slow and the possession count lower, knowing they’ll be more efficient with their chances than the other team. It starts with Raegan Beers, whose collection of post moves is more evocative of a WNBA All-Star than a college sophomore. Perhaps more impressive than her field goal percentage of 66.5 (10th in the country) is what she does on the other end of the floor. She’s 12th in the country in defensive rebounds despite playing fewer than 28 minutes per game. She’s also impossible to move or finish over. Her two defensive assignments on Oregon State’s trip couldn’t be more different — the versatility of Alissa Pili compared with the physical stature of Aaronette Vonleh — and yet Beers held both to off nights: 4-of-17 for Pili and 4-of-13 for Vonleh with one assist apiece.

The Beavers are loaded with shooting around Beers, as Lily Hansford, Timea Gardiner, Kelsey Rees and AJ Marotte all shoot at least 37 percent from distance. That’s not even including Talia von Oelhoffen and her ability to get buckets while setting the table for everyone – her assist percentage is 15th nationally. Oregon State welcomes the L.A. teams to Gill Coliseum this week. If the Beavers can protect home court, a rematch against Stanford awaits on the final weekend of the season with the Pac-12 regular-season crown in the balance. Not bad for a team projected to finish 10th in the conference’s preseason poll.

Lauren Betts vaults UCLA back into the contenders

Let’s face it: UCLA looked pretty terrible in its games without Lauren Betts, tough schedule or not. In the four games without her, the Bruins’ defensive rating was in the 25th percentile, defensive rebounds in the sixth percentile, and blocks in the zero percentile. Offensively, their points in the paint were in the first percentile and field goal percentage in the 18th percentile.

 

In Betts’ return to the starting lineup, UCLA shot 51.6 percent from the field (9 of 10 from Betts) and outrebounded Arizona State by 12. The Sun Devils shot 9 of 24 at the rim and 26.7 percent overall. Arizona State isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut (and even worse defensively), but the Bruins needed a get-right game, and everything that had been a weakness immediately became a strength with Betts’ presence.

Baylor’s size is an increasing concern

The Bears have been playing small all season, using speed and skill to their advantage by spreading the floor on offense and drawing charges in lieu of traditional rim protection — their 3.6 charges per 40 minutes are in the 97th percentile.

But some opponents are simply too big and strong for Baylor’s tactics, and they’re popping up on the schedule more often. It started with Taiyanna Jackson and Audi Crooks, who averaged 25 points against the Bears. Then, the entire Texas front line had size advantages plus nominal point guard Madison Booker. And this week, Baylor had no answers for Lauren Gustin, even though BYU entered that matchup with only two conference wins.

 

The Bears look great when the opponent doesn’t have a traditional big center, such as when they outclassed West Virginia on the road Saturday. But being that matchup dependent is a tricky proposition in March. Allowing opponents to shoot 67 percent at the rim isn’t going to cut it. Baylor plays zone on 11.1 percent of possessions; perhaps it’s time to get more comfortable in that defense.

Can Duke validate its resume?

An interesting philosophical question emerged at the end of the Tobacco Road rivalry game Sunday. Duke forced a UNC miss with 27 seconds to play and the score tied. Blue Devils freshman Oluchi Okananwa grabbed the rebound and raced down the floor, just as she had on the previous possession when she drove into a crowd and missed a layup. This time, Okananwa faced a more compromised defense and drew a foul. But Duke coach Kara Lawson had already called timeout, negating the fast break but giving Duke a chance to run out the clock.

The Blue Devils average 1.02 points per possession in transition and 0.82 in the half court. Does it make sense to give up an easy scoring opportunity in the interest of reminding your team of the time and score? Lawson’s attempt to get the last shot didn’t even work, as the Tar Heels forced a turnover and had a point-blank look to win in regulation that just rimmed out for Alyssa Ustby. The whole situation brought to mind Duke’s difficulty executing down the stretch last season, particularly their season-ending loss to Colorado.

This year’s Blue Devils, however, can trust their offense a bit more. They have an offensive rating that’s 6.1 points per 100 possessions better than last year’s iteration. Their effective field-goal percentage is 5 percent higher. It’s a young team learning how to win and relying on some new offensive threats to get the job done. Freshman Delaney Thomas made 8 of 10 shots against UNC and has connected on 63 percent of her field goals this season. Sophomore transfer Taina Mair gave Duke its first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:51 to play; when she scores double figures, the Blue Devils are 8-2.

Duke’s metrics have painted the picture of an elite team all year, but the eye test hasn’t backed it up. With four consecutive games against ranked teams on the docket, the Blue Devils have a chance to validate their resume on paper.

(Photo of Celeste Taylor: Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)