Usually by late January, the big picture in women’s college basketball has started to take shape. But Thursday’s results added only more questions for the 2020-21 season. No. 2 NC State and third-ranked UConn were both upset as each suffered their first losses of the season, which means No. 1 Louisville is now the only undefeated team in the AP Top 25. ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel and Charlie Creme discuss the biggest takeaways and how the results impact Bracketology.
Chelsea Dungee scored 37 points — the most by any player against UConn since 1999-2000 — as No. 19 Arkansas upended the Huskies. What went wrong for UConn, and with its toughest stretch of the season so far coming up, is there cause for concern?
Voepel: This is more a case of what Chelsea Dungee did right than what UConn’s defense did wrong in Arkansas’ 90-87 win. She’s one of the country’s elite scorers, and has put up at least 30 points 11 times in her Arkansas career, against all kinds of defenses designed to stop her. Coach Mike Neighbors talked about how much Dungee wanted to embrace the moment of facing UConn, rather than be intimidated by it. She’s a fifth-year senior who has had a lot of outstanding performances, but considering the opponent, the win and her contribution, this was the biggest.
That said, the Huskies are one of the better defenses year in and year out, yet the 52% Arkansas shot from the field is the highest percentage UConn has allowed since 2011. UConn also committed 23 fouls, its most since 24 in a 2014 loss to Stanford, and allowed 90 points, its most in a regulation game since 2001. The Huskies must examine what they could have done better against Dungee and the Razorbacks, because they are going to face another challenging offense on Sunday at No. 17 DePaul.
“This is what you go to practice for, to try to figure out where defensively you can make some adjustments,” said Auriemma, whose Huskies haven’t lost consecutive games since March 1993 (1,003 games). “There were quite a few times when our big guys came out to help on our ball-screen coverage, and their guys just went right around them like they were standing still. So that’s an issue.
“Can that be fixed? I don’t know. Provided the guys doing it want to fix it.”
Creme: Mechelle nailed it. I don’t think there are any big concerns for UConn heading into this stretch of games that also includes South Carolina on Feb. 8. But Arkansas exposed some small concerns.
The Huskies don’t have that one defender on which they can consistently rely. Christyn Williams was often matched up with Destiny Slocum and shut her down (five points, 2-of-7 shooting), but it was no contest when Williams was on Dungee. Olivia Nelson-Ododa should be that player at the rim, protecting against the kind of drives on which Dungee thrived. But a combination of foul trouble and ineffectiveness put Nelson-Ododa on the bench for more than half the game.
UConn won’t play a team like Arkansas or a player like Dungee again (assuming there isn’t an NCAA tournament rematch), but they need Nelson-Ododa to be a reliable defender for 30 minutes a game against the country’s best teams.
Auriemma also elected to play freshmen Mir McLean and Nika Muhl more minutes than they typically average, perhaps throwing them into the fire against a good team on the road without as much concern for this outcome as for the benefits those minutes might provide in the postseason. Combine that with the fact that Nelson-Ododa scored only two points, Aaliyah Edwards fouled out in the third quarter, the Huskies were again without Anna Makurat and the game came down to one possession, the Huskies are just fine.
That Williams hasn’t fixed her shooting woes from last season is the one area that might be of larger concern. After missing all five of her 3-point attempts against Arkansas, Williams is now 4-for-24 from deep in the past three games and shooting just 28.1% from 3-point range on the season (compared to 33.3% last season). She still gets to the basket as well as anyone and is scoring 15.6 PPG, but Williams’ jump shot has abandoned her.
Evina Westbrook and Paige Bueckers combined to make eight of ten 3-pointers, which helped compensate. But UConn needs Williams to find her range again.
What did Virginia Tech’s historic win over No. 2 NC State — the highest-ranked team the Hokies have ever beaten — tell us about both programs?
Camille Hobby sinks a game-tying trey at the buzzer on a broken play, but Virginia Tech regroups in overtime to upset No. 2 NC State.
Creme: Every program in the country is going through its own version of hardship related to COVID-19, trying to get this season in as safely and successfully as possible. NC State has been hit hard, and Thursday’s 83-71 overtime loss to Virginia Tech might have been the culmination of a monthlong struggle managing the virus.
After a three-week pause for the program, the Wolfpack returned to action Sunday, but without their best player, Elissa Cunane, who hasn’t been able to rejoin the team due to COVID-19 protocols. Without her, NC State was fortunate to beat Virginia Tech on Sunday in Raleigh.
Both games illustrated just how important Cunane is to the Wolfpack. The offense can run through her in the post. She protects the paint and allows NC State’s perimeter defenders to gamble a little more. Relying on her to handle the defensive rebounding helps ignite the Wolfpack’s transition game. They need her back for the team to reach its full potential. With Louisville looming on Monday, the return of a completely healthy Cunane can’t come soon enough.
Voepel: Virginia Tech is probably the last program you’d want to face without your starting center, because the Hokies’ 6-foot-5 sophomore Elizabeth Kitley is so hard to stop. She and Cunane both grew up in Summerfield, North Carolina, and are good friends who played club ball together. Everyone was looking forward to seeing the two elite centers match up, but Cunane didn’t get to play in either of those games, and Kitley had a combined 47 points and 24 rebounds.
Senior Aisha Sheppard scored 28 points, including 16 in overtime, to lead the way Thursday. This win was so big for the Hokies, because they’ve had more than their share of heartbreakers. Coming into Thursday, they had lost five games in January by an average of 3.2 points. That includes a 71-67 loss to current No. 1 Louisville on Jan. 7. It was almost like all of Virginia Tech’s frustration was exorcised in that 26-point overtime, which was a Division I women’s record for points in an OT.
Coach Kenny Brooks was poised to potentially get his first NCAA tournament trip with the Hokies last year (they were 21-9 overall and 11-7 in the ACC) before the event was canceled. Now in his fifth season in Blacksburg, Brooks could build on this win for a run at the tournament this year.
Which other team or player impressed you Thursday?
Creme: Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten. After an impressive win at Indiana on Thursday, the Buckeyes have now beaten Michigan, Maryland and the Hoosiers — the other three teams in the league with just one loss — in succession and moved to 6-1 in league play.
But the more the Buckeyes win, the more significant their self-imposed postseason ban is — and the more likely that the Big Ten won’t have its top team in the NCAA tournament. It also means the league won’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. If eligible, Ohio State would likely be a 2-seed in this week’s Bracketology. But the losses the Buckeyes are handing to the conference’s other top teams are taking a toll on their profiles.
Ohio State has great balance, with five players averaging in double figures. That’s how the Buckeyes won Thursday despite top scorers Jacy Sheldon and Madison Greene combining for 11 points on 1-for-15 shooting.
Voepel: Georgia Tech (9-3) is quietly sitting in third place in the ACC at 7-2. But watch out for the Yellow Jackets, whose 70-56 win at Miami was their fifth victory in a row. Lorela Cubaj, a senior forward from Italy, led Georgia Tech with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Next up for the Jackets is Syracuse on Tuesday; the Orange are 5-3 in the conference.
How did Virginia Tech beating NC State and Arkansas toppling UConn impact Bracketology? Who are the No. 1 seeds now?
Creme: Despite playing a very uncharacteristic game against Arkansas, UConn remains a No. 1 seed, falling from No. 2 overall to No. 3. Sometimes perspective gets lost when a top team loses, but the Huskies entered the game No. 1 overall in the NET rankings. Remember, this was just their first loss. More importantly, there simply isn’t a worthy candidate to knock UConn off the top line.
UCLA? The Bruins have two losses and a weaker schedule. Certainly not Baylor, which also has lost twice, including to Arkansas. Maryland lost its second game four days ago. Texas A&M is just 17th in the NET and has struggled in two of its past three wins and lost a game just prior to that. There aren’t four other teams with better credentials than UConn. South Carolina, Louisville and — once again — Stanford are the other No. 1 seeds.
NC State was knocked off the top line. Yes, it was just the Wolfpack’s first loss, and they were playing without Cunane. But because of a long COVID-19 break and perhaps because of the residual impact of the pause, NC State hasn’t done anything of significance in a month. Considering the Wolfpack were fortunate to beat Virginia Tech on Sunday, Thursday’s loss wasn’t a surprise.
The win was a major breakthrough for the Hokies, who move from “Next Four Out” to “First Four Out” on the bubble. The 8-7 record is still a problem for the résumé, but six of their seven losses were by slim margins against NCAA tournament-caliber teams. The Hokies look like a possible tournament team. A win Sunday against North Carolina and they might return to the field.
Incredibly, Arkansas has a losing SEC record. If the regular season ended after Thursday’s games, the Razorbacks would be the No. 10 seed in the SEC tournament. Yet they’ve beaten two of the country’s top five teams. And that’s why Arkansas moves from a No. 6 to a No. 5 seed.
A 2-5 SEC mark coupled with wins against two of the country’s best teams is an anomaly that shouldn’t be lost on anyone trying to forecast the NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks might be struggling in the SEC against teams they play all the time because opponents are more familiar with their uptempo style characterized by spreading the floor, relentless drives to the rim and an unapologetic amount of 3-point attempts.
Preparing for Neighbors’ approach is a puzzling venture in normal times, but especially for nonconference opponents facing even less practice time than usual in this unpredictable season. Baylor and UConn rank in the top five of nearly every important defensive metric, yet allowed 83 and 90 points, respectively, by the Razorbacks.
Thursday’s upset of UConn, which followed a Monday loss to Georgia, indicates that because of its distinctive style in the most unusual of seasons, Arkansas might be an average SEC team and a real Final Four threat all at the same time.