Checking in at the midway point
What we've learned, things we thought we knew, and some needed revisions
- AP PhotosBrittney Griner has company -- Elena Delle Donne and Nneka Ogwumike -- for player of the year.
The end of college football season marks the unofficial start of the countdown to March in college basketball. Before turning our attention toward what's to come, it's worth reviewing some of what was seen in the season's first 60 days.
Five things learned since the season started
1. Baylor really is the team to beat: The scary thing is you could take Brittney Griner out of Baylor's lineup and this team might still be chasing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. After spending part of the offseason playing with WNBA players on the U.S. national team, Griner looks even more like someone playing a different game than her college peers. Her skills continue to bloom on the offensive end, she's averaging double-digit rebounds for the first time and she remains a defensive presence unlike any ever seen before in the women's game. Full seasons from Destiny Williams and Brooklyn Pope mean there is plenty of frontcourt depth alongside her, and point guard Odyssey Sims is an All-American in her own right. The Lady Bears were far from unanimous at No. 1 in the preseason. There isn't much debate now.[+] EnlargeMatt Cashore/US PresswireDon't be fooled by UConn's two losses. Players like Bria Hartley have kept the Huskies rolling in the life-after-Maya Moore era.
2. There is life after Maya Moore for Connecticut: Put the name on the jersey aside for a second and consider that a team that graduated the best player in college basketball is 12-2 with wins against Stanford and Texas A&M -- and that the two losses came on the road against the teams now ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in games Connecticut led in the second half. It's not clear just how good this team is, but it's abundantly clear it's better than many, if not most, expected in the first year after Maya Moore. Sophomore guard Bria Hartley is emerging as a big-game star, a player too fast for even the likes of Stanford, Baylor or Notre Dame to fully contain. The future might be next season, when all but Tiffany Hayes return and Breanna Stewart arrives, but the present could include a trip to Denver.
3. The Lone Star State is big enough for two perfect teams: Well, at least until Baylor and Texas Tech meet on Jan. 18, that is. As challenging as the schedule has been, Baylor's unbeaten record isn't a complete surprise. Texas Tech, on the other hand, is the least likely of the four remaining unbeaten teams. A soft schedule helps -- Baylor, Green Bay and Maryland, the other three unbeaten teams, were all in the top 15 of the initial NCAA RPI released last week, while Texas Tech checked in at No. 47. But as long as the Lady Raiders keep outrebounding opponents by 13 boards a game and limiting them to 34 percent shooting, the scoreboard will tell a different story. A trip to Oklahoma and a home game against Kansas State will test perfection even before Baylor comes to Lubbock for that Jan. 18 game.
4. Green Bay isn't going away: The Phoenix haven't had a losing season since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. They haven't lost double-digit games since the 1998-99 campaign. So it's not a surprise the current Phoenix aren't losing many games. But it's a surprise that they have yet to lose even once in the season after Kayla Tetschlag and Celeste Hoewisch led them to their first Sweet 16. Those two now play professionally in Europe, but the current unbeaten team is poised for a run at perfection behind Julie Wojta after wins against Georgia Tech, Marquette, Wisconsin and Illinois, among others.
Charlie Creme's latest Bracketology, from Jan. 9, has Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford as No. 1 seeds. Second-seeded Tennessee joined the Huskies in the Kingston Regional, while Maryland, Kentucky and Duke also were No. 2 seeds. Bracketology
5. The new 3-point line isn't redefining the shot: A season ago, 12 players averaged at least three 3-pointers per game, and it took at least 2.5 3-pointers per game to crack the top 50 in that measure of long-distance quantity. As of last week, 14 players average at least three 3-pointers per game this season and the top 50 all average at least 2.5 per game. A season ago, no player shot 50 percent from the 3-point line, and a player needed to hit at least 38.3 percent of their attempts to make the top 50 in that measure of quality. Four players are at 50 percent this season, and it takes 37.8 percent to crack the top 50 in 3-point percentage.
How about teams? A season ago, seven teams averaged at least eight 3-pointers per game (including Florida Gulf Coast, which was completing its reclassification period after moving to Division I). So far this season, 10 teams are averaging at least eight 3-pointers per game. As with the individuals, the pattern holds true for making the top 50. It's more of the same when it comes to team 3-point field goal percentage, last season's numbers just about paralleling this season's numbers for the top 50. It's not until you get down to the top 100 or top 150 that anything close to a noticeable drop appears.
Overall shooting numbers might finish down a little this season, and coaches will certainly tell you the new line changes some things on a case-by-case basis. But the early numbers at least suggest that what it takes to be a good 3-point shooter or a good 3-point shooting team haven't changed.
Five things we already suspected when the season started
1. Notre Dame was just getting started: With Skylar Diggins, Natalie Novosel, Devereaux Peters and Brittany Mallory back, and sophomores Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa ready to take on bigger roles, this team is better than the one that beat Tennessee and Connecticut in the NCAA tournament and came within minutes of a title. Notre Dame entered last weekend second in the nation in steals per game, second in turnovers forced per game and still ranked on the outskirts of the top 20 in field goal defense for those rare times opponents get off shots. Pair a defense like that with offensive talents like Diggins and Novosel and last season's No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament becomes this season's No. 2 team in the nation and the team to beat in the Big East.[+] EnlargeJim O'Connor/US PresswireMany of Tennessee's road stops have included tributes to coach Pat Summitt. Khadijah Rushdan and Rutgers "back Pat" in her fight against dementia.
2. Tennessee is going to live in the spotlight: If you've been on hand for a Tennessee road game and watched coach Pat Summitt receive standing ovations like those offered by fans in Madison Square Garden and the traditionally partisan patrons at Rutgers, you felt firsthand how much more than basketball is at play since the coach made public a battle against early-onset Alzheimer's. All the while, there's a basketball team that plays after each of those moments. The Lady Vols aren't about to complain about it, but even by the standards of a program that lives a different existence than most, it's a different kind of season. Perhaps the cumulative effect takes its toll by March, but while this team surrendered a second-half lead at home against Baylor and later ran out of everything in the final minutes against Stanford at the end of a coast-to-coast stretch of games, there's something about this group that speaks to a cohesion or mental toughness befitting the task.
3. It's a young woman's world out there: There are some notable exceptions -- Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis and Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen among them. But senior stars are usually the rule in women's college basketball, not the exception. For whatever reason, and we don't have early entry to blame on this side of the college game, this season's senior class lacks oomph at the top of the sport. Senior stars such as Missouri State's Casey Garrison, VCU's Courtney Hurt, Eastern Michigan's Tavelyn James and Gonzaga's Katelan Redmon are wrapping up special careers out of the spotlight, but it looks like the players who have the most to say about what happens at the Final Four in Denver will be around for at least one more season. Of the teams in the first Top 25 of the calendar year 2012, only 10 were led in scoring by seniors.
4. Heavy is the head that wears the crown: Texas A&M opened the regular season ranked No. 6 in both polls, lower than is traditionally true of the title holder, but two spots better than its place in the final regular-season poll last season. Without Danielle Adams and Sydney Colson, and measured against the impossible standard of a month of the best basketball it ever played, this team had an almost impossible task. It still has Tyra White and Sydney Carter, and Kelsey Bone remains a post with a world of potential, but Texas A&M's ability to put up a defense of its crown will hinge on getting a defense to look more like Aggies of old.
5. Life can be cruel: Seriously, what other conclusion are we supposed to draw from the story of Jacki Gemelos? Once the nation's top recruit, Gemelos was finally getting a chance to shine after four ACL tears threatened to derail her career. After getting a full season with Southern California under her belt during the 2010-11 campaign, she played and won gold alongside the likes of Ogwumike, Delle Donne and Diggins on the United States entry in the World University Games over the summer. She started the first nine games for USC this fall, averaging 11 points and seven rebounds. And then not quite 10 minutes into a game against Texas A&M, she went down again, betrayed by her ACL for a fifth time. Yet in a video interview on the USC site, she said, "Even though it may not seem like it right now, I think I am supposed to play basketball for a long time." Here's hoping she's right.
Five bits of preseason conventional wisdow that need revising[+] EnlargeJason O. Watson/US PresswireNot many expected Kierra Mallard and Texas Tech, which beat then-No. 15 Penn State a month ago, to be one of the country's final four unbeaten teams.
1. There is no player of the year race: Griner is having the best season of her career for a team ranked No. 1 after wins against Connecticut, Notre Dame and Tennessee. So it's not as though the ESPN.com preseason player of the year, and just the eighth unanimous AP All-American, is doing anything to open the door to the competition. But some of the competition is rising to the challenge. Two players, in particular, could keep this debate alive all season.
• Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Stanford: Just as Baylor's Robert Griffin III took down preseason uber-favorite Andrew Luck in the Heisman Trophy race, despite another stellar season from the Stanford quarterback, Ogwumike might return the favor by swiping a major award away from Waco. At the moment, she's ahead of Griner in scoring and rebounding (although Griner has an enormous defensive edge on Ogwumike and every other player in the sport). Ogwumike also had the kind of performance people remember come voting time when she went for 42 points and 17 rebounds against Tennessee.
• Elena Delle Donne, Delaware: We are officially in Jackie Stiles/Larry Bird territory here. Where do you start with Delle Donne? She's averaging 29.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. She's shooting 51.8 percent -- from the 3-point line (she's at 58 percent overall and 93 percent from the free-throw line). Say what you want about the competition she faces with the Blue Hens -- and make sure you take a good look at the Colonial Athletic Association before you do -- but she's in the midst of one of the most amazing seasons any of us are likely to see.
2. The Beltway is ready for a transfer of power: Baylor, Green Bay and Texas Tech have been discussed, but there's another unbeaten team in College Park, Md. Maryland's 22-point loss at home against Georgetown in the second round of last season's NCAA tournament seemed to suggest a transfer of power in the Maryland-District of Columbia area might be imminent. Sugar Rodgers and the Hoyas remain ready to make some noise in the Big East and beyond, but the Terrapins gained a measure of revenge with a 72-53 win in the season's opening weekend and haven't looked back. The schedule is going to get much tougher as conference play heats up, including a spotlight trip to Miami on Jan. 12, but emerging superstar Alyssa Thomas and the unbeaten Terrapins are a factor locally and nationally.[+] EnlargeRick Osentoski/US PresswireDespite losing at Michigan on Saturday, Samantha Prahalis and Ohio State are poised for a run at the Big Ten title and a high seed in March.
3. Miami is the team of the moment: The Hurricanes fit a familiar mold. Two seasons ago, Nebraska followed Kelsey Griffin's lead to a perfect regular season and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Then Texas A&M let Danielle Adams shoot it from a No. 8 preseason ranking to a title last season. Big conferences, big-time senior players. With seniors Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams, Miami entered this season with a No. 7 ranking and expectations to become the next team to challenge the established order. Johnson and Williams might yet lead the Hurricanes to such heights, but a 25-point loss at Georgetown and a conference-opening loss at North Carolina suggest a team that is 10-8 away from home against Division I teams since the start of last season still has some work to do before March.
4. Ohio State is in for a long season: The Buckeyes have earned a reputation for, to put it politely, being a bit too generous in helping other teams fulfill their NCAA tournament dreams. They advanced to the tournament in each of the past nine seasons but failed to get out of the second round six times. In all but two of those nine trips, they were seeded fourth or better. So despite reaching the Sweet 16 last season, it was easy to think a team that underachieved in the best of times was in for long nights after graduating Jantel Lavender. Easy enough that Ohio State checked in at No. 24 in the preseason AP poll and out of the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 entirely. A loss against Michigan on Jan. 8 knocked the Buckeyes from the ranks of the unbeaten, but they aren't going away in a crowded Big Ten title race.
5. The race to Denver is wide open: Two No. 2 seeds played for the national championship a season ago, and this season opened with a bevy of teams that seemed capable of ensuring this spring is just as unpredictable. There is still plenty of room for Tennessee in the Final Four picture. The ACC might give us one or more party crashers from a group that includes Duke, Maryland and Miami. Even a team outside the top 10 at the moment, as Notre Dame was at this time a season ago, could jump into the fray (and Nebraska wouldn't be a bad place to start looking). But Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford, in alphabetical order, used the season's first 60 days to form a breakaway pack in the race to Denver. If you want to make it to the season's final weekend, you're going to have to go through one of them.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
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