Commentary

Impressive start for these five

Originally Published: January 6, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW

Williamson-Graves-GodBold AP PhotoThe Cyclones, Lady Vols and Illini are among five teams that made a statement last week.

Notre Dame produced the most memorable moment of the first full week of conference play across the country (with apologies to the Sun Belt, which seemingly starts conference play sometime around Labor Day), but a 73-72 win on the road against No. 1 Connecticut wasn't the only instance of a team doing more than boosting its win total. Skylar Diggins made her point about where her Fighting Irish fit in the championship debate, but these five teams also came out of the blocks in a noticeable hurry.

As we learned watching Usain Bolt, it doesn't really matter who is ahead after 20 meters, but it beats the alternative.

Tennessee: It's going to take a win against Notre Dame in three weeks to get back in the big discussion, but no team in the country, and that includes the Fighting Irish, had a better start to the new year than the Lady Vols. With a pair of decisive second-half surges, first in a 73-53 victory at No. 18 South Carolina and then a 79-66 win at home against No. 10 Georgia, No. 12 Tennessee staked out familiar SEC high ground (albeit not quite so lofty as Kentucky at the moment).

No team had scored even 60 points against South Carolina until Tennessee came to town and hit 50 percent of its shots, highlighted by a combined 36 points on 16-for-23 shooting from Isabelle Harrison and Taber Spani. Against Georgia, it was Meighan Simmons and Bashaara Graves providing go-to options at key moments. The Lady Vols shot at least 47 percent in each of their four halves of basketball on the week, remarkable consistency and efficiency against two quality defenses. At its best, and even without injured starter Cierra Burdick, Tennessee seems like it has almost no end of options for people who can score. Against Baylor and Stanford, it seemed short of anyone it knew would score. Time will tell if that's just the team this is: better than most but not as good as the best, or if it's becoming the team that opened SEC play in impressively familiar fashion.

Illinois: How does a team unfamiliar with it handle success? A win at home against then-undefeated Georgia on Dec. 28 might not be topped, but the Illini are showing they aren't one-hit wonders.

On the verge of a home win in their Big Ten opener against No. 14 Purdue, they instead lost that game 67-66 in overtime. Surely, then, that missed opportunity marked the end of their momentum? Not so much. Sunday, Illinois beat No. 24 Ohio State for its first win in Columbus since 2001. As was the case against Georgia, Karisma Penn played like an All-American with 34 points and 12 rebounds in 39 minutes. In hopes of winning over new fans for a new era, the Illini are offering free admission to their Jan. 13 game against Michigan State. Based on how things have gone after the biggest win of the season, they ought to have some takers.

Iowa State: This is not to suggest the Harlem Globetrotters had a better strength of schedule than Iowa State as the new year arrived, but, well, beating Western Illinois, North Dakota, Loyola Marymount, Drake, Fairfield, Northern Iowa, Air Force, Alabama State and the aforementioned Illinois answers only so many questions. A rather sizable query still awaits in Wednesday night's visit to Baylor, but the Cyclones came away from the past week with a 73-65 midweek overtime victory against Texas, a 58-54 win at Texas Tech on Sunday and some hard-earned credibility. It's the first 2-0 start in conference play for Iowa State since the 2004-05 season and the first win in Lubbock since 2008-09. The Cyclones hit 42 field goals across the two wins, and sophomore point guard Nikki Moody either scored or assisted on 24 of them.

Purdue: This is a team that is essentially two baskets and a matter of seconds away from an 0-2 start in the Big Ten and a three-game losing streak overall. But that's half the point. Coming off a poor showing at Notre Dame -- Purdue rallied from an early deficit but still conceded the game before halftime, losing by one of the biggest margins in the history of the rivalry -- the Boilermakers talked about how they wanted that performance to linger for a few practices and remind them that they needed to play together.

Words are one thing, actions are another. And back-to-back overtime wins, first at Illinois and then at No. 25 Nebraska, sure seem to constitute sticking together. Against the Illini, Courtney Moses hit the winner with three seconds left in the extra period, while Sam Ostarello, wrapping up a 17-point, 19-rebound effort, provided the clinching points against the Huskers. Is a recent drop in 3-point efficiency a problem? Perhaps. Are 74 turnovers in the past three games a concern? Absolutely. But resiliency is a start.

Washington: How many NCAA tournament teams are we talking about from the Pac-12? Stanford and Cal are in their own Bay Area world. Colorado took some lumps in losing to the Cardinal and Bears but still looks solid. And UCLA certainly has the RPI to control its own destiny through conference play. Is there anyone else? Washington made its case to be at least the best of the rest, beating fellow mid-table contenders Arizona State and Arizona at home to open 2-0 in conference for the first time since the 2006-07 season. The Huskies nearly let the game against the Wildcats slip away, but on the positive side, a team shooting barely 36 percent on the season has now scored at least 70 points in three consecutive games and bettered its season shooting percentage in both Pac-12 games. At the very least, the start makes next week's road trip to Los Angeles distinctly more compelling for Kevin McGuff's team.

DePaul's helping hands

As December gave way to January, nine teams ranked in the top 10 in assists per game nationally were also ranked by more subjective human criteria in the AP Top 25. It should be a clean sweep this week.

[+] EnlargeAnna Martin
Warren Wimmer/Icon SMIAnna Martin helped DePaul upset No. 11 Louisville 86-80.

The lone omission in the above scenario, DePaul scored one of the weekend's significant results with an 86-80 win against No. 11 Louisville and shared its way back into the rankings. DePaul's starting backcourt of Anna Martin, Brittany Hrynko and Chanise Jenkins combined for 14 assists against the Cardinals, who had limited opponents to fewer than 10 assists per game before they faced the Blue Demons. For the season, those three guards are averaging 14.5 assists per game, a figure which puts them -- just those three players -- ahead of 257 Division I teams. A preseason all-conference pick, Martin's scoring is down from a season ago, when she led the Big East at 19.1 points per game, but it's because she has more help from Hrynko, Jenkins, a freshman, and forward Jasmine Penny. Martin averaged 3.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers per game as a junior. As a senior, she's averaging 4.6 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game.

Doug Bruno's team generally passes the ball as well as almost any program in the Big East, but this might be a special group even by his standards. The competition isn't going to get any easier in conference, but DePaul is assisting on 65 percent of its field goals (it did so on 59 percent a season ago). Even Connecticut, generally a gold standard in such matters, is only slightly ahead of that pace at 67 percent this season.

Successful final act

Want to be stumped? Name the current members of the WAC. It's difficult enough to remember West Virginia is in the Big 12. One newcomer worth committing to memory is New Mexico State's Stefanie Gilbreath. Most recently of Southern California, Gilbreath is spending her final season playing for Mark Trakh, who originally recruited her at USC. Fortunately, she's spending that season on the court, playing an important role for a team now 3-1 in conference after sweeping a road trip through Texas-San Antonio and Texas State (yes, WAC members).

Gilbreath had 19 points and seven assists in a 69-52 win against San Antonio and 21 points in 39 minutes in a 61-58 victory against Texas State, including a 3-pointer in the closing minutes to give her team a 60-56 advantage. Like former USC teammate Jacki Gemelos, Gilbreath had about as little luck as it is possible to have during her time in Los Angeles, sitting out three consecutive seasons because of ACL injuries and only playing a full schedule for the first time a season ago. Presumably, the important ending came when she graduated from USC, but the happy ending is playing out a team-high 32 minutes at a time in Las Cruces and across the WAC -- whoever is in it these days.

Team of the weekend

Nebraska-Omaha: A team for which the schedule a season ago included York, Briar Cliff, Northwest Missouri State, Missouri Western and Dallas Christian (and which went a modest 15-12 against that schedule) is 11-3 this season, and 9-3 against Division I opponents, after improving to 3-1 in the Summit League with wins last week against Oakland and IPFW. And frankly, who doesn't get excited when the Mavericks play the Mastodons? Jokes aside, the senior trio of Paige Frauendorfer, Carolyn Balir-Mobley and Jamie Nash are getting it done in the early days of the program's Division I era (the Mavericks beat just two Division I teams last season, their first as a transitional member). Frauendorfer had 16 points and 11 rebounds in the win against Oakland and 23 points and 10 rebounds in the win against IPFW.

She also starred

Saadia Doyle, Howard: Howard senior Saadia Doyle already spent a considerable amount of time this season leaving fans across the map wondering who she is and why their team can't seem to stop her from scoring. She finally got a chance to put on a show at home in Friday's 61-58 win against Temple. Doyle scored 32 points on 10-for-19 shooting and led a 17-point comeback for the Bison. Temple isn't the team it has been in recent seasons, its roster comprised almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores in a rebuilding campaign, but beating the Owls is still a notable win for a MEAC team. And it was a just reward for Doyle. Five days earlier, she scored 21 points in a road loss at Ohio State, that effort coming after earlier games in which she scored 36 points in a loss at Penn State and 21 points in a loss at DePaul.

Neither Tayler Hill nor Taylor Palmer likely enjoyed their week all that much, but that has nothing to do with their own performances. Hill's Ohio State team dropped games at Iowa and against Illinois, but not before she scored a career-high 34 points against the Hawkeyes and 30 points three days later against the Illini. With overtime required in the first game, she played 83 of a possible 85 minutes on the week. Palmer's West Virginia team faced a similarly rough week in the standings after it suffered losses at Oklahoma and at home against Kansas, the program's first games as a member of the Big 12. But Palmer did her part and more with 30 points against the Sooners, hitting eight of 12 3-point attempts, and 24 points against the Jayhawks, including 4-for-8 3-point attempts.

Before next weekend

Stanford at California (Tuesday): It's a midweek game that won't end until around midnight on the East Coast, so no, it probably isn't going to get the hype it otherwise merits, but it's every bit as enticing as the rankings suggest. Neither team turned in memorable offensive performances on road swings through Utah and Colorado, with Stanford's 70-56 win at Utah the only time either team scored even 60 points. But wins are wins on the road. Cal's Layshia Clarendon is shooting 30.3 percent in eight career games against the Cardinal, all defeats, but she had her moments a season ago in the rivalry, hitting free throws to send one game to overtime and scoring 20 points in the Pac-12 tournament meeting. There might be ways for Cal to win without a big game from her, but it's easier to envision with her involved.

[+] EnlargeStefanie Gilbreath
Darrell Walker/Icon SMIStefanie Gilbreath started out at Southern California, but is now playing for former Women of Troy coach Mark Trakh at New Mexico State.

Kansas at Oklahoma State (Tuesday): The Jayhawks could have fit in the opening part of this notebook after they opened Big 12 play with wins against Kansas State and at West Virginia, but there's no time to savor those results. There aren't many better backcourt battles than Angel Goodrich against Tiffany Bias. When Kansas won at Oklahoma State last season, Bias had eight turnovers in defeat (Goodrich had six in the win), but the Cowgirls' standout was the star when her team won the return game, finished with 26 points, eight assists and just three turnovers.

Detroit at Green Bay (Tuesday): The Horizon League opener for both teams could well prove important in the conference race, but it's worth noting here because it sends the nation's second-leading scorer, Detroit's Shareta Brown, into one of the tougher places for a visiting player to get points in the mid-major landscape.

Florida Atlantic at Middle Tennessee (Wednesday): Florida Atlantic is just 3-5 out of conference this season, but it's the lone remaining unbeaten in Sun Belt play at 5-0 as it visits preseason favorite Middle Tennessee. The Owls thrive on turnovers, but the Blue Raiders kept those well in check in two games between the teams last season. The result? Two Florida Atlantic losses in which it didn't score more than 41 points.

Texas A&M at Kentucky (Thursday): The optimist looks at Texas A&M and sees a team which suffered its only setbacks against Connecticut, Louisville, Penn State and Notre Dame, all quality teams. The pessimist sees the same thing. Sunday's win against Arkansas notwithstanding, this is a chance for Texas A&M to prove it is more than the best of the rest. Obviously, establishing Kelsey Bone against Kentucky's improved post play will be something a lot of us are watching, but the Aggies also need a strong game from Adrienne Pratcher against Kentucky's pressure.

Miami at Maryland (Thursday): Games against Maryland provided Miami with its best evidence last season that it was a serious contender on the national stage, a case that ultimately fell apart in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Hurricanes swept both games from the Terrapins, including a game in College Park when Maryland was ranked No. 8. This time around, Miami has a win against Penn State to its credit and opened ACC play with wins against Clemson and Virginia, but can Morgan Stroman and Shawnice Wilson keep the Terrapins off the boards?

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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