Well, that was quick. Just nine days into the 2020-21 women’s college basketball season, the nation’s No. 1 team was toppled Thursday as No. 8 NC State upended South Carolina on the Gamecocks’ home court. What does it mean for Bracketology? Which team will be the new No. 1 when Monday’s rankings come out? Our experts — ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays, Charlie Creme and D’Arcy Maine — preview the Jimmy V Women’s Classic and the weekend ahead, and make their picks for the biggest games on the schedule.
What broke down for No. 1 South Carolina on Thursday? What are the ripple effects in Bracketology, where the Gamecocks were the No. 1 overall seed? And, knowing we could have another upset before then, which team should take over No. 1?
Creme: While the Gamecocks were the overwhelming pick as the preseason No. 1 team in the country and had won 29 games in a row, most of us agreed this wasn’t a perfect team. A couple of areas were minor concerns, and they both showed up on Thursday night, contributing to No. 8 NC State’s 54-46 upset in Columbia. As talented South Carolina is, the Gamecocks are young. Who was going to provide the leadership that Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Tyasha Harris provided last season? And do the Gamecocks have reliable, consistent perimeter shooting?
The leadership never materialized against the Wolfpack. A lack of urgency at key moments of the game was a problem as no one asserted herself when the game was on the line. I don’t expect this to be an issue as the season progresses. Every team needs more time together on the court, and South Carolina is no exception.
But the shooting might not be as easily correctable. The entire game was an evening of missed shots. South Carolina was 20-for-74 from the field (27.0%).
Sophomore guard Zia Cooke might be the key to better shooting. She was 1-for-5 from 3-point range against NC State, and the Gamecocks made 2-of-12 from deep. Cooke’s importance was really underscored on Thursday.
The loss doesn’t do major damage to South Carolina’s Bracketology status. The Gamecocks remain a No. 1 seed, although not No. 1 overall. That distinction goes to Stanford. South Carolina’s wins over South Dakota and Gonzaga last weekend don’t get forgotten because of this loss.
The biggest Bracketology impact is for NC State, which is now also on the top line. The Wolfpack entered the game No. 6 overall on the S-curve. A road win against the No. 1 team in the country is massive for the résumé no matter how quirky the season or circumstances might be. NC State elevates past Louisville and Baylor to become the fourth No. 1 seed. When compared to the teams NC State will be competing against for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, the Wolfpack now have a win that almost no one in the country owns.
Voepel: Coach Dawn Staley was really unhappy with everything her Gamecocks did, including that no one stepped forward to get them organized on the court. This is where they miss a point guard with as much experience as Harris had, as Charlie mentioned. It’s also an example of what it’s like to play a Wes Moore-coached team if your offense is stagnant: It gets ugly and stays that way. Staley was irritated with South Carolina’s shot selection, or lack thereof. She pointed to the Gamecocks shooting 10.5% from the field in the second quarter and said, “I told our team I could be blindfolded with defense, and I could shoot better than 10%. That just tells me we’re taking bad shots and we don’t have any flow.”
Both teams looked like they were blindfolded at times Thursday, with each shooting less than 30%. Guard Destanni Henderson, who played so well in the Gamecocks’ two victories in South Dakota last weekend, was 1-of-13 from the field. The inside battle between South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston (4 of 14 from the field, nine points) and Elissa Cunane (3-of-13, 14 points) was basically a standoff with neither player at her best, Staley said.
But the Wolfpack just had a bit more life in this game and got a really key performance from Kayla Jones with 16 points and 12 rebounds. This is a wake-up call of sorts for South Carolina, which goes to No. 23 Iowa State on Sunday (ESPNU/ESPN App, noon ET). Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly excels at coming up with junk defenses against more athletic teams, and we know how much Iowa State will try to stretch South Carolina’s defense with the 3-ball.
South Carolina has some real work to do in practice the next couple of days, but it’s probably for the best for a young team to have a tough loss like this. Consider how the Gamecocks reacted to their last loss, in November 2019 to Indiana: They didn’t lose the rest of the season.
As for who will be No. 1 in Monday’s AP poll now, that’s interesting. No. 2 Stanford is still trying to figure out its schedule with the Santa Clara County ordinance prohibiting games or practice in the county through at least Dec. 21. Stanford is supposed to play at UNLV on Saturday, which will be the Cardinal’s second game this season. If they win, it seems likely they move to the top spot. But will No. 3 UConn, a team that still hasn’t played yet, move up, too? Or might No. 4 Baylor or No. 5 Louisville jump ahead of the Huskies if they win? And how far up will the No. 8 Wolfpack move if they win Sunday against Coastal Carolina?
With No. 3 UConn on a 14-day pause, No. 20 DePaul has stepped in to play No. 5 Louisville on Friday (ESPN/ESPN App, 6:30 p.m. ET) in the Jimmy V Women’s Classic. What intrigues you most about the matchup?
Hays: DePaul coach Doug Bruno and Louisville coach Jeff Walz are as good as anyone at not just identifying talent but talent that fits the way their respective programs play. Walz increasingly does that within the talent pool of, roughly, the top 50 recruits, while Bruno has to cast a slightly wider net, but both do it well. So as much as this game matters in the present, I’m interested to watch the future, namely Louisville freshmen Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran and DePaul freshman Darrione Rogers.
Van Lith has been sensational through two games, but will a step up — both in level of opposition and pace of play — make her look more her age at all? Or is an up-an-down pace with a premium on shot-making the perfect stage for her to put down a marker in a race for freshman of the year honors that many of us essentially ceded to UConn’s Paige Bueckers?
On the DePaul side, Rogers is a top-50 recruit, something of a rarity for the Blue Demons. She hasn’t started yet but played starter’s minutes in a 93-91 season-opening loss against then-No. 13 Texas A&M.
Dana Evans is still Louisville’s star. Sonya Morris still leads DePaul’s veteran ensemble. But this game offers a glimpse of what’s ahead for two programs that always have plans.
Maine: OK, so it’s not the former Big East clash the original schedule had promised, but it’s a great matchup between two former conference foes and as good of a consolation prize as you’re going to get in 2020. These programs have history — DePaul holds a slight 17-15 edge in the all-time series — and might I remind you about the last time these two programs squared off? It resulted in a thrilling, jump-out-of-your-seat 73-72 upset by DePaul during the second round of the 2016 NCAA tournament. The rosters are obviously different now, but with the Blue Demons losing their first test of the season against Texas A&M and the Cardinals looking for an early signature win against a ranked opponent, both squads will definitely bring their A-plus games.
In a season with so many unknowns and uncertainties, teams will need to seize the somewhat elusive opportunities against quality, nonconference opponents because they might not have many other chances. It will be fascinating to see which of these teams and players step up on Friday and take advantage in this unexpected meeting.
Creme: First, we should give kudos to the coaches and schools and everyone else who made this matchup happen. The disappointment of not getting to see two top-five teams square off is eased by an excellent top-20 matchup. DePaul and the Big East had to agree to move a conference game against Villanova to make this game happen. That should be recognized. Flexibility is going to be needed on so many fronts this season, and this is a leading example of doing something under unforeseen circumstances that is good for the sport.
Any game that involves DePaul has the potential to be highly entertaining. Because of the style Doug Bruno’s teams play, the Blue Demons are capable of beating anyone in the country on the right night. DePaul plays fast, spreads the floor and has multiple 3-point shooters, led by veterans Morris and Lexi Held.
Bruno has often used five-guard lineups in DePaul’s first two games — that near upset of Texas A&M and a school-record 128-point performance against Chicago State — and the Cardinals have one of the best guards in the country in Evans and Van Lith, the reigning ACC freshman of the week, in their backcourt. Strength against strength makes for some fun.
What other game are you most looking forward to seeing over the next three days?
Maine: There are so many good matchups on the calendar this weekend that I have started typing and then deleting my response many times. But I can’t wait to see the Pac -12 showdown between No. 7 Arizona and No. 9 UCLA on Friday. The conference is so stacked this season, and both squads are looking for early bragging rights.
And this game of course features two of the top three best players in women’s college basketball in the Wildcats’ Aari McDonald and the Bruins’ Michaela Onyenwere. Both will contend for Pac-12 player of the year honors, as well as every other major award, down the stretch, so buckle in on Friday, grab some snacks and be prepared for the pair to trade buckets and wow with their highlight-worthy athleticism.
Creme: Contrasting styles can make for compelling basketball. That’s one of the reasons I am anxious to see No. 4 Baylor’s visit to No. 16 Arkansas on Sunday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 6 p.m. ET).
With Chelsea Dungee, Destiny Slocum and Amber Ramirez, the Razorbacks want to push the pace, shoot 3-pointers and make the game a bit frenetic. Baylor has size and would prefer getting the ball to NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo in the post.
Arkansas didn’t do a good job defending the interior against Maryland on Sunday, allowing 42 points in the paint in a 115-96 loss. The Lady Bears are more imposing than the Terps, so I am curious to see if the Arkansas defense shows improvement.
On the other hand, Baylor didn’t make a single 3-pointer Tuesday against South Florida, and the offense looked choppy at times. Despite the great news of DiDi Richards’ return, the Lady Bears are still searching for more playmakers in the backcourt. Arkansas has a few of those. How will those matchups play out and which team will show the most improvement in their areas of weakness?
Hays: The basketball rivalry between the states of Indiana and Kentucky is old enough that the annual high school girls’ basketball all-star series between the neighbors predates the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. But any women’s basketball rivalry between the universities that bear each state’s name was usually an afterthought. No longer. With both teams highly ranked and harboring significant postseason aspirations, Sunday’s meeting (ESPNU/ESPN App, 4 p.m. ET) is the biggest in series history.
Without making too much of a rout, No. 13 Indiana’s comprehensive dismantling of Eastern Kentucky in its season opener stood in contrast to last season’s more workmanlike opening win against similarly overmatched Mount St. Mary’s. With Grace Berger and Ali Patberg combining for 35 points and 13 assists and Mackenzie Holmes going for 26 points, 8 rebounds and 7 blocks, Indiana dominated the way a contender should against lesser competition. But with a backloaded Big Ten schedule, Sunday’s game might be one of only two opportunities to play a ranked opponent until the end of January. In other words, if the Hoosiers want to be taken seriously in the upper echelon, this is the time to earn that respect.
But on the other side, No. 11 Kentucky might have already turned heads with its early performances. Without Rhyne Howard, the preseason national player of the year, first Chasity Patterson and then Dre’una Edwards seized their opportunity to make a statement about the cast Kentucky can put around Howard.
It adds up to a game worthy of the basketball bad blood between the neighboring states.
After South Carolina’s loss, which other game this weekend has the single biggest Bracketology impact?
Creme: Of all the teams involved in these quality matchups this weekend, No. 25 Texas has the most to gain in its game against 12th-ranked Texas A&M on Sunday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET). The Longhorns have looked dominant in their first three games, and Charli Collier is the breakout star of the season’s first week. But beating SMU, North Texas and Louisiana Tech are merely footnotes on an NCAA tournament résumé. Knocking off Texas A&M would move to the top of the page. This game will also serve as a true measuring stick as to where Texas is in its transition from Karen Aston to Vic Schaefer on the sideline.
The Aggies enter the weekend as a No. 3 seed in Bracketology and the No. 10 team overall on my board. A win like this following one against DePaul could put Texas A&M in a position to make a possible move to the No. 2 seed line.