NCAAW: Does UConn, which held its No. 4 spot in a tumultuous week, deserve the AP top 5?

Cassandra NegleyYahoo Sports Contributor
Connecticut forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa leads the No. 4 Huskies. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)
Connecticut forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa leads the No. 4 Huskies. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

Of the top eight teams in the Nov. 25 Associated Press women’s basketball Top 25 poll, only one held its position in a tumultuous week of tournaments. That was No. 4 Connecticut, a team that hasn’t wowed but also hasn’t disappointed. So it’s fair to take a closer look at the Huskies, who received an eye-opening two first-place votes for the first time this season.

UConn has no statement win — or loss

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The Huskies have rode rather quietly into the second month of the season and it seems as though they might be getting a boost from being good for so long. Or we’re blinded by how good they were for so long we can’t see normalcy.

Connecticut (6-0) hasn’t faced any ranked team, nor a team that’s made it to the rankings after the fact. The eye test gives them a soft opening schedule, and while three wins have come by a margin of at least 29 points, three have barely cracked double digits.

The margin breakdown: +11 vs. Cal (5-2), +13 vs. Vanderbilt (5-3), +29 vs. Temple (4-4), +39 vs. Virginia (4-4), +11 vs. Ohio State (4-3) and +38 vs. Dayton (4-5). Only one team, Cal, is coming off an appearance in the NCAA tournament. If UConn were a top-ranked team with that schedule, one would think the Huskies would have to blow out the opposition. But the margin of victory ranks 20th in the nation at 23.5 points. There are 12 teams with larger average margins of victories that are in the top 25 this week. All but two fall below them in the rankings.

According to the Massey Ratings, UConn is second overall in its performance this season (Louisville is No. 1) and fifth in strength of schedule so far (Virginia is first having faced No. 13 Kentucky and UConn back-to-back). It ranks top five on offense and defense. Those point in the Huskies’ favor.

For comparison’s sake, we’ll look at two teams around UConn: No. 1 Stanford, since UConn got two first-place votes, and No. 5 Oregon State, which will try to move ahead of the Huskies to improve its best-ever AP poll spot.

Stanford (8-0): +65 vs. Eastern Washington, +26 vs. San Francisco, +54 vs. Northern Colorado, +6 vs. Gonzaga (in overtime), +19 vs. Buffalo, +5 vs. California Baptist, +18 vs. Syracuse, +5 vs. Mississippi State. Four (Gonzaga, Buffalo, Syracuse, Miss. State) made it to the tournament last year.

  • The early portion of the Cardinal schedule is simple and at first seems like UConn should have held a higher ranking. But then comes the heft. Gonzaga is currently ranked 18th and nearly changed the Cardinal’s trajectory in that OT matchup. Syracuse fell out of the rankings, but had held a spot in the bottom half of the rankings. And Mississippi State, a championship game team in 2017 and 2018 and elite eight squad last season, remains at No. 10.

Oregon State (7-0): +29 vs. UC Irvine (3-4), +12 vs. Pacific (5-1), +21 vs. DePaul (6-1), +11 vs. Missouri State (7-1), +50 vs. Southern Utah (3-2), +22 vs. Miami (Florida) (5-2), +13 vs. Liberty (2-6). Three teams (DePaul, Missouri State, Miami) reached the NCAA tournament and all of those are currently ranked.

  • Here’s where a case is to be made. Oregon State has had some cupcake competition. But it’s also had really strong competition, whereas it’s easy to argue UConn has not. Missouri State finally cracked the ranking at No. 22 this week after losing the regional semifinals to Stanford last season. Miami’s two losses are to DePaul by six and Oregon State by 22. It plays Indiana on Wednesday and could further prove its strength. In those three games, the Beavers have won by an average of 18 points. And there are other teams below UConn that likely feel similarly to the Beavers.

Coaches seek out different things in making their schedules. Some want tests. Some want to see their team chemistry develop during blowouts. All of the teams in the top 25 do it differently and it makes rankings difficult — which is a good thing and we should debate them.

Now should the Huskies, led by junior Megan Walker’s 20.3 points and Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s 10.2 rebounds, be at No. 4 with everything that went on over the Thanksgiving break? Maybe. Sure. You could argue either one.

Should they be No. 1? Absolutely not.

What makes No. 1 Stanford go

Stanford survived the rough waters and avoided the top three going down in one day without starting guard DiJonai Carrington. Kiana Williams also suffered a late-game injury to what appeared to be her knee against Mississippi State, though she downplayed any lingering issues afterward.

It’s the Cardinal’s star freshman class that has turned heads early this season, starting with Haley Jones. Jones is averaging 23.5 minutes per game, third-highest on the team behind Williams and sophomore Lexie Hull, and earned the Pac 12 Freshman of the Week award after being named to the Greater Victoria Invitational all-tournament team.

Jones is averaging 10.3 points shooting 52.5 percent overall (32 of 61). She has 17 total assists, seven steals and eight blocks in eight games. Last week over the three-game tournament she averaged 13.3 points per game, 4.7 rebounds and one block over 29 minutes per game. She shot 15 of 29, including 7 of 12 against Syracuse.

After the tournament’s final victory, Jones said it was the chemistry of the team’s freshmen and upperclassmen, and not strictly the youth’s skills, that are leading Stanford. Head coach Tara VanDerveer told Yahoo Sports this fall if her freshmen can dig in and play solid defense, the Cardinal will make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

The Cardinal are off until Dec. 15 when they host Ohio State.

What to watch this week

No. 14 Indiana at No. 21 Miami (Fl.) | Wednesday at 6 p.m. | ACC Network

Indiana continues to climb to its best ranking in school history despite a close loss to Baylor at the Paradise Jam tournament. Its previous high was No. 22 and it rose again this week following a 71-57 win over South Carolina, ranked fifth. It was the Hoosiers’ first victory over a top-5 team since 2010.

They come with a balanced attack. Five players are in double digits in scoring, and a different combo of five players averages at least 5.5 rebounds per game. Freshman Mackenzie Holmes leads the team with 12 blocks over an average 19 minutes per game with only one start. She had a big opening week for the rising squad.

They’ll have to deal with Miami’s preseason All-American, Beatrice Mompremier. She scored 13 points over 15 minutes in the team’s final game of Thanksgiving weekend against Miami (Ohio), a much-needed win.

Minnesota at Notre Dame follows on the ACC Network doubleheader. Both teams were ranked at the start of the year and have faced quality opponents while finding their way with plenty of time until it matters.

The Irish’s Anaya Peoples earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors after being named to the all-tournament team, a big sign for a Notre Dame squad that needs to see rapid development from its newcomers.

Peoples averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds over three games in Cancun, leading the team in scoring and rebounding against No. 21 South Florida (18 points, nine rebounds) and scoring a career-high 19 the following day. She was 20 of 32 from the floor (62.5 percent).

Don’t count out the Irish yet. They’ll follow up Wednesday’s game with a meeting against UConn over the weekend.

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