Several members of our Top 25 got their first taste of serious competition last week in a panoply of Thanksgiving week tournaments spread across the U.S. and the Caribbean. The biggest casualty was Tennessee, ranked No. 1 in our chart until this week, but dropping to No. 13 after suffering an 11-point loss to No. 13 Georgetown in St. Thomas. While the Lady Vols take a big slide, the Hoyas don't advance much -- despite beating what we thought was the No. 1 team in the country, shooting woes resulted in Georgetown's loss to unranked Missouri in the same tournament.
The other big loser was last week's No. 23 team, TCU. The Horned Frogs lost three in a row at the Paradise Jam, the same tournament that bit the Lady Vols. Defeats by the higher ranked Mountaineeers (No. 12 last week) and Iowa State (No. 17) were predictable and already factored into the relative rankings of the teams. The loss to unranked Virginia was not, so the Toads depart the Top 25 for the time being at least.
Taking their place is Iowa. Concerns about the spate of injuries that plagued the Hawkeyes kept them out of the rankings at the start of the season. But Iowa is now 7-0, including a quality win over James Madison, and as other members of our Top 25 begin to accumulate losses, that makes the Hawkeyes look pretty good this week.
In many respects, 2010 was a down year for the ACC. Traditional powers North Carolina and Maryland faced rebuilding years. Duke and Florida State had great seasons but fell short of their Final Four goals. This allowed teams like Wake Forest and North Carolina State to creep into the league's upper tier.
But past performance is no guarantee of success this season. As Wake Forest head coach Mike Petersen observed when it was pointed out that his team could be better this year but finish lower in the conference standings, "In the ACC, you can get better but finish worse in the standings. But you can't get worse and finish higher!"
This is a season in which nearly every ACC team has a chance to either get better or at least stay at the same level, but it may be the final seconds of many a close game that determines which teams will have great seasons and which squads will be left to wonder where it all went wrong. North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell noted that with the league's overall balance this year, the impact of young players will determine the success of half of the teams in the ACC. Hopefully, this will result in a number of games that are not only close but are also played at a high level.
UCLAs 86-83 double overtime win over Notre Dame in South Bend Thursday is arguably the most exciting game of this young season. It was a contest that some will say Notre Dame gave away. But others can contend with equal merit that the Bruins just flat out-hustled and out psyched the Irish.
The Irish, ranked No. 21 in this week's Full Court Top 25 and No. 12 in the AP and coaches' polls, will get their first real tests of the season Thursday night against UCLA (ranked No. 10 by Full Court and No. 15 by AP and the coaches) and Sunday against Kentucky (ranked No. 11 by Full Court and No. 9/10 in the AP and coaches' polls).
Will the Irish prove they deserve to be ranked higher across the board? Reading tea leaves has never been a skill of mine.
For me, just hit me over the head with the facts and I am happy.
Well, here are a few facts.
Notre Dame has outscored its two outmanned early-season opponents in the first half of play by a grand total of 93-19. They forced 49 turnovers in their season opener against New Hampshire en route to a 99-48 win. They held Morehead State to seven first-half points, matching an Irish team record set in 1985, and went on to a 91-28 victory.
Those accomplishments lead to this premature statement of opinion.
Despite what looks like an unfettered scoring spree to date, Notre Dame will win, if it wins, in these two upcoming tests by playing defense at a level rarely seen outside of Storrs Connecticut or Knoxville, Tennessee. The Irish have taken to heart the idea that they must overcompensate for their lack of championship-winning size on the inside with a stifling defense.
With many teams in the Full Court Press Preseason Top 25 opting to jumpstart their seasons with a schedule full of confidence-builders against lightweight opponents, there was not much movement in the rankings after opening weekend. In fact, there was no movement at all among the Top 10.
Further down the charts, however, several of the elite teams stumbled early. No. 12 Dayton dropped its opener to Penn State, in a 107-112 cliffhanger that went to double overtime, and broke multiple scoring records, before the Lady Lions came out on top. Later in the season, when most if not all teams have suffered several defeats, a loss this narrow in a game this big (and hard-fought) might not have cost the Flyers quite so heavily. But with scores of undefeated teams on hand to take their place in the Top 25, it is difficult to justify keeping a beaten team at the top of the head, especially where, as here, the loss comes at the hands of a nonranked team. Given the clear evidence of superlative offensive production by both teams, this may not be the last we see of the Dayton in this seasons Top 25.
Superlative offensive production is something that cannot be said of No. 14 LSU, whose poor shooting and inability to defend without fouling cost them a 62-71 loss at Northwestern. Like Dayton, we still think the Lady Tigers have the talent and coaching to finish among the nations Top 25, but to do so, theyll have to earn their way back into our rankings.
Likewise, No. 16 St. Johns, who easily won their opener against Marist, but then fell to hosting Kansas State, 53-64, in the Wildcat Classic.
Joining this weeks rankings in their stead are Oklahoma, Penn State and Iowa State, all of whom are undefeated and make their debuts at Nos. 23, 24 and 25, respectively.
In a beefed up SEC this year, it's Tennessee and then everybody else.
If that doesnt sound familiar to womens basketball fans, it's hard to say what would. On the whole, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) should be stronger than last year but still not up to the glory days of the 90s and the earlier portion of this decade. On the whole, the current SEC lacks the superstar players of days gone by. But that's not entirely a bad thing: Success in 2010-11 will be built more on team execution than on megastar power.
One can divide the conference into four groups: Final Four contender (i.e., Tennessee), likely NCAA Tournament participants, dark-horses that could be NCAA bubble teams and finally re-building clubs. One recurrent theme for roughly half of the conference is uncertainty in the point guard position.
Its the nature of college sports that players move on to the next stages of their lives at predictable intervals. It is part of the coachs job to plan on their departure and have replacements at hand.
But it is also the nature of college sports that unexpected departures occur. The success or failure of a program can be significantly affected by how a coach responds to these unanticipated losses.
While, apart from predictable losses to graduation, the number of players and assistant coaches leaving Big Ten programs since the close of last season is not large, two teams in particular have suffered unanticipated departures that have left their head coaches scrambling.
Even a basketball rookie can spot this one. Looks like there is trouble ahead in South Bend, Indiana. And that's too bad, since this -- the 10th anniversary of the 2000-01 team when Ruth Riley and now assistant coach Niele Ivey gave their team a winning inside/outside threat that led them to a 34-2 record and the teams only national championship -- should be a year of celebration for the Irish.
But Muffet McGraws 2010-2011 Notre Dame team has a fatal flaw that she will need to fix before she can even think about winning her second national championship. In fact, the Irish, who finished 29-6 last season, were chosen to finish just fourth in the power-laden Big East in the preseason coaches' poll.
Graduated point guard Melissa Lechlitner won't be easy to replace, but with budding superstar and 2-guard Skylar Diggins taking a larger and most likely a leadership role on the team, that's not the main cause for concern. Rather, unless McGraw can shore up the glaring weakness in the paint, the squad will be hard pressed to get back to the Final Four for the first time in 10 years.
"And with the first pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft, the Minnesota Lynx select ..." Not much mystery there. The odds-on choice still is -- as it has been for several years now -- Connecticut's all-everything, Maya Moore.
Unless, of course, Lynx GM Cheryl Reeve gets a huge shot of courage and goes with Aussie sensation, Liz Cambage. Moore, of course, is the safe choice, but then again, 6-8 with Cambage's raw talent is not something that comes along everyday.
Either way, however, Minnesota, who won the top pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft in today's lottery is due for a significant roster improvement between now and next season. What's more, while the experts may quibble about just how deep this year's draft class will be, Minnesota also has the No. 4 pick, which it bought from Connecticut on Draft Day 2010 in exchange for Kelsey Griffin. The Sun certainly weren't expecting to finish in lottery position, missing the playoffs with a 17-17 regular-season record, and that deal may just go down in history as the worst of Connecticut GM Mike Thibault's otherwise-lofty career.
Moreover, Tulsa, which entered the lottery with the greatest number of chances after a league-worst 6-28 season last year and left with the No. 2 pick, is also due for an upgrade, having landed the rights to whichever superstar the Lynx like less (that is, if the powers that be can simply keep Nolan Richardson from giving her away to one of his competitors in exchange for little or nothing, as he did with the best of the roster he inherited last year from Detroit).
Rounding out the top four picks is the Chicago Sky, whose 14-20 finish last season will give new head coach Pokey Chatman the No. 3 pick in the draft to work with.
The following is the complete order for the 2011 WNBA first round, as determined both by the lottery results and by the regular-season finishes of the remaining teams in the league: