The Big East has had its share of surprises since the season got under way besides the perks that also come with being one of the dominant womens basketball conferences in the nation.
After starting the preseason AP Poll with seven members, six have maintained their standing with only St. Johns falling from favor among the national media panel that votes each week.
Though most of the teams in the league got their first taste of conference play in early December, nonconference schedules are only now coming to a close with the first week of the new year marking the real beginning of the Big East Conference season. Let's take a look at how the league's teams have fared to date.
Big Ten league action opens on Friday with a couple of very interesting match-ups.
The bad news for the rest of the league is that Ohio State didnt rebuild after the graduation of Jantel Lavender. as much as they reloaded. Jim Fosters team has accumulated a league-best 13-0 record in preconference play and is currently ranked No. 9/12 in the nation.
Wisconsins new coach Bobbie Kelsey has discovered that turning a program around is going to be a long process and was rewarded with a Big-Ten home opener against the undefeated Buckeyes.
League newcomer Nebraska enters league play in second place at 11-1 against a schedule that several tough preconference opponents. The No. 23/RV Huskers will face a stern test at No. 16/17 Penn State in the conference opening day's most entertaining and, likely, most high-scoring game.
Purdue lost a star player in Drey Mingo due to an early-season ACL injury and then survived a meat-grinder of an early-season schedule, losing at Duke, beating defending champion and undefeated Texas A&M at home, and getting whacked at home Notre Dame in an eight-day span. Small wonder they lost at Central Michigan the very next day. Despite the carnage, the Boilers performance in the crucible has earned them a No. 20/21 national ranking. Only time will tell whether someone needs to fire their schedule-maker. Who knows whether all the punishment will pay off now that the conference schedule gets under way. In Fridays conference opener, the Boilers take on Minnesota, and though the two teams look relatively evenly matched on paper, Purdues greater experience under fire gives the Boilermakers a clear advantage.
Northwestern came out of the chute like a Wildcat on fire but they will be tested severely at Iowa, a team that has been more Jekyll than Hyde (or is it the other way around) at times this season.
Lets take a look at where the league stands at the end of preconference play, then turn to a closer scrutiny of Fridays conference opening games.
In a relatively quiet week for the ACC, the leagues major nonconference game of the week proved to be a major disappointment as Miami went to DC ranked No. 7 in the country, only to get plastered by No. 17 Georgetown, 71-46. The Hurricanes, who boasted the top-ranked offense in the NCAA, scored 41 points fewer than their season average, shot just 21 percent from the field and turned the ball over 23 times in the face of the Hoyas defensive pressure.
Worse if things actually could get any worse from there the Canes troubles started at the top of the roster. Star guards Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams combined to shoot just 3-23 from the floor and, between them, were responsible for 10 of those 23 team turnovers.
This loss was a huge letdown for the Canes, who succumbed early on to Georgetown's one trick (constant, full-court pressure) and never recovered to make this much of a game. To date, the Hurricanes have badly flubbed both of their nonconference road games against nationally ranked foes. Though they remain highly regarded in the national rankings, dropping to No. 10 after last weeks drubbing at Georgetown, Miamis performance there demonstrates this team still has a way to go before one could consider them a worthy contender for a Final Four berth.
As the ACC non-conference schedule starts to wind down, a number of programs continue to search for a signature win or at least to avoid tallying another loss. For the teams considered to be contenders, it was
a week with mixed returns.
North Carolina State got drilled at home, 58-72, by the Richmond Spiders, a team that they should have been able to take care of. It didn't help that no one beyond veterans Bonae Holston, who notched a season-high 21 points, then made it a double-double by grabbing 10 boards, and Marissa Kastanek, who registered 17 points in the loss, bothered to show up. Between the two of them, that duo scored nearly two-thirds of the Wolfpack's 58 points. Meanwhile, the Pack's defense seemed to go missing in action, particularly in the first half, as the Spiders shot over 50 percent from the field against State for the game as a whole (55.6 percent for the opening period), to a mediocre 31.8 percent from the floor for the Wolfpack (and make that a dreadful 24.3 percent for the Pack's second half).
On the other hand, North Carolina State bounced back with a stirring, 66-59, victory over nationally ranked Vanderbilt (then No. 20/18 in the two major polls), as sophomore forward Kody Burke dominated the Commodores inside. NC State held previously undefeated Vandy down early, taking a 12-point lead at the half, and then managed to make the free throws they needed to hold on down the stretch. When NC State gets a big game out of Burke as well as significant contributions from its veteran players, they are a team that can challenge anyone else in the ACC -- especially at home.
Let's take a look at the week's results for the rest of the league, before noting the coming week's best games.
The sellout crowd at Maples Pavilion greeted Pat Summitt with hearty applause and support through a pre-recorded video in which Tara VanDerveer thanked the legendary coach for regularly bringing her Lady Volunteers to play Stanford.
"Pat, we love you, we care about you and we wish you the very best in your battle with Alzheimer's," said the VanDerveer on the video.
Then the Summitt love fest took a backseat to the Nneka Ogwumike superstar showcase soon after the games opening tip.
Stanfords senior star contributed a career-best 42 points and 17 rebounds to the Cardinals 97-80 win over Tennessee. Sophomore Toni Kokenis backed Ogwumike with 26 pointsalso a career best--in No. 4 Stanfords school record 68th consecutive home victory.
In an early-season Top-Ten match-up of the No. 2 teams in two power conferences, No. 7 Kentucky sprinted undefeated into No. 3 Notre Dame on Sunday, Dec. 18. Before a national TV audience, in a sold-out Purcell Pavilion, with 9,149 fans announced in attendance, the Irish, who have lost only once this year -- to top-ranked Baylor -- emerged with a 92-83 victory.
Despite the final box score, not much was proven definitively. In a game of sags and surges that saw four ties and eight lead changes, the home team scored the final 11 points.
Each side knew it had been in a high-class dance. Each emerged with matching 10-1 records.
Though the loss had to sting for the high-riding Wildcats, Kentucky nonetheless proved it belonged on anyone's list of the nation's elite programs. While many basketball powerhouses have spent the last month and a half polishing their resumes for the NCAA Selection Committee, racking up easy wins over powder-puff opponents, this was the third time in four games that Kentucky had taken on a top-tier foe. In two of those match-ups, the Wildcats came out on top.
For the Irish, a team also bold enough to put its record and rankings on the line in preconference play, it was the third win in four games against Top 25 opponents this season.
The acclaim owned by former Connecticut star Maya Moore for the last four collegiate womens basketball seasons now emphatically belongs to Baylors Brittney Griner.
On Sunday night, the Bears' 6-foot-8 junior center proved her worth, scoring 25 points and enabling her team to hold on to the No. 1 ranking in both major national women's college basketball polls by beating the No. 2 Huskies, 66-61, at home before a roaring sellout crowd of 10,627 predominantly Baylor fans in Waco, Texas. It was the first time in the history of both the men's and the women's basketball programs that Baylor's Ferrell Center had been sold out in advance of a game.
Griner was anything but a one-woman show Sunday as members of Baylors supporting and co-starring cast also made key contributions. Indeed, there should be no shortage of accolades for the outstanding performances by multiple members of both teams in Sunday's basketball donnybrook.
But Griner was far and away the most dominant player on the floor, shooting 9-for-15 (60 percent) from the field and a perfect 7-for-7 from the foul line, a place where her misses a year ago cost Baylor in a one-point loss to Connecticut in Hartford in the first No. 1-v.-No. 2 match-up between these two teams.
In this Sunday's victory, Griner also fell just shy of a triple-double with nine rebounds and a season-high nine blocked shots as the Bears won their second 1 vs. 2 game of this season. The first came last month, when Baylor triumphed over then-No. 2 (now No. 3) Notre Dame.
Griner's fifth swat of the night broke the Big 12's all-time record for blocks formerly held by Courtney Paris of Oklahoma (446). With the better part of two seasons still ahead of her, Griner now has 451 career blocks and counting, and sits fourth on the NCAA all-time career blocks list.
On Monday, the Big 12 rewarded Griner's performance with the league's Player of the Week award. It was the second time in this young season and the 14th time in Griner's collegiate career that she has received the honor.
That, in turn, makes Griner the favorite to take the second National Player of the Week award from the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) when the award is announced Tuesday.
When it comes to teams playing each other while ranked 1 and 2 at the very top of the Associated Press womens collegiate basketball poll, some of those confrontations are more newsworthy than others.
And that is especially true when one of those teams happens to be long-running power Connecticut.
One only needs to look at this season to date to understand this premise.
Top-ranked Baylor (10-0), which will be hosting the No. 2 Huskies (9-0) Sunday night, already hosted a No. 1-vs-No. 2 hookup several weeks ago when the Bears took on Notre Dame. At the time, the then-No. 2-ranked Irish were favored over then-No. 4 ranked UConn in both major national polls and had actually been picked by the Big East coaches to win the conference this season.
The Lady Bears came out on top convincingly, 94-81. They remain undefeated.
In the reshuffling of the polls since the Irish loss at Baylor (still Notre Dame's only loss of the season), the Huskies, helped along by a Tennessee upset at unranked Virginia, have jumped up to the No. 2 slot.
Yet not nearly as much fuss was made heading into that Baylor-Notre Dame 1-vs.-2 contest as the hype today, heading into Sunday nights nationally-televised heavyweight tilt in Waco, Texas, before an expected sellout crowd of 10,000 fans.
The 12 teams that make up the Big Ten are a collective 81-41 in the preseason as of Saturday, December 17. The top three teams, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Northwestern have racked up an impressive combined record of 26-2.
The bottom three teams of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana are a combined 11-18.
What that all boils down to is this: Parity in the Big Ten women's basketball? Still illusory. Competitiveness within tiers? Very much in vogue.
Lets take a look at those six teams and try to figure out how they got to where they are today.
YPSILANTI -- Eastern Michigan womens head coach AnnMarie Gilbert must have come up with some creative motivation. Her Eastern Michigan Eagles (6-3) had dropped their last two games, dropping a 59-60 overtime heart-breaker to Big-Ten powerhouse Michigan State in East Lansing, then falling to a lesser opponent, the Summit League UMKC Kangaroos, 68-70, at home, again in overtime.
But on Sunday, the Eagles exceeded expectations, overwhelming the Big Ten's Michigan, 77-64. The game, a rematch of last year's postseason WNIT match-up between the cross-town rivals, which the Eagles won 67-59, ultimately advancing to the WNIT's Sweet 16, began with a banner-raising ceremony celebrating EMU's postseason WNIT run.
In the end, Michigan simply had no answer for senior Tavelyn James, who rocked EMU's Convocation Center as she broke the all-time school scoring record with a 38-point performance. James, a Detroit native, now has 1,935 points, passing former EMU record-holder, guard Laurie Byrd (1978-82), who scored 1,899 in her illustrious career.
James, who currently ranks second in the nation in scoring with an average of 25 points per game, took Mid-American Conference (West) Player of the Week honors in the wake of her record-breaking accomplishment.