- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Can you spot the differences between these two pictures?
Most of us played puzzles that asked that question at some point growing up, trying to spot the stray rake in the yard or an extra Santa Claus on the chimney in otherwise identical pictures. Now Colorado offers the basketball version.
On Dec. 17, 2011, Colorado was 9-0 with two games remaining before the Pac-12 season.
As Dec. 17 arrives this year, Colorado is 9-0 with two games remaining before the Pac-12 season.
What followed last season was a steady slide away from NCAA tournament contention. Colorado stretched last season's start to 12-0 (something it won't duplicate this season without a win against Stanford on Jan. 4), but subsequently endured two losing streaks of three games and another of five games in conference play before it settled for a postseason trip to the WNIT. So what is different about the picture?
Start with a win against a top-10 team. Colorado earned its first such result since 2002 with a 70-66 victory against No. 8 Louisville on Friday night in Boulder. Chucky Jeffery finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists and got the best of Louisville's Shoni Schimmel. The Buffaloes led almost the entire way, expanded their advantage to 13 points with just more than two minutes to play and held on against a late surge by the Cardinals. They passed prelim exams this season, against San Diego State and at Illinois, but this was the nonconference final exam they didn't have a season ago.
"We knew going into the game we were going to learn a lot coming out of it," said Colorado third-year coach Linda Lappe, young enough that she was a player on the team that beat Stanford for that last top-10 win in 2002. "We saw some things that we have to get better at, of course, but we also saw where we stood with a top-10 team. I think that was the exciting part, to be able to line up our players against Louisville's players. We thought we matched up with them very well going into the game, but film and TV can only show so much.
"Once you get them on the floor, that's when you really get to see have you recruited the right players, do we have the caliber of team it's going to take to get to where we want to go?"
A second difference, not unrelated, is that if you look closely, these unbeaten Buffaloes are a little older. A redshirt freshman, Arielle Roberson leads the team in scoring, taking pressure off Jeffery to do everything in the box score, but this is a wizened bunch for a school that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2004. Lappe and the bulk of her roster have gone through eight postseason games the past two seasons, reaching back-to-back WNIT quarterfinals. Four players who played double-digit minutes in the first of those quarterfinals against USC, and five who played in the second against Oklahoma State, played similar roles against Louisville.
Colorado needs to keep rebounding. It beat Louisville on the boards and holds a decided season advantage, but it managed just a plus-1.1 rebounding advantage in Pac-12 play last season. It needs to keep defending -- its field goal defense ticked up worrisomely in conference play last season. But as it prepares for a conference it now knows -- one more difference between last season and this season -- this picture is not an identical copy.
So how did Lappe celebrate the day after the big win? She hit the recruiting trail. Even for one of only eight remaining unbeaten teams in women's college basketball, you can always improve on perfection.
She also starred
Jerica Coley, Florida International: Nearly two weeks off didn't slow down Coley. Returning from a long break in the schedule, Florida International began the week with a 66-49 victory against in-state foe UCF. Coley led the way with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, but that wasn't her best performance of the week. In Saturday's 64-57 win against Dartmouth, a win that bumped FIU above .500 on the season after rallying from an 11-point deficit in the second half, Coley scored a career-best 39 points and added 6 rebounds, 6 steals, 4 assists and 3 blocked shots in 40 minutes. For the season, she is averaging 22.1 points per game, including 31 points in a November win against Iowa.
Honorable mention to Air Force's Alicia Leipprandt. The senior, whose younger brother plays for the men's team at Air Force, scored 21 points and added four assists in her team's 82-78 overtime win against Cal State Bakersfield on Thursday. That allowed the team to hit a 16-day lull in the schedule without a winless record hanging over its head.
Team of the weekend
UCLA: It wasn't pretty, but as another basketball team from Los Angeles will attest, wins of any kind are better than the alternative. For the second weekend in a row, UCLA took a big early lead away from home against a good team, but unlike last week's blowout win against Texas on a neutral court in Houston, Sunday's game at St. John's was far from over. Down 22-6 in the first half, St. John's stormed back to take a lead it held with just more than two seconds remaining in overtime. That's when Markel Walker, with St. John's paying too much attention to Alyssia Brewer, found Jasmine Dixon underneath for an eighth and final assist. Dixon's layup provided the final margin in a 53-32 win that, paired with Saturday's victory against a not-to-be-taken-lightly Saint Mary's, gave the Bruins the St. John's Holiday Classic tournament title.
With wins at Oklahoma, at St. John's and against Texas in that team's home state, UCLA showed character, if not offensive efficiency (41 percent field goal percentage, 28 percent 3-point percentage). For the points the Bruins needed, Brewer posted back-to-back double-doubles, but Walker was the catalyst with 15 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists against Saint Mary's and 8 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists against St. John's.
Upset of the weekend
There have already been great days for Ohio State's Tayler Hill. There will be many more for the elite guard. But it's unlikely she will feel the need to revisit Pullman anytime soon. Hill's struggles (14 misses, seven turnovers) against Washington State in Saturday's loss were symptomatic of her team's struggles against an opponent that entered with just two wins. That said, credit to the Cougars, who lived up to their own quietly excellent defensive numbers. Ohio State hit 36 percent of its attempts and committed 21 turnovers. Washington State's opponents this season are hitting 37 percent of their attempts and turning over the ball eight times per game.
Honorable mention goes to UTEP, missing out if only because it's not clear exactly how much of an upset its 52-50 win at Kansas State was. It certainly qualifies historically -- UTEP is now 3-0 this season against BCS conference schools (Arizona, Arizona State and Kansas State) after it entered the season 3-35 all time against those schools. And this one required coming back from 10 points down with 5½ minutes to play against an unbeaten team. But at 9-1 after another big game from Kayla Thornton (15 points, 14 rebounds), maybe upset doesn't give UTEP its due.
Vanderbilt came away with an important victory at No. 12 Oklahoma on Sunday, but it seems the Sooners ought to be exempted from consideration in playing their first game after Whitney Hand's ACL injury, a career-ending repeat injury that sadly rivals the physical travails of Jacki Gemelos on the list of things you can't believe keep happening.
Big matchup problem in Big Ten
Getting a hand in Kate Thompson's face is easier said than done when the Michigan senior toes the 3-point line. Thompson entered the week averaging 3.56 3-pointers per game, tied for fifth in the nation. As it turns out, she might have been holding something back. She hit five 3-pointers in a midweek victory against Eastern Michigan and four more in a weekend win against Western Michigan to improve her average to 3.72 per game, a mark that would have ranked her second only to Missouri's Morgan Eye last week. Combine the prolificness with 48 percent accuracy from long distance and you see one big reason Michigan is 9-2 for first-year coach Kim Barnes Arico. Really big.
Thompson also stands 6 feet, 4 inches, which last week made her one of only two players in the top 50 in 3-pointers per game who is taller than 6 feet. The next closest player who is her height or taller was Utah's Michelle Plouffe, tied for 126th nationally. Thompson isn't exclusively a perimeter player -- she totaled 10 rebounds against Western Michigan for her first double-double and leads the Wolverines in blocks -- but the size makes her a matchup nightmare. All of this from a player who is already one 3-pointer away from a career high for a season and has nearly doubled her scoring average from 8.2 points per game a season ago to 15.8 points per game this season.
A team had a good day when six players reach double figures in scoring. It had a really good day when that comes in conjunction with blowing out a ranked team by 19 points, which is what No. 13 Tennessee did in Sunday's 94-75 win against No. 18 Texas. After two weeks off, Tennessee did to a good Texas team what it did to a good North Carolina team. The Lady Vols are rolling on offense, reaching 90 points in back-to-back games for the first time since the end of the 2010-11 season, and doing so without ceding results on defense or on the boards (when Texas hits just 34 percent of its attempts, Tennessee can presumably live with Chassidy Fussell scoring 31 points).
But Tennessee basketball is not about being the best of the rest, which is why Tuesday night is such an opportunity against Baylor (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
The exact numbers depend on the entirely subjective definition of serious championship contender, itself a notion that invites confirmation bias, but accepting such caveats, the result is stark when looking at Tennessee's record against the best of the best. Since beating Baylor in the first game of the 2009-10 season, Tennessee is 2-8 against teams that were serious title contenders in a given season (Baylor, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Stanford), or 3-9 if you include last season's Kentucky team in the calculations. In the case of the latter, all three wins -- against Oklahoma in 2009-10, Stanford in 2010-11 and Kentucky last season -- came at home.
We have seen already that Tennessee's best basketball might be better than any team that isn't capable of winning a championship this season. That's a start. Tuesday night in Waco is a chance to show something a Tennessee team hasn't shown in quite some time.
Before next weekend
Ohio State at Gonzaga (Monday): No doubt the Buckeyes will be eager to put Saturday's calamity behind them, but there are easier places to do so than Spokane. Neither of its games to date against ranked opponents have been high-scoring affairs, a 55-42 loss against Louisville and a 69-41 loss against Stanford. That's a dramatic drop in potency for a team that led the nation in scoring just two seasons ago.
Dayton at Akron (Tuesday): While Ohio States makes its way back from the Pacific Northwest, the battle for Buckeye State supremacy might unfold in Akron. Akron beat Cincinnati 67-54 on Saturday and is 8-2 entering this game. Redshirt junior Rachel Tecca continues to shine returning from a knee injury that prematurely ended her 2011-12 season. Tecca finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds against the Bearcats and is averaging 20.9 points and 8.2 rebounds in just 24.6 minutes per game this season.
Chattanooga at Auburn (Wednesday): Chattanooga already took out Tennessee and has just one loss, but Auburn is hitting its stride for a new coaching staff. The Tigers won at George Washington and at home against Temple last week, getting strong performances from Hasina Muhammad (21 points, 10 rebounds, nine steals against George Washington and 16 points, six rebounds, six assists, five steals and three blocks against Temple).
Stanford at South Carolina (Wednesday): Is the week's biggest game in Waco on Tuesday? Yes, but don't overlook this pairing of unbeaten teams in Columbia, S.C., on Wednesday. Stanford is a known commodity. This is when we begin to learn exactly how good South Carolina's defense is. That said, Dawn Staley's team can play all the defense it wants, but it isn't going to win if it doesn't best 52 percent from the free throw line, its season average.
Maryland at Delaware (Thursday): Delaware pushed Maryland last season, closing to within six points late behind 30 points from Elena Delle Donne. This game would obviously be most compelling if Delle Donne returns, but even should that come to pass, it's unreasonable to expect the All-American to be in midseason form. Lauren Carra and Danielle Parker combined for 11 points in last season's meeting. They likely need to triple that this time around.
Duquesne at West Virginia (Thursday): Last season's game in Pittsburgh was the high point of Duquesne's season, a 61-55 comeback win that allowed the Dukes to match a program record with a 9-1 start to the season, Duquesne is 9-1 again after Sunday's win against James Madison, including 18 points and 15 rebounds from Wumi Agunbiade, and an upset against a ranked rival would help convince people there isn't another fade ahead.
Kansas at California (Friday): California plays a Monday matinee at Northwestern and then returns home for this intriguing matchup. Kansas had a surprisingly difficult time with Prairie View A&M on Sunday. The Jayhawks won 72-60 but were tied with the visitors with five minutes to play. That followed little more than a week after a loss at Arkansas. Rebounding was an issue against Arkansas, while Prairie View hit more than half its shots in the second half. Well, California is among the national leaders in rebound margin and field goal percentage. Game on.