- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Two and a half weeks. Five wins in six games, including three victories in four games against the other ranked teams in the Pac-12. Is this how a bandwagon is built?
Look at Cal one way after as productive a start to the new year as any team out there, and it sure looks like the perfect team to crash the party in New Orleans this spring, much as Texas A&M did in Indianapolis two years ago.
An exciting young point guard with the game and personality to succeed on the big stage? That's affirmative with Brittany Boyd, who led all scorers with 19 points when Cal beat Stanford a week ago.
A perimeter scoring threat who can get her own points? Judging by some of the shots Layshia Clarendon hit Sunday against UCLA, outstretched arms and dying shot clock notwithstanding, that's not a question mark. As the years go by, she keeps hitting shots a little more consistently and turning over the ball a little less often until we find ourselves watching a legitimate go-to senior scorer.
An inside game? Did you see Gennifer Brandon's line against Southern California? She won't get credit for a triple-double, but she deserves one for 15 offensive rebounds and 11 defensive rebounds to go with 22 points. The total rebounds fell two shy of a place in the top 20 single-game efforts in Division I history, but it's worth noting few of those came in the past 20 years and none came in games between two teams in BCS conferences. She's so good she makes Talia Caldwell, the 6-foot-3 senior who still has an outside chance of getting to 1,000 career rebounds, easy to overlook on the boards. It's no wonder that in three games this season against Duke and Stanford, Cal is 14 rebounds in the black.
Factor in one of the best young coaches in the sport in Lindsay Gottlieb -- you don't turn around and beat Stanford on the road five days after losing to the same team if you don't know how to make adjustments -- and it's a Bay Area bandwagon every bit as tempting as the one heading to the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick.
What January wins against UCLA, USC, Colorado and Utah and that memorable split against Stanford don't do is erase the nagging doubt that Boyd can be just a bit too impetuous, especially when measured against company like Odyssey Sims, Chelsea Gray and Skylar Diggins (who scored 21 points and didn't commit a turnover in 38 minutes against Cal in last season's NCAA tournament). That Clarendon's shot isn't quite as consistent as someone like Kayla McBride. Or that there is enough offense inside to negate Elizabeth Williams, Stefanie Dolson or, you know, Brittney Griner. The near-miss against USC and wavering late focus against UCLA don't soothe concerns about experience.
But it sure is tempting to hop aboard.
Second season superlatives
After his team beat Louisville on Tuesday, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma talked about this being the time in the season when it's important for players who have been through it before to take the reins and keep things from sliding off course. These are the dog days of the basketball season, when winter loses any charm it might have held amidst holiday lights and windchills make every trip outside a chore. And these are the days when conference play begins to boil and truly grind and each week brings opponents all too familiar with your vulnerabilities and flaws.
It isn't easy to maintain what you were doing well, let alone improve on it. It's even more difficult when your roster shrinks and your substitution patterns start to look like something Norman Dale favored at Hickory High School.
And yet, here is Oklahoma, alone in second place in the Big 12 as it contemplates a weekend trip to Baylor because Sharane Campbell, Aaryn Ellenberg, Morgan Hook and Joanna McFarland are producing like it's the middle of March.
The week started with an admittedly rough trip to Iowa State, an 82-61 loss that ended Oklahoma's Big 12 perfection. The Sooners shot just 32 percent for the game and watched Iowa State shoot 54 percent in the second half. They were also worked over on the boards in distinctly Manziel-ian fashion, ceding a 47-27 advantage to the Cyclones. But the 69-56 victory against Texas that followed was more indicative of the team's fortunes in the wake of season-ending injuries to Whitney Hand and Maddie Manning, both lost before Christmas. The aforementioned quartet combined for 53 points, 21 rebounds and 13 assists in 128 combined minutes. And that was a light day.
Hook averages 37.8 minutes per contest through six conference games, up from 27.2 minutes per game out of conference. She was a pure shooter when she arrived in Norman, but she was also purely a shooter. Her freshman year consisted of 143 3-point attempts and just 69 attempts from inside the arc and 38 assists. Coming off a season-best nine assists against Texas, she has already topped the latter with 40 assists in those six Big 12 games this season. That transformation into an all-around point guard began last season, but her numbers slipped as the minutes piled up in conference play. Now, she's a player the Sooners almost literally can't do without when they take the court.
Her surge isn't even the most pronounced among Coale's starters. Averaging just 18 minutes per game as a part-time starter before conference play, sophomore Sharane Campbell is up to 33.8 minutes per game in Big 12 games. She's also averaging 14 points and five rebounds per game in the league, both marks good enough for second on the team. When the Sooners lost to Vanderbilt on Dec. 16, Campbell took two shots and had five turnovers. When they rallied from a halftime deficit against West Virginia two weeks later, she had 17 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes.
Joanna McFarland is averaging 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in 29.8 minutes per game in Big 12 competition, more minutes than the senior post has ever played. Even leading scorer Aaryn Ellenberg found room to do more. She scored 22 points in 25 minutes against Texas on Saturday, right on her conference scoring average of 21.9 points per game, up from 17.8 points per game beforehand.
Those four Sooners aren't the only players making the most of conference play. Here's a quick look at a player from each of the other power conferences also enjoying the schedule's second act.
ACC: Lakevia Boykin, Wake Forest: It helps to have a game like Boykin did Sunday, scoring 27 points on 50 percent shooting to push Wake Forest to a double-overtime win at Boston College, but she was already building toward that kind of performance. The senior is averaging 17.5 points in six ACC games, up from 14.7 points per game out of conference, and is a big reason why the Demon Deacons are 3-3 in the league for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Big East: Jude Schimmel, Louisville:
Cardinals coach Jeff Walz called her the most effective guard on either team in his team's loss at Connecticut on Tuesday, and it wasn't all that much of a stretch. Too often known as Shoni's younger sister, Jude is playing 24.4 minutes per game in Big East play, up from 19.4 minutes per game out of conference. With that time, she not only leads the team in assists in Big East play, but has nearly twice as many as any two teammates combined.
SEC: Meighan Simmons, Tennessee: The Lady Vols had an easy Sunday against Alabama, and Simmons did her part to make it easy with 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes. But she made her point when Tennessee needed someone to bail it out at Auburn a few days earlier. The junior finished with 29 points against the Tigers, including 4-for-6 shots from the 3-point line. Through six SEC games, she's averaging 19.3 points on 48.4 percent shooting (up from 16.3 points on 41.1 percent shooting out of conference). Simmons' history is that of a streaky player who is able to create points as well as any guard in the nation when at peak streak. Time will tell if this is more than just a streak.
Big Ten: Klarissa Bell, Michigan State: Bell was already Michigan State's leading scorer when Big Ten play began, but she's rising to the occasion for a team that is only a game off the pace despite being short on healthy bodies. Bell put up 12 points and eight rebounds in Sunday's win against Indiana, and that's a modest day at the office. The junior guard is averaging 14.8 points and 8.4 rebounds through the first five conference games, up from 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game out of conference.
Pac 12: Cassie Harberts, USC:
It ultimately went for naught in the standings, but USC's 0-2 weekend in the Bay Area was perhaps more impressive than its already surprising 4-0 start in the Pac-12. The Women of Troy had Cal on the ropes, only to surrender a late six-point lead in overtime and played the final minutes against Stanford on Sunday within single digits. One big reason for the turnaround? Try Harberts, the junior who had 21 points and seven rebounds in Sunday's 75-66 loss. Harberts averaged 16.7 points in 11 games out of conference. She averages 20 points per game through six Pac-12 games.
She also starred
Sam Ostarello, Purdue:
Facing Iowa on Sunday, Purdue played the kind of game, or the kind of first half, that might be expected of a team playing its third conference game in seven days (especially when one of them went to triple overtime). But a disappointing end shouldn't overshadow what Sam Ostarello did earlier in the week. The senior from South Dakota opened with 22 points, 19 rebounds and eight blocks in 51 minutes in a win against Ohio State (her second 19-rebound game in a row). She followed that with 19 points and 14 rebounds to fuel a win against Minnesota.
There's a pretty good player at Delaware you might have read a few words about, name of Elena Delle Donne. In her best shooting performance of the season, Delle Donne put up 38 points on 14-for-20 shooting in a win against Towson on Sunday. She also hit all but one of nine free throw attempts and didn't commit a turnover in 32 minutes.
Tennessee-Martin took on one of the most ambitious schedules in the nation, and suffered for it in losses against Baylor, Stanford, Louisville, Purdue, Northwestern and Missouri. Unfortunately for those who applaud such efforts, the Skyhawks haven't been able to take those experiences and get on a roll against programs their own size -- at least until now. They put together back-to-back wins this past week for just the second time all season, and Jasmine Newsome was a big reason why. Newsome put up 36 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in a win at Southeast Missouri State and 27 points, six assists, five steals and four rebounds in a win against Morehead State.
Team of the week
It's a serious question; has any school's nickname been the subject of more pun abuse than Wichita State? That the Shockers won at home against Creighton in an early showdown between the only unbeaten teams in Missouri Valley Conference play wasn't a shock, ahem, but the 67-45 final score was a surprise. Creighton is a team with a serious résumé -- it plays a serious schedule and came up with serious results in beating Nebraska and BYU, among others. It looked the part in taking leads of 11-0 and 13-2 in Saturday's game then the home team went on a 65-32 run.
The Shockers have six losses on the season, but it isn't an embarrassing list: LSU, Kansas State, Green Bay, Missouri, Richmond, James Madison. All but the Green Bay loss were by five or fewer points. Part of Pat Summitt's coaching tree, Jody Adams has turned around the program in four-plus seasons in Wichita. Assuming this season concludes with a winning record, that would give her four such records in five seasons, the same number Wichita State had in the previous 13 seasons. Missouri and Creighton, the two most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the nation, combined to hit just nine against the defense-first Shockers, who force opponents to extend the shot clock.
Honorable mention to Seattle University, which improved to 7-0 in the WAC with wins against Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech. That leaves them alongside Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast (who meet Jan. 26) of the Atlantic Sun as the only teams undefeated in conference play after at least seven games. Ashley Ward led the way against Tech with 20 points and has one of the more intriguing stat lines in the nation. Seattle U.'s second-leading scorer shoots just 27 percent from the field but hits 85 percent from the free throw line and gets there 7.9 times per game.
Before next weekend
Duke at Connecticut (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): If the Blue Devils can bury the Huskies under a wave of offensive rebounds and turnover-fueled transition baskets (and these Huskies do have issues with taking care of the ball), more power to them. We would need to rethink the championship race. More likely, Monday's showdown in Storrs won't be won by knockout, but by decision. In 120 minutes of basketball between these schools over the past three seasons, Duke has 23 assists -- eight last season, eight the season before and seven the season before that. Both defenses will make precision passing difficult, but the Blue Devils have to execute when it comes to running an offense.
Penn State at Michigan (Monday): This shapes up as a 3-point duel worthy of Craig Hodges or Reggie Miller, with Michigan's Kate Thompson, second in the nation in 3-pointers per game and third in 3-point accuracy, taking on Penn State's Maggie Lucas, first in 3-point accuracy and seventh in 3-pointers per game. In the bigger picture, Michigan is 9-28 in its all-time series against Penn State, but might facing the nation's eighth-ranked team prove a lucky charm? The Wolverines are just 4-70 in their history against teams ranked in the top 10, but all four wins came against teams ranked No. 8, most recently against Ohio State last season.
Baylor at Iowa State (Wednesday): Baylor smothered Iowa State when these teams met on Jan. 9. The Cyclones managed just 13 field goals and point guard Nikki Moody suffered through a 10-turnover evening (while Baylor's Odyssey Sims and Kimetria Hayden combined for 16 assists and two turnovers). But in two trips to Ames during the Brittney Griner era, the Lady Bears are 1-1 and only scored 57 points in the game they won.
Albany at Boston University (Wednesday): First place is on the line in the America East between the lone remaining unbeaten teams in league play. Curiously, the teams split in each of the past two seasons, the road team winning on all four occasions. The Terriers last lost Nov. 24 at Michigan and are working on a 13-game winning streak.
Kentucky at South Carolina (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Thursday): Kentucky is in the midst of the best start in program history at 17-1 after putting up 100 against Mississippi State and 97 against Auburn this past week. But that lone blemish, a 34-point loss at Baylor, defines the Wildcats as much as all the wins. The closest call was a 48-47 win against a well-coached, physical Louisville team. Going on the road to face a physical, well-coached South Carolina team is a good challenge for a team forcing 26 turnovers per game.
North Carolina at Maryland (Thursday): This trip to Maryland marks the beginning of an 11-day stretch that also features a trip to Miami and home games against Duke and Florida State. Other than solid WNIT wins against Duquesne and Iowa, a 60-57 victory against Maryland on Jan. 3 is the best evidence North Carolina has in its favor as a contender. Alyssa Thomas and Tianna Hawkins still combined for 38 points and 29 rebounds in that game.
Tennessee at Vanderbilt (Thursday): Vanderbilt has been a different team at home, shooting 48.9 percent in Nashville and barely 40 percent away from home. Granted, some of that is because the Commodores have also played a lot of difficult road games against quality defenses.
19dBonnie D. Ford