Women’s college basketball power rankings: Is floor falling out for Indiana? – The Athletic

Sabreena MerchantFeb 20, 2024

In the spirit of Selection Sunday being less than a month away and the committee releasing its initial list of the top 16 seeds — speaking of, make sure to check out The Athletic’s weekly Bracket Watch — my mind can’t help but wander to the little number next to each team’s name in March. I’m not terribly interested in who the No. 1 seeds are, though I imagine we’ll see some changes on that line by the next reveal. What’s been racking my brain is which teams are most deserving of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

My favorite thing about the women’s tournament is that there is a meaningful reward for earning a top-four seed. Getting to stay home, draw a friendly crowd — the atmospheres in these games are awesome — and keep routines normal through the first week is an enormous advantage and adds extra stakes to the end of the regular season. Even if a team isn’t necessarily competing for a conference title, there’s value to winning games down the stretch.

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Take two teams from the heartland who played Monday, for example. Indiana and Notre Dame are essentially out of the running for the Big Ten and ACC crowns, but how they perform from now until March could decide whether they stay in Indiana for the first two rounds or travel elsewhere. If recent results are any indication, these decisions will be in the balance until March 17. As such, this week’s power rankings will focus on teams in the middle ground that are battling for those final hosting slots.

Rank Team Previous rank
1 South Carolina 1
2 Stanford 3
3 Ohio State 2
4 NC State 4
5 Iowa 5
6 Texas 10
7 USC 7
8 Oregon State 11
9 UCLA 8
10 Virginia Tech 14
11 Kansas State 6
12 Colorado 9
13 LSU 12
14 Gonzaga 17
15 UConn 18
16 Indiana 13
17 Louisville 15
18 Syracuse 24
19 Notre Dame 16
20 Utah 22
21 Baylor 20
22 Creighton 19
23 West Virginia NR
24 Oklahoma 21
25 Princeton 25

Dropped: Duke
Almost famous: Duke, Ole Miss, Tennessee

Indiana’s depth problem

The Hoosiers have had an interesting season. Entering this week, they hadn’t suffered any bad losses — Ohio State and Stanford are projected as No. 1 seeds, and Iowa isn’t far behind. At the same time, Indiana also has failed to capture any marquee wins, raising questions about its ceiling. After losing to Illinois on Monday, however, there is a reason to be concerned about the Hoosiers’ floor. The Illini are not in the field of 68, and even though it was a road game, they crushed Indiana 86-66, with two particular trends standing out.

First, Illinois got to the line often (24 attempts), mostly off the dynamism of its backcourt. The Hoosiers tend to defend the pick-and-roll two-on-two, which can cause trouble against quick guards who blow by the defense into the paint. Makira Cook and Genesis Bryant are perfect examples, as was Miami’s Destiny Harden last season in Indiana’s shocking second-round NCAA Tournament defeat. None of the Hoosiers’ centers is particularly fleet of foot, so drawing them out of the basket and into space compromises Indiana’s rim protection — opponents were shooting 61.3 percent at the rim (4.2 percent above the national average, per CBB Analytics) before Monday, when Illinois made 15 of 22 layups.

Second, the Illini turned over the ball five times. The Hoosiers force 14.8 turnovers per game, which puts them in the 37th percentile nationally; in their losses, their opponents have been below that number all four times.

Indiana had been playing without Sydney Parrish for a month until she returned for six minutes off the bench against Illinois, giving the reserves opportunities to add versatility to the Hoosiers lineup. Yet none of the backups popped in that stretch. Lexus Bargesser’s awkward shooting motion prevents her from taking many 3s, and she’s making only 30 percent of her 0.4 attempts per game. Lenée Beaumont and Jules LaMendola similarly have struggled with their shots, though Beaumont’s passing has helped juice Indiana’s offense.

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As it stands, the Hoosiers are still wholly dependent on their starting lineup, and unless Parrish returns to form before the Big Ten tournament, even that might not be enough.

Baton Rouge’s point guard battle

Hailey Van Lith came to LSU as one of the most important offseason transfers. Along with Aneesah Morrow and Mikaylah Williams, her addition turned the defending champion Tigers into a super-team roster. But the adjustment hasn’t been that simple. Although Van Lith has been a boon for LSU’s offense — the Tigers are 5 points per 100 possessions better with her on that end of the floor — the 5-foot-7 guard is giving back even more on defense. LSU is 12.3 points per 100 possessions worse on defense when Van Lith plays this season, though that figure drops to minus-8.4 in conference play.

On the contrary, Van Lith’s backup has been a defensive dynamo. Last-Tear Poa improves the defense by 19 points per 100 possessions and is holding steady at plus-14 against SEC opponents, to the point that Kim Mulkey is starting to bench Van Lith when the Tigers aren’t defending well enough. Against Alabama, with the Tigers down 10 at halftime, Poa started the second half, and LSU took 9 points off the lead in three minutes before Van Lith returned. Poa is bigger and stronger and has become particularly good at drawing charges. She’s in the 85th percentile of fouls drawn in the country, and the bulk of those come on defense since she has a shockingly low usage on offense.

Last-Tear Poa’s defense has made a difference for LSU. (Carly Mackler / Getty Images)

Put together, the Tigers have one perfect lead guard, with Van Lith juicing the offense and Poa providing point-of-attack defense. However, they’re both relatively anemic on the other end of the floor — the only thing that gets a quicker hook than Van Lith’s defensive metrics are Poa’s turnovers. It makes sense that Mulkey is riding with Van Lith as a starter considering her tournament pedigree (Louisville made the Elite Eight in each of her three seasons with the Cardinals), and perhaps when faced with non-SEC guards, she’ll be able to hold up physically. For now, expect the offense-defense substitutions to continue frequently.

Creighton’s low ceiling

I’ve had a soft spot for Creighton this season because of the beauty of its motion offense and the fact the Bluejays feel like old friends; they’re using four of the same starters as the 2022-23 season, and the fifth, Mallory Brake, was a key reserve. There’s a familiarity to watching Creighton play. You can anticipate the cuts and the slips and the way the ball zips around the floor.

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The problem is the Bluejays are toast against the best teams in the country. They can’t rebound the ball due to their size, and they get lost in rotation trying to put out fires. They also can’t force turnovers, and the negative feedback loop affects their offense because they’re always trying to score against a set defense, meaning they become too reliant on their 3-point shots. The athletic disadvantages are all too apparent.

Against UConn on Monday, Creighton had a golden opportunity to stamp its resume with a high-profile win, and it went into halftime tied, which is no small feat in Connecticut. The Bluejays scored the first 5 points of the second half, and then all hell broke loose. By the time Creighton scored again, the Huskies had put up 17 in a row. The Bluejays managed one paint shot attempt in the half court during that stretch, and it was blocked by Aaliyah Edwards. They had two more layup attempts in transition, both of which were also blocked. Teams ahead of Creighton in the rankings and on the selection committee’s big board can hit an extra gear, but the Bluejays haven’t reached that level all season. In that sense, Creighton resembles Indiana: two teams with a very specific formula that have high floors but low ceilings.

Baylor’s running hot and cold

The Bears haven’t won consecutive games since their 14-0 start to the season, and to find more consistency, coach Nicki Collen is leaning on more defensive lineups. That means more Bella Fontleroy and Jana Van Gytenbeek, but at the expense of Dre’Una Edwards and Yaya Felder.

Edwards has been key to Baylor’s spacing this season, bringing opposing centers away from the rim with the threat of her 3-point shot. But she’s also trying to guard opposing fives at 6-foot flat. Fontleroy isn’t much bigger, but her quickness and activity allow the Bears to become more disruptive defensively, even if they’re still short. Similarly, Van Gytenbeek doesn’t bring the microwave scoring of Felder, but she’s an equally good if not superior distributor and long-range shooter. That’s enough to get her on the court, particularly when Van Gytenbeek has been Baylor’s best perimeter defender.

Similar to LSU, it’s hard to optimize everyone’s strengths at once, but at this point of the season, the Bears have decided defense will lead to more sustained stretches of productive play. Perhaps the newest starting lineup of Fontleroy, Darianna Littlepage-Buggs, Aijha Blackwell, Sarah Andrews and Jada Walker has the right alchemy to get Baylor off this win-loss roller coaster.

GO DEEPER

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Notre Dame getting in the zone

Regular readers will know I have been concerned about the Fighting Irish’s defense, especially the frontcourt, and have advocated they play more zone in the half court. Notre Dame is giving it a shot. After playing two possessions of zone in a loss to Louisville, the Irish upped that total to 46 out of 94 against Florida State, 30 out of 62 against NC State, and then 47 out of 67 against Duke. Essentially, two games of half zone/half man-to-man, and another with 70 percent zone, albeit against the offensively challenged Blue Devils.

It’s hard to say the strategy has been a winner. Notre Dame won the two contests against unranked teams and then cratered against the Wolfpack. Hannah Hidalgo is still given some freedom to roam within the confines of the zone, averaging four steals over the past three games and zooming into the open court once she gets a takeaway. The Irish are conceding fewer points per possession each time out, from .957 points per possession against the Seminoles to .833 against NC State and then .702 against Duke.

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Mostly, I’m intrigued to watch a team experiment. It’s hard to throw out a junk defense in the tournament without reps, and now Notre Dame has a ton of them. The real test of this strategy will be if the Irish can slow Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley when the teams face off Feb. 29.

(Top photo of Chloe Moore-McNeil: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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Sabreena Merchant is a women’s basketball Staff Writer for The Athletic. She previously covered the WNBA and NBA for SB Nation. Sabreena is an alum of Duke University, where she wrote for the independent student newspaper, The Chronicle. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow Sabreena on Twitter @sabreenajm

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