Women’s college basketball power rankings: Virginia Tech’s consistency key in chaotic ACC – The Athletic

Sabreena MerchantFeb 26, 2024

March is four days away, and that means it’s banner time.

Sure, the banners we most often think of are for the Final Four or the national championship, but within the next week, programs will celebrate regular-season conference titles. Listen to most coaches, and that’s the goal heading into the season: win the conference and the rest will come.

Plenty of teams around the country have already clinched their regular-season crowns, including Chattanooga, Fairfield, Florida Gulf Coast, Gonzaga, High Point, Middle Tennessee, Southern Indiana and UConn. These titles don’t guarantee automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament, but they commemorate successful seasons and deserve some shine before we make our way into the madness. This week’s power rankings will take stock of the conference title races in the major conferences.

Let’s take a look at how the conference races stand heading into the final weeks of the season:

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

Dropped: West Virginia (23), Princeton (25)

Almost famous: Ole Miss, Princeton, West Virginia

South Carolina keeps chasing history

Unsurprisingly, the Gamecocks have the SEC locked up, three games ahead of the field with two to play. It is South Carolina’s third consecutive SEC title and potentially its second straight undefeated conference season, joining Auburn and Tennessee as the only programs to achieve that, though they did so when the SEC schedule was nine and 11 games, respectively. The Gamecocks won four consecutive SEC titles in the last decade (2014-17), but are still chasing the Lady Vols’ mark of seven conference championships in a row (1998-2004).

Only two teams — LSU and Tennessee — seemed capable of even competing with undefeated South Carolina this season, and the key to their success was turning the Gamecocks over. The Tigers in particular have been one of the country’s best teams in transition, converting those takeaways into points going the other way. That’s what they did to beat the Lady Vols when they played head-to-head, all but securing the No. 2 seed in the upcoming SEC tournament, and it’s been a key to their success all season.

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One of my favorite players to watch on the open floor is Flau’jae Johnson, who places in the 99th percentile nationally with 4.6 transition points per game. Johnson puts the fast in fast break, and when she decides she wants to get to the basket, using her quickness and vertical leap, there’s nothing that can be done to stop her. The more LSU can give her those opportunities, even if off of dead balls, the better.

Why UCLA adjustments matter

The Pac-12 is Stanford’s to lose. The Cardinal have already clinched a share of the regular-season crown and would have to lose to Oregon and Oregon State to split the title with one of Oregon State, UCLA, Colorado or USC. With all due respect to the Ducks, as long as Cameron Brink is playing, Stanford will be the outright champion in the final season of the Pac-12, a fitting send-off for the best team in the conference’s history.

As for those teams in the second-place mix, let’s take a closer look at UCLA. After suffering a heartbreaking defeat to Oregon State last week, the onus was on the Bruins to respond and prove that one loss — even one as dramatic as what took place in Corvallis — wouldn’t derail the momentum they had built since Lauren Betts’ return. In the immediate term, it was impressive to see UCLA take care of business against Oregon two days later, comfortably winning on the road, even if the Ducks aren’t an NCAA Tournament team.

The real test of the Bruins’ resolve came against Utah. Not only had the Utes beaten UCLA earlier in the season, but their offensive system resembles that of the Beavers. Oregon State repeatedly involved Betts in screening actions to stretch the Bruins’ defense, to the point that coach Cori Close subbed Betts out on defense in the final minutes, and Utah is capable of doing the same. What transpired was arguably UCLA’s finest performance of the season. The Bruins put up their most points in Pac-12 play while also conceding the second fewest against the team with the ninth-best net rating in the country, per Her Hoop Stats.

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UCLA’s defense made the difference. With Betts sinking back into the paint, the Bruins’ guards were slow to get through screens against the Beavers, allowing them to get wide-open looks from distance. UCLA rectified that in two ways. First, they switched more regularly to limit the space for the shooters. Then, when the switches were disadvantageous (i.e. leaving Alissa Pili on a small in the paint), the guards stayed attached. Londynn Jones was quite good at navigating screens at the point of attack to restrict Ines Vieira’s passing angles. Utah’s lead ballhandler had three assists to four turnovers.

The Bruins’ higher upside this season is because of Betts. Her dominance in the paint on both ends is the separating factor UCLA didn’t have in 2022-23. Oregon State threatened to expose a weakness in Betts that would take her off the court. Instead, the Bruins figured out how to adjust to protect their star center.

Will Madison Booker set a freshman first?

Oklahoma has a one-game lead atop the Big 12, but it has two tough games left to finish out the season against Texas and at Kansas. That gives an opening for the Longhorns to take the conference crown if they beat the Sooners and BYU. Kansas State, currently two games back, also has an outside chance of forcing a tie atop the standings should the Wildcats beat Iowa State and Texas Tech.

If Texas ends up winning the conference title, that would be a boost for the player of the year candidacy for Booker. In the history of the Big 12, no freshman has ever been named player of the year, but Booker has been outstanding taking over for injured Rori Harmon as the Longhorns’ point guard. She’s averaging 19.8 points and 5.4 assists per game in conference play. Despite turning over the ball 3.8 times per contest, her assist-to-turnover ratio is still in the 96th percentile nationally. Her ball control continues to improve; she hasn’t had more than three giveaways in a single game since Feb. 4. It helps to have the ball in her hands at the end of games because she’s been an ace free-throw shooter, making her last 34 foul shots. Booker is on pace to be the 13th freshman over the past 15 years to make 85 percent of her free throws on at least four attempts per game. Only Elena Delle Donne has a better shooting percentage among those players than Booker.

Booker stepped in to lead a team with national title aspirations, and the Longhorns have continued to play at that standard with her at the helm. It’s scary to think about what the Booker-Harmon combo could look like in the coming seasons, but for now, Booker is enough of a handful for opponents to contend with.

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Nothing in the ACC makes sense

Virginia Tech is comfortably atop the ACC, with only Syracuse capable of splitting the conference title with the Hokies. That would require Virginia Tech to lose at both Notre Dame and Virginia, while the Orange would have to win at NC State, which isn’t unreasonable considering the Wolfpack’s recent slide. However, the Hokies are in the driver’s seat to win their first conference crown in program history.

They’re also among the favorites to return to the Final Four, though it’s hard to say if any other ACC teams could join them. For most of the season, I’ve been aboard the NC State hype train. However, though the Wolfpack have outperformed preseason expectations, they’re still a cut below the best teams in the country. In recent weeks, they’ve become allergic to getting to the rim. That means they don’t get to the line and they don’t collect offensive rebounds, and it’s hard to produce an efficient offense under those circumstances when NC State is already isolation-heavy. Against Duke, the Wolfpack crashed the glass and drew fouls, but then they couldn’t hit a shot, with only Saniya Rivers making more than 33 percent.

Meanwhile, the Blue Devils continue to befuddle. This was one of the best home teams in the country until they lost to Notre Dame. Then, Duke came off that loss by earning its first road win over a plus-.500 team in conference play — defeating a Syracuse team that had lost just once at home all season (to the aforementioned Hokies). At least Virginia Tech is consistent, because no one else is in the ACC.

How Ohio State’s quietly winning

The Buckeyes haven’t lost a game since the calendar turned to 2024, yet I haven’t figured out a way to talk about them much in this space because of the consistency of their formula. Jacy Sheldon heads up the press, Cotie McMahon is a freight train on offense, and they take a ton of 3s and layups, which are the best sources of offense. It’s what Ohio State did a year ago on the way to the Elite Eight, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Buckeyes made it a step further.

Cotie McMahon controls the ball during OSU’s win over Maryland on Sunday in Columbus. (Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)

One thing that would distinguish them this season is an outright regular-season title. They shared the crown with Iowa in 2022 and had to vacate their 2017 and 2018 championships, so the last time Ohio State had a regular-season title of its own was in 2010 with Jantel Lavender and Samantha Prahalis leading the way. The Buckeyes are one win away from accomplishing that feat in 2024. As a neutral observer hoping for chaos, it would be more interesting if Ohio State lost to Michigan and then had to beat the Hawkeyes on the final day of the season — with “College GameDay” in the house — to claim the crown for itself.

(Top photo of Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley: 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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