The easiest part about putting these power rankings together every week is the top of the list, because South Carolina has so thoroughly distinguished itself from the rest of the country at this point of the season.
Another ho-hum week for the Gamecocks saw them make their way to Sioux Falls, S.D., and comfortably handle South Dakota State, the reigning WNIT champs. South Carolina then dismantled Charleston Southern, holding its opponent scoreless for nearly 13 minutes during the first half. The fun part of that win was that the Gamecocks rested a few of their regulars and gave 23 minutes to newly enrolled freshman Chloe Kitts. Yep, Kitts graduated high school a week ago, enrolled at South Carolina, and then posted 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in her collegiate debut; all three of those totals would have led Charleston Southern.
So with No. 1 set in stone for the foreseeable future, let’s get to the real work of figuring out which teams are positioning themselves to join the Gamecocks in Dallas for the Final Four.
Dropped out: Duke
Almost famous: Marquette, Middle Tennessee, Louisville
• I toyed with moving Stanford down to No. 3 in favor of one of the undefeated teams (most likely Indiana) in recent weeks, but ultimately decided against it, and I don’t think the Cardinal are going anywhere until they add another L to the loss column. For one, an overtime loss to South Carolina is arguably the most impressive defeat any team has suffered this season. Secondly, Stanford finally faced some game pressure for the first time since matching up against the Gamecocks, and the Cardinal acquitted themselves well, mostly thanks to the play of Cameron Brink.
Stanford is 19.6 points per 100 possessions better with Brink on the court, but she has played only half of the team’s minutes this season thanks to her penchant for getting in foul trouble, and Tara VanDerveer’s quick hook when those fouls start to accumulate. Against Tennessee, Brink’s third foul was a major turning point in the game because the Lady Vols guards suddenly faced no resistance attacking the rim. Brink only even got off the bench because fellow starter Kiki Iriafen picked up her third foul, but once the junior returned, the magic happened. Brink is the best-finishing big Stanford has on the interior, and she can credibly stretch the floor.
She’s also been an absolute monster defensively, almost disrespectful in the way she rejects shots. She was blocking 17.3 percent of opposing 2-pointers prior to the Tennessee game, per CBB Analytics, a figure that projects to increase after her career-high six blocks Sunday. Boston is clearly the best big (and best player) in the country, but Brink is creating another line of demarcation behind her.
• Another impressive week for the Irish, as Notre Dame took down sixth-ranked Virginia Tech on the Hokies’ home court. Their second top-10 win of the season bumps them up to No. 3, and Indiana and Ohio State will have to do some work during conference play to catch up.
The way the Irish executed in the fourth quarter, outscoring Virginia Tech 23-9, inspires real optimism in Notre Dame’s potential. The team obviously has the ability to pour on points in a hurry — look no further than Olivia Miles and her ability to score and facilitate in transition — but holding the previously undefeated Hokies to single-digit outputs in two separate quarters is downright miraculous. The Irish are getting better at walling off the paint as Lauren Ebo becomes more acclimated to Niele Ivey’s system, which will be a nice complement to the hectic perimeter defense they already get from Miles and Sonia Citron.
• On the other hand, this was Virginia Tech’s chance to collect a resume-boosting win, but the Hokies fell short. In their last two matchups against preseason top 25 teams, they have really struggled to score, though the defense carried them home against Tennessee. The absence of Ashley Owusu really loomed large against Notre Dame. With Elizabeth Kitley the primary focus of the defense, Georgia Amoore had to do a lot more self-creation; that looked great when her shot was falling, but it probably stretches her abilities a bit too much. Virginia Tech needed someone who could reliably get a shot down the stretch, which is Owusu’s best skill, especially on this team.
Without her, the Hokies have to generate looks through ball movement, which is much tougher against the better defenses in the country, as they discovered against the Lady Vols and the Irish. It’s too soon to write off Virginia Tech altogether, but it will be difficult to learn much about this team until Owusu returns.
• Fellow ACC contender NC State is dealing with some perimeter absences as well, as Diamond Johnson and Jada Boyd have both missed multiple games with ankle injuries. The good news for the Hokies and the Wolfpack is that there are no more ranked conference matchups until after the winter break, allowing both teams to heal before the meat of the ACC schedule.
One contest involving an ACC team that the power rankings have an eye on this week is North Carolina vs. Michigan. The Tar Heels are back in the top 10 in this edition after basically taking care of business since their blowout loss to Indiana. Now, they get a chance at Big Ten redemption in the form of the Wolverines, who could also stand to right the ship a week after losing to unranked Toledo. Every team wants to head into the bloodbath that is conference play on a high note, but this isn’t exactly a tune-up game.
• I had real difficulty with Creighton this week. The Bluejays have played a hellish schedule to date and are 3-1 against the ranked opponents on their docket. Their only two losses are to undefeated St. John’s and Arkansas. A loss this week theoretically has to move them down, but I’m not sure that they are worse than some of the other multi-loss teams ranked in the teens — they just didn’t play as many cupcakes. I still believe in Lauren Jensen and Morgan Maly, and I’m keeping Creighton at No. 18 mostly because I don’t want the Jays to fall out if and when they lose to No. 2 Stanford this week.
• As for the latest team to beat Creighton, mea culpa for keeping the Razorbacks out of last week’s rankings. It makes little sense for Arkansas to be seeded behind a team that it beat, so the Razorbacks are back in at No. 17. Samara Spencer is the player to watch here after her 26 points helped Arkansas beat Creighton. The sophomore is in the 97th percentile nationally in points and assists per game, per Her Hoop Stats, and if her free-throw percentage could improve (she’s currently making a flummoxing 46.5 percent of her foul shots), then Spencer would fully round out her offensive game. As it stands, she’s still shouldering a ton of usage for the Hogs and doing so fairly efficiently. If Spencer is ahead of schedule, Arkansas may be a team to reckon with in the SEC (to finish behind South Carolina, of course).
• In the Almost Famous section, Louisville makes a return. The Cardinals were highly touted entering the year and have rediscovered bits and pieces of their identity since a non-competitive loss to Middle Tennessee. They’re pounding the paint, taking care of the ball, and playing hard-nosed defense. None of their wins is anything to write home about, but it’s probably worth keeping an eye on the Cardinals now with so much talent. A player like Hailey Van Lith presents a straightforward path to success, even if things started out shakily for the Cardinals in 2022-23.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo of Cameron Brink: Larry Placido / Icon Sportswire Getty Images)