Women’s Power Rankings: What every team needs in the new year


Holiday season often involves gift-giving, which can be complicated by this question: What do people really need? Sometimes it’s hard to know.

But what do teams need? It’s a little easier to answer based on what we’ve seen so far in the 2023-24 women’s college basketball season.

The final ESPN Power Rankings for the calendar year stay static, as there was just one loss among the top 16 — and it was to a higher-ranked team. Things should start changing more from New Year’s Day on as conference play takes over.

Among the things we’ve learned this season: Several freshmen are ready for prime time, some so-called mid-major and small conference teams have toppled Power 5 schools, and the South Carolina Gamecocks are trying to run the table in the regular season a second year in a row despite a new starting lineup.

This week, we look at what each team needs as it enters league play and the journey toward March Madness takes another big step.

The Buckeyes split games last week — falling to UCLA but beating Belmont — and Sheldon had a combined 61 points. She was 24 of 41 from the field overall (58.5%) and 8 of 15 from behind the arc (53.3%). The fifth-year guard, who was limited to 13 games last season due to injury, has started every game and leads Ohio State in scoring (19.1 PPG) and steals (2.2). She is shooting 56% from the field overall and 43.4% from behind the arc.

In a week where Oregon State secured a future basketball home (for at least two years) in the West Coast Conference along with Washington State, the Beavers moved to 10-0. They got victories over SE Louisiana and Texas Tech at the Maui Classic. Talia von Oelhoffen was tournament MVP with a combined 38 points, 11 rebounds and 17 assists. Oregon State has one more nonconference game before facing rival Oregon in its Pac-12 opener Sunday.



Oklahoma Sooners vs. Southern Jaguars – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from Oklahoma Sooners vs. Southern Jaguars, 12/22/2023

Southern as a No. 4 seed won last season’s Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament and earned an NCAA tournament automatic bid. The Jaguars followed that this season with an extremely tough nonconference slate; Southern has the No. 8 strength of schedule. It paid off Friday as they beat the Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma was the ninth Power 5 team — fifth from the Big 12 — the Jags have faced this season, all on the road. Southern trailed by seven after three quarters, but then outscored the Sooners 28-12 in the final period. Guard Aleighyah Fontenot led the Jags with 22 points, going 6 of 9 from 3-point range.

It was just the second victory, and first against a D-I opponent, for Southern this season. But look out for how well prepared coach Carlos Funchess’ Jags will be for SWAC play.



West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Wright State Raiders – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Wright State Raiders, 12/18/2023

Coach of the week: Mark Kellogg, West Virginia

Of the four Big 12 teams that are unbeaten, 11-0 West Virginia is the only one that isn’t ranked. We’ll see if that changes once Big 12 play begins. But for now, kudos to Kellogg, in his first season at West Virginia. He spent eight seasons at Stephen F. Austin before taking over in Morgantown after Dawn Plitzuweit left for Minnesota after just one year with West Virginia.

Last week, guard JJ Quinerly had a combined 48 points in leading the Mountaineers past Wright State and Niagara. West Virginia has one win over a ranked team, beating then-No. 25 Penn State on Dec. 4.



Bowling Green Falcons vs. South Carolina Gamecocks – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from Bowling Green Falcons vs. South Carolina Gamecocks, 12/19/2023

1. South Carolina Gamecocks (11-0)
Previous ranking:
This week: at East Carolina Pirates (Saturday)

What do you get for the program that has everything? South Carolina has won its games by an average of 41.5 points, which leads Division I. The Gamecocks have scored at least 90 points seven times and already have 81 3-pointers; it took 17 games for them to reach that mark last season.

But they need better free throw shooting. South Carolina’s 65.6% from the line ranks 276th in Division I. The Gamecocks are already an offensive powerhouse. Improvement here is only going to make them more formidable.

2. UCLA Bruins (11-0)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. USC Trojans (Saturday)

UCLA beat UConn for the first time in program history earlier this season, has won its games by an average of 30.5 points and has a dynamic sophomore class led by Lauren Betts and Kiki Rice. Last week, the Bruins got an impressive win at Ohio State.

What they need is to take care of the ball a bit better. The Bruins have the second-highest turnover average in the Pac-12 at 16.1 per game. Maximizing possessions will be important vs. USC in Saturday’s showdown at Pauley Pavilion. It’s one of the most anticipated matchups ever of the cross-city rivals, as both are undefeated and ranked in the Associated Press top 10.



Old Dominion Monarchs vs. NC State Wolfpack – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from Old Dominion Monarchs vs. NC State Wolfpack, 12/20/2023

3. NC State Wolfpack (12-0)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Virginia Cavaliers (Sunday)

Coach Wes Moore said it didn’t offend him that the Wolfpack were picked to finish eighth in the ACC preseason poll, since they lost a lot to graduation/the transfer portal. But NC State quickly proved that assessment was off; the Wolfpack have transformed into the ACC favorite during a perfect nonconference slate that included victories over UConn and Colorado.

Their need? For junior guard Saniya Rivers to return from a back injury that kept her out the last three games before the holiday break. She has been listed as day-to-day, and could be ready to go Sunday. Rivers averages 13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals.



Amina Muhammad cruises in for a Texas layup

Amina Muhammad cruises in for a Texas layup

4. Texas Longhorns (12-0)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Jackson State Lady Tigers (Wednesday), vs. Baylor Bears (Saturday)

The Longhorns, in their last Big 12 season, are leading the league in scoring (92.7 PPG), scoring margin (38.1), field goal percentage (51.8), rebounding margin (16.8) and turnover margin (11.67).

But they need a real test. UConn, Texas’ only ranked opponent thus far, didn’t take it to the wire with the Longhorns in the Huskies’ 80-68 loss in Austin on Dec. 3. Three of Texas’ first five Big 12 foes are ranked, and the other two opponents have just two losses between them.

5. Colorado Buffaloes (10-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Utah Utes (Saturday)

The Buffs beat Northern Colorado on Thursday to finish the nonconference season with their lone defeat to NC State. Their balance has worked well for the team, although it’s the reason they didn’t have a representative on our recent ESPN top 25 player rankings. It was hard to single out one player, as Colorado is so much a sum-of-all-parts team.

Even though Colorado beat No. 1 LSU to start the season, the Buffs need a little more exposure in big games. They have a chance to get it with upcoming matchups against fellow ranked teams in the Pac-12.



Coppin State Eagles vs. LSU Tigers – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from Coppin State Eagles vs. LSU Tigers, 12/20/2023

6. LSU Tigers (12-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Jacksonville Dolphins (Saturday)

The Tigers won their homecoming game for Angel Reese at Coppin State in Baltimore last week. Reese’s four-game absence in November and Kateri Poole’s departure from the team created some negative buzz around the program, but it seems to have blown over.

The Tigers lead the SEC in scoring (93.9 PPG), but they need better 3-point shooting, as they make just 3.9 per game. LSU is 10th in 3-pointers made (51) and 3-point percentage (29.8) in the SEC. Last season as national champion, LSU finished at 5.2 3s per game and shot 34.6% from behind the arc.

7. Iowa Hawkeyes (12-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (Saturday)

Caitlin Clark got her 13th career triple-double Thursday against Loyola Chicago, and she leads Division I in scoring at 30.5 PPG. Clark will keep doing her thing, but the Hawkeyes need to keep improving their interior scoring.

Sophomore forward Hannah Stuelke has shown good things since returning from an injury that kept her out three games. She and junior center Sharon Goodman are averaging a combined 22.4 points and 12.2 rebounds.

8. Stanford Cardinal (10-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Cal Bears (Friday), vs. Morgan State Lady Bears (Sunday)

Cameron Brink has been spectacular this season, averaging 19.2 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocked shots. Stanford’s lone loss was when she was ill and missed much of the game vs. Gonzaga.

The Cardinal need to build confidence that they can hold their own on court for stretches without her. Stanford thrives on Brink’s aggressive defense, but sometimes it gets her in foul trouble. The Cardinal must be prepared for that, especially as tough as the Pac-12 will be.



Ashlynn Shade hits back-to-back 3s to help UConn pour it on

Freshman Ashlynn Shade connects on consecutive triples to put UConn up by 28 in the fourth quarter.

9. UConn Huskies (9-3)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Marquette Golden Eagles (Sunday)

The Huskies are No. 1 in strength of schedule; their losses are to NC State, UCLA and Texas, which are all in the top four in the Power Rankings. So that explains some of UConn’s team stats.

Still, among Big East teams, the Huskies rank ninth in scoring defense (62.3 PPG), eighth in free throw percentage (71.7) and 10th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (31.5). The Huskies need to improve all of it in conference play.

10. Baylor Bears (11-0)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Texas Longhorns (Saturday)

The Bears won both their games at the West Palm Beach Invitational in Florida last week against Providence and South Florida. Baylor leads the Big 12 in assists (22.09) and is second in scoring (84.6 PPG) to Texas. The Bears, like Colorado, didn’t get a player in ESPN’s top 25 rankings because they also are very balanced, with five averaging between 13.4 and 10 PPG.

They need a strong start in Big 12 play — their league opener against the Longhorns is a big test — to show they can get back to the top tier of the conference.



Long Beach State Beach vs. USC Trojans – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from Long Beach State Beach vs. USC Trojans, 12/21/2023

11. USC Trojans (10-0)
Previous ranking:
This week: at UCLA (Saturday)

The Trojans got victories last week against Cal State and Long Beach State, the latter without superfreshman JuJu Watkins, who was ill. But senior McKenzie Forbes stepped up with 36 points in her absence.

USC will need that in the Pac-12 season. As good as Watkins is — she’s averaging 26.8 PPG and shooting 46.9% from 3-point range — Pac-12 defenses will be tougher on her, and the rest of her team must counter. The Trojans also could improve their team free throw percentage (70%), which ranks 10th in the Pac-12.

12. Kansas State Wildcats (12-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Cincinnati Bearcats (Saturday)

Last season without injured center Ayoka Lee, the Wildcats finished 5-13 in the Big 12 and didn’t win a true road game all season. With Lee back, Kansas State enters league play with victories at Iowa and on a neutral court against North Carolina. The Wildcats are first in defensive scoring (52.2) in the Big 12.

But they need to shoot the 3-pointer a little more consistently — they rank 10th in the league at 31.6% — to force defenses to give Lee a little more space inside (even though the 68.5% shooter doesn’t need much room).

13. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (9-1)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Syracuse Orange (Sunday)

In the Irish’s victory over Western Michigan last week, guard Hannah Hidalgo (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) became the third Notre Dame freshman to get a triple-double; the others were Olivia Miles (2022) and Marina Mabrey (2015). Hidalgo has had a fantastic rookie season thus far.

But like USC with Watkins, Notre Dame will need more consistent help offensively for Hidalgo in league play. Especially with guards Miles and Sonia Citron still out with injuries.

14. Ohio State Buckeyes (10-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Michigan Wolverines (Saturday)

The Buckeyes fell to UCLA and beat Belmont last week. Ohio State’s only losses are to USC and UCLA, and in both cases, the Buckeyes were outrebounded by double digits. Ohio State leads the Big Ten in steals (11.17 per game) but is 10th in the league in field goal percentage defense (39.3).

The Buckeyes need more consistency on defense throughout games; we already know they can turn it up for big plays.

15. Utah Utes (10-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: at Colorado Buffaloes (Saturday)

The Utes are the Pac-12’s best in several offensive categories: points (93.3), assists (24.9), overall shooting percentage (53.8), 3-point percentage (42.6) and 3-pointers made (160).

But they rank seventh in the league in free throw percentage (72.1). It’s not that bad. But considering a conference foe such as Stanford is at 82.4%, maximizing points at the line will be critical for Utah against the other top Pac-12 teams.

16. Virginia Tech Hokies (9-2)
Previous ranking:
This week: vs. Pittsburgh Panthers (Sunday)

The Hokies’ losses to Iowa and LSU aren’t bad, but those are the only ranked teams Virginia Tech has played. The Hokies have gotten reliable production from their big two: center Elizabeth Kitley and point guard Georgia Amoore, who led the way in a victory over William & Mary last week.

But Virginia Tech needs a consistent third scorer — junior transfer Matilda Ekh and senior Cayla King are the top candidates — for ACC play.

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