Monday, July 15, 2024

If the hope was that two weeks of basketball would have given a clearer picture of the hierarchy in women’s college basketball this season, that has not been the case. In fact, most of my conversations since Nov. 6 have featured some variation of, “Wait, is Team X good?”

Aside from South Carolina at the top — stop me if you’ve heard that before — every other projected contender has taken its lumps. While the Gamecocks roll through their opposition, most teams around the country need some time to figure out new rosters and systems. Growing pains were expected, like LSU and Virginia Tech integrating new transfers, or Maryland and Indiana dealing with the graduations of WNBA first-round picks.

Nevertheless, on the whole, the quality of play around the country has been better than expected. But given my regional biases, and the fact that this is the final year of the Pac-12 as we know it, these inaugural rankings will focus out west on the conference that is in the midst of an epic going-away party.

Almost Famous: Duke, Princeton, Maryland

Is the promise of Stanford’s frontcourt being realized?

The Cardinal had an embarrassment of riches at the forward positions last season, but there were too many options for any individual players – other than Cameron Brink – to get sufficient run, especially since Stanford so often went small with Haley Jones at the four. Now the rotation is shorter, and the primary beneficiary is Kiki Iriafen, who is thriving with the larger minutes load.

Carolyn Peck called Iriafen a mix of Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike with a dash of A’ja Wilson on the Stanford-Duke broadcast Sunday, and though the praise seems hyperbolic, Iriafen’s start has been noteworthy. The junior is averaging 21 points and nine rebounds per game through four contests, blowing away her per-minute averages from the prior two seasons. The Cardinal were already a good paint offense in 2022-23, converting 63 percent of their shot attempts at the rim; Iriafen’s success rate thus far is almost comically impressive, as she has made 25 of 31 shots at the basket. Brink’s ability to space the floor as a shooter and a high-low passer allows Iriafen the room to operate, and that frontcourt tandem is the primary reason Stanford sits undefeated despite welcoming two strong opponents (Indiana and Duke) to Maples Pavilion to start the year.

One of the most confounding storylines of Stanford’s 2022-23 campaign was the way the Cardinal used (or perhaps, failed to use) Lauren Betts. The No. 1 recruit in the country was an afterthought in Stanford’s rotation, averaging fewer than 10 minutes and getting DNP-ed twice, so it wasn’t exactly surprising that Betts sought out a different location for the rest of her collegiate career.

Betts’ move to Los Angeles cleared up the frontcourt situation for the Cardinal, and it’s also been a boon for the Bruins. UCLA plays an active brand of defense, swarming ballhandlers and applying heavy ball pressure, but that can create openings at the rim if the opponent gets behind the defense, especially when the Bruins spent much of the season without a traditional center on the court. That is no longer an issue with Betts, who serves as an eraser in the paint, but more often deters opponents from even attempting shots in her vicinity. Opponents are taking less than 15 percent of their shots at the rim against UCLA, better than 97 percent of defenses, per CBB Analytics.

What’s interesting is that Betts’ impact has actually been more pronounced on offense. Through four games, UCLA is 38 points per 100 possessions better with Betts on the floor, with 25 of those points coming on offense. She works hard to seal her defender so that the Bruins can deliver her the ball inside, but when that doesn’t work, she’s a willing and effective screener who creates space for her guards to get to the basket. Against Princeton, Betts made all nine of her field-goal attempts through three quarters, but didn’t get any shot attempts in the fourth as the Tigers did whatever they could to deny her the ball. She responded by playing pick-and-roll with Charisma Osborne, and as one defender stayed glued to Betts, Osborne had open jumpers and driving lanes.

The most complete offensive player in the Pac-12

Iriafen, Brink and Betts have brought the goods to start the season, and although the Utes were the first Pac-12 team to register a loss in 2023-24, that doesn’t diminish how good the reigning conference player of the year has been. The only way to stop Alissa Pili is by getting her off the court, because Pili can do just about anything on offense. She entered Sunday having made nearly 79 percent of her field goals on the season; her jumper has been on point, an almost unfair complement to her beautiful footwork in the post.

This reverse finish from Pili against Baylor high off the glass was hard to even comprehend in real time. This is honestly solid defense, but Alissa Pili just has angles and footwork down to a mastery Like backwards off the spin off the top off the glass? Who does that lmao What a basket.

At a later date, we’ll dive into the defensive improvements Utah needs to make and how it can stay afloat when Pili is in foul trouble. For now, it’s more fun to simply appreciate what a uniquely skilled offensive player Pili is.

Why the Buffs are in the national conversation

We’re weeks away from conference play, and I’m already giddy about the potential Pac-12 player of the year race. The league is filled with dominant frontcourt players, but through two weeks, I can’t take my eyes off of Jaylyn Sherrod. At 5-foot-7, she finishes 60 percent of her shots in the restricted area and gets there nearly five times per game. It takes a rare combination of speed and strength to make her way to the basket so often and so effectively, especially when her long-range jumper is essentially nonexistent. Even when defenses go under on Sherrod since she isn’t a threat to pull up off a screen, they can’t corral her on her path to the hoop.

What’s been most impressive about Sherrod is her ability to adapt to any pace. Colorado is comfortable executing in the half court, whether that’s letting Sherrod dictate the action from the top of the key or using its forwards as hand-off hubs on the elbows. Sherrod can also push the ball down opponents’ throats with her speed in transition. Against LSU in the opener, the Buffaloes excelled in the open court, and against SMU Saturday, Colorado had to execute against a set defense. Both games resulted in comfortable victories.

Notre Dame’s one-woman wrecking crew

From a fifth-year senior to an audacious rookie, the state of guard play in college basketball is at an all-time high. It’s hard to believe that Hidalgo is in her first year at Notre Dame, because she has commanded that team on both ends of the floor like a seasoned veteran. The injuries to Olivia Miles and now Sonia Citron (though coach Niele Ivey was relieved to reveal that Citron should be back in a few weeks) have given Hidalgo more responsibility for the Irish, but it seems like — with her confidence — she would have seized a larger role regardless.

Hidalgo has been a one-woman wrecking crew for Notre Dame, and it’s fitting that the player who sealed a gold medal for Team USA at the FIBA U-19 World Cup this summer with a steal has brought that level of defensive prowess to South Bend. She is averaging nearly seven takeaways per game — for context, 117 teams in Division I are recording fewer — and had a 12-steal night that tied a program record with fellow New Jersey fireball Marina Mabrey.

It’s baffling to see opposing teams try to bring the ball up against her full-court pressure or go right at Hidalgo on defense without attempting to screen her off the ball. She has an unending motor as a point-of-attack defender and tremendous instincts.

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