November and December provided some of the most compelling early season college basketball we’ve seen in a long time.
The South Carolina Gamecocks‘ lineup had a makeover, and it didn’t change the program’s level of success at all. The UConn Huskies are persevering through another wave of injuries but still conquering the Big East. Freshmen, led by the USC Trojans‘ JuJu Watkins, have transformed into stars almost instantly. The national player of the year race is Caitlin Clark‘s to lose as she pursues the NCAA career scoring record.
But what about those conference player of the year battles? We cover those and more with a look at the top storylines in every league across the country as conference play moves into overdrive.
American Athletic Conference
Wide open race: UConn tore through the first seven years of the AAC without a blemish. When the Huskies returned to the Big East in 2021, the South Florida Bulls and UCF Knights took over and combined to win the next three regular-season titles. With the Knights now in the Big 12 and the Bulls dealing with graduation losses and injury, the American race is wide open for the first time in its history. Things look so different that league newcomers Charlotte and UAB are the current leaders in the standings.
One other change that isn’t such good news for the AAC: With just two teams in the top 100 of the NET, and none in the top 75, the AAC will be a one-bid NCAA tournament conference. The league’s postseason fate will come down to those five days in Fort Worth at the AAC tournament.
America East Athletic Conference
Teammates duel for player of the year: Anne Simon won America East player of the year in 2022. Then with Simon battling injuries in 2023, Maine Black Bears sophomore Adrianna Smith emerged as the conference’s best player. The question now is which teammate will break the tie.
They are the front-runners this season as Simon leads the America East in scoring (18.8 PPG) and Smith ranks sixth (15.4 PPG). Smith leads the league in rebounding (10.9 RPG) and is third in assists (4.5 APG). Simon’s 2.6 steals per game are good for second-best. Smith also is second with a 77.6% free throw percentage, and they both shoot 46% from the field. Maine is aiming for its third American East regular-season championship in four years.
FSU’s Sara Bejedi knocks down 5th 3-pointer
Sara Bejedi puts up a career high 31-points with 5 treys as FSU takes down Virginia Tech 89-81.
Atlantic Coast Conference
The country’s most compelling race: Here comes the Florida State Seminoles once again to initiate chaos in the ever-changing ACC. After a great week with wins over the North Carolina Tar Heels and Virginia Tech Hokies, the Seminoles have the most wins in conference play at 5-1. This is after they were selected fifth in the preseason poll. And that’s one year after they were picked ninth and finished fourth. Once again led by Ta’Niya Latson, Florida State is the second-highest-scoring team in the ACC.
And the Seminoles aren’t even the league’s biggest surprise. That honor goes to the NC State Wolfpack. Picked eighth in the conference in the preseason, the Wolfpack quickly became one of the best teams in the country. They’ve already beaten the Seminoles in overtime, and their only blemish is a last-second road loss to the Hokies. With nine teams already with at least three conference wins, the ACC shapes up to be the deepest race in the nation.
Atlantic Sun Conference
The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles‘ continued dominance: No school has dominated its conference the way FGCU has in the past decade. While establishing themselves as one of the preeminent mid-major programs in the country, the Eagles under Karl Smesko have won 12 of the past 13 ASUN regular-season titles, losing just 10 league games since the 2010-11 season. In the past five seasons with an ASUN tournament (2020’s was canceled due to COVID-19), the Eagles have double-dipped with a regular-season and tournament title. They are heavy favorites to do it again.
This isn’t the blistering 3-point shooting team of last season, and suffering four losses in the first two months wasn’t the ideal nonconference run. But FGCU was still good enough to beat North Carolina and has won all three of its ASUN games by double figures.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Unpredictability reigns: The Atlantic 10 is like the ACC with more at stake. The ACC can depend on multiple NCAA tournament bids. Not the A-10. Two appears to be the max — and just one is a strong possibility. But it has already been an unanticipated start. First, the Davidson Wildcats won at the Duke Blue Devils and nearly upset North Carolina. Now the Richmond Spiders, off to a 5-0 start in conference play, are the hot team. Neither the Wildcats nor Spiders were forecast to finish in the top three. Eight teams already have three league wins or more, and the league race could take many twists and turns before March.
But while a challenging race will be entertaining, it likely won’t help the A-10 get multiple teams into the Big Dance. The conference’s best chance to send more than one representative to the NCAA tournament for the just the second time in five years would be for a team like the Spiders to fail to win the conference tournament — and hope their dominant regular season was good enough to earn an at-large bid.
Nika Muhl racks up 13 assists in UConn’s blowout win over Providence
Nika Muhl notches a double-double of 10 points and 13 assists in UConn’s 85-41 win vs. Providence.
Big East Conference
UConn still stands supreme: Injuries continue to take their toll on the Huskies. Aubrey Griffin is now the fourth player to be lost for the season. Geno Auriemma is essentially down to a seven-player rotation again. Yet it hasn’t stopped UConn from punishing the rest of the Big East. Through six games, which includes Top 25 opponents Marquette and Creighton, the Huskies are beating conference foes by an average of 36 points per game. Six players are shooting over 50% from the field against Big East competition, led by Aaliyah Edwards‘ 60.3%. Paige Bueckers is averaging a highly efficient 19.2 points per game and a 4.6 assist-turnover ratio in Big East play. An unbeaten Big East season is on the table for UConn.
Big Sky Conference
Eastern Washington Eagles go for their first title since 2010: Postseason play is a rarity for the Eagles. Their résumé includes just one NCAA tournament, three trips to the WNIT and one invite to the WBI. But behind three 20-point games from sophomore Aaliyah Alexander and the all-around production of graduate Jaime Loera, Eastern Washington has matched the program record with a seven-game winning streak. If the Eagles can survive two games against co-preseason favorite Northern Arizona, they might capture their second Big Sky title.
Big South Conference
League turned upside down: It’s not often that a team goes from an undefeated conference champ one year to being picked to finish last the next. That’s exactly what happened to the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs, who lost all five starters and their coach. After winning 29 games and going 18-0 in conference play, Gardner-Webb is 2-14 under first-year coach Scott Merritt, tied for the lowest win total in the Big South. It lost by 53 to North Carolina, 50 to Charlotte and 78 to the Florida Gators.
It has been a different kind of turnaround for the South Carolina Upstate Spartans, who finished seventh a year ago and have never won a conference championship since joining Division I in 2007 but are in first place at 3-0.
Texas’ Madison Booker baffles defender with sweet dribbles moves
Madison Booker amazes her Texas teammates with an impressive behind-the-back dribble into a layup.
Big 12 Conference
Injuries cast a black cloud: While the surprising starts by the Baylor Bears and Kansas State Wildcats have been a big part of the Big 12’s first two and a half months, injuries have been the story of the conference. Two, in particular, shook the Big 12. When Rori Harmon went down with a knee injury just after Christmas, the Texas Longhorns looked like the team to beat, and Harmon was putting together a career season and was the front-runner for league player of the year.
The same could be said for Sedona Prince, who was leading the Big 12 in scoring (21.2 PPG) when she broke a finger that required surgery. More importantly, she had helped turn around the TCU Horned Frogs under first-year coach Mark Campbell. TCU won eight games a season ago and are at 13 wins now. But the Horned Frogs are winless since Prince’s injury.
Big Ten Conference
Clark’s record watch: The countdown is on for when, not if, Clark breaks Kelsey Plum’s NCAA record for most career points. Clark is 221 points away and is projected to pass Plum in mid-February — possibly at home. The Iowa Hawkeyes host the Michigan Wolverines on Feb. 15 and the Illinois Fighting Illini on Feb. 25. Clark became the Big Ten’s all-time assists leader earlier this season and is the first Division I player to record 3,000 points, 900 assists and 800 rebounds.
Amid all the numbers to watch is Iowa’s pursuit of an outright Big Ten title, something the Hawkeyes have yet to do with Clark (they shared the title with Ohio State in 2022). After Saturday’s convincing win over the Indiana Hoosiers buoyed by Clark’s 30 points and 11 assists, Iowa is in the driver’s seat.
Big West Conference
Hawaii Rainbow Wahine trying to run, slowly, to a third straight title: If Hawaii is going to represent the Big West in the NCAA tournament for a third straight year, it will be done slowly. Methodical has been the approach for 12-year coach Laura Beeman in winning the past two Big West tournaments. Last season the Rainbow Wahine ranked 340th in possessions per 40 minutes. This season they are 343rd, and they rank 27th in points allowed (56.1 per game). Keeping the pace slow has translated to team success. Hawaii doesn’t have a double-figure scorer or a player who ranks in the top 15 in the Big West in field goal percentage but remains just a half-game out of first place.
Coastal Athletic Association
Stony Brook Seawolves on the rise: At this time last year, Stony Brook was 10-6 and averaging 67.9 points per game. The addition of Khari Clark from Loyola Marymount and the improvement of fifth-year senior Gigi Gonzalez have ignited the offense and resulted in more wins. The Seawolves (14-1) are scoring 76.6 points per game and have emerged as the clear favorite to win the CAA. Gonzalez leads the conference in scoring (16.7 PPG) and she and Clark, who is 16th in the country in field goal percentage (60.9%), are both members of the 1,000-point club.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders‘ bid for NCAA tournament berth: Middle Tennessee came into the season as the overwhelming favorite to win CUSA. But what if the Blue Raiders slip up in the conference tournament? Can they still reach the NCAA tournament? That could be one of the compelling questions of Selection Sunday. Firmly on the bubble right now as an at-large candidate, Middle Tennessee’s NET (53) puts it in strong consideration, and the Blue Raiders scheduled well in the nonconference, playing Michigan, the Princeton Tigers, Houston Cougars, Belmont Bruins and Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Beating the Lady Vols, another potential bubble team, might turn out to be significant. But because no one else in CUSA is even close to the top 100 in the NET, the Blue Raiders might not be able to afford more than one loss in league play before March.
The Green Bay Phoenix‘s push toward March: Kevin Borseth’s second stint as the Phoenix coach has been nearly as successful as the first, which included seven NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons. But after getting Green Bay to five NCAA tournaments in his first six years back, the Phoenix haven’t played in March Madness since 2018. Thanks to offensive balance and high-level efficiency, plus nonconference wins over Creighton and Washington State, that should change even if they should lose in the Horizon League tournament like they did a year ago after going 27-5. Green Bay has six players averaging at least 7.6 points per game, is second in the country in assist-turnover ratio and seventh in 2-point field goal percentage. The Phoenix share the ball and get good shots despite having just two players taller than 6-foot-2.
Abbey Hsu‘s and the Columbia Lions‘ NCAA tournament quest: Before Hsu arrived, Columbia had one winning season since 1986. The Lions haven’t had a losing season since Hsu stepped on the court in 2019-20, and they set program records for wins in each of the past two. To say Hsu is the most impactful player in Columbia history would be underselling it. She is already the Ivy League’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers, and the countdown is on until she becomes Columbia’s all-time leading scorer. She is just 115 points shy of Camille Zimmerman’s mark. An NCAA tournament appearance is the one thing missing from her résumé. Getting the Lions there for the first time might come down to beating Princeton in the Ivy League tournament.
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Fairfield Stags are off and running: It appears Carly Thibault-DuDonis needed just one season to reset the Fairfield program following the retirement of long-time coach Joe Frager. Thibault-DuDonis went 15-15 in her first year after Frager took Fairfield to its first NCAA tournament in 21 years. Now she has the Stags on a path to return to the Dance. The Stags have the best offense and second-best defense in the MAAC, as well as its top scorer in freshman Meghan Anderson (17.9 PPG). They’ve started the season 14-1 and have beaten their first six MAAC opponents by an average margin of nearly 20 points.
Quinesha Lockett‘s health holds the key: Whether the Toledo Rockets can deliver on their status as the Mid-American favorite hinges on the healthy return of Lockett, the reigning conference player of the year. After leaving the Rockets’ Dec. 17 game with a sprained knee, Lockett — who is averaging a team-leading 15.3 points and 6.0 rebounds — hasn’t played. She is expected back at some point this month. Apart from a blowout loss to Duke, Toledo has survived without her. However, the heart of the MAC season awaits, including an important trip to the Ball State Cardinals on Sunday. Lockett will be needed if the Rockets are to match last year’s second-round NCAA tournament appearance.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
The rich get richer: The Norfolk State Spartans were already the favorites to win the MEAC without Diamond Johnson. Once the NCAA ruled in December to allow two-time transfers immediate eligibility, the hopelessness for the other seven programs grew exponentially. The former Rutgers and NC State point guard has averaged 19.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists in six games, and Norfolk State has gone 5-1. Johnson is certainly the best player in the MEAC. The question is: Can a player who sat out 10 games still win conference player of the year?
Missouri Valley Conference
Belmont taking it to the Banks: In a highly competitive, veteran-dominated conference, freshman Jailyn Banks might be the difference-maker for the Belmont Bruins. Second on the team in scoring (12.7 PPG) and assists (3.4 APG), Banks has won four MVC freshman of the week awards and has a future as one of the Valley’s best players. Her importance was on display in the waning moments of Sunday’s game at Indiana State. With 13 seconds left and the Bruins down by one, Banks made a steal and scored through an intentional foul. Free throws sealed the win. She left the game with an apparent injury after the foul, and that will be an MVC storyline to follow if Banks must miss time.
Mountain West Conference
A two-player race: Once again, the UNLV Lady Rebels look like the class of the Mountain West, but the player of the year race isn’t as clear-cut. Desi-Rae Young won it two years ago when UNLV began its dominance of the conference. But Colorado State Rams point guard McKenna Hofschild took the hardware last year. If she continues her current pace, Hofschild will be tough to beat. She leads the country in assists per game (8.4) and the MWC in scoring at 23.9 PPG. That number jumps to 29.0 in conference games. Young is the league’s second-best scorer (19.5 PPG) and rebounder (8.7 RPG) and plays on the league’s best team, making this potentially one of the closest player of the year races in the country.
The best player in conference history? Sacred Heart Pioneers sophomore Ny’Ceara Pryor is well on her way to becoming the best player in NEC history. Just a season and a half into her career, she might already have claimed the title. One year after winning NEC player of the year, defensive player and freshman of the year, she’s on pace to capture more hardware this season. The 5-foot-3 Pryor leads the conference in scoring, steals, assists and assist-turnover ratio. She’s also fifth in rebounding, second in field goal percentage and third in free throw percentage. Shooting 20.0% from the 3-point line is Pryor’s sole shortcoming, and because of her ability to get to the rim, she has taken only 25 3-pointers all season. The NEC has five two-time player of the year winners in its history. Pryor should join that list just two years into her career.
Ohio Valley Conference
Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles soar to the top: Southern Indiana is the story of the first half of the season in the OVC. In just their second season in Division I, the Screaming Eagles have grabbed the early conference lead. After going 6-12 in conference play a year ago, they have started 5-0 behind the play of junior Vanessa Shafford. Southern Indiana won’t be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2027 and won’t play in the OVC tournament, but the Eagles’ quick beginning to regular-season conference play makes them one of the most improved teams in the country.
Colorado Buffaloes vs. Stanford Cardinal – Game Highlights
Watch the Game Highlights from Colorado Buffaloes vs. Stanford Cardinal, 01/14/2024
Pac-12 going out with a bang: The Pac-12 doesn’t look like it’s ready to say goodbye, at least in women’s basketball. The league has been the top-rated NET conference in the country since USC and Colorado pulled off shocking upsets on the same court in Las Vegas on the first day of the season. This week the Pac-12 has four teams in the top 10 and is a legitimate threat to have two — or maybe even three — No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. In addition, Stanford‘s Tara VanDerveer could become the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history this week.
Then there’s the player of the year race. Stanford’s Cameron Brink, Utah‘s Alissa Pili and USC’s JuJu Watkins all could finish the season as first-team All-Americans. Watkins is setting freshman records on a weekly basis. The top teams aren’t just battling for a league championship. Every Friday and Sunday for the rest of the season, Pac-12 play will impact NCAA tournament seeding. The Pac-12 tournament in March will be the most important conference tourney in the country.
Weimar’s dominant run: Boston University senior forward Caitlin Weimar was selected as the Patriot League’s preseason player of the year, but her own coaches couldn’t have seen this dominance coming. As the Terriers battle the American University Eagles, Colgate Raiders and Holy Cross Crusaders for the league title and try to reach just their second NCAA tournament (2003), it will also be fun to see how many statistical categories the 6-4 Weimar can top. She leads the Patriot League in scoring (18.7 PPG), rebounding (8.3 RPG) and blocked shots (2.1 BPG). She’s also second in field goal percentage (53.4%) and minutes (35.0 MPG) and third in free throw percentage (72%).
Staley discusses impact of VP Harris visiting Gamecocks
Following No. 1 South Carolina’s win over Kentucky, Dawn Staley dives into the significance of Vice President Kamala Harris visiting with her team before the game.
Reconstructed Gamecocks are even better: Catching South Carolina looks like it could be a bigger task this year than it was a year ago — and the 2022-23 Gamecocks didn’t lose a game until the Final Four. Dawn Staley’s revamped lineup is younger, nimbler and much better offensively while not losing anything on defense. Remember in the national semifinals when Iowa sagged off all of South Carolina’s perimeter players? Now the Gamecocks are the best 3-point-shooting team in the country. In fact, they are the nation’s best offensive and defensive team, doing it all against the 12th-most-difficult schedule.
For good measure, they also grab more rebounds per game than any other team. No one in the SEC looks close to competing with South Carolina. Staley warned us how good this group would be, and the players are backing up every word.
Impressive start for the entire conference: It was a good first two months for the SoCon. Propelled by the Chattanooga Mocs‘ upset of the Mississippi State Bulldogs in early December, the league is as strong as it has been in recent years. The SoCon ranks 20th in the NET, its highest since the NCAA began using the NET as its evaluation tool. Four of the league’s eight teams came out of the nonconference schedule above .500, and Wofford Terriers junior guard Rachael Rose is in the top 15 in the nation in scoring (21.2 PPG).
The Cards’ quick start: Sabria Dean and the Lamar Cardinals have made the rest of the Southland take notice. The Cardinals were picked to finish a respectable third in the preseason but were somewhat of an afterthought to the SE Louisiana Lady Lions in the voting. Dean was given a second-team nod but has proved that was a big miss. She has captured player of the week honors four times and leads the conference in scoring at 15.4 points per game. Dean has guided Lamar to a 4-0 start, a good step toward getting the program back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years.
The door is open: If another team is going to topple the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, this might be the year. The Jackrabbits have gone unbeaten in Summit League play two of the past three seasons. They have won three regular-season titles in a row and four of the past five. This edition is far from Aaron Johnston’s best team. Failing to pick up a signature nonconference win, South Dakota State was just 6-5 pre-Summit League play. While the defense remains elite, the explosiveness on offense isn’t there. The Jackrabbits are just sixth in the league in scoring. The Oral Roberts Golden Eagles, who haven’t finished higher than third since joining the Summit in 2015, could be a challenger riding the league’s best newcomer in sophomore Taleyah Jones.
Sun Belt Conference
Terren Ward could challenge the nation’s best scorers: Ward could be the answer to a trivia question one day. In the year Caitlin Clark set the NCAA scoring record and led the nation in scoring, who was second? Right now, Ward is the correct answer. Only Clark has scored more points this season than the Georgia Southern Eagles senior. Ward’s 23.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game have the Eagles in contention in the Sun Belt, a conference in which they have never finished higher than fourth.
Southwestern Athletic Conference
What comes after some stunning nonconference upsets? No SWAC team currently has a winning overall record against Division I competition, but that doesn’t mean the conference didn’t show the country something during November and December. The Southern Jaguars beat Oklahoma, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions knocked off the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Grambling State Lady Tigers shocked the Arizona State Sun Devils, and the Jackson State Lady Tigers, in addition to playing one of the best nonconference schedules in the country, upset the St. John’s Red Storm. The Lady Tigers were the most tested, were the preseason favorites and have won three straight regular-season titles, but the race has a chance to be more interesting than it has been the past few years.
Western Athletic Conference
A potential first-time representative in March: The Grand Canyon Lopes and California Baptist Lancers have arguably been the WAC’s two best teams over the past three seasons. Yet neither has played in a Division I NCAA tournament game. They each lost in the conference tournament championship game, and when the Lancers won the tournament in 2021, they weren’t yet eligible for the NCAA tournament in their last season of transition to Division I. This might be the season one of them breaks through. Each are sitting atop the standings this season. In Chloe Webb, Cal Baptist has the league’s best player so far, and the Lopes have the WAC’s best shooting team and its stingiest defense.
West Coast Conference
Gonzaga Bulldogs can go to the next level: In her nine seasons as Gonzaga coach, Lisa Fortier has failed to win the WCC only twice. She has had good teams, including one that reached the Sweet 16 in 2015. This one might be her best. The Zags have the country’s sixth-best offense, according to HerHoopStats.com, and one of its best players in Yvonne Ejim. Wins over Stanford, Arizona, the California Golden Bears and the Alabama Crimson Tide highlighted a competitive first two months. Does Gonzaga go unbeaten in WCC play? How about a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament? Will the Zags reach the Sweet 16 again? All those things are on the board.