Sports

The Field Is Crowded, but Mostly Behind South Carolina

The last time Connecticut fell outside the Associated Press poll’s top 10 was in the 2004-5 season, an era when Seimone Augustus’s Louisiana State team and Candace Parker’s Tennessee squad were battling for trips to the Final Four. The 2005 national champion that season, though, turned out to be Baylor, an upstart team coached by Kim Mulkey that had made its first trip to the tournament only four years earlier.

This year’s Huskies are ranked No. 11, and a similar kind of surprise could be in store as the postseason gets closer. There is a clear front-runner in South Carolina, but there are dozens of capable teams and players who will continue to battle as conference play begins. The Southeastern Conference will be a big hurdle, as ever, but so will the Atlantic Coast Conference with Louisville and North Carolina State, the Pac-12 Conference with Stanford and Arizona, the Big Ten with Maryland and Michigan and the Big 12 with Baylor and Texas.

There’s no easy way out this season — not even for the battle-tested Gamecocks.

It’s South Carolina, and then everybody else.

With an 18-point comeback win over Stanford, the top-ranked Gamecocks avenged their squad’s loss in last year’s Final Four. South Carolina’s largest comeback in program history — one of many milestones — was also the team’s fifth win over a top-ten opponent this season. If it showed the Gamecocks’ weaknesses, it also showed just how fiercely the players have worked to overcome them.

“They don’t get too far into the schedule, they just handle what’s in front of them,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said after that game. “But I think they’re confident, I think they trust each other. They know what our weaknesses are, and they really try to get better.”

But they came up short against Missouri nine days later when Lauren Hansen’s layup with 0.1 seconds left in overtime handed South Carolina its first loss of the season.

It was only a matter of time. The Gamecocks are still formidable, but there is plenty of competition as Division I’s top teams jockey for position. No. 2 Stanford lost to No. 12 Texas, which lost to No. 7 Tennessee, which in turn lost to Stanford. More teams choosing aggressive nonconference schedules has created further evidence of the growing parity within women’s college basketball, and made it harder to call any school a clear front-runner.

South Carolina began its challenging Southeastern Conference schedule with a boatload of insurance, which should keep them ahead in the crowded field. But stiff competition looms at every turn, and as a result, more surprises for the Gamecocks and their peers near the top of the rankings seem inevitable.

The Omicron variant is forcing more and more schedule changes.

In the span of a few weeks, a season that was supposed to be both safer for players and easier to evaluate for the N.C.A.A. selection committee than last year’s has started to look like it may be neither of those things.

The coronavirus pandemic never stopped causing cancellations, forfeits and postponements. But the rapid spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant is having an impact on the beginning of conference play. Sixteen matchups in which an A.P.-ranked team was scheduled to play were canceled or postponed between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, with dozens more games impacted outside the Top 25.

Anna Gret Asi, left, and the Arizona Wildcats have not played since Dec. 17.Credit…Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Conferences are scrambling to update protocols to reflect the new variant. Most, including every Power 5 conference, have rescinded recent rules that had deemed any cancellation because of coronavirus protocol to be a forfeiture by the exposed team. What remains to be seen is whether or not the N.C.A.A. will amend its 25-game requirement for tournament eligibility in the event that teams are not able to reschedule enough canceled games.

No. 4 Arizona hadn’t played a game since Dec. 17 because of coronavirus exposure among its own players. Now, the Wildcats won’t play again until at least Jan. 7 because the team’s first two conference opponents, Southern California and U.C.L.A., have both had exposures within their respective programs. Arizona will have had four games canceled or postponed at a moment many more cancellations seem imminent — and that might create a threat to the team’s postseason opportunities.

Undefeated teams across the Power 5 enter conference play with something to prove.

Three Division I teams remain undefeated. One, Arizona, played in the 2021 title game. The other two, though, have surprised opponents and onlookers by avoiding defeat, and will bring double-digit win streaks into their tough conference schedules.

The Colorado Buffaloes have already won as many games — 11 — as they did during the 2020-2021 season thanks to efficient shooting from forward Mya Hollingshed, a 2022 W.N.B.A. draft prospect, and Quay Miller, a transfer from Washington. The team has also used quick hands to pad its margins of victory through a fairly easy nonconference schedule: They are averaging 12.5 steals per game, which according to Her Hoop Stats, is the ninth most among Division I teams.

The Buffaloes finished the 2018-2019 season at the bottom of the Pac-12, with just one win in the conference. Two years later, they knocked off top-ranked Stanford in overtime — their first win against a No. 1 team, their first win against the Cardinal, and the first of just two losses Stanford, the eventual national champion, posted that season. Now, Colorado is looking for its first winning conference season, and its first trip to the N.C.A.A. tournament, since 2013.

No. 24 North Carolina is 13-0, and has the largest average margin of victory — 32.3 points per game — in Division I. The Tar Heels have proved they can score, but their biggest asset is their defense: So far, the team has only allowed four opponents to score more than 50 points. North Carolina has yet to face a ranked opponent, but that will change on Jan. 6 with a game against No. 5 North Carolina State. A victory over the team’s (other) in-state rival might signal a return to form for the program, which hasn’t been to the round of 16 since 2015 after competing deep in the N.C.A.A. tournament throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Connecticut’s superiority has rarely been shakier.

The Huskies’ season has been historic, but not in the way they would prefer. The 6-3 team is slumping thanks in large part to a slew of injuries: Sophomore phenomenon Paige Bueckers sustained a tibial plateau fracture in early December that required surgery, and will keep her off the court until at least early February. Top freshman recruit Azzi Fudd and sophomore guard Nika Mühl have also missed time with less acute injuries, as has junior Aubrey Griffin.

Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma speaking with Dorka Juhasz during a game against Louisville on Dec. 19.Credit…Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Combined with two early season transfers out of the program, those injuries have left Connecticut depleted. The Huskies lost to an unranked opponent, Georgia Tech, for the first time since 2012. This is the team’s worst starting record since their 2004-5 season. For three weeks they have been ranked at No. 11 on the A.P. poll, out of the top 10 for the first time in 16 years.

“What I see is a team that’s somewhat disheveled,” Coach Geno Auriemma said after the loss to Georgia Tech. “And that’s on me. Somehow, some way I do not have the ability at this point in time to affect my players to make sure that we’re in a better place mentally and physically, to play the kind of basketball we need to play.”

The Huskies only have three nonconference games remaining to boost their résumé, and all are scheduled before Bueckers is slated to return. As a result, the tournament itself is where the team’s true test will be — where fans will see whether there is actually more open space at the top of women’s college basketball now, or if it was all just a regular-season mirage.

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