As the calendar turns to January, it is time to focus on the start of conference play. While many teams have fashioned impressive non-conference records, it remains to be seen which teams will be championship contenders or pretenders in March.
Four teams have emerged from December undefeated, with Colorado (12-0), Connecticut (12-0), Duke (11-0) and Oklahoma State (11-0) still perfect for 2012-13. The early portion of the conference schedule will have plenty to say about each of the these schools and whether they can continue this early season momentum.
Colorado will face off at home against Stanford on Jan. 4. Previously ranked No. 1 in the country, Stanford will be looking to regroup following a 61-35 home loss to No. 2 Connecticut in their last game played Dec. 29. A win against Stanford, or at minimum, a good showing against the Cardinal will position Colorado as a serious Pac-12 Conference contender. In fact, Colorado’s start to the new year will say much about them, with games against California (Jan. 6) and Utah (Jan. 8 and Jan. 13) following the Stanford conference opener.
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Following its statement win at Stanford, undefeated Connecticut opens Big East Conference play by hosting Notre Dame on Jan. 5 (CBS at 4 p.m. ET). The teams enjoyed a series of dramatic finishes last season, including two overtime games both won by Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish won three of the four meetings last season, including an 83-75 overtime win in the national semifinals at the 2012 Women’s Final Four in Denver that helped the Fighting Irish advance to the national championship game for the second straight season. Notre Dame, the defending Big East regular season champion, comes into the game with an 11-1 record, with the only loss at the hands of Baylor at home on Dec. 5.
Duke has what appears to be a soft opening to the ACC season with three early games against the teams currently at the bottom of the conference standings in Boston College (Jan. 6), Clemson (Jan. 10) and Wake Forest (Jan. 13). The toughest January conference game for Duke will come Jan. 31 against Miami (Fla.) The Blue Devils will also test themselves with a Jan. 21 non-conference game at Connecticut.
Oklahoma State will be able to establish itself as an early contender for the Big 12 Conference championship if they can get off to a good start this week. The Cowgirls open conference play Jan. 2 at home against Texas Tech before playing at defending national champion Baylor on Jan. 6 and returning home to host Kansas on Jan. 8. Key for Oklahoma State will be the continued strong play of senior forward Toni Young, who tallied 30 points and 15 rebounds on Dec. 30 as the Cowgirls beat San Diego State 80-72 to win the Surf ‘N Slam Classic. Young also had 16 points and 12 boards on Dec. 29 as Oklahoma State beat Harvard.
A look back at Connecticut against Stanford
Connecticut’s win on Dec. 29 at Stanford endedthe nation-leading 82-game home unbeaten run for the Cardinal at Maples Pavilion. In an ironic twist, it was the Huskies who saw the end of their NCAA record 90-game winning streak at Maples Pavilion with a 71-59 loss two years ago to Stanford, almost to the day on Dec. 30.
The game was the 51st meeting between the top two teams in the poll. The No. 1 seed had won the previous nine matchups and holds a 31-20 lead. If things remain the same, the 2012-13 season could see another No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup when top-ranked Connecticut travels to No. 2 Baylor on Feb. 18.
Conference depth charts
As in past years, the overall team depth of several conferences is showing. The Southeastern Conference boasts 10 schools with three or fewer losses coming out of December play. In fact, Tennessee, which is 9-3, ranks 10th in the league standings. The Big Ten Conference has eight schools with three or fewer losses, while both the Big East Conference and Pac-12 Conference have seven.
Illinois forward Karisma Penn was named as the Ann Meyers Drysdale USBWA Women’s National Player of the Week and the Big Ten Conference Player of the Week after scoring 27 points and grabbing a career-high 19 rebounds to go along with two blocked shots and a steal in leading the Illini to an 70-59 win against then-unbeaten and No. 6 Georgia. She is now Illlinois’ all-time shot blocking leader, having passed former Illini great Jenna Smith.
Illinois, 7-5, which has not played in the NCAA Tournament since 2003, won its second consecutive game against a ranked team after losing its previous 20 to top-25 opponents.
Missouri Valley wins against 2012 tournament teams
This season Missouri Valley Conference teams have recorded 16 wins against teams that participated in either the NCAA, WNIT or WBI postseason events last season, including 11 on the road or neutral floors.
Georgetown’s Sugar Rodgers, who leads the Big East in scoring at 25.9 points per game, was at her dynamic best on Dec. 28 against Yale, scoring 38 points in 38 minutes in a 90-67 win. The 38 points was a season-high for Rodgers and one point shy of her all-time career high.
Delle Donne returns
It’s no coincidence that the current three-game winning streak for Delaware (8-3) coincides with the return of All-America senior Elena Delle Donne.
Battling a recurrence of Lyme Disease, Delle Donne missed six of the first seven games this season before returning to the Blue Hens lineup on Dec. 20 in a home loss to Maryland. Since that game, Delaware has reeled off three consecutive wins against Monmouth, Villanova and Duquesne, with the final win coming against a Duquesne team that came into the game with an 11-1 record.
Last weekend, Delle Donne was named the Dartmouth Big Sky Classic Most Valuable Player and is now averaging 22.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. She is Delaware’s all-time scoring leader with 2,369 points.