Playing for respect
Notes: Teams turn attention to upcoming conference battles
What do Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Penn State have in common? Despite being nationally ranked and challenging for their respective conference regular-season championships, all will be trying to prove their mettle down the stretch of the 2012-13 season while answering if they have what it takes to be national championship contenders come March.
Duke was the country’s last undefeated team before losing on Monday at Connecticut by a 79-49 count. Now 16-1, the Blue Devils will face off against its top competitors in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) during the next several weeks. From Jan. 31 to March 3, Duke will play seven games against its closest challengers for the conference championship with two games against Miami (Fla.), North Carolina and Maryland and a single game against Florida State. For Duke to eventually win out, 6-3 sophomore center Elizabeth Williams will need to continue her strong play. Williams has blocked at least one shot in every collegiate game she has played (50 in a row). The streak is the second-best in school history behind Alison Bales' 55 in 2003-05. Dating back to high school, Williams has blocked a shot in 69 consecutive games as she closed her high-school career with blocks in 19 consecutive contests. She has also notched double-figure scoring against 19 consecutive ACC opponents.
Kentucky (18-1) has won 17 consecutive games since losing at Baylor (85-51) more than two months ago. Crushing opponents by an average of 27.5 points per game has made a statement for a Wildcats team that is looking to run the table before a March 3 matchup with Tennessee that could eventually decide the regular season champion. The game with the Lady Vols will be the only game this season between the two schools currently tied for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) lead with 6-0 records. Before the Kentucky-Tennessee showdown, the Wildcats will be tested with games against South Carolina (Jan. 24 and Feb. 14), Georgia (Feb. 3) and Texas A&M (Feb. 18). Kentucky is led by led by senior guard A’Dia Mathies, who averages 15.4 points per game. Named SEC Player of the Week for her work in wins against Mississippi State and Auburn last week, Mathies has led Kentucky to a school-record home winning streak of 33 games at Rupp Arena.
Louisville is considered by most a dangerous team come tournament time. The high-scoring trio of Shoni Schimmel, Sara Hammond and Monique Reid average 33.8 points per game combined and present a formidable front for opponents. The 16-4 Cardinals have been getting it done on both sides of the ball. Ranked among the league leaders in scoring at 74.8 points per game, Louisville also ranks third in the Big East Conference defensively, allowing just 51.1 poins per game. In its last game against Cincinnati on Jan. 18, Louisville held the Bearcats below 20 points in both halves, winning 72-33. The Cardinals have struggled in games against top opponents, losing to Kentucky, Colorado, DePaul and Connecticut. Currently tied for sixth place in the Big East, Louisville will be able to better its tournament resume with games against Notre Dame (Feb. 11), DePaul (Feb. 17), Villanova (Feb. 24) and Syracuse (March 4) during the next month.
North Carolina has been especially motivated after failing to make the NCAA tournament field a year ago. In 2012-13 the Tar Heels have flown under the radar despite a gaudy 18-1 overall record. The Tar Heels’ 6-0 ACC record is tied with Duke for first place. Strong in the middle, North Carolina leads the ACC averaging 6.3 blocks per game, while senior Waltiea Rolle is No. 2 in the ACC at 2.7 per game. Senior Tierra Ruffin-Pratt leads the way for the Tar Heels averaging 13.8 points per game. A Jan. 24 game at Maryland will be an indicator for a Tar Heels team that must also ready for two games against Duke (Feb. 3 and March 3) down the stretch of the season.
Oklahoma’s season thus far has been a series of ups and downs. In the positive column for head coach Sherri Coale and the Sooners are wins against Marist, Texas Tech and Texas (twice). Losses to UCLA, Vanderbilt and Iowa State have slowed progress, as have several injuries, including losing fifth-year senior guard Whitney Hand to an ACL injury in early December. Making up for the loss of Hand are juniors Aaryn Ellenberg and Nicole Griffin, who have stepped up by accounting for 40 percent of Oklahoma’s offense. Ellenberg is the Big 12 leader in three-pointers made per game (3.6) and three-point percentage (.452). She ranks third and 10th, respectively, in NCAA Division I in the two categories, connecting on more than 57 percent of her points from beyond the arc. Griffin is considered Oklahoma’s most improved player, scoring more than 70 percent of her points in the paint. Her 11.1 points per game is ranked 21st among Big 12 players and her .537 field goal percentage ranks ninth. Next up for Oklahoma is a Jan. 26 game at No. 1 Baylor.
Penn State sits atop the Big Ten Conference after a win on Monday at Michigan. A year ago the Nittany Lions earned a No. 4 seed and advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament before losing to Connecticut. That postseason has provided momentum to a season that has seen Penn State already score wins against two of its biggest competitors in the Big Ten race, Michigan State and Michigan. A Feb. 4 home matchup with Purdue could go a long way to deciding the conference title. Behind junior guard Maggie Lucas, Penn State features the top scoring team in the Big Ten and averages 74.4 points per game. Lucas, the No. 3 scorer in the Big Ten, averages 19.8 points and has connected on 55 three-point field goals while shooting a conference-best 52.4 percent behind the three-point line.
Key game in Atlantic Sun this week
The lead in the Atlantic Sun Conference will be on the line Saturday when Stetson travels to Florida Gulf Coast. Both teams enter the game 8-0 in conference play. Stetson has won 11 consecutive games overall, while Florida Gulf Coast has won nine games in a row. The two teams will meet again on Feb. 23 at Stetson.
In its first season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference, Seattle has found the going easy thus far. The Redhawks have now won seven consecutive games and are 7-0 in conference play. The latest victory, a 64-47 win at home against Louisiana Tech has moved Seattle out to a two-game advantage against Utah State. With six of its next eight games on the road, Seattle enters its most challenging portion of the schedule starting this week with games at UTSA on Thursday and Texas State on Saturday.
Mustangs off and running
Energized by the play of Keena Mays, who became eligible in mid-December, SMU has jumped out to a 4-0 start to Conference USA play. Mays, a 5-7 junior transfer from Kansas, has averaged 21.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in the nine games she has played. The Mustangs are 7-2 in those nine games and have won five consecutive overall. After games against Tulsa and Houston this week, SMU will get tested at UTEP on Feb. 3.