With conference races heating up as the schedule reaches late-January, a number of teams not expected to make much noise this season are creating a ruckus. While some may eventually claim conference regular season or tournament titles, most will be in the conversation for tournament spots come March even if they fall short of their conference’s automatic bid.
Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) has made its only one previous appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2009, but has the look of a player in the highly competitive Atlantic 10 Conference. At 16-4 and 4-3, the Rams are currently pushing Dayton and Duquesne for the top spot. The Rams are off to their best start in school history. Key upcoming game for VCU will be at Dayton on Feb. 5.
The race for the Atlantic Coast Conference, once thought to be a three-team race, may have additional entries as North Carolina (16-3/4-1) and neighbor N.C. State (16-3/3-2) have entered the fray. Winners of 11 of the past 12 games, a young North Carolina team is making a statement. The Tar Heels feature a roster with six freshmen and three sophonmores and have persevered without head coach Sylvia Hatchell on the sidelines. Hatchell, who recently received word that her leukemia is in remission, is hoping to return to the team before the end of the season, with the Tar Heels facing a crucial stretch that includes games with conference favorites Duke twice and Notre Dame, once over the last month.
Jacksonville, 8-8/5-0, has matched Florida Gulf Coast (11-6/5-0) stride for stride so far this season in the Atlantic Sun Conference. After losing six consecutive games in mid-December, the Dolphins are on a five-game winning streak with Florida Gulf Coast up next on Jan. 23. It’s the first of two regular season meetings between the two schools.
With perennial Big 12 Conference titile contenders Baylor, Oklahoma and Iowa State stubbing their collective toes in recent weeks, Oklahoma State (17-1/6-1), West Virginia (17-2/6-1) and TCU (12-6/3-3) are all in the conference title picture. The lone loss this season for Oklahoma State came at the hands of West Virginia. The Cowgirls will host defending champion Baylor on Jan. 26 in a game that could go along way to deciding the Big 12. West Virginia has reeled off four consecutive conference wins after losing to Baylor at home on Jan. 8.
The new Big East Conference is wide open at this point with St. John’s (N.Y.) 13-5/6-1, Creighton (11-8/5-2), Marquette (13-4/4-2) and DePaul (14-5/5-2) the current frontrunners.
After struggling through a 4-9 non-conference schedule, Youngstown State has burst from the gates with a 4-0 Horizon League start. Wright State (14-5/3-1) and Green Bay (9-7/2-2) are still considered the teams to beat, with the Penguins playing a combined three games against the two over the past month of the season.
The surprise team in the Big Ten Conference to date is Michigan, which is off to a 4-1 start in conference play. Paced by a balanced attack with four players averaging in double figures, the Wolverines showed resiliency by bouncing back from a Jan. 12 home loss to Michigan State to win most recently at Purdue and at home against Illinois. Two games down the stretch against Nebraska will go along way in determing if Michigan can overtake Penn State, the current conference leader.
Looking to earn its first NCAA tournament bid, Iona is the team to beat in the Mid-American Conference. The Gaels, 15-2 and 8-0, established their title run with a Jan. 13 road win over perennial favorite Marist. Iona and Marist will meet again on the final day of the regular season, March 2. Iona is led by junior guard Damika Martinez, who was one of 29 players named to the watch list of candidates for the 2014 Nancy Lieberman Award. Martinez is averaging a conference leading 24.7 points per game, good for fourth in the nation.
Indiana State (10-6/5-0) is giving Wichita State (14-2/5-0) a run for its money in the Missouri Valley, while Colorado State (13-4/5-1) is currently tied with Fresno State on top of the Mountain West Conference. The Sycamores have never played in the NCAA tournament, while Colorado State is looking for its first dance ticket since 2002.
New Southern California head coach Cynthia Cooper has returned to her alma mater with an exclamation point, leading the surprising Trojans to a 13-6 overall record and 6-1 mark in the Pac-12 Conference. For statement games, the Trojans need not look far as they face an important two-game road swing this weekend at California on Jan. 24, before paying a visit to conference leader Stanford on Jan. 27. USC is led by Cassie Harberts who last week tallied her 800th career rebound and 500th career free throw during two wins. Her career point total knocked Cooper out of the all-time top-10 in career scoring list at USC.
The Southeastern Conference has a new look these days with favorites Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU looking up at Texas A&M (15-4/5-0), South Carolina (17-2/5-1) and Vanderbilt (16-3/5-1). Texas A&M has risen to the top of the standings with eight consecutive wins, including victories against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. A Jan. 26 visit by Tennessee to College Station will be a must see game for fans of both teams.
AROUND THE DIVISION
Only Connecticut (20-0) and Notre Dame (17-0) have a chance to run the table in 2013-14. The two former Big East Conference rivals do not play during the regular season. For the Huskies, the biggest tests will come Feb. 9 and March 3 with games against Louisville. For Notre Dame, in its first season in the ACC, the Fighting Irish still have tough tests coming at Maryland (Jan. 27), at Duke (Feb. 2), at Florida State (Feb. 6), at home versus Duke (Feb. 23) and North Carolina (Feb. 27), before ending the regular season at N.C. State on March 2.
Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) information for Division I women’s basketball is available at NCAA.com. The RPI ranks teams based upon a team's wins and losses and its strength of schedule and is one of many tools used by the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee’s in the selection and seeding process for the championship. Duke currently tops the RPI list, followed in order by Stanford, Connecticut, LSU and Louisville.
Rowe nears all-time mark
Middle Tennessee's Ebony Rowe is eight points away from breaking the school's all-time scoring mark currently held by Kim Webb and will be looking to break the record at home on Jan. 25 against Old Dominion. Webb's 2,148 points has stood since 1987. Rowe would be the all-time leading scorer and rebounder for both the men's and women's programs at Middle Tennessee.
Top home winning streak
With Baylor losing at home to Connecticut on Jan. 13, Chattanooga now has the nation's longest home winning streak at 34 games.
The Road to Nashville
The latest 2014 Women’s Final Four event information, including tickets and registration for the various ancillary events around the championship are available here.
The Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) will serve as the host conference for the 2014 Women’s Final Four in Nashville. Big storyline in the OVC this season has been the play of the senior guard tandem Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome at UT Martin, with the two combining for almost 5,000 career points to date.
Butler recently became the OVC’s all-time leading scorer and now ranks 32nd on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list with 2,567 career points. She has scored in double-figures in every game of her career.
Scholar-athletes last season
Named to the 2014 Nancy Lieberman Award watch list, Newsome ranks fifth on the OVC in all-time points list with 2,356 career points. Named the 2013-14 OVC Preseason Player of the Year, she currently ranks third in the OVC with 19.9 points per game and broke the school record for most points in a game, scoring 44 points against Quinnipiac earlier this season.