February 7, 2024 

The Weekly Fast Break: Super Bowl frenzy

Watkins shines; Injury madness has us seeing red

Whether you fancy yourself as a football fan or not, the Super Bowl is an event that gets us all to take notice each February. The rabid fans of the two teams playing in the game are living and breathing through every catch and every missed field goal. Others are waiting for a pause in the action to see the next set of commercials – who can forget the Volkswagen spot with the darling little boy who thought he was Darth Vader?  Then there are the eager eyes waiting to be entertained by the halftime performance and lastly, those that are in it just for the food and drinks.

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No matter if you are showing up to a gathering or watching the action from the comfort of your couch, Sunday, Feb. 11 is Super Bowl LVIII coming to us from Las Vegas, Nevada. The betting lines have been set, the stars will be out, and the two teams left standing will as prepared as they have ever been for a game. Can the Kansas City Chiefs do what is so difficult and repeat as champions? Can the San Francisco 49ers break through to claim the hardware with a now-relevant quarterback?  

The hype and anticipation of the Super Bowl has the same feeling for us here at The Weekly Fast Break as the college basketball season. We cannot wait to be dazzled by athletic performances, to find new stars in a sea of talent, to watch coaches strategize to the very last second of a possession and celebrate the winners in style. The players for both teams will leave it all on the field in Vegas because they know our motto to be true – you must believe that the loose ball you are chasing has your name on it. On Sunday, someone will make the ultimate catch while we will be watching a sea of red – are you ready for it?


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TIP-OFF

West Coast Traffic Jam: With the football season officially ending this week at the Super Bowl, it reminds us of the fact that we are approaching another hard ending soon, that of the Pac-12 Conference. We have entered the final February of games in the league as we know it and it is setting up to be a jam-packed month of wins, upsets, and monster performances. Six teams are currently ranked in the AP Top 25, all with winning records in league play, led by #4 Colorado and #6 Stanford who are atop the conference standings at 9-2. The weekend slate of games was highlighted by a 51-point performance by #10 USC freshman sensation JuJu Watkins as the Trojans knocked off the Cardinal 67-58 in Palo Alto on Feb. 2. And with the league boasting seven teams in the Top 25 of the NET Rankings (through Feb. 5), things are shaping up for a stellar finish to the regular season. The next few weeks will be filled with final road trips that have been part of these programs’ history for decades – it is an ending that will be bittersweet on so many levels.

Oklahoma Head Coach Jennie Baranczyk and her Sooners are back in the AP Top 25 at #24 after a huge week including a victory over then #2 Kansas State. (Photo credit: Ty Russell)

Poll Watch: It was a week of movement all throughout the AP Top 25 Poll, with only five spots staying the same, including South Carolina who is squarely holding court at #1. The rest of top five were moves into those spots, including Ohio State up three to #5. Making a big jump up this week is #7 Texas which has won five of their last six games, including two over ranked teams last week. One of those wins was over fellow Big 12 member Kansas State, who dropped two games and fell six spots to #8. #10 USC is trending back up as is #12 Notre Dame and fellow ACC member #16 Virginia Tech. Oklahoma enters the poll this at #24 after a big week and finds themselves leading the Big 12 at 9-1. Princeton remains at #25 and North Carolina drops out of the AP Top 25 this week after two close losses to ranked ACC teams (NC State and Virginia Tech.)


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STAR POWER

We are always on the lookout for dazzling performances and the Drake Bulldogs got one from junior Katie Dinnebier on Feb. 3. The 5’8 guard logged just the second triple-double in Drake women’s basketball history in the Bulldogs’ 79-71 win over rival Northern Iowa. Dinnebier went off for 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in a team-high 35 minutes on the floor. She is just the 14th player in Missouri Valley Conference history to record a triple-double, and her performance earned Dinnebier the MVC Player of the Week award, her second of the season.

It is hard not to notice that one of the main reasons why #7 Texas has won five of their last six games is because of the breakout season of freshman Madison Booker. The 6’1 guard averaged 21 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in a pair of ranked wins over then #13 Baylor and #2 Kansas State last week on her way to be named Big 12 Freshman of the Week. Booker posted her fifth game of 20 points or more against AP Top 25 teams on the road at Baylor on Feb. 1 (22 points.), which is second among Division I freshmen this season.

From the beginning of the season, Texas freshman Madison Booker has been sensational and is proving why she is the front runner for Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2023-24. (Photo credit: Texas Athletic Communications)

Balance has been such a key to the success of #1 South Carolina this season, with the Gamecocks getting a big lift from the SEC Freshman of the Week, MiLaysia Fulwiley. The guard was the Gamecocks’ second-highest scorer of the week with 14.5 points/game in two wins. Fulwiley led the team in scoring in the victory at Auburn on Feb. 1. The Columbia, South Carolina native then posted 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting in the 85-56 win over Mississippi on Feb. 4. In the two games, she also shot 77.8% from the free throw line.

Arkansas State’s Izzy Higginbottom was named the Sun Belt Player of the Week after using back-to-back 30+ point performances to power the Red Wolves to a pair of victories last week. This is the second POW honor this season for Higginbottom, who leads the conference with seven 30+ point games and in scoring at 23.2 points/game. The junior guard posted a career-high 35 points in her team’s win over South Alabama on Jan. 31 and then followed it up with 33 points against Old Dominion on Feb. 3 in the 76-63 victory. Higginbottom has also been automatic this season from the free throw line, breaking her own conference record for most consecutive free throws made (53) and set a new team record for free throws made in a game (19) in the battle with ODU. She ranks third in the nation right now at 92.5% from the charity stripe on the year.

INJURY MADNESS

This topic is something that hits close to home and has been on our minds for a while now at The Weekly Fast Break. No matter when or how an injury occurs in sports, our first reaction is to cringe and look away. Some we witness in person where we see the ankle roll or watch the collision that dislocates a shoulder. Then there are the injuries that happen at practice or during a training session away from the public eye. No matter when or where it occurs, injuries are painful and what comes after is very real. For a high school, college or professional athlete, the impact is felt by many and the road to recovery is steep and challenging.

UConn junior <a rel=
UConn junior Azzi Fudd is just one of many players from across the country who has had their year cut short by a season-ending injury.
(Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra/The Next)

In recent years, we have seen injuries have a direct impact on the world of women’s college basketball. As the numbers have piled up, some programs have felt the affects more than others. We can debate all we want what the impact of losing Paige Bueckers had on UConn’s season last year or what having Azzi Fudd go down this winter means for their 2023-24 championship goals. We can lament about the athletes who never made it to the floor this season, like heralded North Carolina freshman Cierra Toomey. We feel heartbroken for players such as Texas point guard Rori Harmon, who were tearing up opponents each night but suffer a season-ending injury in practice. We hoped that the MRI did not confirm what we all thought it would be after watching Washington State’s Charlisse Legler-Walker go down in a heap under the basket

Yet in a crowd of heartache, we must tip our cap to teams like South Dakota State, who lost two starters before the 2023-24 season began and another last week to season-ending injuries. But through the adversity, the Jackrabbits have found a way to stay undefeated in conference play and extend their Summit League winning streak to 40 games in a row. We also must celebrate the return of someone like 6’6 center Ayoka Lee, who missed over 600 days of basketball because of injuries and now has Kansas State back in the national conversation. (Lee is currently sidelined with a new injury but is slated to return this month.)

Kansas State center Ayoka Lee shoots a fadeaway jump shot over a UNC defender putting a hand in Lee's face.
Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee has made a big-time impact in her return to action this year after missing all of last season with multiple knee surgeries and a long rehab process. (Photo credit: K-State Athletics)

The fact is once an injury occurs, coaches and teams must adapt to not having certain individuals in the lineup and the injured athletes are left watching from the sidelines. There is a feeling for them of helplessness and loneliness, relying on others to tie their shoes or drive them to class, all while enduring long days of painful rehab, sleepless nights, and tearful calls home to mom.

While the conversation is as much about who has been injured, we must start to talk about why these injuries are occurring. There are multiple theories circling the world of sports, starting with the concept of kids specializing in athletics at such early ages. As the game grows, we see young girls and boys playing more and more basketball. Specialization puts more workload and stress on their joints, especially while they are growing. At younger ages, the growing body is not made to handle the volume of any one single sport. These points, in conjunction with a lack of emphasis and availability in many instances for younger girls to get proper weight training, can lead to injuries occurring earlier and fatigue later in their careers.

Injury prevention is a hot topic in the world of college athletics, in every sport. The science of prevention begins with specified training and an understanding that male and female athletes are anatomically different. The days of putting female athletes in the weight room or through agility training without understanding those anatomical and physiological differences is over. The proof is in the science being developed and athletic programs must continue to expand their staffs and their working knowledge to help prevent serious injuries. 

Some injuries are going to happen no matter what measures are put into place, but if the science is telling us that we need to do specific things to help female student-athletes be healthier and sustain their playing careers longer, should we not be listening? And shouldn’t those programs and schools that have seen a rash of injuries in their programs take a hard look at their current training protocols to see what needs to be addressed? We can do better, and we must do better – it is time to park the old-school methods and embrace who we train and how they train, so we do everything we can for them to stay on the floor and play the game they love.


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FULL COURT PRESS

Fans of Kansas City and San Francisco have been preparing their Super Bowl parties for over a week now. Special orders for food and desserts have been placed and stores are stocked to the ceiling with the essentials. But before we get to the big game on Sunday, we should be on high alert for a host of basketball games that can move the needle on what a team’s season can look like – are they peaking at the right time or trying to find just enough to get through the next run of games. It is time to see who is channeling their Super Bowl best to stay sharp for the homestretch of the regular season (check your local listings and broadcast schedule for times):

Feb. 7

New Mexico at San Diego State

Troy at Old Dominion

#18 Baylor at BYU

Feb. 8

Marist at R/V Fairfield

#12 Notre Dame at #15 Louisville

Little Rock at Western Illinois

Missouri at #1 South Carolina

R/V Michigan State at #14 Indiana

Bradley at Drake

#16 Virginia Tech at #3 NC State

Liberty at Middle Tennessee

#13 LSU at Vanderbilt

Feb. 9

Towson at Stony Brook

Arizona at #9 UCLA

#17 Oregon State at #20 Utah

Belmont at Missouri State

Feb. 10

Alcorn State at Arkansas Pine-Bluff

#25 Princeton at Penn

SE Louisiana at Northwestern State

#22 West Virginia at #18 Baylor

Illinois State at Drake

SMU at North Texas

DePaul at #21 Creighton

Oklahoma State at #8 Kansas State

Idaho at Eastern Washington

#24 Oklahoma at Iowa State

Feb. 11

#12 Notre Dame at R/V Florida State

#15 Louisville at #23 Syracuse

#2 Iowa at Nebraska

#11 UConn at #1 South Carolina

#17 Oregon State at #4 Colorado

Florida at R/V Mississippi State

Feb. 12

Jackson State at Arkansas Pine-Bluff

Arkansas at Tennessee

Arizona at #10 USC

Feb. 13

Villanova at Georgetown

Seton Hall at St. John’s

#22 West Virginia at TCU 

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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