November 29, 2023 

The Weekly Fast Break: Surging Gamecocks and Wolfpack

Pac-12 power & more

Every year, the pace of the college basketball season is fast and furious. There is nonstop action that starts in the offseason and then goes from tip-off of the first non-conference game to when the confetti falls at the Final Four. Only one team takes hardware back to campus to celebrate a national championship, but it is the journey that makes each season special and unique. 

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Where will this season take us? How do we keep track of who’s hot and who’s not? Which upsets will send poll voters on a frantic search for team rosters? Who will claim the last victory of rivalries born decades ago? Welcome to Year 2 of The Weekly Fast Break at The Next. Each week we will do our best to dissect the landscape of women’s college basketball and breakdown what we see on and off the court. 

There will be weeks when the buzzer-beating layup will send everyone into a frenzy and others when a corner jumper rims off to end a run at a conference title. Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski once said, “Believe that the loose ball you are chasing has your name on it.” No matter the moment, it is time for us to leave it all on the court and see where the season takes us — one hustle play at a time.


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TIP-OFF

Cocky Flies to the Top Spot: When you start the season at No. 6 in the preseason AP Poll, a ranking like that can let a team get its footing without having a bull’s-eye square on their back. But after a topsy-turvy first week of the college basketball season and then posting more than 100 points in their first three wins of the year, South Carolina is squarely back in the top spot of the AP Poll at 5-0. Five players are averaging double figures, led by 6’7 senior Kamilla Cardoso (16.8 points and 11 rebounds per game). Freshman sensation MiLaysia Fulwiley, the 5’10 guard from Columbia, South Carolina, has already dazzled crowds with her court vision and shot making skills, averaging 15 points per game. Head coach Dawn Staley has speed and scoring throughout her deep roster, which will be important as the Gamecocks face two ACC foes on the road in the next week — No. 24 UNC on Nov. 30 (a sellout) and Duke on Dec. 3.

Partying Like It Is 1994: It has been a long time since the USC women’s basketball program has been ranked as high as they are this week at No. 6 in the AP Poll. It was 29 years ago, in 1994, to be exact, when they Trojans reached as high as No. 4 in the rankings. The 2023-24 USC squad began this season with a take-notice win over Ohio State on Nov. 6 and has not looked back. Freshman JuJu Watkins, the National Player of the Year in the Class of 2023, has been everything and then some for the Trojans. The 6’2 guard has already posted four 30-point performances and is averaging more than 26 points per game while shooting 50% from the floor. Junior center Rayah Marshall is averaging a double-double (14.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game) and continues to be a force inside. Head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and her team have four more non-conference games before Pac-12 play begins Dec. 30 at No. 2 UCLA. Will they best their 1994 ranking by then and still be undefeated? Stay tuned to find out.

Freshman sensation JuJu Watkins has been the catalyst for No. 6 USC and the undefeated start the Trojans have had to the 2023-24 season. (Photo credit: John McGillen | USC Athletics)

NC State of Mind: Not very often does a team begin the year unranked and then just three weeks in the first month of the season find themselves in the top 5. But if you can knock off two top-10 teams, including then No. 2 UConn, and beat three opponents at the Paradise Jam by an average of 27 points, everyone will take notice. Wes Moore and NC State are undefeated at 7-0 and No. 5 in this week’s AP Poll. Behind the consistent play of junior guards Aziaha James (16.6 points per game) and Saniya Rivers (13.1 points per game), NC State dominated Kentucky, Cincinnati and No. 8 Colorado in the Virgin Islands and will host Vanderbilt in the ACC/SEC Challenge on Nov. 29.

Pac-12 Power: It is difficult to fathom that in just a few short months, someone will turn the lights out for good at the Pac-12 Conference after more than 100 years of existence. The college football season has given the dissolving league a small breath of happiness with the success of various teams, but we are now watching the last season of Pac-12 women’s basketball as we know it. The wild part is this could be one of the best seasons in recent history for the league, and then it goes dark. There are five teams ranked in the Top 25 — No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Stanford, No. 6 USC, No. 8 Colorado and No. 12 Utah, with Washington State receiving votes. While there are so many dynamics at play within the Pac-12 including travel partners, travel schedules and high-quality talent on every roster, there will be no easy games for anyone when the conference slate begins Dec. 30. Can one or more Pac-12 teams make it to the Final Four in Cleveland? We will have to wait and see, but, in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this final season of Pac-12 women’s hoops.

Kansas State is moving up in the AP Poll this week to No. 14 due in large part to the return of 6’6 center Ayoka Lee in the middle this season. Lee tied the K-State career double-double record at 52 with a 14 point, 12 rebound performance in the Wildcats win over No. 24 UNC on Nov. 25. (Photo credit: K-State Athletics)

Poll Watch: The top three teams in this week’s AP Poll are all undefeated, including No. 2 UCLA, which knocked off now No. 11 UConn on Nov. 24 at the Cayman Islands Classic. Six ACC teams land in this week’s poll, led by No. 5 NC State. No. 24 UNC dropped six spots after two losses to now No. 14 Kansas State and Florida Gulf Coast over the Thanksgiving break. The state of Mississippi continues to be well represented with its two SEC schools in this week’s poll — No. 19 Ole Miss and No. 21 Mississippi State. No. 23 Marquette out of the Big East jumps into the Top 25 for the first time this season, as does No. 25 Princeton, which returns for a second consecutive season.

STAR POWER

For the second straight week BYU’s Kailey Woolston was named Big 12 Freshman of the Week. The 5’11 guard from Highland, UT averaged 18.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and two assists while helping to power the Cougars to wins over St. Louis and Loyola Marymount last week. Woolston, the 2023 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year, went 5-for-7 from three against St. Louis and is shooting 59% from behind the arc so far this season. She is a big reason why BYU is 6-1 and receiving votes in this week’s AP Poll.

Guard Kailey Woolston of BYU was named Big 12 Freshman of the Week for the second straight week. (Photo credit: BYU Athletics)

Terren Ward, a senior guard/forward from Georgia Southern, dropped three double-doubles last week and was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Player of the Week. This is the second time Ward has been tapped for this honor so far this season, and she did it in style. Her numbers went like this — 23 points and 10 rebounds against Albany State, 19 points and 11 rebounds versus North Florida and a season-high 24 points and 10 rebounds against Detroit Mercy. Ward is currently tied for the NCAA Division I lead in double-doubles this season with five and ranks in the top 10 nationally in field goals, rebounds and points. 

If you have not noticed yet, freshmen are taking the 2023-24 college basketball season by storm, and there is one leading the way in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo was named ACC Rookie of the Week for the third straight week after averaging 24 points and 5.5 steals per game and leading the Fighting Irish to wins over Chicago State and Ball State. The 5’6 freshman from Haddonfield, New Jersey, currently leads the ACC in scoring at 25 points per game and leads the league with 6.3 steals per game.

It was a clean sweep of the weekly honors in the MAAC by Fairfield after the Stags improved to 4-1, including a decisive 78-54 win at Rutgers on Nov. 20. Senior Janelle Brown was named MAAC Player of the Week after averaging 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in their wins over Central Connecticut and Rutgers. 6’1 Megan Anderson was tapped as MAAC Rookie of the Week after posting an average of 14.5 points and eight rebounds per game in the Stags’ two victories. The freshman from Wantagh, New York, registered her first double-double of her career with 22 points and 12 rebounds against Central Connecticut on Nov. 26.

FILM SESSION

In what was built to be a battle of two top teams in the nation on Nov. 12, Indiana was no match for Stanford in Palo Alto and returned to Bloomington with a terrible 96-64 loss. Since then, the Hoosiers have re-grouped and looked more like the Top 20 team everyone had thought they could be this season. Head coach Teri Moren took her squad to the sunshine of Florida and the 2023 Elevance Health Fort Meyers Tip-Off where they faced off against #20 Tennessee and #25 Princeton. 

In the game against Tennessee, Indiana looked more like the Hoosiers we are accustomed to, with high offensive execution through ball movement, solid screening action and unselfish play. The Hoosiers notched 20 assists to just 10 turnovers and were led in scoring by sophomore Yarden Garzon. The 6’3 guard has range — deep range — and Garzon made Tennessee pay for late rotations on defense and not getting a hand in the face of a shooter. She went 5-for-6 from behind the arc and scored a career-high 23 points against the Lady Vols. If Garzon can stay away from the sophomore slumps and continue to be a consistent threat (currently 48% from three) it will be a game-changer for No. 17 Indiana, just as it was in the 71-57 win against Tennessee. 

SHOT CLOCK VIOLATIONS 

Throughout the season, there are things that stand out to us that do not go down as a hustle play on The Weekly Fast Break stat sheet.

The current noise and lack of noise surrounding the defending national champions, No. 7 LSU, are going down as a team turnover on the stat sheet this week. When the Tigers opened the season Nov. 6 with a loss in Las Vegas to then No. 20 Colorado, something seemed to be off. Knowing the intense scrutiny that comes from being the defending champs and that this is a new-look Tigers squad, Kim Mulkey’s team was bound to have some ups and downs. The offense looked disjointed, and it was not the intense, all-out effort we were accustomed to seeing from LSU last year in their run to the national title. Throw in seemingly the top two transfers available this past spring in Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow, along with highly talented freshmen competing immediately for playing time, and this Tigers squad most definitely could be classified as a work in progress in November. 

Fast-forward to Nov. 14, when All-American forward Angel Reese was benched by Mulkey in the second half of LSU’s win at home over Kent State. Reese has not played since, and it has now been two weeks of speculation about her absence in the media and on social media platforms. Rumors related to her academic performance as well as her health have been fueled in part by social media posts from family members of current players, current Tigers, and past players, to name a few.

LSU is 7-1 on the season, with recent wins over Niagara and Virginia at the Cayman Islands Classic. The Tigers have won all four games that Reese has missed. Mulkey has been adamant that she will not answer questions about the absence of Reese. If there is one thing we do know about Mulkey, it is that she will stand true to her principles and does hold her players accountable. However, just a simple clarification of whether Reese has been suspended or has been missing from the team due to other issues would take some of the heat off the Tigers. And to those surrounding the program that are fueling the rumor mill, we hope you will think first before you speak or type. 

LSU will take on No. 9 Virginia Tech in the ACC/SEC Challenge on Nov. 30. We wait to see whether anyone will shed some light on this situation and dial down the noise in Baton Rouge.


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FULL-COURT PRESS

The calendar is flipping this week to December, which means there is no rest for the weary in the college basketball season. With one holiday break behind us and finals quickly approaching on most campuses, everyone must be ready to tackle the scouting report and get ready for the next game. The 2023 ACC/SEC Challenge tips off this week to give us plenty of great matchups, along with other big non-conference games across the country. Here are games to keep your eyes on to see who is up to the challenge (check your local listings for game times and broadcasts):

Nov. 29

Oral Roberts at No. 10 Texas

No. 18 Notre Dame at No. 20 Tennessee (ACC/SEC Challenge)

Northern Iowa at South Dakota

Miami at No. 21 Mississippi State (ACC/SEC Challenge)

No. 22 Louisville vs. No. 19 Ole Miss (ACC/SEC Challenge)

Nov. 30

Duke at Georgia (ACC/SEC Challenge)

No. 1 South Carolina at No. 24 UNC (ACC/SEC Challenge)

Michigan State at DePaul

No. 9 Virginia Tech at No. 7 LSU (ACC/SEC Challenge)

Dec. 2

Drake at Minnesota

Arizona at UNLV

BYU at No. 12 Utah

Dec. 3

No. 1 South Carolina at Duke

No. 25 Princeton at Rhode Island

Oregon at No. 13 Baylor

Kansas at Texas A&M

No. 11 UConn at No. 10 Texas (Jimmy V Women’s Classic)

No. 3 Stanford at Gonzaga

No. 16 Ohio State at No. 20 Tennessee

Dec. 5

Washington State at South Dakota State

UT Arlington at #7 Colorado


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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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