December 6, 2023
The Weekly Fast Break: Horns Up
Big wins for teams in Texas & Spokane
The college basketball season has been underway for one month now, and it has proved yet again that things move and change so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. It is like that feeling of warm, caffeinated joy when you pick up your favorite holiday coffee drink in the drive-thru, only to have it be lukewarm by the time you reach your destination. It is Week 2 of The Weekly Fast Break, and the action on the court has been everything from extra hot to ice cold.
There has been bumper-car movement in the national polls, as well as great games and performances all throughout the week. The first round of the NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings are out. For some of you, the sight of the NET rankings will send you looking for something stronger than a gingerbread latte, but please remember — this is just Week 1. As the season goes, so do the numbers and in the world of women’s college basketball, NET rankings are just one of 14 criteria used to select the NCAA tournament field. So sit tight and hold your peppermint mocha steady — we are charting only effort and floor burns right now.
Our motto this season is to believe that the loose ball you are chasing has your name on it, which means you need to help your team get every extra possession possible right now. Let us see where your effort and the week take us.
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Checking Your NET Worth: Do not worry — we have not walked into an Introduction to Economics final exam, but rather the first round of NET rankings for the 2023-24 season. The NET is updated daily on NCAA.com starting Monday, Dec. 4. For women’s basketball, NET rankings serve as a sorting tool to measure a team’s quality and help evaluate team résumés for selection and seeding in the NCAA tournament. The simple definition that can get you extra credit on the final is a team’s NET ranking is determined by who you played, where you played, how efficiently you played and the results of those games.
Just as we watch the stock markets daily, we now stake out the NET to see who is moving and why. In the first release, 17 of the top 25 teams had at least one loss on their record, with four teams having two or more losses on the season. Six Pac-12 teams and three mid-major teams broke into the top 30 (Gonzaga, UNLV and Green Bay), while Creighton is the top BIG EAST team (No. 13), ahead of UConn and Marquette. But these numbers do not make up your entire grade for the season, as this is just DAY 1 of the rankings. We have a long and wild ride ahead until Selection Sunday, so hang tight and let the numbers play out.
Hook ‘Em, Horns: No. 5 Texas had been winless against No. 17 UConn in the 10 games between the two programs before Sunday. But in front of a packed house in Austin, the Longhorns finally got that signature win over the Huskies, 80-68, behind Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Rori Harmon. The 5’6 junior guard posted a double-double with 27 points and 13 assists, including helping Texas race to a 13-3 start in the first quarter, from which they never looked back. Heralded freshman Madison Booker dropped a career-high 20 points for the Horns, who were able to attack in transition and in the half court. UConn is dealing with a host of injuries and was without the services of key guard Caroline Ducharme, out with neck spasms. Center Aaliyah Edwards and guard Paige Bueckers were the only Huskies to hit double figures on a day when Texas won the battle of the boards and forced 21 UConn turnovers. Will getting this monkey off their back be what propels Texas to that special season it is so ready for in Austin? We will have to wait and see, but so far, so good. Texas swept the weekly honors in the Big 12 Conference with Rori Harmon named Player of the Week and Madison Booker named Freshman of the Week.
No Hibernating at TCU: The Texas horned lizard, which inspired TCU’s mascot, the Horned Frog, hibernates each year from November to early spring to avoid cold weather. But in this first month of the season there has been no burrowing underground for peaceful slumber by first-year head coach Mark Campbell’s (R/V) TCU squad. The Horned Frogs are 9-0, the best start in program history. They are the only team in the nation with two players averaging 20 points per game, in transfers Madison Conner (24.2) and Sedona Prince (20.6 points). Campbell came to TCU in the spring of 2023 after a successful stint at Sacramento State and immediately went to the portal to find players who fit his system and wanted to rebuild women’s basketball in Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs will play all but two of their games at home before the end of the year, including the Big 12 opener against BYU on Dec. 30. But it was the two wins at the St. Pete Showcase against UTEP and Nebraska that showed they can take their show on the road as well. Wake up, Big 12 — no one is asleep at TCU.
The Most Meaningful of Buckets Scored: In April 2022, then-high school senior Aaliyah Gayles, one day removed from playing in the Jordan Brand Classic, was shot multiple times at a party in her hometown of Las Vegas. Gayles, the No. 8 recruit in the Class of 2022, was set to sign at USC and be a key piece of head coach Lindsey Gottlieb’s rebuilding process. Gayles survived the shooting, undergoing multiple surgeries, and arrived at USC last summer, continuing her rehabilitation and goal of returning to the basketball court. Fast-forward to this season and Nov. 29 when the Trojans played Cal Poly: Gayles scored her first official points of her collegiate career in her team’s 85-44 win. The 5’9 guard sank a three-pointer and went 1-for-2 from the free throw line to give us one of best comeback stories in college athletics this year.
Poll Watch: While South Carolina stays squarely at No. 1 after picking up two wins on the road in the state of North Carolina last week (No. 24 UNC and Duke), the other hot team in the Tar Heel State, NC State, jumped two spots to No. 3. Several teams suffered losses at the hands of other ranked teams, dropping them in the polls, including No. 9 Stanford, down six spots after losing to No. 23 Gonzaga. The Zags are back in the AP Top 25 for the first time this season, and re-entering the poll are No. 21 Washington State and No. 22 Creighton. While three SEC teams dropped out this week, No. 25 Penn State from the Big Ten is ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since 2014. After suffering the loss to Texas on the road, UConn dropped to No. 17, its worst ranking in 30 years.
South Dakota’s Grace Larkins was named the TicketSmarter Summit League Women’s Basketball Peak Performer of the Week after the 5’9 junior guard led the Coyotes to two wins, moving their season record to 6-3. Larkins averaged 26.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists in victories over Northern Iowa and Loyola Marymount. Against the Lions, she scored 12 of her game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter of a comeback win in overtime on the road. Earlier this season Larkins was named to the Becky Hammon Player of the Year Watch List, which goes to the top mid-major player in the nation.
Minnesota is 7-1 in large part due to the contributions of Big Ten Freshman of the Week Grace Grocholski. The 5’10 guard-forward has started every game so far this season and scored the most points in a game by a freshman in the Big Ten this year with 26 against Norfolk State, including five three-pointers in the 74-43 win on Nov. 29. Grocholski also added 12 points, six rebounds and five assists in a double overtime victory over Drake, 94-88, on Dec. 2.
She did not garner a Big 12 Player of the Week award, as that went to her talented teammate Rori Harmon, but Taylor Jones has been a key part of Texas’s success in the first month of the season. She grabs our attention after registering a monster double-double with 27 points and 15 rebounds in the Longhorns 112-74 win over Oral Roberts on Nov. 29. The 6’4 Jones, a native of Texas who played her first three seasons at Oregon State, tied a program record for most field goal makes without a miss, going 11-for-11 from the field. We tip our cap to Jones for an almost flawless effort — her only two misses of the day were at the charity stripe, where she was 5-for-7.
This will not be the first or the last time this season that we highlight the star power of USC’s freshman sensation JuJu Watkins. The 6’2 guard from Los Angeles captured both the Pac-12 Player and Freshman of the Week awards after more recording-setting play for the Trojans. Watkins posted back-to-back 30-point performances in the wins over Cal Poly (85-44) and San Diego (89-58), and broke the freshman record for most 30-point games in a season (five). She tied the USC record for most consecutive 30-point games with three in the win over San Diego, joining Cheryl Miller, who set the record her junior season (1984-85). Watkins is just the fourth freshmen in Pac-12 history to capture both honors in the same week.
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“If you can beat Stanford, you can probably beat anyone else,” Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier told the media after her team’s resounding 96-78 win over the Cardinal on Dec. 3. In a season when the Zags have brought back a returning core of experienced players, accounting for over 90 percent of their scoring and rebounding from a year ago, Fortier knows her team can compete with anyone. Yet with Stanford on their schedule almost every season in recent years, Gonzaga last beat the Cardinal in 2018. But this matchup seemed different — on their home floor, in front of 6,000 rabid Zags fans at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane and a group of players ready to prove something.
The stat sheet postgame tells a story of a tight battle — five players for each team in double figures, both teams shooting over 50% from the field (Stanford 56.6% and Gonzaga 53.5%) and a slim rebounding edge for the Zags, 31-29. But it was the defensive effort that limited Stanford’s looks from behind the arc and textbook offensive execution that were the differences for Gonzaga. The Zags had 21 assists to just seven turnovers and were in attack mode from the jump. With ball movement that reversed the ball to open shooters, bigs running the floor for layups in transition and penetration that got downhill to the rim against Stanford’s defense, Gonzaga’s patience on offense and confidence were on display. Stanford was shorthanded, with All-American Cameron Brink playing just 11 minutes due to illness and forward Kiki Iriafen being sacked with foul trouble, but Gonzaga was better when it counted Sunday.
Brynna Maxwell and Yvonne Ejim paced the Zags with 27 points each, and Ejim’s 12 rebounds led the way for the game on the boards. Fortier said afterward that this “was the kind of win we need.” And it was one that got the attention of many — Gonzaga jumped back into the AP Poll at No. 23 this week, and the decisive win dropped Stanford six spots to No. 9.
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Now that we are officially in the month of December, we can still circle a host of non-conference games that can easily change the trajectory of a season, but we also starting to see conference matchups begin. Players are making runs to their favorite coffee shops for an extra boost as they balance the “student” part of student-athlete and attack college finals like a weak 2-3 zone. Here are some games of interest, including some interstate matchups, that will continue to tell us a lot about teams across the country (check your local listings for game times and broadcasts):
No. 4 Iowa at Iowa State
Ball State at No. 17 UConn
Rhode Island at Providence
Missouri State at Missouri
Middle Tennessee at Tennessee
No. 23 Gonzaga at Cal
North Dakota State at Drake
High Point at R/V Davidson
DePaul at R/V Miami
K-State vs. Missouri (neutral court in St. Joseph, MO)
Nebraska at R/V Michigan State
South Dakota State at Northern Iowa
R/V UNLV at R/V Oklahoma
No. 2 UCLA vs. #20 Florida State (Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase – CT)
No. 11 Utah vs. No. 1 South Carolina (Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase – CT)
No. 17 UConn vs. No. 24 UNC (Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase – CT)
No. 23 Creighton at Wyoming
Kentucky at No. 18 Louisville
No. 19 Marquette at Illinois State
Princeton at Villanova
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!