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Holiday tournament reset: Parsing out the chaos in women's college hoops

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It feels like ages ago now that No. 1 South Carolina dominated then-No. 2 UConn in the fourth quarter of a Monday matinee, but it was a mere week ago. That matchup set the stage for a week of tournaments in which chaos — the fun kind — reigned supreme as fans kicked back with turkey and apple pie. 

The result is the eight teams ranked between No. 1 South Carolina and No. 10 Louisville moving spots in the weekly Associated Press Top 25 poll out Monday afternoon. Only four teams total kept their positioning (No. 11 Tennessee, No. 12 Michigan) and three teams made their way into the rankings for the first time this season.

After one of the most confusing weeks of tournament results to follow, here are four teams who stood out. 

Upsets! Or upsets? 

It was a week of shuffling between channels, if there were channels to shuffle, as upsets piled up. Three games on Friday alone featured a lower-ranked or unranked team defeating a higher-ranked team. And there were plenty of close calls. 

So what gives? Most might look at it as bad rankings or inferior top-level teams. Both could be true. But it's more attributable to programs scheduling tougher nonconference schedules this time of year. There were three top-10 matchups, and so far this season, teams in the top-10 have lost 11 games combined, per the AP.

Once again, parity is here — this is no longer a sport of one powerhouse and then everybody else — and it makes for good basketball. Iron sharpens iron, as South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is fond of saying, and programs would rather lose now than have their weaknesses hidden until March. 

At the end of the season, the top-25 rankings really don't mean all that much — they don't determine tournament seeding. They're great fun for conversation and debate, but sometimes a ranking "upset" on paper is merely a fantastic competition with numbers attached to the names. 

Now, hopping off the soapbox of how we determined upsets, an unofficial (i.e. we might have missed some because there were so many) look at them. (Rankings are current to the game.)

No. 5 N.C. State 78, No. 2 Maryland 60
No. 7 Stanford 69, No. 4 Indiana 66
No. 18 South Florida 57, No. 7 Stanford 54
No. 7 Stanford 86, No. 2 Maryland 68
BYU 61, No. 17 Florida State 54
Missouri St. 76, No. 24 Virginia Tech 68
Kent St. 75, No. 19 UCLA 69
Purdue 66, No. 17 Florida State 61
South Dakota St. 76, No. 19 UCLA 66
BYU 58, No. 22 West Virginia 57
Notre Dame 64, No. 16 Oregon State 62

Cameron Brink
Cameron Brink put up a 20-20 game Stanford needed on Thanksgiving day. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford needs more than Cameron Brink 

AP Top 25 movement: Up three spots to No. 4. Previous rankings: 3, 7, 7

The reigning champion Stanford Cardinal (5-2) have had their weaknesses exploited early and often during a daunting nonconference schedule ahead of a tough conference stretch. Though they return most of their roster, they lost a key piece in point guard Kiana Williams and right now have the second-toughest schedule in the nation. 

"I guess if maybe I had it to do it over again, I wouldn't take this team up to the top of the mountain and bring them down the double-black diamonds. But that's what I'm doing," Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, comparing the schedule to a ski course, said via ESPN. "Our team is welcoming the challenge."

Stanford faced down three ranked opponents in three days at the Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship and saw huge contributions from sophomore forward Cameron Brink in two tight games. The Cardinal rebounded in the third against a shorthanded Maryland squad, tying a program record for largest win against a top-two opponent.

  • No. 4 Indiana | W, 69-66 | Brink: 21 points (10-24), 22 rebounds, five assists, five blocks

  • No. 18 South Florida | L, 54-57 | Brink: 23p (10-17), 11r, 4b, 2a

  • No. 2 Maryland | W, 86-67 | Brink: 8p (3-3), 4r, 1b, 9 minutes

The Cardinal are just as deep as other top programs, but need full roster contributions like in the Maryland win. Hannah Jump scored a game-high 21, all on 7-for-14 shooting from behind the arc. Lexie Hull, Haley Jones and Francesca Belibi each had 15.

The squad can't rely only on Brink's monster games to bail them out going up against the best teams in the nation. Because it just narrowly worked. But these games will be important experience come tournament time. Stanford is off for two weeks until a matchup against Pacific on Dec. 12. 

Maryland deals with injuries, foul trouble, good losses

AP Top 25: Dropped six places to No. 8. Prev.: 4, 3, 2

The Terps (6-2) learned the hard way last season that blowing teams out with prolific offense isn't a sole key to success. Reigning Big Ten coach of the year Brenda Frese is answering to that Sweet 16 upset with a tougher schedule that includes No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 12. That's a good thing for this squad. 

So far they're 1-2 against ranked competition. Following a three-point win against No. 6 Baylor, Maryland suffered rare back-to-back losses to No. 5 NC State (60-78) and No. 7 Stanford (68-86). 

“I built this schedule so we would learn a lot about ourselves,” Frese said, via the Washington Post. “Obviously, this tournament, the adversity we faced, I think the biggest thing I’m disappointed with was kind of our lack of competing today. We lost our poise; we lost our composure early in this game. Stanford obviously had a lot to do with that. They outworked us, out-hustled us, competed for 40 minutes. That’s what a championship team looks like. That’s obviously where we strive to be.”

What she didn't intend were injuries, which left the Terps with seven players for the Baha Mar tournament and contributed to the losses. They are missing guard Diamond Miller, the Big Ten tournament co-MVP and one of five returning starters, as she rehabs a sore right knee that has forced her to miss sixth of their eight games. 

Starting guard Katie Benzan and star bench player Faith Masonius also did not travel because of an undisclosed illness. And early foul trouble for veterans Angel Reese and Ashley Owusu made that bench situation worse. 

Maryland's losses look bad, but there shouldn't be too much worry for a team averaging a ninth-best 84.9 points per game. It's only going to make them better and more prepared come March. 

South Florida rising, Florida State falling

South Florida AP Top 25: Rose five spots to No. 13. Prev.: 21, 23, 18

You'd be hard-pressed to find a team that had a better holiday week than South Florida (maybe No. 1 South Carolina). The Bulls (5-2) stayed in the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis and one game in the Baha Mar tournament. 

Heading into it, they had one win ever against a top-10-ranked team. They left with two more and nearly a third. A look at their week following a three-point loss to No. 16 Tennessee on Nov. 15.

  • Beat Syracuse, 77-53 (Nov. 20)

  • Lost to No. 2 UConn, 53-60 (Nov. 21)

  • Beat No. 9 Oregon, 71-62 (Nov. 22)

  • Beat No. 7 Stanford, 57-54 (Nov. 26)

Geno Auriemma, whose UConn Huskies were in the same conference as USF for seven seasons, told reporters this was Jose Fernandez's best team since he's been at the school. And it's hard to argue by looking at that 11-day stretch of results. The Bulls scored five points in the final 15 seconds, topped off by a Sydni Harvey 3-pointer, to defeat the reigning champions. 

Four different players led the scoring in the four holiday week games and collectively they outrebounded their opponents on average 43-33, with senior forward Bethy Mununga averaging 12.5 per game. The Bulls reached 50 rebounds twice (Syracuse, Stanford); Mununga had 23 against the Cardinal. 

Florida State: Down eight spots to No. 25. Prev.: 16, 17, 17

But in another part of the state, the Seminoles had a tougher go-around. They lost both games of the St. Pete Showcase to teams that had not even received votes in the prior week's AP rankings. Those are the games to put away and boost the resume, particularly since the ACC isn't up to the day-in, day-out competition level of other conferences. 

On Thanksgiving, it was a 61-54 loss to BYU (which had a huge week with two wins over ranked squads). And on Saturday, a 66-61 loss to Purdue. FSU fell behind, 26-15, in that one but clawed to a 33-26 lead at halftime following a 18-0 second-quarter push. The defense kept Purdue scoreless on 13 shots, but couldn't hold on in the second half. 

It's tough to hold ground when you're giving games like that away. 

What to watch this week (on TV!)

No. 2 N.C. State (6-1) at No. 6 Indiana (5-1), Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 — Indiana won the Sweet 16 matchup, 73-70, last season. 

No. 12 Michigan (7-0) at No. 10 Louisville (5-1), Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN — Michigan forward Naz Hillmon is averaging 21.8 points per game, seventh-best in Division I, and 10 rebounds per game. 

No. 9 Iowa (4-0) at Duke (6-0), Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN — Iowa did not compete in its planned tournament because of COVID-19 positives within the program. This is its first game back. Duke's record is perfect, but with no real test until Iowa. 

No. 14 Iowa State (7-0) at LSU (5-1), Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2 — Kim Mulkey is back in prime time, this time around with LSU. 

No. 24 Notre Dame (6-1) at No. 2 UConn (3-1), Sunday, Noon ET, FS1 — It's the return of the rivalry series and the start of a fresh four-year series agreement that was pushed back because of COVID-19. Last season was the first the sides hadn't played each other, in regular or postseason play, since 1994-95.

No. 15 Texas (4-1) at No. 17 Texas A&M (7-0), Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network  Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair is making his last swing around the women's basketball community as he announced his retirement ahead of the season.