Fair or not, being one of the most successful programs in women’s college basketball history comes with certain expectations. So what do we make of Tennessee’s 4-1 start? Are Rennia Davis’ early struggles behind her? And what does it all mean for the SEC race? ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays, Charlie Creme and D’Arcy Maine tackle those storylines and more — including which teams benefit most from the NCAA’s blanket waiver for all transfers and which players are under the radar no more (hello, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark). Plus, our experts make their picks for the biggest games left on the schedule as another top-five program, Louisville, is on a pause after a positive coronavirus test and games continue to be postponed and canceled each week.
Jump to predictions for the weekend’s top games
Tennessee was trending downward in Bracketology, had lost to its only Power 5 opponent and wasn’t on anyone’s radar to start the week. But the unranked Lady Volunteers upset No. 15 Indiana on the road Thursday. What’s your take on Tennessee and coach Kellie Harper at this point of the season?
Creme: The jury is still out on the Lady Vols. The victories over Western Kentucky, East Tennessee State and Furman don’t tell us much. An overtime loss to West Virginia is too small of a sample size for big takeaways. However, Tennessee is a No. 9 seed in the latest Bracketology projections and nowhere near the top 25 in either poll for a reason: Inconsistency has hampered the program for the past couple of seasons. It’s not just inconsistency from game to game — it’s possession to possession.
Thursday’s win at Indiana was a huge step in the right direction and might mean the Lady Vols are turning a corner. But Tennessee still turns over the ball too much (17.2 turnovers per game) and is erratic from 3-point range (33.0%). These problems existed in the Holly Warlick era, and Kellie Harper hasn’t yet been able to fix them.
A bigger concern that the Indiana win might have partially solved is senior Rennia Davis’ early-season struggles. In a program that has lacked the star power over the past few years to match its history, Davis could be a standout. Heading into Thursday’s win, she was averaging 9.8 points per game on 36.2% shooting. If Tennessee is to be assured of a spot in the NCAA tournament, Davis has to deliver like she did against the Hoosiers with 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. Rae Burrell has assumed much more of the scoring load and has been outstanding (20.0 PPG), but the Lady Vols need Davis to lead the way.
Tennessee is scheduled to SEC play with Texas A&M, Kentucky and Arkansas, beginning on Dec. 31. Those three games should indicate if the Indiana victory was true improvement or just a frustrating reminder of what the Lady Vols could be if they were more consistent.
Hays: As ever, it’s all about expectations with Tennessee. If we’re judging the Lady Vols by the standard of all the banners hanging in Thompson-Boling Arena, then sure, they aren’t going to measure up. This isn’t a championship team. And that just means they are in the same boat as 300-plus other teams in Division I. A lot of those teams will still have good seasons. And Thursday’s win at Indiana suggested that Tennessee can have a good season. It can compete in the SEC, maybe win a game against a heavyweight on a night to remember and ease into the NCAA tournament as anything from a No. 5 to a No. 10 seed.
There is some room for debate as to whether Thursday’s victory had more to do with Tennessee’s defense or Indiana’s abysmal shooting. It’s probably a bit of both. But the Lady Vols weren’t easy to score against last season, weren’t easy to score against in their first four games this season and deserve some benefit of the doubt. Just as important as shutting down Indiana was Davis hitting shots down the stretch to wrap up the win. She had a wretched first four games. That wasn’t going to last forever.
Davis is going to be better, Burrell has a chance to continue a breakout start to the season and Marta Suarez is an intriguingly versatile freshman post. As long as the goal is making the most of Davis’ final season and continuing to lay the groundwork for what comes after her, as opposed to winning an SEC or national title, Tennessee is doing just fine for now.
Freshman Marta Suarez has started all five games for Tennessee, averaging 6.6 points and 7.0 rebounds. Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports
Maine: Until Thursday, I would have called the Lady Vols’ season underwhelming, but — and this definitely could be the adrenaline talking from such a close finish regardless of, you know, how good the game actually was — I feel slightly more enthusiastic about the team following its 66-58 win over Indiana on the road.
For better or worse, Tennessee has name recognition and history, so college hoops fans expect big things, even if the team’s recent results don’t support that. Maybe that’s not fair to Harper or the Lady Vols, but it comes with the territory. Fans expect them to win, plain and simple, so they somewhat desperately needed a signature victory over a ranked opponent — and they delivered Thursday.
Considering the game was a late addition to the schedule and just days after a last-minute postponement against Texas, the team has a lot to feel good about. As already mentioned, Davis had been struggling somewhat, but she stepped up big on Thursday and had easily her best game of the season, with some crucial buckets down the stretch. If she can play like that throughout the SEC portion of the schedule, things just might be looking up for the Lady Vols.
Voepel: Last season as a freshman, Jordan Horston led Tennessee with 143 assists — and also with 134 turnovers. Through five games this season, she has 18 assists and 14 turnovers. As a team, Tennessee has 83 assists to 86 turnovers. As Charlie said, turnovers are a big problem, and have a lot to do with inconsistent play. Turnovers are about decision-making and discipline. If Tennessee improves with both of those things, then the Lady Vols can compete in the SEC. If they don’t, they are going to be frustrated in league play.
The NCAA on Wednesday granted a blanket waiver for all transfers to be immediately eligible this season. What women’s basketball team/player is most affected by that decision?
Creme: So many players had already been granted immediate eligibility this season that this ruling might not have the widespread impact that it does in the men’s game because a handful of players such as Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Robyn Benton (Kentucky) and Kierstan Bell (Florida Gulf Coast) are already playing without having to sit out a year. One player who benefits is sophomore Jaden Owens, who was going to miss this season after leaving UCLA for Baylor.
This could be quite the early Christmas present for the Lady Bears. Point guard was their biggest question entering the season. The plan was to turn over the position, which had been handled by grad transfers Chloe Jackson (2018-19) and Te’a Cooper (2019-20) the past two seasons, to senior DiDi Richards, who had rarely played the point in her first three seasons, and highly regarded freshman Sarah Andrews. But Owens might be the true point guard Baylor needs.
Richards has been solid since her inspiring return from a preseason spinal injury, but she is not a natural playmaker. Andrews has struggled to get any meaningful minutes. Owens, the third-rated point guard in the 2019 recruiting class, is a more natural fit for the position and has some collegiate experience. That’s exactly what a Baylor offense that has looked unsettled in its three toughest games, against South Florida, Arkansas and West Virginia, needs.
Owens didn’t break into the Bruins’ regular backcourt rotation last season — fellow freshman Charisma Osborne got more of the playing time alongside senior Japreece Dean — so she decided to look for another opportunity in Waco, Texas. She’s still a developing prospect, but Owens would give coach Kim Mulkey the chance to move Richards back to a spot on the wing where she would likely be even more impactful. If Owens truly is the point guard the Lady Bears were missing, a good team just got a whole lot better.
Jaden Owens, who left UCLA after her freshman season, sat out Baylor’s first six games due to NCAA transfer rules, but was declared eligible Wednesday in a blanket waiver. Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire
Maine: This feels like a win for everyone in college basketball, as it seemed inconsistent as to who was previously granted immediate eligibility and who wasn’t — but it feels like particularly good news for Lauren Ebo and Texas. The NCAA rejected the Penn State transfer’s previous appeal, but now she already looks to be part of coach Vic Schaefer’s game plan for Friday night against Drake.
The 6-foot-4 junior forward/center started 17 games last season for the Lady Lions and averaged 5.3 points and 4.8 rebounds (and 5.7 PPG and 5.8 RPG in her freshman campaign), and she should provide some immediate and much-needed depth and size in the paint for the Longhorns. Her presence will likely take some of the load off of star post player Charli Collier, and add more experience to a relatively young squad.
Hays: As Charlie noted, a lot of the high-profile transfers received waivers well before this latest NCAA decision, but Indiana’s Nicole Cardaño-Hillary is another guard who can make a difference for a team with postseason aspirations. Unlike Owens at Baylor, Cardaño-Hillary doesn’t so much fill a void as further enhance a strength. The Atlantic 10 player of the year during her time at George Mason, where she needed just three seasons to become the program’s all-time leading scorer, Cardaño-Hillary gives the Hoosiers another backcourt option alongside Ali Patberg, Grace Berger and Jaelynn Penn.
In what is admittedly a very small sample size, Indiana has been inconsistent from the 3-point line this season — much as the Hoosiers were in a much larger sample size a season ago. In addition to her own shooting, Cardaño-Hillary should be able to handle some of the point guard and playmaking duties, further freeing Patberg and Berger to find good looks.
Voepel: No. 10 Texas A&M already had a lot of depth at guard. Now the Aggies might add Zaay Green, a transfer from Tennessee. But as of Thursday night, Texas A&M had not yet announced her status for this season. She was on the SEC all-freshman team in 2019, averaging 9.6 PPG, but saw her sophomore season cut short after two games by a knee injury.
Jazmine Massengill, Green’s former Tennessee teammate, is now eligible to play for Kentucky, which should help the No. 9 Wildcats. The junior guard averaged 6.5 PPG as a sophomore with the Lady Vols.
Identify one player who wasn’t on your radar before the season opened but has impressed you over the first three-plus weeks.
Creme: Shame on me for this one. Iowa’s Caitlin Clark shouldn’t have been under the radar. Even as the fourth-rated recruit in the country she garnered less attention than some other first-year players. With the graduation of their starting backcourt — Big Ten player of the year Kathleen Doyle and 14.3 PPG scorer Makenzie Meyer — it appeared the Hawkeyes would take a step back. Iowa wasn’t in my preseason Bracketology projection, but Clark has changed much of that perception in just five games.
Clark might not just be the best freshman in the country; an argument could be made that she has been the best player. She’s leading the nation in scoring at 29.8 PPG, tops the Big Ten in assists (6.4 APG), and has already twice won conference player and freshman of the week honors. Last week, Clark scored 34 points, including the winning shot against Iowa State, and followed it up with 35 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in a close loss to Michigan State. Iowa is 4-1 and averaging nearly 90 points per game behind Clark. The Hawkeyes moved back into the field in the latest bracket projection and are bound to stay there if Clark continues at this pace.
Freshman guard Caitlin Clark leads the country with 29.8 points per game through five games for Iowa. Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com
Hays: Diamond Miller had a perfectly good freshman season at Maryland, playing big minutes off the bench for a contender. But she wasn’t piling up numbers the same way classmate Ashley Owusu did (or the way someone like Iowa’s Clark is this season). So I probably locked in an assessment of her that didn’t leave enough room for development. But she has been excellent for a team that needed her after an offseason of personnel turnover.
Miller’s foul trouble wasn’t the reason Missouri State erased a deficit to hand Maryland its only loss, but her unavailability certainly didn’t help the Terrapins gather themselves after surrendering a big lead. And she was a big reason Maryland bounced back to beat Arkansas the next day, one of the better nonconference wins of the early season. Freshman Angel Reese’s injury is yet another blow for a roster that didn’t have much depth to begin with, but Miller’s play in her second season is the biggest reason to believe Maryland remains a Big Ten contender.
Maine: Anyone who averages 14.5 rebounds through six games deserves some recognition. West Virginia 6-foot-2 sophomore Esmery Martinez came off the bench as a freshman and was admittedly not someone high on my radar (shout-out to anyone who says different), but she has been on a tear this season and ranks second in the nation on the boards. And while yes, that includes 21 (!) against James Madison, she notched 12 even against Baylor in the team’s lone loss thus far. She’s averaging 11 points and probably won’t get the same recognition as the Big 12’s stars (See: Collier, Charli; Joens, Ashley) this season, but it feels as though Martinez is someone to keep an eye on and who is only getting better.
And when you consider her family lost its home in the Dominican Republic during a hurricane over the summer, it makes what she has been able to accomplish in the face of adversity all the more impressive.
Voepel: Let’s give a shout-out to Northwestern junior guard Veronica Burton. The defensive player of the year last season in the Big Ten, she is also off to a great start offensively this season. She had a career-high 27 points and five steals in the No. 16 Wildcats’ victory against Purdue on Thursday and is averaging 22.7 points to lead Northwestern thus far. Last season, she averaged 11.6 PPG.
Which game has the biggest impact on Bracketology this week?
Creme: Hats off to South Dakota State for taking on the schedule it has amid the pandemic and all the uncertainty it brings. Scheduling the top two mid-majors in Gonzaga and Missouri State is an aggressive move. Beating the Zags was the kind of victory that significantly helps the at-large résumé, too. However, losses to Kansas State and Northern Iowa almost void the gain, making Saturday’s contest against the Lady Bears another big one. Beating Missouri State might be necessary should the Jackrabbits fail to win the Summit League tournament and need an at-large selection.
With a win over Maryland, the Lady Bears’ at-large status appears safe right now, but any hopes of climbing into position for a top-four seed would need a win on Saturday. Beating South Dakota State guarantees nothing as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, but losing means Missouri State couldn’t really be taken seriously as a top-16 team.
Games like this don’t get huge attention because the schools aren’t household names, but it is one of the best matchups of the season’s first month and will be a measuring stick come selection time.