As teams barrel toward the end of their regular-season conference slates, more teams than ever are worrying about their March acumen. But, as the vast middle across college basketball worry about merely making the tournament, the elite women's squads have established a clear and stark hierarchy.
No team better exemplifies that than the Connecticut Huskies, who continue their dream of going wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll. Connecticut received all 36 first-place votes despite having fellow unbeaten Notre Dame hanging in the wings and coming off a key win against Duke.
The Irish come in at No. 2 again, and the rest of the Top Five looks familiar to those who have paid attention to the weekly rankings. Louisville comes in at No. 3, South Carolina at No. 4 and the always-dangerous Stanford rounds it out at No. 5.
As for the rest of the rankings, here's a look at how Week 17 shook out:
|Rank||Team (First-Place Votes)||Record||Votes|
|13||North Carolina State||23-5||423|
The Huskies, the defending national champions, have reeled off 28 straight wins and are three away from finishing the regular season undefeated. Geno Auriemma has gone undefeated through the regular season and NCAA tournament four previous times at Connecticut, most recently in 2009-10. That Huskies team picked up from the one a year prior, en route to eventually setting an NCAA record with 89 straight victories.
With a roster mostly laden with younger players—Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley are the Huskies' only seniors—it's easy to look ahead and wonder what's in store.
Still, Auriemma, who coached his 1,000th game at UConn over the weekend, isn't letting his team lose focus of the task at hand. Even as Connecticut scored a dominant 92-41 victory over Houston, the Huskies coach told reporters it's vital to play at peak performance:
Win or lose, yeah, we want to win. That isn't the point. The point isn't to see how much we can win by. The final score isn't going to help you win in the NCAA tournament. We are trying to prepare for the NCAA tournament, so we didn't come down here just to see what the final score is going to be, and sometimes, that's what kids fall into. You have to be aware of that.
Connecticut would also be remiss if it looked past the rest of its regular-season schedule. After what should be an easy victory at SMU (the Huskies won their first meeting 102-41), they close out with games against Rutgers and Louisville. The Cardinals are obviously the more dangerous of that duo, and they have reeled off four straight wins by double digits since losing to Connecticut on Feb. 9.
On the other side of the undefeated spectrum, Notre Dame may have a claim at No. 1 if it can get through the rest of its season unscathed. The Irish started a string of three straight games against ranked opponents to close out their season Sunday, handing Duke its third ACC loss with a 81-70 victory in South Bend.
Kayla McBride scored a career-high 31 points in the game, moving Notre Dame to 27-0. Muffet McGraw's team has been to the Final Four each of the last three seasons and has one national championship under its belt, but 2013-14 would mark the first undefeated regular season in school history. Like the Huskies, though, the Irish have not let the enormity of the situation stray their focus from the task at hand.
"We were hitting shots. We were getting stops on defense. We were getting in transition," McBride told reporters after the win over the Blue Devils. "I think we were just having fun."
While a boon for Notre Dame, Duke cannot be happy about its play of late. The Blue Devils are just 3-3 in their last six games, dropping them from a No. 3 ranking to No. 7. Should their recent struggles continue, Joanne P. McCallie's team runs the risk of finishing outside the Associated Press Top 10 for the first time since 1999-2000.
The Blue Devils stayed at No. 7 thanks mostly to their win over then-No. 8 Maryland last Monday.
It was an overall topsy-turvy week inside the ACC, with plenty of Top 25 matchups and even the rare shocking upset in women's college basketball. North Carolina shot a miserable 26.8 percent from the field and allowed Vanessa Panousis to score 24 points, as Virginia Tech scored a 50-47 upset over the weekend.
Ultimately a rare, flukish performance, the Tar Heels have to be disappointed. They were one of the nation's fastest-rising teams following their road wins over Duke and North Carolina State two weeks ago, and this is at least a moderate setback.
The ACC remains robust overall with five teams in the Top 15. As ESPN's Kara Lawson pointed out, perhaps we should have just been focusing on ex-Big East schools when making the preseason predictions:
Getting a chance to see how strong old Big East was, ND undefeated in ACC, UConn, L'Ville, Rutgers, top of AAC, WVU 2nd in Big 12— Kara Lawson (@karalawson20) February 20, 2014
North Carolina was one of a select few teams to get upset in Week 16, as the regular season settles into a comfort zone before the craziness of March. Its three-spot drop matched No. 15 Oklahoma State for the biggest descent of the week. No. 12 Kentucky (three-spot jump) was the only team in last Week's Top 25 to move up more than two positions.
LSU and St. John's suffered the biggest disappointments of the week, dropping outside the strata of the ranked. Replacing them is No. 23 Middle Tennessee and No. 25 Iowa.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: