5 Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from Women's College Basketball Season

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IDecember 11, 2021

ATLANTA, GA  DECEMBER 05:  UConn head coach Geno Auriemma gestures from the sideline during the college basketball game between the UConn Huskies and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on December 9th, 2021 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

For the first time since 2006, the UConn Huskies couldn't score at least 45 points. For the first time since 2012, UConn fell to an unranked opponent. In its first game without Paige Bueckers due to her tibial plateau fracture that will keep her out at least six weeks, UConn struggled to knock down shots. As a team, the Huskies shot 31 percent from the field and only made two threes in their 57-44 loss to Georgia Tech on Thursday night. 

After the game, head coach Geno Auriemma explained what he saw on the floor. "What I see is a team that's somewhat disheveled," he said. "And that's all me. Somehow, someway, I do not have the ability at this point in time to affect my players to make sure that we're in a better place mentally and physically and play the kind of basketball we need to play." 

Disappointed and embarrassed, UConn players didn't address the media after the loss. But UConn's bumps aren't the only major surprises and disappointments so far this season. 


Disappointment: UConn's depth on offense 

When I assessed Bueckers' chances to win her second straight POY, I wouldn't have guessed Nika Muhl would have taken a backseat this long. I didn't think that it would take weeks for first year Caroline Ducharme to have her first batch of meaningful minutes. I thought that Dorka Juhasz's three-point shot would be something that would help rather than hinder UConn. But she's only made one of her four attempts this season.  

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Before Bueckers' injury in the final moments against Notre Dame on Sunday, the Huskies had struggled putting together offense around Paige rather than through her.

While they now have two months to figure out how to do just that, UConn is also without top recruit Azzi Fudd, Muhl and small forward Aubrey Griffin. In their first game without all of those players, the Huskies continued their half-court offensive struggles and were irritated even more by a solid Georgia Tech defense. 

There are only questions at this point: Aside from the injuries, what's the root of the roster's struggles and how can it be fixed? How long will Juhasz take to find her niche? Have the skills of the older players such as Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa been overvalued? Or is UConn's young talent not as college-ready as we thought?


Disappointment: Veteran bigs 

Speaking of Juhasz, she's an incredibly skilled post player who transferred to UConn as a graduate student. She was brought in to provide depth, experience and versatility to the forward position, but she has struggled. At Ohio State last season, she averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds a game. At Uconn, she hasn't found her footing yet, coming off the bench and averaging 2.9 points and 4.4 rebounds. Could part of it be adjusting to Geno Auriemma's style of play? How long will she struggle to find her role on a team that desperately needs her? 

At Baylor, Nicki Collen's new system wasn't going to favor every player. While senior and POY candidate NaLyssa Smith has settled in nicely, fellow senior and post player Queen Egbo has struggled. Her points per game and field-goal percentage have both decreased, with the latter dropping from 50 last season to 48.8 percent this season. At 6'3", Egbo is a long, back-to-the-basket post player that operates on a team that takes around 22 three-point shots a game. How long will it take for her to find her way?

Shakira Austin, a senior center at Ole Miss, has also underwhelmed. One WNBA talent evaluator told B/R before the season began that they expected her to compete in her final year of eligibility "like she's in a contract year" if she was a pro. Well, that hasn't happened. Austin's total scoring output per game has decreased from 18.6 to 13.1. While Austin's rebounds per game have slightly increased from 9.1 last season to 9.4 this season, her field-goal percentage is down from 51.9 percent to 44.8 percent. 


Disappointment: The Big Ten 

Coming into the 2021-2022 season, a major storyline was how dominant the Big Ten had the potential to be. And those predictions were rational as the conference saw seven teams make it into last March's NCAA tournament. Four of those teams in Michigan, Maryland, Iowa and Indiana advanced to the Sweet 16, with Indiana taking one step further before falling to Arizona in the Elite Eight. 

So how has the conference fared so far? While five schools are included in the latest AP poll, the recently released NET rankings reveal that the ACC is the better conference. The Big Ten has only three teams in the NET Top 25 in currently unranked Nebraska, No. 20 Ohio State and No. 12 Iowa. The ACC has six teams in the NET Top 25, which include unranked North Carolina, No. 2 NC State and No. 7 Louisville in the Top 10 followed by No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 19 Duke and currently unranked Virginia Tech.


Disappointment: Oregon Ducks stumped by injuries

The Oregon Ducks haven't been able to put their full potential on display this season with a laundry list of injuries plaguing them. While a 4-3 record and dropping from No. 8 in the country to unranked appears concerning, head coach Kelly Graves understands that a lot of the season remains. The Ducks are still without their most talented players in point guard Te-Hina Paopao and forward Nyara Sabally. 

What has been most difficult for the Ducks to adjust to with their stars out has been the playmaking void. The Ducks usually run a read-and-react motion offense but have been limited due to the fact that role players are being expected to play outside of their comfort zones. Graves said on the Locked On Women's Basketball podcast that he felt like the ball has been sticking and he and his staff have added "point A to point B to point C kind of actions" instead of their typical read-and-react offensive schemes. 


Disappointment: UCLA's defense 

The UCLA Bruins began the season ranked 20th in the nation, but with a 5-2 record, which includes losses to unranked opponents Kent State and South Dakota State, they now sit outside of the Top 25. While a lot is expected of the Bruins due to their top-ranked 2022 recruiting class, that doesn't have to do with the present. 

UCLA lost top scorer and best player Michaela Onyenwere to the 2021 WNBA draft, but the Bruins don't appear to have issues offensively. Defensively is where the glaring holes lie. This season, Cori Close's squad has given up 0.795 points per possession according to Synergy Sports, ranking within the 29th percentile. That's the second-worst in the Pac-12.


Surprise: Without Aari McDonald, Arizona has found success 

The Arizona Wildcats, a team that was a mere point away from winning the 2021 national championship last March, began this season ranked at No. 22 in AP Top 25 preseason poll. In less than two months, Arizona (8-0) has jumped up 16 spots to sixth overall in the country. The Wildcats have done so with one of the best net ratings (40.1) in the nation, according to Her Hoops Stats. 

Emil Lippe/Associated Press

How did they do it? And why did voters underestimate head coach Adia Barnes and her squad months after the program's first-ever Final Four appearance? 

To answer the latter first: Aari McDonald, now on the Atlanta Dream, scored over 20 points per game last season. But not only was she what the offense revolved around, but she finished her career at Arizona as a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Her ability to jump-start Arizona's offense and defense was going to be missed. 

Barnes and her eight returners from last season adjusted how they play, deciding to share the ball more. In particular, senior forwards Cate Reese and Sam Thomas have stepped up with Reese averaging 13.6 points per game and Thomas shooting 48.1 percent from three.


Surprise: Tennessee is back in the Top 10

For the first time since Dec. 31, 2018, Tennessee is back in the Top 10 of the AP poll. It's been almost three years. 

In her third year with the program, head coach Kellie Harper and her team have begun the season undefeated at 8-0. It's the best start in Harper's 18-year coaching career. The Lady Volunteers have beaten three teams who are currently in the Top 25 or received votes in the last poll, including No. 17 South Florida, No. 11 Texas and Virginia Tech.

They've overcome an initial deficit in half of their eight victories. How have they done it? Being in the 95th percentile in defensive points per possession seems to have helped. What makes their run even more impressive is that Harper has been without two starters due to injury, sophomore Marta Suárez and senior Rae Burrell. 


Surprise: Unranked North Carolina has top-tier defense

In head coach Courtney Banghart's third season leading North Carolina, she's finally put together a team that has been framed around her system and vision. 

Her Hoops Stats lists the 8-0 Tar Heels as the team with the least points given up per 100 possessions and the second-best NET rating per 100 possessions. And that begins with graduate transfer Carli Littlefield, who Banghart previously coached at Princeton for two seasons. 

Banghart's vision is predicated on the roster being chock-full of two-way players, and Littlefield is one who can lead the younger players and advise them on what is necessary to know playing on a team coached by Banghart.

Their perimeter defense and attention to shooters has been impressive. Synergy Sports has North Carolina ranked in the 97th percentile in points per possession on three-point jump shots and ranked in the 93 percentile in points per possession on catch-and-shoot in the half court. According to their head coach, what's been most responsible for the Tar Heels' growth on defense has been their toughness and how quickly they rotate. 


Surprise: Gonzaga and Oklahoma thrive with sharpshooters 

Both teams aren't ranked (the latest AP poll has Gonzaga receiving 15 votes and Oklahoma receiving six), but both have impressed with elite shooting. The 7-2 Gonzaga Bulldogs nearly upset the defending champion Stanford Cardinal, losing 66-62. 

The 9-1 Oklahoma Sooners put on a shooting clinic in their five-point loss to Oregon. They made 14 shots from three, including seven from Taylor Robertson and three from both Ana LIanusa and Madi Williams. 

This season, Oklahoma ranks in the 93rd percentile in three-point shooting, according to Synergy Sports, and has scored 1.101 points per possession off three-point jump shots. The Bulldogs have shot the ball even better, placing in the 94th percentile and 24th in the country in points per possession off threes. Three Bulldogs are shooting threes at a clip of 35 percent or above, including top scorers and twins Kaylynne Truong and Kayleigh Truong and Cierra Walker, with Walker shooting 47.2 percent from beyond the arc. 


Surprise: The rise of previously unranked Notre Dame and Duke 

Both ACC squads began the season unranked and in recent weeks have found their way into the Top 25 with Duke sliding in at No. 19 and Notre Dame at No. 22. Both Kara Lawson and Niele Ivey are former players who are reviving storied programs into their next era. 

While last season was a learning curve for head coaches, with COVID-19 making it incredibly difficult to get their programs off the ground and running, this season has marked the true beginning for both Lawson and Ivey's blossoming careers in the ACC. 

What has propelled both teams has been the impressive play of their strong recruiting classes. Nine of Lawson's 15 players have come out of the transfer portal, including leading scorer Celeste Taylor. 

Another surprise for the Blue Devils has been the emergence of first-year guard Shayeann Day-Wilson, who Lawson recruited from Toronto. The 5'6" guard has averaged 13.3 points per game and has shot 50 percent from three-point range. 

For the Fighting Irish, Ivey has built her core around two talented recruits in first years Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron. Miles, who had her first triple-double on Wednesday, is a dynamic point guard who graduated high school early last winter to get a taste of college basketball. 

Multi-positional wing Citron, who has played with Miles before on USA basketball and in AAU, has emerged as the Irish's sixth player and could be in the running for ACC sixth player of the year.