The Oregon Ducks were so close to toppling Pac-12 power Stanford in yet another Big Monday matchup that lived up to the hype. It was a teasing showcase for the conference and NCAA tournament as the season hits its penultimate weekend for most.
Tennessee, Michigan and South Carolina all have back-to-back contests against ranked opponents this weekend, and for the former, it could mean better seeding for tourney time. Their forecast for the weekend is below in a slightly different "what to watch" edition and the full schedule is here.
First, on the Cardinal and a "heavyweight fight."
Stanford is back for its Pac-12 title
No. 6 Stanford's 63-61 win kept the Cardinal (19-2, 16-2) atop the conference standings and reinforced their projection as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The selection committee released the top-16 seeds at halftime of the game as a glimpse into what the bracket will look like next month.
Stanford weathered a nine-week road trip to get to this point and had to get over reigning regular-season and tournament conference champion Oregon (12-5, 9-5). The two have met in the Pac-12 tournament title game each of the past three seasons.
“It was kind of a heavyweight fight,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said after the game. “It wasn’t what either team probably is used to, but you know we’re excited to be in first place in the Pac-12 and we really want to win a Pac-12 championship and we had to come through Oregon for the chance to do it.”
The Cardinal have a three-game homestand to end the season. They face Arizona State (5-7 Pac-12) on Friday, No. 10 Arizona (10-2) on Monday and Cal (0-10) on Feb. 28. Their Pac-12 schedule holds an intriguing note, first identified by Pac-12 writer Michelle Smith, as to how quality these wins have been in a tough conference.
Stanford's traveling partner, Cal, has had multiple pauses, including an extended one recently because of COVID-19 issues within the group. Over the past month, Stanford has been the only opponent USC, UCLA, Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon have had to prepare for every week. That means these teams only had one opponent to plan for each of these weeks, and Stanford still won by 22.5 points on average.
As for Oregon, the Ducks can take away growth victories even if it isn't a "W" on the schedule. They came back from a 15-point deficit and had the opportunity to win in the final minute.
“I am really proud,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. “We don’t believe in moral victories, we wanted to win and we played hard enough and well enough to win, but we didn’t. I am proud of the fight we showed. It was the first time against one of the elite teams that we played hard for four quarters. It just didn’t go our way.”
Oregon has lost all five games against ranked opponents and will get its final chance against one in the regular season when the Ducks head to UCLA on Friday (8 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network). The Bruins won 73-71 on Jan. 3, ending the Ducks' 27-game win streak.
Both teams are in the top four seeding lines with UCLA at ninth and Oregon at 11th. Watch for Naismith top-20 watch list member Michaela Onyenwere (17.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG) for the Bruins and Nyara Sabally for the Ducks.
No. 11 Michigan: Boosting resume for top-16 seed
at No. 14 Indiana, Thursday, 6 p.m. ET, BTN
vs. No. 15 Ohio State, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2
ON MICHIGAN: Michigan (12-1, 7-1 Big Ten) was not in the NCAA selection committee's first top-16 seed reveal, but could play its way in with a strong performance this weekend. Michigan comes in at No. 14 in the NET rankings, the new metrics tool in use that weights who a team played, where it was played, how efficiently a team played and the result.
Part of Michigan's omittance could be how jumbled the Wolverines' schedule has been because of COVID-19 pauses. They've played 13 games, including eight in-conference, with only Rutgers playing fewer games in the Big Ten. The games against Indiana, a 4-seed in the first reveal at No. 15 overall, and Ohio State are the last ranked ones on the schedule ahead of tournament play.
OPPONENTS: Michigan has yet to play Indiana and suffered a 81-77 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 21 before going on hiatus. The star in that contest brings us to ...
WHO TO WATCH: Naz Hillmon dropped 50 points against the Buckeyes, setting a record for most points scored by a Michigan basketball player. It garnered her a shoutout from Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James. The 6-foot-2 junior forward averages a double-double of 26.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game on 65.8% shooting. She has four games of at least 30 points and five games of at least 12 rebounds. Hillmon is solidly in contention for Naismith Player of the Year honors and is one of five players averaging a double-double on the late-season 20-player watch list.
BIG TEN IMPLICATIONS: Maryland (10-1), Michigan (7-1), Indiana (11-2), Ohio State (8-3) and Northwestern (9-4) are the top five teams in the conference and have pulled away from the rest of the group. Indiana comes into the Thursday contest on a four-game win streak and still has to face Ohio State on Feb. 27, one month after a 78-70 loss.
Maryland is a 2-seed in the first reveal (No. 7 overall) and placed in the South Carolina region. Indiana is in with Stanford and N.C. State.
No. 21 Tennessee's brutal schedule to end season
vs. No. 2 South Carolina, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, SECN
at No. 22 Georgia, Sunday, noon ET, SECN
ON TENNESSEE: The Lady Vols (12-5, 6-3 SEC) continue a brutal stretch end to the season in the penultimate weekend before the SEC tournament tips in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 3. They lost to ranked opponents Kentucky (71-56) and Texas A&M (80-70) last weekend. Now, they'll get No. 2 South Carolina (17-2, 12-0) and No. 22 Georgia (16-4, 8-4).
The losses dropped them five spots in the AP rankings, but they are a 4-seed in the first bracket reveal. That interestingly put them in Region 1 with none other than UConn (plus Arizona and Baylor). The two teams have not met in the NCAA tournament since the 2004 national championship game the Huskies won.
The Lady Vols are ranked No. 17 in NET and one of five SEC teams to make the top-16 reveal. Wins this weekend, especially over South Carolina, could boost their resume.
OPPONENTS: It's the only meeting of the season against South Carolina, which has its own back-to-back games against ranked SEC talent this weekend detailed below.
Georgia won the first meeting against Tennessee, 67-66, on Jan. 14 in Knoxville. The Bulldogs are a 3-seed, one spot ahead of Tennessee, in the region with Stanford, N.C. State and Indiana.
WHO TO WATCH: Rennia Davis for Tennessee is on the Naismith top-20 watch list averaging 15.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. The senior is coming off a 25-point game against Texas A&M and her largest contributions have come fittingly in the biggest moments.
SEC IMPLICATIONS: No. 2 South Carolina and No. 5 Texas A&M (12-0, 10-1) are the runaway leaders in the SEC and though they could collapse, it seems unlikely. The two meet on the final day of the regular season.
Behind them is Tennessee (6-3), No. 17 Kentucky (15-5, 8-4), No. 22 Georgia (8-4), LSU (6-6) and Alabama (6-6). The Lady Vols have also been impacted by multiple COVID-19 pauses and can't afford to lose games.
No. 2 South Carolina: Ride it out, gain experience
at No. 21 Tennessee, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, SECN
vs. No. 17 Kentucky, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
ON SOUTH CAROLINA: South Carolina (17-2, 12-0) wants the national title chance it didn't get last year and that performance last week against UConn further cements the Gamecocks as a championship favorite. They close out the season with Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. The only way to go is one spot up in the NCAA tournament projections, so for the Gamecocks, it's about staying the course and preparing for the challenge of tournament play for a young team whose sophomores didn't get the experience last year.
South Carolina is currently projected for region 2 with Maryland, UCLA and Virginia. In a season constantly adjusted for COVID-19 positives, the Gamecocks have done extremely well with safety and protocols to avoid any lengthy pause.
OPPONENTS: It's the one and only regular-season contest against Tennessee. They defeated Kentucky, 75-70, on Jan. 10 with a late rally. South Carolina outrebounded the Wildcats, 46-31, and dominated the paint to outscore them, 56-34
WHO TO WATCH: South Carolina sophomore Aliyah Boston and Kentucky junior Rhyne Howard, both of whom are on the top-20 Naismith watch list. Boston missed most of the first half of their contest in foul trouble, but returned to score 16 of her 20 points in the second half and help propel the comeback win by adding 12 rebounds. She averages 13.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
Howard had 32 points in the first meeting, one of three games in which she's eclipsed 30. She averages 19.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game and has carried the Wildcats many a time over the season. Howard is coming off a 31-point outing against Florida.
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