Women’s college basketball Power Rankings: Is it time for Tennessee to panic as it tumbles out of the top 10?

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Two weeks ago, Tennessee’s women’s college basketball team had one loss, was leading the SEC and was projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Then post player Keyen Green suffered a knee injury in a victory over Georgia on Jan. 23, and the Lady Vols hit their first rough patch in a season that had been going very well. Tennessee has since lost three of its past four games, and had to go to overtime for the one victory in that stretch.

What had been shaping up as a game in which Tennessee would be favored instead resulted in a 75-56 loss to UConn on Sunday. Afterward, Tennessee coach Kellie Harper acknowledged her team is trying to pick up the pieces.

“We had too many breakdowns defensively with our focus, and offensively we just missed too many shots,” Harper said of the Lady Vols, who shot a season-low 28.8% from the field, with starters Alexus Dye, Tess Darby and Jordan Walker going a combined 0-for-16.

The one starter who met expectations was Jordan Horston, who had 26 points and eight rebounds. Rae Burrell, who had 11 points off the bench, was the only other Lady Vols player who scored in double figures.

Harper praised the Huskies, who had 18 assists to the Lady Vols’ seven.

“They’re such great passers,” she said. “So if you do have a breakdown, they capitalize on it. Don’t take anything away from UConn. Everyone knows one of the best things they do is run an efficient offense. They did a great job. But I think that’s where we have to be a little more focused, a little more precise. We gave up too many easy opportunities for them.”

Tennessee’s woes didn’t start Sunday in Connecticut. The Lady Vols’ shocking 71-61 upset at Auburn on Jan. 27, four days after Green was hurt, was a sign that the team, now at No. 11 in ESPN’s Power Rankings, was taking her on-court absence very hard.

The Tigers had lost 23 consecutive SEC games, and even without Green, this was a matchup Tennessee should have won. But Green has been an emotional leader and steadying presence off the bench for the Lady Vols.

The 6-foot-1 graduate student played three seasons at Liberty, then transferred to Tennessee for the 2020-21 season. She played just four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in practice in December 2020.

But she worked her way back through rehab. She had appeared in all 19 games this season for Tennessee, averaging 7.0 points and 3.2 rebounds, before her injury. Harper called it a “gut punch” at the time.

On Sunday, Harper said, “We have to go back to our Georgia game when we lost Keyen Green, and we have just not recovered from that yet. I think right now the team is still searching, and we’re not getting her back, so we have to be able to step up and be mature.”

Injuries are a part of sports, and most teams — including UConn — have dealt with them or are currently dealing with them. But some injuries take a bigger toll than just the loss of the player’s production. They affect a team’s psyche.

“We’ve got to be able to find confidence in what we’re doing,” Harper said. “That right now is the biggest drop-off for us in the last two weeks. We were playing with great confidence, great belief, great energy and great focus, and now we’re not.”

Strategically, the Lady Vols have to get center Tamari Key more than the three shots she had against UConn. They can’t afford to have a starting lineup in which three of the starters combine for one point and one assist. They can’t allow 12 3-pointers while making only three, while simultaneously not getting an edge on the boards. Yet all those things happened Sunday.

Tennessee’s other loss in this stretch was an 84-59 setback at Florida on Thursday. Credit goes to the Gators for how they’ve turned things around since last season; they are now in third place in the SEC. But the Lady Vols looked completely out of sorts in that game; only Dye scored in double figures with 10.

Is it time to panic in Knoxville? No, it’s time for the Lady Vols to take a deep breath and remember how much was working well before this slide. Also consider that all three of the recent losses were on the road, and Tennessee will be back in Thompson-Boling Arena to face Missouri and Vanderbilt this week.

A road matchup with No. 1 South Carolina looms on Feb. 20, but it’s possible that Tennessee can get its mojo back by then.

Player of the Week: Caitlin Clark, Iowa Hawkeyes

Clark’s numbers just keep piling up, including her fifth triple-double of the season this past week: 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists in a victory against Wisconsin. Over three games during the week, Clark totaled 116 points, 19 rebounds and 28 assists.

The only bad news for the sophomore is that the Hawkeyes lost two of those games, to ranked opponents Ohio State and Michigan. Nonetheless, Clark has been on a tear. She is shooting 46.4% from 3-point range in her past six games after shooting 23% before that.

Clark had a career-high 46 points Sunday in the loss to Michigan, and her second half was particularly spectacular. She had 33 points, the most by an Iowa player ever in either half; 25 came in the fourth quarter.

Clark has five career games with at least 30 points and 10 assists, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s more than any other Division I women’s player over the past 20 seasons.

Win of the Week: UConn Huskies 75, Tennessee Lady Vols 56

From a confidence standpoint, the Huskies needed this win to be this dominant after having lost nonconference games to South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Oregon. Freshman Azzi Fudd’s big game was a needed lift to the program.

Team of the Week: Oklahoma Sooners

When the Sooners got word Wednesday afternoon that their flight to play Baylor suddenly had been canceled, they loaded the bus and drove to Waco, Texas. The start time was delayed a half-hour; Oklahoma arrived, warmed up for just 15 minutes, then beat the Bears for the second time this season 78-77.

Then Saturday, the Sooners found themselves down by seven with just over 2½ minutes left against a West Virginia team that was playing one of its best games of the season. It was Oklahoma’s Play 4Kay day. Sooners guard Taylor Robertson — who dedicates this game each year to her late father, who died of cancer while she was in high school — was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made all three free throws to tie the score and send the game to overtime.

The Sooners trailed by as many as five in the first extra period but managed to get the game to a second overtime. Oklahoma then won 101-99 on Madi Williams’ layup at the end of the second OT. Robertson played all 50 minutes and finished with a game-high 26 points. Both victories helped the Sooners keep pace with Iowa State for first place in the Big 12.

Coach of the Week: Denise Dillon, Villanova Wildcats

In her second season with the Wildcats, Dillon had to get them through a rough patch of nonconference games when they lost five of their first eight. Part of that was the stretch of six games that leading scorer Maddy Siegrist missed with broken bones in one of her hands.

But Villanova, 15-6 overall and 9-3 in the Big East, is on a seven-game winning streak after victories against St. John’s and Georgetown this past week. Heading into Wednesday’s game at UConn, Siegrist is averaging 25.2 PPG in 15 games.

Dillion went 17-7 in her first season, as she replaced her former coach at Villanova, Harry Perretta.

Power Rankings

1. South Carolina Gamecocks (21-1)
Previous ranking:
1
This week: at Kentucky (Thursday), at Georgia (Sunday)

The Gamecocks easily downed Alabama 83-51 on Thursday — their 20th consecutive win against the Crimson Tide — behind Aliyah Boston’s 15th double-double in a row. Two road trips this week are against a Kentucky team that is in a freefall, having lost seven of its past eight, and Georgia, which had a tough loss at home Sunday to Florida.

2. Stanford Cardinal (18-3)
Previous ranking:
2
This week: vs. Oregon State (Wednesday), vs. Utah (Friday), vs. Colorado (Sunday)

The Cardinal rolled past UCLA by 28 points and USC by 26 last week, and once again Stanford’s story is depth. Fran Belibi had her first double-double of the season (20 points, 13 rebounds) against the Bruins, and Cameron Brink had a career-high 26 points plus 14 rebounds against the Trojans. It’s a full week with the makeup of a postponed game against Oregon State, but all three games are at home.

3. Michigan Wolverines (20-2)
Previous ranking:
5
This week: at Michigan State (Thursday), at Northwestern (Sunday)

The Wolverines moved into first place in the Big Ten with their 65-50 win over Indiana last Monday, and then they held off an Iowa rally for a 98-90 win Sunday. Michigan didn’t have second-leading scorer Leigha Brown (leg injury) vs. the Hawkeyes, but freshman guard Laila Phelia started instead and scored 24 points, the best outing of her young career.

4. Louisville Cardinals (21-2)
Previous ranking:
4
This week: vs. Virginia (Thursday), vs. Notre Dame (Sunday)

It was a key week for the Cardinals, as they won road games at Miami, Clemson and Syracuse. Their 100-64 victory over the Orange on Sunday is the first time they’ve hit the century mark in an ACC game since 2018. Hailey Van Lith had a career-high 34 points against Clemson on Thursday.

5. Arizona Wildcats (17-3)
Previous ranking:
8
This week: at Arizona State (Friday), vs. Arizona State (Sunday)

The Wildcats had a strong weekend at home this past week, avenging a loss to Oregon with a 63-48 victory in front of 10,000-plus fans on Friday, and then getting a 73-61 win over Oregon State on Sunday. Cate Reese had a combined 32 points and 11 rebounds in the victories. The in-state battle with the Sun Devils is up next.

6. NC State Wolfpack (20-3)
Previous ranking:
3
This week: vs. Georgia Tech (Monday), at Boston College (Thursday), at Duke (Sunday)

The Wolfpack bounced back from a 69-66 loss at Notre Dame on Tuesday (their first ACC defeat of the season) to beat Florida State 68-48 on Thursday. NC State and Louisville are both 11-1 in the league — the Wolfpack won their head-to-head meeting — with Georgia Tech at 9-2.

7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (18-4)
Previous ranking:
10
This week: at NC State (Monday), at Virginia Tech (Thursday), vs. Clemson (Sunday)

The Yellow Jackets have a challenging week ahead with trips to face the Wolfpack on Monday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and the Hokies on Thursday. But they have been on a roll, winning eight of their last nine. Their only ACC losses were to Louisville by two points and Miami by one.

8. Maryland Terrapins (17-6)
Previous ranking:
11
This week: vs. Wisconsin (Wednesday)

Maryland won at Michigan State and home against Nebraska this past week, with Angel Reese totaling 40 points and 25 rebounds in those games. The Terps lost guard Ashley Owusu to a sprained ankle in the first quarter of the win over the Spartans, but the rest of the team held things down without her in that game and vs. the Huskers. Maryland’s only game this week is against 6-16 Wisconsin, so it’s a good time to let Owusu heal.

9. UConn Huskies (15-4)
Previous ranking:
14
This week: vs. Villanova (Wednesday), vs. DePaul (Friday), at Marquette (Sunday)

For all the previous gloom and doom from UConn coach Geno Auriemma, he sounded pretty upbeat after a 75-56 victory over Tennessee on Sunday. Freshman Azzi Fudd had her first start and lit up the scoreboard with 25 points, hitting 7-of-9 from behind the arc. The Huskies also beat Creighton on Wednesday and are back in the Power Rankings’ top 10.

10. Baylor Bears (17-5)
Previous ranking:
7
This week: vs. Kansas State (Wednesday), vs. West Virginia (Saturday)

The Bears lost for the second time this season to Oklahoma on Wednesday; they had not been beaten by the same team twice in a season since 2010. But Baylor came back from that disappointment to continue its mastery over Texas, beating the Longhorns 75-63 in Waco and 63-55 in Austin. Senior star NaLyssa Smith totaled 72 points and 33 rebounds in those three games.

11. Tennessee Lady Vols (19-4)
Previous ranking:
6
This week: vs. Missouri (Thursday), vs. Vanderbilt (Sunday)

The Lady Vols can look to their crowd to try to help them this week, as they’re back in Thompson-Boling Arena for two games. As noted earlier, the Lady Vols are trying to get their mojo back to finish February strong after a shaky start to the month with losses at Florida and UConn.

12. Indiana Hoosiers (16-3)
Previous ranking:
9
This week: at Illinois (Wednesday), vs. Michigan State (Saturday)

Considering the Hoosiers were coming off a long COVID-19 pause and they are still without leading scorer and rebounder Mackenzie Holmes (knee injury), going 2-for-3 this past week wasn’t bad. They lost to Michigan, but defeated Minnesota and Purdue.

13. LSU Tigers (18-4)
Previous ranking:
12
This week: at Ole Miss (Monday), vs. Georgia (Thursday), at Texas A&M (Sunday)

The Tigers were off last week, but they’ll make up for it with a busy schedule this week. As things stand, LSU has just two regular-season games left against ranked foes, but we know the SEC’s unranked teams are pretty dangerous.

14. Iowa State Cyclones (20-3)
Previous ranking:
13
This week: at TCU (Saturday)

The Cyclones remain tied with Oklahoma atop the Big 12 after victories against Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Against the Wildcats, Iowa State found a way to slow center Ayoka Lee, holding her to 12 points after she scored 38 the first time the teams met this season. It was also a big week for guard Emily Ryan, who had a combined 33 points and 14 assists.

15. Oklahoma Sooners (20-3)
Previous ranking:
NR
This week: at Texas (Saturday)

With their victories over Baylor and West Virginia, the Sooners hit the 20-win mark for the first time since the 2016-17 season, when they finished 23-10. Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson combined for 82 points, 25 rebounds and 13 assists in the two wins.

16. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (18-5)
Previous ranking:
NR
This week: vs. Miami (Thursday), at Louisville (Sunday)

The Irish get back into the Power Rankings thanks to victories over NC State — the Wolfpack’s first ACC loss this season — and Virginia Tech. Notre Dame did drop its third game of the week, 70-65 at Florida State. For the week, freshman Olivia Miles averaged 18.0 points and 4.3 assists.

In the waiting room

Florida Gators (17-6): For the second week this season, the Gators got two wins over ranked teams. This time it was against Tennessee and Georgia. Florida is now in third place in the SEC at 7-3.

North Carolina Tar Heels (18-4): The Heels’ four losses are all to ranked teams, including twice to NC State. They outscored Miami 28-2 in the first quarter of Sunday’s 85-38 victory over the Hurricanes.

Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (21-1): The Eagles remain atop the Atlantic Sun conference at 10-0. Their lone loss this season was Dec. 1 to Princeton.

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