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Declan Walsh | | November 27, 2023

8 biggest surprises in women's college basketball so far this season

LSU vs. Colorado: 2023 Hall of Fame Series

A testament to the growing nature of women's college basketball, an unprecedented level of parity has taken hold in the sport, with No. 1 and No. 2 going down and unranked preseason teams scaling into the top five... in just November! 


As such, here's a look at the eight most surprising takeaways from a thrilling opening month of women's college basketball:

South Carolina… knew they’d be good, but whew

While it’s a bit hard to term yourself an underdog with eight five-star recruits on the roster, the departures of Aaliyah Boston and Zia Cooke left coach Dawn Staley with historic inexperience and skepticism — SC returns no double-digit scorers, a first since 2012, and were not picked to win the SEC Media Poll this offseason. 

Staley took an opposing viewpoint, terming her new-look backcourt of Te-Hina Paopao and Raven Johnson “the best she’s ever coached,” and the hall of fame boss appears to be right on through a month of basketball. 

Her Gamecocks are a perfect 5-0, hitting the century mark against all but one team, bashing in-state rivals Clemson by 69 and scoring 114 points against a top-15 Maryland side. SC currently leads the nation in both offensive and defensive rating — per HerHoopStats, South Carolina is 65.4 points better than a median DI team per 100 possessions — and is the unquestioned top dog in women’s college basketball. 

Iowa… struggling from three early on

Returning three starters from last year’s national championship squad, including reigning Naismith Player of the Year Caitlin Clark, the incendiary Iowa offense, and especially its excellence on the perimeter, figured to continue into the new season. Clark’s surrounding cast struggled mightily from long range though, combining to go 3-29 through two games and saved by a 44-point performance from Clark against No. 8 Virginia Tech. 

And when Clark finally came down with her teammates' erraticism, the Hawkeyes would fall to unranked Kansas State on a night where Iowa shot just 2-21 from three. Immediate improvement came next time out against Drake, shooting 13-24 from distance, and the Hawkeyes exacted revenge on the Wildcats this past weekend with 12 threes in a seven-point win. 

Iowa fans will hope their team has moved beyond their poor shooting, but these early season woes raise questions about a team particularly reliant on perimeter shooting.  

LSU… not quite so invincible

LSU's head coach, Kim Mulkey

Following a national champion season came possibly the most accomplished offseason in women’s basketball for Kim Mulkey’s bunch, adding the top two players from the transfer portal in Aneesah Morrow and Hailey Van Lith and the second-ranked high school prospect nationally in Mikaylah Williams. Such pedigree afforded LSU its first preseason No. 1 ranking in program history and left prognosticators with a pressing question: who could possibly best this LSU roster?

Colorado immediately and convincingly answered this question — more on the Buffs in a bit — shooting 53 percent from the field and running away from the Tigers 92-78. LSU has won the next seven games, albeit through some pretty notable growing pains — the Tigers trailed in the second half to Kent State and nearly squandered a 10-point second-half lead to Virginia. 

LSU has struggled with some spacing issues presented by Van Lith and Morrow shooting a combined 24 percent from three, concerns remedied in part by Williams torching the nets from distance, and All-American Angel Reese’s a sense from the team. The Tigers certainly have the potential to defend their national championship crown, but early flaws have emerged in Mulkey’s talent-over-everything approach.  

NC State… addition by subtraction?

After losing the top four scorers on a team that suffered a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament, expectations in Raleigh reached a near decade low — the Wolfpack received zero votes in the preseason AP poll. 

Vocal about this perceived disrespect, the new look NC State has channeled its anger into a perfect 7-0 start and a return to women's college basketball's top 5 after an 18-month hiatus. The Wolfpack jumped at an early opportunity for national acclaim with Saniya Rivers posting an absurd 33/10/5/3/3 stat line and powering her team to a 92-81 upset win over No. 2 UConn. 

Easily dispatching of Kentucky and Cincinnati at the Paradise Jam, NC State scored another top-5 victory on its final day in the Virgin Islands, blitzing No. 3 Colorado 22-6 in the first quarter and cruising to a 78-60 win even despite a poor shooting night from Rivers.

Colorado… good ‘ol West Coast offense

Facing LSU to open the season, most national attention focused on the Tigers and their embarrassment of riches, only to instead learn just how potent the Colorado offense can be. The Buffaloes tagged the defending champs for 94 points as Frida Formann, who highlighted as one of the 10 best shooters entering ‘23-‘24, led the way with 27 points on 7-11 from three. 

Taking care of Oklahoma State, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Colorado’s high-powered attack finally floundered in the aforementioned setback against NC State. Still, the Buffaloes have done a nice job manufacturing quality looks around the rim this season, currently ranking fourth nationally in two-point field goal percentage, and standout point guard Jaylyn Sherrod and center Aaronette Vonleh provides the Buffs with enough star power to compete atop a loaded Pac-12 conference. 

Southern Cal… JuJu is true

JuJu Watkins

Guiding USC through the good and bad in an upset victory over No. 7 Ohio State in the Hall of Fame series on opening day — the top-ranked freshman was the only Trojan to score in the third quarter — JuJu Watkins has powered assurgent USC all November long. Watkins ultimately finished with 32 points, five rebounds and six assists vs. the Buckeyes, setting the points record for a Trojan freshman, before flashing her potential as a high-volume perimeter shooter against Le Moyne with a 6-8 3pt performance. 

Now 5-0 and ranked sixth nationally, USC continued to owe much of its success to Watkins, as the lanky, 6-foot, 2-inch star held off Penn State with 31 points and 12 rebounds in a 71-70 win. A manageable December sets up a salivating showdown on New Year’s Eve Eve, heading across town to tangle with No. 2 UCLA. 

Princeton… Ivies thriving

The standard bearer for an exceptional November in the Ivy League, Princeton has managed to impress in both winning and losing efforts, ultimately earning their first appearance in a November AP poll in school history. Beating a top-half A-10 squad in Duquesne and snapping Middle Tennessee’s 29-game home winning streak, the Tigers took a four-point lead inside the final four minutes at Pauley Pavillon before ultimately falling late against No. 3 UCLA — Princeton has since added victories over San Diego and No. 22 Oklahoma. 

Meanwhile, Columbia has entered the HerHoopStats top 50, beating Seton Hall and losing narrowly to Duke, while Brown bested Big East foes Georgetown and Providence. 

Cameron Brink… missed a free throw!

Stanford's Cameron Brink

Converting her final 46 free throws of her 2022-23 campaign, Brink’s robotic accuracy at the line managed to survive a lengthy offseason, knocking down her first 24 tries of the new year. Going a crucial 10-10 on freebies in an overtime win against Duke, Brink evidently made a deal with the basketball gods, finally missing in her next game out in a comfortable victory against Belmont. 

In all seriousness, Brink has been extra exceptional this year on a surging Stanford team, — the Cardinal are up to No. 4 in the AP Top 25, 11 places better than their preseason position — averaging more points, rebounds and blocks in fewer minutes and hitting threes at a 38 percent clip.

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