Biggest surprises of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season

One truism of sports: One person's surprise is often another person's "I knew that would happen!" We're about at the halfway point of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season, and for the most part, all of the teams we expected to be good have lived up to the expectations. Our preseason player of the year, Kentucky's Rhyne Howard, is still the front-runner as the nation's best, although she has competition.

But there have been some surprises so far. Here are five of the biggest.

Washington State is a Pac-12 contender

Washington State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 by both the preseason coaches and media polls. That wasn't a surprise; the Cougars went 11-20 last season, winning just one game after January, and were 4-14 in Pac-12 play. And they graduated forward Borislava Hristova, who became the program's all-time leading scorer last season with 2,269 points.

But now they're 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the league after Sunday's 71-69 upset of No. 7 Arizona. They also have a win over then-ranked Oregon State on Dec. 19. The Cougars' only loss was to Oregon in a Dec. 21 game that went to the wire, 69-65. Washington State hasn't played Stanford or UCLA yet, but the Cougars' performance so far isn't a fluke. What gives?

"You have to get lucky, you have to be resilient," Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge said. "You have to recruit great kids that are of this level. And then you've got to hope that you get the chemistry that can actually compete."

The Cougars have recruited internationally, which means that chemistry must come from mixing players from all over the world. Looking for non-American talent isn't new at Washington State -- Hristova is from Bulgaria, for instance -- but nine of Washington State's 13 players this season are from seven different countries outside the United States.

The Leger-Walker sisters of New Zealand -- freshman Charlisse (18.8 PPG) and redshirt senior Krystal (10.8) -- lead the way. Their mother, Leanne, played for New Zealand in the Olympics. Krystal started her college career at Northern Colorado playing for Ethridge, then transferred to Washington State.

When Ethridge took the Cougars job in 2018, she hoped to help the program not be a prisoner of its past. Much easier said than done.

The Cougars' only NCAA tournament appearance was in 1991 under coach Harold Rhodes. In the 30 years since, Washington State has had a winning record just three times, and the closest it has come to a winning conference record is going .500 twice. Dating to the program's start in 1970, the Cougars have hit the 20-win threshold only once: They went 21-5 in 1978-79, before the NCAA era began. The nadir was 2001-02, when they went 2-27 and 0-18.

The Cougars looked as if they might be on the verge of a breakthrough in 2013-15 under coach June Daugherty, when they were a combined 34-32 overall and 16-20 in the Pac-12. They went to the WNIT both seasons, then again in 2017, when they made the semifinals.

Still, when Ethridge stepped in, the Cougars were coming off a 10-20 and 3-14 season, and the Pac-12 was getting tougher, not easier. So what Washington State has achieved is one of the more notable stories of this season so far.

The Cougars still have to face No. 1 Stanford twice. But because of COVID-19 issues impacting the schedule, both of those games will be in Pullman, Washington, played back-to-back on Jan. 27 and 29.

But Stanford is 67-0 against Washington State. The teams first played in 1983, and have met annually since 1986. It has been as close to an automatic "W" for Stanford as any team could have in league play. Obviously, Stanford will still be a big favorite, but Washington State has made this a much more anticipated matchup.

"I love the thought that we might be in the mix of maybe making the postseason," Ethridge said. "Not just postseason, but an NCAA berth. We're not getting too far ahead of ourselves. We know how fast this could crash, and we know COVID is right around the corner. So we're just going to celebrate this one and get back to work right away."

Wake Forest is making some noise in the ACC

If you think Washington State has a long NCAA tournament drought, Wake Forest's is even longer. The Demon Deacons' lone appearance came in 1988. Wake has been to the WNIT six times since 2005.

Wake is 6-3 after Sunday's 68-48 victory over Boston College, and 3-2 in the ACC. Wake was picked to finish 12th in the ACC in both the coaches' and media polls. Right now, the Deacs are tied for fifth place. (With COVID-19 impacting schedules, there's a disparity in how many league games each ACC team has played. For instance, it's seven for Clemson and Miami but just two for Virginia.)

So far, Wake Forest's best wins are against ranked Missouri State on Nov. 29, and versus rival North Carolina on Dec. 10. The Deacs nearly toppled the Tar Heels twice, losing to them in overtime on Dec. 20.

Coach Jen Hoover, who as a player led Wake to that '88 trip to the Big Dance, is in her ninth season with her alma mater. Last season, the Deacs went 16-16 and 7-11 in the ACC, the most conference wins in the Hoover era.

How Wake fares on the road next against Notre Dame on Thursday and Virginia Tech on Sunday could tell a lot.

Cal is winless

There weren't a lot of expectations this season for Cal, which was picked ninth in the Pac-12. But nobody thought things would be this bad, although alarm bells definitely went off when the Golden Bears started the season with losses to San Jose State and CSU Bakersfield.

The Bears fell to 0-10 overall and 0-6 in the Pac-12 after a 100-41 loss to No. 11 Oregon on Sunday. Injuries and COVID-19 issues have depleted Cal's roster, and the Bears are last in multiple categories in the league, including points per game (47.1). The closest they have come to victory was a 56-53 loss to Arizona State on Jan. 1.

Can Cal manage to get into the victory column this season? The fact that the Bears got that close to the Sun Devils should at least give them some hope.

Destanni Henderson has stepped up for South Carolina

Coach Dawn Staley and Gamecock fans had high expectations for what 5-foot-7 junior guard Destanni Henderson could do with more playing time after the graduation of Tyasha Harris. Henderson had a solid season last year coming off the bench, averaging 8.5 PPG and making the SEC all-tournament team.

But nationally, entering this season, people were more keyed into South Carolina sophomores Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, and might not have been as aware of how good Henderson was. They know now.

Sunday, Henderson had 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists in a big win for No. 5 South Carolina at No. 10 Kentucky. The Gamecocks were coming off a brief COVID-19 pause and had little preparation time for the Wildcats. They trailed 41-35 at halftime. But led by Henderson and Boston (20 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocked shots), South Carolina rallied to win 75-70 and is now 8-1 overall and 3-0 in the SEC.

Henderson is one of the fastest guards in the country, but part of her success has been knowing when to slow down.

"To have that much speed in a player, you sometimes get yourself in a little bit of trouble and try to play too fast," Staley said. "In this game, she figured out where she was going to make the biggest impact, and that was in the paint."

Henderson has started every game this season, and leads the Gamecocks in minutes played (32.4 MPG) and assists (5.2 APG), while also averaging 13.2 points and 6.1 rebounds.

Duke is the only Power 5 program (so far) to cancel its season

We knew that COVID-19 would have a huge impact on this season, and it has wreaked havoc on scheduling. One of the most anticipated games of the season -- UConn versus Baylor, set for this past Thursday -- was canceled as Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey tested positive. Currently, two top-10 teams, NC State and Baylor, are on pause.

Another high-power matchup, UConn versus Louisville, was postponed at the start of the season when the Huskies were on a pause, and the teams have been trying ever since to reschedule. Louisville also was on pause earlier this season.

Stanford is No. 1 and undefeated despite being on the road since early December due to Santa Clara county COVID-19 regulations that prevent the Cardinal from playing/practicing at home. They've played just one of their 10 games at Maples Pavilion this season: the opener on Nov. 25 versus Cal Poly.

But despite all of this, only one men's or women's Power 5 conference program has canceled its season thus far: Duke's women, who did so on Dec. 25 after playing four games. When will anyone in the Duke athletic department address the decision publicly? And will any other Power 5 programs join them before the season ends?

Weekly superlatives

Player of the week: Naz Hillmon, Michigan

The Wolverines remain unbeaten at 9-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten, and the 6-2 junior is a big reason why. She had 35 points and 22 rebounds in a 64-62 victory over Nebraska on Thursday, and 24 and 13 in beating Illinois 70-50 on Sunday. For the season, she is averaging 25.7 points and 11.6 rebounds.

Shout-outs also go to South Carolina's Henderson (combined 42 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists in wins over Alabama and Kentucky) and Mississippi State's Jessika Carter (combined 44 points and 25 rebounds in wins over Florida and Ole Miss).

Team of the week: Texas A&M

The Aggies keep on rolling at 12-0 overall and 3-0 SEC, but they had their closest call yet Sunday at Arkansas, winning 74-73 on Jordan Nixon's layup with a second left. Aaliyah Wilson had 27 points and eight rebounds, while N'dea Jones had 12 and 14.

Thursday, the Aggies beat another ranked team in Kentucky, 77-60, with Nixon leading the way with 19 points.

The Aggies' depth is impressive; they have four players averaging in double figures, led by Wilson at 15.0 PPG, and then two more averaging over 9.0 PPG.

Texas A&M meets No. 14 Mississippi State next Sunday (noon, ESPN2). But then the Aggies aren't scheduled to face another ranked team until Feb. 14, when they have a rematch with Arkansas. And what is shaping up as the biggest game in SEC season -- the Aggies versus the Gamecocks -- is the regular-season finale on Feb. 28 at Texas A&M.

Coach of the week: The Magaritys

It was a terrific story in a week that needed one. In what was believed to be the first time a father and daughter met as head coaches in Division I basketball, Army's Dave Magarity and Holy Cross' Maureen Magarity faced off twice. Maureen's Crusaders won both, beating the Black Knights 80-46 on Saturday at Army, and 61-42 on Sunday at Holy Cross.

Dave will get his chance to even his record against his daughter next month, as the teams meet Feb. 6-7. Despite the losses, he has relished this opportunity.

"It's been a lot of fun," Dave said. "The journey that Maureen and I have had together has been really special."

Win of the week: Washington State

The Cougars trailed Arizona by 16 points with just less than four minutes left in the third quarter on Sunday. But they battled back, holding the Wildcats to seven points in the fourth quarter. Washington State sent the game to overtime with Charlisse Leger-Walker's reverse layup with 2 seconds left, off an assist from her sister, Krystal.

Then Charlisse got another layup at the overtime buzzer for the win. The sisters combined for eight of Washington's State's 11 points in OT. They finished with a combined 31 points, seven assists and 14 rebounds.

Ethridge was aware how adept a scorer Charlisse was from watching her international play, but the coach has been surprised at the freshman's defense.

"Even knowing how good she was, I didn't know she was this good," Ethridge said. "She can guard little guards, she can guard 6-2 posts."